If any dynasty, more so than others, would have felt prickles of apprehension running down their spine as 3rd September approached, it would have been the Stuarts and their descendants. For them, the date seems to carry an omen predicting death.
Let’s step back to the weeks after Charles I was beheaded. Cromwell hadn’t wasted any time establishing himself as Lord Protector because many were openly outraged by his order to execute the king. His attention was totally focused on holding his supporters together not on the two young children of Charles I, Henry and Elizabeth, who had been captured years before and who were securely locked away in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight.
Carisbrooke Castle was impressive, there’s no doubt about it. King Cynric of Wessex had died there in 544AD and the Jutes took it as their fort in the late 7th century. Elizabeth I then added to the fortifications when the Spanish Armada had been expected so it was the strongest castle on the island and visible from a great distance away. But the stone castle was a cold, lonely place for two little children to live, especially when both were heartbroken and grief-stricken after their father’s death. To make matters worse, if that was at all possible, the winter of 1649 was an exceptionally cold one.
In the frigid conditions, Elizabeth was particularly inconsolable. She was a fragile 14-year-old who had always been delicate so the severe cold she caught on 3rd September took a firm grip of her in her weakened state. One week later, she succumbed to pneumonia, found with her head resting on the Bible her dead father had given her before his own death.
On the very day Elizabeth caught the deadly cold, Cromwell was beginning his cold-blooded, brutal campaign in Drogheda. Drogheda was chock-full of Catholic Irish Royalists and the extent of the massacre that followed startled everyone. Everyone was put to the sword despite his promise to treat everyone with respect. In the mayhem, no one escaped. Then he moved on to Wexford.
As Cromwell butchered Irishmen, Scotland watched in horror, scarcely believing that they were the ones who had helped Cromwell in the first place by handing Charles I over to him. They couldn’t fix their terrible mistake but they could do the next best thing. They could bring his son Charles back from exile to take his place.
As Charles held tightly to the railing on board his ship in the driving rain bound for home, he would have had no idea that on 3rd September the very next year, at four o’clock in the morning, he would be sitting high on Doon Hill at Dunbar with an army waiting to advance down the hill to attack the English on level ground below.
Charles knew it wasn’t going to be easy but even nature seemed against him. As dark clouds gathered and the skies opened up with heavy downfalls of bitterly cold rain, the Scottish army found themselves with no shelter or warmth from the driving wind on their exposed hilltop. Below them, Cromwell was feeling very optimistic.
As they huddled together shivering through the night, the Scots had found no rest or warmth in the rain-soaked fields. Then, just before dawn, the clouds separated and the heavy rain eased long enough for the fierce artillery fire to begin.
For two hours, the air was filled with the frenzied neighing of horses and the screams of agony as men were crippled and gutted. In that short time, 3,000 Scotsmen died and another 10,000 were taken prisoner.
For Charles, it was a monumental disaster. But there has never been a time in history when Scotland has simply given up and they weren’t about to do it then. They dug their heels in with a fresh sign of resistance and marched south into England.
The plan they devised was a good one but there was one major flaw. Of the soldiers who had been executed at Dunbar, most of them had been officers. Charles looked around at his new group of passionate men eagerly waiting to prove their loyalty to him and he would have realised that an attack of this size was incredibly risky and dangerous. They had the true Scottish fighting spirit flowing through their veins but they had no leadership qualities that could be utilised. In the chilling silence, Charles resolutely marched at the head of his troops knowing full well that this was his last chance to remove Cromwell from the equation.
The two armies met again on 3rd September at Worcester, one year after Doon Hill, and this time, Charles barely escaped with his life. After six weeks of narrow escapes and with a price of £1000 on his head, Charles finally made it to Normandy and then further on to his family in The Hague.
It seems somehow befitting that Cromwell’s death should come in the middle of a howling storm on 3rd September 1658 as well. It was the anniversary of the siege of Drogheda, the Battle of Dunbar and the Battle of Worcester. As thunder roared and lightning flashed, the skies opened up and Cromwell died.
At the same time as Cromwell was dying, Charles brother, James Stuart, was courting Anne Hyde in The Hague. Two years later, on Charles’ 30th birthday, the two brothers arrived back in England to the howls of delight from the British people. Anne was heavily pregnant as she swore her vows to James at a secret ceremony at her father’s house on the Strand at 2am in the morning, barely two months before she gave birth to their first child. The date. You guessed it. 3rd September. Sadly, the child died soon after the birth, as did five further sons and daughters in the future.
Early September 1664 was the beginning of one of the worst winters in England’s history. The river traffic on the Thames was blocked twice by ice that was so thick, people could actually walk from one side of the river to the other without fearing that the ice would crack under their weight. But it wasn’t the ice they should have been careful about. The only thing the unusually cold weather did was to delay the spread of the plague for a short time. With the arrival of warmer weather, the disease began to take hold and by July 1665, the plague was rampant.
In 1665, London was still essentially medieval. It was still overcrowded with warrens of winding, cobbled alleys and as summer turned to autumn, there was no rain, only oppressive heat, and London’s wooden buildings, packed tightly together and leaning closely to one another, turned tinder dry in the drought. Unpaved roads cracked and a hot dry wind stirred up clouds of dust throughout the city. Rain barrels and animal troughs dried up and the usually muddy slopes of the Thames baked to hard clay. Still it grew hotter and thoughts of a worse outbreak of the plague filled people with abject terror. As bad as life seemed with the everyday threat of the plague encompassing their lives, they were totally unaware of yet another tragedy that was about to be unleashed on them.
Late in the evening on Sunday 2nd September, lanterns glowed a ghostly orb on the dark streets of London. The city smog had settled but pale plumes of smoke still drifted in the moonlight and rose upwards forming a grey cloud covering London. The clip clop of horse hooves echoed down the streets as the carriages splashed through puddles of excrement and urine. The stink hung heavily in the air and as the streets slowly emptied, the buzzing of voices began to quieten. For the people who had managed to survive the plague, they must have imagined that things could not possibly be worse.
Suddenly, a little before midnight, a fire broke out at a bakery and London would never be the same again. The problem was with so many wooden houses closely packed together, they fell outwards, spilling fire in all directions. The fire soon consumed adjoining houses as it swept towards the paper warehouses and flammable stores full of oil, pitch, tar and resin on the riverfront. Instead of the strong east winds extinguishing the fire, the wind fanned it further into a storm as it supplied fresh oxygen to the flames creating a chimney effect with burning embers floating hungrily in the air. In the rapidly expanding sheet of flame, sparks and burning ashes lodged on thatched roofs and in wooden gutters as people ran screaming into the streets with their clothes smouldering and glowing.
It would have been the noise that woke Charles in the pre-dawn hours on 3rd September. As he looked down at the streets of London from his bedroom window high in the castle, the sight he saw would have jolted his heart and tightened his throat. He would have been stunned to see the city blazing out of control below him. Showers of hot ash would have filled the morning skies and in the distance, he would have heard the roar and crackle of the fire intermingled with a hissing sound as ash hit the Thames. Hundreds of houses had collapsed as the fire was continuing through the warren of streets lined with wooden houses.
From his lofty viewpoint, he would have been able to see boats filled with people, clinging to bits of furniture, musical instruments, rugs and chests of money. And he certainly would have heard the screams of people as the ground burnt through the soles of their shoes. He would have seen the steeples of dozens of churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral, silhouetted by the colossal flame and he would have felt the intense heat. By then he would have recognised the smell of burning bodies. It was probably as he stared down in shock at the chaos, that another reality would have crossed his mind. The date was September 3rd, and all hell had broken loose again, just as it had on that exact same date during battles at Drogheda, Dunbar and Worcester.
We all know the fate of Charles’ brother, James. He assumed the throne as James II only to lose it to his son-in-law William of Orange who sent him packing to Europe. But waiting to win the throne back was James’ son: James Francis Edward Stuart. Despite ‘the warming pan’ incident, James regarded himself as the rightful heir but by the time he set foot on Scottish soil on 22nd December 1715, there was little money and too few arms and his cause was already largely lost.
He left from the shores of Montrose, a coastal town in Angus north of Dundee, bound for France, disgraced and defeated. Four years later, on 3rd September 1719, he married Maria Clementina Sobieska and on New Year’s Eve, 1720, Charles Edward Louis John Casimir Sylvester Severino Maria Stuart, aka Bonnie Prince Charles, was born.
Sixty-three years later, it would be George III who would experience the significance of 3rd September. It was 1783 when The Treaty of Paris was signed in Paris, ending the American Revolutionary War. It was a monumental treaty and George should have been ecstatic that the whole debacle had finally concluded so neatly. The end of the war was what he’d wanted in the first place and as the ink was drying on the paper, George was ruling over more of the world than any man since Genghis Khan.
But instead of being satisfied, George struggled to come to terms with the loss of the Americas. George had already been showing signs of stress. With the loss of two of his beloved children and dealing with the dreadful behaviour of his eldest son and heir, losing the Americas was the final straw for George. It pushed him over the edge and things began to slip off the rails for him. It was the beginning of ‘The Madness of King George’.
Another September 3rd that will never be forgotten was 1939. The day dawned glorious with no hint of what would occur later in the day. It was a Sunday morning and church bells peeled throughout the country after a vicious storm that raged the night before. That morning, at 11am, the summer skies were the essence of tranquillity as an announcement from a BBC presenter spoke. “You will now hear a statement by the Prime Minister.”
Chamberlain’s voice began querulously, marking the gravity of the message. Hitler would not withdraw from Poland and Britain was at war with Germany, he stated. A second World War had begun. There was no pause and no hesitation in his voice and as he spoke, the penetrating whine of air-raid sirens cut through his voice, bringing with it the terrible reality. In the chaos, King George and Queen Elizabeth were making their way down to the palace basement converted into an emergency shelter clutching their gas masks.
That night, it was King George’s turn to address the nation. His words were hesitant and the speech was full of pauses as he gathered himself to address his people. Standing behind him was his speech therapist Lionel Logue, silently supporting him. His voice was flat but the message was clear. Germany had forced Britain into a conflict. His stirring words resonated around homes and offices and people fell silent, awed at the immensity of what their king was saying. “For the sake of all that we ourselves hold dear, and of the world’s order and peace, it is unthinkable that we should refuse this challenge. It is to this high purpose that I now call my people at home and my peoples across the Seas, who will make our cause their own … We can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our case to God.”
So today, on 3rd September, if I were the royal family, I would kick off my shoes and stay indoors watching television.