Game of Thrones (GoT) is a show renowned for brutal depictions of violence and moments of high political intrigue. Brutal violence and political intrigue combined tends to result in an above average number of on-screen massacres: it’s estimated that there are an average of 14 deaths per episode, taken across the whole series. One GoT super-fan has put together a compilation that lasts a whole 21 minutes and includes, so they claim, over 150,000 deaths in total.
The nation presumed to resemble the Game of Thrones world the most is the United Kingdom and commensurately, so are the majority of the ensemble cast. The UK is relatively peaceful now, but as long as there have been British people there have been massacres that would put anything in Game of Thrones to shame for their ferocity and lust for blood. They have been a feature of life from the Roman invasions in the first century after Christ to the medieval period, on through the English Civil War, the Highland Clearances and the conquest of Ireland and into the first class struggle battles in the industrial world and the more recent civil conflicts in the north of Ireland.
The metrics by which a battle becomes a massacre or a riot is elevated into a bloodbath are somewhat hazy, but it helps to set them out. The incidents that we feature are notable because of their political aims – ethnic cleansing, social control or symbolic public punishments – or because of their wanton violence, in which one side loses the run of themselves and goes well beyond perhaps what their initial intention had been.
Bloodshed and British history go hand in hand and the spectre of brutality is never far away when one considers the grand scope of history on the islands: let us discuss the twelve British massacres that have left their bloody mark on British history.
The history of extreme violence in the United Kingdom certainly did not arrive with the Romans, but they brought a level of sophisticated to warfare that made their aggression far more effective. The Menai Massacre of 61 AD – might just be the most brutal bloodletting of the Roman period in Britain and it fits several of the key parameters that were outline for our massacres: it was an attempt at social control and ethnic cleansing, it was an example of the Roman army seriously losing control of itself and taking it out on the native Britons. The Menai Massacre took place Anglesey, an island at the very north west point of Wales that is separated from the mainland by a slither of water known as the Menai Strait. While Anglesey is essentially a contiguous part of Wales in the modern era, back in the first century, the choppy waters of the Menai Strait provided a formidable natural bulwark against foreign invaders. The Romans had been in Britain since AD 43, some 18 years by the time they made it to the far north of Wales and had faced some severe resistance to their advances from the Celtic peoples who already called Britain home. The invaders had not penetrated the hinterland of Wales – though whether they had not was due to strong opposition or simply because they did not see anything of value there is debated – and it was not until the general Suetonius Paulinus took charge in AD 58 that they began to truly suppress the Welsh.
Suetonius gradually eliminated all opposition to Roman rule from the locals, forcing them further and further west. The island of Anglesey provided a useful bolthole for fugitive Celtic Britons and their high priests, the Druids, who feared the advance of Roman religion as well as the soldiers. When Suetonius arrived to exterminate them once and for all in AD 61, their days were numbered. The historian Tacitus speaks extensively of the battle, though he himself was not there, writing on the actions of Suetonius at the Menai Strait:
“He built flat-bottomed vessels to cope with the shallows, and uncertain depths of the sea. Thus the infantry crossed, while the cavalry followed by fording, or, where the water was deep, swam by the side of their horses.
On the shore stood the opposing army with its dense array of armed warriors, while between the ranks dashed women, in black attire like the Furies, with hair dishevelled, waving brands. All around, the Druids, lifting up their hands to heaven, and pouring forth dreadful imprecations, scared our soldiers by the unfamiliar sight, so that, as if their limbs were paralysed, they stood motionless, and exposed to wounds. Then urged by their general’s appeals and mutual encouragements not to quail before a troop of frenzied women, they bore the standards onwards, smote down all resistance, and wrapped the foe in the flames of his own brands. A force was next set over the conquered, and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed. They deemed it indeed a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails.”
The entirety of Mona, as Anglesey was known, was massacred, with no survivors left. The intention had been clear: the Romans wanted to exert dominance as forcefully as possible and make it very, very clear to any Britons considering resistance to Roman domination that their religion could not save them. Moreover, it removed a major class of leaders from the ranks of the Celts, who were left religiously bereft by the mass killing of their priests.
For our next stop, we move over a thousand years forwards and far to the north, to the border of Scotland and England. The town of Berwick has historically been the dividing line between the two countries and, indeed, has changed hands on several occasions between the two, one such example of which took place in 1296 and resulted in the deaths of thousands upon thousands of non-participants.
The Sack of Berwick was a turning point in British history and a defining moment in the progress of English forces towards the colonisation of Scotland. The conflict that was sparked at Berwick would later become known as the First Scottish War of Independence, although at the time, the concept of independence was a lot murkier. Scotland and England were separate kingdoms with separate royal families: Edward the First – known as Edward Longshanks – being the King of England and Scotland in the midst of a succession crisis that had occurred after the death of Margaret of Norway, Queen of Scots, just over a year previously. Margaret, the granddaughter of Alexander III, was born in Norway and never took her crown nor set foot on the Scotland mainland – in fact, she was just 7 years old at the time. She succeeded her grandfather, whose own children were already dead, but herself died of sea-sickness in the Orkney Islands, leaving no clear succession.
A group known as the Guardians of Scotland had been arranged to govern as regents while the Queen was a girl and had organised an arranged marriage between Margaret and Edward I of England’s son, which might well have lead to the unity of the English and Scottish crowns. With her death, however, there was a political feud between Robert the Bruce and John Balliol, both of whom saw themselves as potential monarchs. The Guardians decided to invited Edward I in to ensure that war did not break out. Quite the opposite occurred.
Edward decided that John Balliol should be king and he was duly made King, but in practice, Edward had made a vassal state of Scotland. After several years of this, the Scottish nobility revolted, signed a treaty of mutual defence with France – known as the Auld Alliance – and attacked Carlisle, the northernmost city in England. Edward retaliated spectacularly. He set his troops on Berwick, not only the first city over the border but also the major sea port of Scotland and the second most economically powerful city in mediaeval Britain, after London. Edward Longshanks’ men entered the town on March 28, 1296 and massacre the inhabitants, thought to be a number well into the thousands. Writing in the Scotichronicon, a history of the Scottish people, 15th century historian Walter Bower wrote:
“When the town had been taken in this way and its citizens had submitted, Edward spared no one, whatever the age or sex, and for two days streams of blood flowed from the bodies of the slain, for in his tyrannous rage he ordered 7,500 souls of both sexes to be massacred…So that mills could be turned round by the flow of their blood.”
The Sack of Berwick would be a devastating blow for the Scots, but the brutality was such that resistance was vital. Public opinion was strongly against the English and, in 1297, there were risings all over the country lead by Andrew Moray and William Wallace. The Scots, helped by France and Ireland, managed to fight the English back into Northumberland, as anyone who has seen Braveheart will well know. In 1298, however, the French signed a deal with the English and removed their backing from the Scots, while Wallace was defeated at the Battle of Falkirk and in 1305, Wallace was executed in London. Robert the Bruce would eventually defeat the English again at Bannockburn in 1314 and return Berwick to Scotland in 1318.
Anyone who has lived in a near a university or in a college town will know that students like to drink and, when they drink, tend to become a little rowdy. It might be heartening to learn, then, that this is nothing new at all and indeed, dates back to just about as long as there have been students. The St Scholastica Day Riot of 1355 took place in Oxford, home to one of the most prestigious universities in the world, and began when two students got into a drunken brawl with a tavern owner.
The Swindlestock Tavern stood on the corner of St Aldate’s and Queen Street in the centre of Oxford and was a popular haunt of students. Two of them, Walter Spryngeheuse and Roger de Chesterfield, were drinking there on the 10th of February in 1355 and got themselves into an argument with John Croidon, the owner of the Tavern, over the standard of drinks served in his establishment. They quarrelled and the two students were alleged to have sworn at the landlord and thrown their drinks at him. So far, so juvenile. It was only when the mayor of the city, John de Bereford, attempted to arrest the two students that the confrontation went from a pub fight to a full blown riot. Over 200 students took to the streets to defend Spryngeheuse and de Chesterfield and were met by crowds of locals who had long been waiting for the chance to have a crack at the students, whom many thought received preferential treatment in Oxford. By the time the fighting subsided two days later, almost 100 people lay dead, the majority of them students.
The locals had decent grounds to be irritated at the students. The University of Oxford had many privileges that made their lives difficult: they could set bread prices within 5 miles of the university, they regulated marketplaces and merchants and their students enjoyed near immunity from laws – indeed, the reason that Spryngeheuse and de Chesterfield had not been arrested was because the Mayor had to ask for specific permission from the head of the University to arrest students. On top of this, the university and its students were exempt from military duties and paid little to the public purse, which were a constant complaint from the local guilds and craftsmen. On the other side, the students felt that the locals were exploiting the university and its students by gouging prices and selling shoddy merchandise. A few years previously, they had decanted en masse to Stamford in Lincolnshire in protest at the perceived slights and had only recently returned to Oxford having been ordered to by the King himself. So when it all kicked off, both sides were not lacking for volunteers.
While the town might have won the battle – in the sense that they killed twice as many students as were killed from their own ranks – they would lose the war. The King ordered that the privileges of the university be extended and the town government was ordered to contribute money to the University – 63 pence, one for each student killed – as well as swearing an oath to uphold the students’ rights and perform a public penance each year in the form of a march through the centre of Oxford. The march would continue annually from 1355 all the way through until 1825, when the Mayor finally decided that enough was enough and refused to participate.
The modern day island of Eigg is something of a Scottish utopia. It is a tiny island with a population of just over a hundred, but one which has made headlines in recent years by taking on an eco-friendly lifestyle and cultivating a progressively minded tourist crowd. The people govern themselves and are presented to the world as a model of alternative living. The history of Eigg, however, is home to something far, far darker.
“On the Isle of Eigg there is a cave called the Cave of the MacDonalds. Around four hundred souls were smothered to death in this cave and this is the story behind the event,” reads the account of Calum Maclean, a famed folklorist and ethnologist of the Scottish people.
“Two lads from Dunvegan went to Eigg in search of a wife and when they got the local lads had such a spite for them that they tied them up and sent them adrift in a boat. The boat sailed away and they had been three days at sea before the MacLeods of Dunvegan found them. MacLeod of Dunvegan and his men went to Eigg to get hold of those that had tied the two lads up. When the Eigg folk saw them coming they gathered together and fled to a big cave on top of the island so that when MacLeod of Dunvegan arrived there was no sign of them. They were about to go when one of them saw a man up on the hill and they noticed a snow track and they returned and followed the footprints which led into a cave. MacLeod of Dunvegan demanded that those who had tied up the lads should come out, but they didn’t. They didn’t come out at all. The MacLeods filled up the mouth of the cave with heather and set it alight killing all those inside the cave. That’s how the Eigg Massacre came about.”
The Eigg Massacre was sometimes regarded as apocryphal, but recent discoveries on the ancient island have brought it to light and confirmed that it took place. In March 2017, over 50 human bones were found in Massacre Cave and dated back to the time of the massacre, which took place in the midst of a clan war between the MacLeods and MacDonalds. The Eigg Islanders were MacDonalds and had fought several battles against the MacLeods from over the water at Dunvegan, which were ended by the deaths of nearly all MacDonalds in the cave on Eigg.
Later, the great Scottish writer – populiser of the tartan and kilts Scottishness that has now become de rigeur, but was once seen as rustic and uncouth by many in the Scottish establishment – visited the island of Eigg and was enthralled by the idea of the Massacre and is reported to have brought a skull of a victim back from the cave to his home as a souvenir. He started a fund for those killed to have a Christian burial – the Clan MacLeod had deliberately not afforded them one after the massacre. The MacDonalds from the island of Uist would have their revenge on the MacLeods just a year later they attacked a church on the island of Skye, killing scores. Only one person survived, a small girl who raised the alarm, causing the chief of the MacLeod clan to declare total war on the MacDonalds, killing nearly all of those who took to the field.
For our next incident, we cycle forwards to the English Civil War. The English Civil War, which raged for nine years between 1642 and 1651, is not as well known as many other defining conflicts in British history, but it was as important a period in the making of the modern United Kingdom as any.
On a political level, it established the order of government that continues to this day at Westminster, in which the monarchy is secondary to the power of parliament and on a social level it lead to the advancement of the artisan and working classes to the detriment of the high-born. It follows from the social change that economically, that the merchant and entrepreneurial classes predominated over the landed aristocracy, while their religion, a more austere form of Protestantism, prevailed over the King’s Anglicanism. The geographic makeup of Britain was considerably altered, with the “English” civil war spreading extensively into Scotland and Ireland and the impact on regular people all over the islands was extreme: an estimated 85,000 people were killed in the fighting, but a further 127,000 died due to the disease epidemics that came with the war, notably outbreaks of plague, as well as famines related to the conflict. That amounted to something like a 3.7% loss of the entire population of England, 6% in Scotland and a whopping 41% in Ireland. The wrath wreaked on the Irish is worth a whole other section in itself, and it will get one.
The nub of the war, and the reasoning behind our latest massacre, was the dispute between the Royalists, who supported the right of the King (namely Charles I) to set his own laws, and the Parliamentarians, who wanted sovereignty to lie with the Parliament, lead by Oliver Cromwell. The town of Bolton, to the west of modern day Manchester, was a Parliamentary stronghold – befitting its population of merchants, Calvinist Protestants and skilled artisan workers – while the surrounding rural areas, with landowning gentry and a poor population that depended on them, favoured the King. The Royalists had attempted to attack Bolton on several occasions and on May 28 1644, they would be successful.
The forces of Prince Rupert, the King’s German cousin, advanced on the town in typical Northern English rain and overcame a garrison of 4,000 Parliamentarian soldiers to enter the city. They routed the defenders, killing a thousand and capturing many more, as well as field materiel. Moreover, they plundered the town extensively, with little regard for who was a combatant and who was a civilian. The numbers of dead make no distinction between the two.
It had been expected that Rupert would, as was the accepted military tactics of the time, begin a lengthy siege of the town, but instead he attacked and overran Bolton. As there was no siege, there were no conditions of battle laid out and therefore it was within the accepted constraints of conflict at the time for Rupert’s men to massacre civilians and noncombatants.
Bolton was, in the grand scheme of things, not that important a town, but the experiences of unrestrained bloodlust and disregard for civilian life was one that would mark out the English Civil War as it continued.
For our next Civil War massacre, we jump forwards 5 years and across the Irish Sea. Despite the loss of Bolton, the Parliamentarian side had won the civil war in England. The so-called “New Model Army” had been instituted by Oliver Cromwell in 1645 and was dedicated to his cause as opposed to the local area in which they were raised. They were experienced, devoutly religious and possessed a level of discipline that was well beyond that of most armies of the time.
While the war had raged in England between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists, an uprising in Ireland – where the vast majority were neither Puritan Protestant or Anglican but Catholic – had all but established the sovereignty of the local, Catholic upper classes. In 1649, after the dust had settled back in England, Cromwell embarked on a reconquest of Ireland that would have devastating consequences. When a Parliamentary commander remarked of the Burren, the treeless limestone pavement that covers a large swathes of the West of Ireland that “there is no water to drown a man, no tree from which to hang him, and no soil to bury him in if you did” one can garner an idea of what the staunchly Protestant, anti-Papist Puritan New Model Army thought of the Catholic Irish. They would show little mercy when they arrived.
Cromwell’s tactics required several swift victories: the Royalist forces in Ireland had decided to hole up in several stronghold cities and attempt to let disease, the famously cold and wet weather and hunger defeat the invaders, so the Parliamentarians resolved to engage in sieges that were quick and could be fed by supplies shipped over from England. Having landed in August 1649 and quickly captured Dublin – at the time not the capital of Ireland, nor the major port – and moved up towards Drogheda, directly between Dublin and Belfast. The town was split into two, as Cromwell later explained:
“The officers and soldiers of this Garrison were the flower of their Army. And their great expectation was, that our attempting this place would put fair to ruin us: they being confident of the resolution of their men, and the advantage of the place. If we had divided our force into two-quarters to have besieged the North Town and the South Town, we could not have had such a correspondency between the two parts of our Army, but that they might have chosen to have brought their Army, and have fought with which part ‘of ours’ they pleased,—and at the same time have made a sally with 2,000 men upon us, and have left their walls manned; they having in the Town the number hereafter specified, but some say near 4,000.”
As was military protocol at the time, Cromwell offered the option of surrender to the Royalist defenders: had they accepted it, they would have been spared. Instead, despite lacking severely for gunpowder and shot, they refused to back down. Cromwell attacked, breached the mediaeval walls and took the town. When the Parliamentarians were inside the walls, there would be no mercy. They murdered all enemy soldiers they found, taking no prisoners, battered to death any Catholic priests that they came across and murdered countless civilians. “I believe we put to the sword the whole number of the defendants. I do not think Thirty of the whole number escaped with their lives;” wrote Cromwell.
The massacre would have its intended effect: other garrison towns later surrendered rather than face the same fate as Drogheda. Historians to this day debate Cromwell’s decision to massacre the town: it was not particularly unusual for those who failed to surrender ahead of a siege to suffer reprisals, but the level of brutality was well beyond what was generally accepted. Tom Reilly, a leading civil war historian, later wrote: “Arthur Aston (the Royalist commander at Drogheda) had refused a summons to surrender, thereby technically forfeiting the lives of the garrison in the event of a successful assault … the sheer scale of the killing [at Drogheda] was simply unprecedented.”
The English Civil War ended in 1651 in England, 1653 in Ireland and 1654 in Scotland. The history of Scotland in the Civil War period cannot be understood without the religion of the era: the Scots were a separate type of Protestant to both the King’s Anglicans and Cromwell’s Puritans and had maintain their version of religion, Presbyterianism, as the dominant faith north of the border. They had first fought King Charles when he attempted to foist his Anglican Book of Common Prayer on Scotland in 1638, leading to the so-called Bishop’s Wars, before the full conflagration of the Civil War broke out.
Once the Civil War period – the War of the Three Kingdoms, as it is sometimes known after the theatres in England, Ireland and Scotland – had ended, there was the Commonwealth, a republic under Cromwell, the Protectorate, a dictatorship of Cromwell, then a restored monarchy under Charles II and finally the Glorious Revolution, in which Charles’ younger brother James II was deposed by Parliamentarians, who placed the constitutional monarch, William of Orange, on the throne. William was Dutch and staunchly Protestant and, in the new Bill of Rights adopted on his accession, Catholics were debarred from ever taking the throne again.
James II of England had also been James VII of Scotland, and his subjects north of the border were far less receptive to the newly instituted order. The Highlanders in particular had never taken to Protestantism in any form and were seen as a nuisance by the authorities, who began to intervene in the intermittent warfare that had existed between clans for generations. The MacDonalds of Glencoe were one such clan that had long stayed outside the mainstream and, when the first Jacobite – that is to say, pro-James II – Rising occurred in 1689, they rallied to the banner. The first rising failed, but when the victorious English attempted to make the clans swear an oath to William, many refused. The Macdonalds of Glencoe found themselves the ones to be made an example of: they were not powerful, not particularly numerous, politically isolated and had a reputation for causing trouble to the authorities. In the early months of 1692, the order was put out to deal with them.
“You are hereby ordered to fall upon the rebels, the McDonalds of Glencoe, and put all to the sword under seventy,” read the order sent to the Clan Campbell, the representatives of the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot in the Highlands. They were billeted with the Macdonalds, as was commonplace at the time. Captain Robert Campbell, the leader of the Regiment, was staying with the Chief himself. They would prove to be as bad a set of guests as history can provide. When one Captain Drummond arrived with the above orders, he delivered them to Campbell and then went to play cards with his Macdonald hosts. That night, 38 Macdonald men were killed as the regiment fulfilled their orders, burning the Glencoe settlement to the ground. A further 40 Macdonald women and children later died of exposure as they ran off into the wintery glen.
The Glencoe Massacre sent shockwaves throughout Scotland. While many were not friendly towards the Macdonalds, the manner in which they were killed appalled Scottish society. Sir Thomas Livingstone wrote “It is not that anyone thinks the thieving tribe did not deserve to be destroyed but that it should have been done by those quartered amongst them makes a great noise.” Indeed, of all the massacres covered in this list, it is the most that actually resembles something from Game of Thrones: George RR Martin is thought to have been inspired by the Glencoe Massacre when writing the Red Wedding scenes of A Storm of Swords.
From the Civil War onwards, there was a growing force in British politics: the working classes. Previously, decisions had been made by kings and latterly by the wealthy men of Parliament, but there was a growing trend towards industrialisation and with industrialisation came an increasingly powerful, centralised and influential urban poor that had to be satisfied as well. Furthermore, the principles of Protestantism that had been espoused by the Puritans and the dissident Protestants – free thought, criticism, self-reliance – had lead to more and more people learning how to read, which in turn lead to a plethora of other radical ideas taking hold in the cities.
Among the key demands of those living in the cities, particularly in London, was freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. The conditions that produced the American Revolution and the French Revolution were present in Britain, too, and the skepticism towards inherited rule and monarchy that would characterise those two uprisings was also there. One such firebrand was John Wilkes, a radical journalist and politician who first came to prominence in 1762 as the editor of a newspaper, The North Briton. His paper was regularly critical of the King, George III – for which he was arrested and charged with libel.
Wilkes’ popularity soared after his arrest, with public opinion holding that he had been right to challenge the King and he was soon released when a judge decided that his comments were made using parliamentary privilege – Wilkes was a Member of Parliament – and therefore could not be considered libellous. He was released and sued the men who arrested him. The success embolden Wilkes, who continued to skirt legality with his publications, eventually being forced to flee to France in 1764 to avoid an obscenity charge.
While in exile, Wilkes ran up huge debts and did little to endear himself to people there or back home. When he eventually was forced to return to England, the authorities wanted to arrest him, but instead dithered due to his large public support. He was elected back to Parliament on an anti-government platform and handed himself in, as an MP, to fight the obscenity charge from four years previously. On hearing that he had been arrested again, a crowd began to form on St George’s Fields in south London to call for his release. After two weeks, they numbered 15,000 and were chanting slogans like “No Liberty, No King” and “Damn the King! Damn the Government! Damn the Justices!” outside the gates of the prison. The army were called in and the Riot Act was read – the government’s official signal that a crowd was to disperse. They did not, and began throwing rocks at the soldiers. The soldiers returned fire and soon afterwards, up to 11 people lay dead.
All London erupted into riots against the King and the government, a scene described by Benjamin Franklin, who was present, as “sawyers destroying saw-mills; sailors unrigging all the outward bound ships…Watermen destroying private boats and threatening bridges.” Franklin later saw the riots as a precursor to the Boston Massacre of 1770, which would become a major trigger in the American Revolution.
John Wilkes was eventually released and, six years later, was elected Lord Mayor of London. The rising of the industrial working class against the government in defence of their inalienable rights would become a theme of British city life, and the heavy-handed manner in which it was often suppressed would accompany it every step of the way.
The massacre at St George’s Fields showed the power of the poor of London to cause disruption, but they were far from the only group in England that were capable of rising against the authorities. The north of England was a hotbed of political radicalism and Manchester in particular was the centre of a movement that would have a monumental effect on British society. Manchester in 1819 was well on the way to becoming the first city of industry, the home to the lucrative cotton trade and one of the richest places on earth. The political representation of the city, however, was well out of date and the whole population, which numbered close to a million, was represented by just two Members of Parliament. The economic situation was not much better: the Napoleonic Wars had created a huge demand for textiles with which to make uniforms and created an boom in the Manchester cotton industry, but once the wars ended, the bubble burst and thousands were thrown out of work. The Corn Laws, which regulated the price of grain, kept the cost of food above what most could afford. Thus, the conditions were ripe for protest. The Manchester magistrates warned of “deep distress of the manufacturing classes” and predicted that a revolt was night.
In the years leading up to Peterloo, as it would come to be known, the radical politicians of the north had been doing a roaring trade. They met for weekly meetings throughout the city and were drawing crowds in the thousands. Henry Hunt was the undoubted star of the show, railing against the corrupt Corn Laws and the politicians who upheld them. When he called a “great assembly” on St Peter’s Fields in the centre of Manchester for August 16th, 1819, thousands converged from all over Lancashire to hear him speak. The authorities reacted in kind, with over a thousands soldiers sent to police the event.
Samuel Bamford, who was there, described the scene as thus:
“Mr Hunt, stepping towards the front of the stage, took off his white hat, and addressed the people.
We had got to nearly the outside of the crowd, when a noise and strange murmur arose towards the church. Some persons said it was the Blackburn people coming, and I stood on tiptoe and looked in the direction whence the noise proceeded, and saw a party of cavalry in blue and white uniform come trotting, sword in hand, round the corner of a garden wall, and to the front of a row of new houses, where they reined up in a line.
“The soldiers are here,” I said; “we must go back and see what this means.” “Oh,” someone made reply, “they are only come to be ready if there should be any disturbance in the meeting.” “Well, let us go back,” I said, and we forced our way towards the colours.
On the cavalry drawing up they were received with a shout of goodwill, as I understood it. They shouted again, waving their sabres over their heads; and then, slackening rein, and striking spur into their steeds, they dashed forward and began cutting the people…”
“Stand fast,” I said, “they are riding upon us; stand fast”.
The cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings and their sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.”
15 people lay dead and hundreds were injured. One of the dead, John Lees, who had travelled in from the nearby cotton town of Oldham and had previously fought at the Battle of Waterloo, remarked: “At Waterloo there was man to man but there it was downright murder.” The name Peterloo was immediately given to the massacre at St Peter’s Fields. Peterloo has gone down in history as one of the worst excesses of the British state against its own people, and the formation of the organised British working class movement. The poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was moved to pen his famous lines by the carnage of Peterloo:
“Rise like lions after slumber In unvanquishable number Shake your chains to earth like dew We are many, they are few”
Once the idea of revolution is out in the open, it is a notoriously difficult one to control. Certainly, one of the least successful ways of controlling revolution is to smash it head on, as that tends to turn the people among whom the idea is fermenting against the government even more. Britain, perhaps more than any country, as averted and avoid revolutions over the centuries through a combination of coercion and co-option: the English Revolution, a revolution against the King’s right to absolute rule, was eventually defeated and replaced by more absolute rule, before the idea of constitutional monarchy was adopted anyway, while the various uprisings against the Corn Laws, the unrepresentative nature of Parliament and the centralisation of power were all crushed, only for large swaths of their demands to be taken into the mainstream. Thus, England has maintained the idea of not having a revolution while actually having several.
That isn’t to say that the tactics for dealing with dissent have become much more subtle over time. The tendency of the British state to pile into its own people has always been there, and few times was it so starkly displayed as in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil in 1831.
Merthyr, like much of South Wales, made its money from coal mining. The market for coal was always there – people always needed to keep warm and factories always needed fuel – but the work was simple and casualisation of labour was always a problem. Unemployment – or at least, underemployment – was common and many families suffered with usury, buying food on credit when times were hard in the hope that they could pay their debts when work was available. In 1831, the owner of the local ironworks, William Crawshay, presided over workers who were increasingly angered by a lack of work and commensurate falling wages – the logic of supply and demand dictating that, when men were unemployed, those with jobs could be paid less in the knowledge that they had nowhere else to sell their labour.
This hardly endeared Crawshay to the local population on in May, 1831, the workers began to revolt. They demonstrated for reform in the streets, roping in other colleagues from nearby towns and villages to join their protests. By the end of the month, the whole area was in revolt against the government and the factory bosses. The mob invaded the debtor’s court and destroyed all the records of usury, freeing themselves from what they owed. They shouted slogans against the King and raised the red flag over Merthyr – reportedly the first time that that symbol had ever been used.
At the start of June they moved to bring other workers out on strike and into revolt, while the government in London decided to call in the army to restore order. The soldiers, faced with over seven thousand workers, fired and killed more than 20 protesters. Still, however, they were forced back. The workers took control of the town, formed paramilitary defence units and commandeered arms from the Highland Regiment that had been sent to pacify the town. Eventually, after over a week of mob rule, 450 soldiers managed to retake Merthyr. The retribution was swift: rioters were imprisoned, others were sentenced to be sent to Australia and two were hanged.
The great cleft in British society was now clear to see. As the industrial advances in the cities drew in migrants from the countryside and created a huge, concentrated underclass, the rich grew richer on the profits. A society that had been largely rural – estimates are that 80% of the population lived off the land before Industrial Revolution – had become the first in history to be made up of predominantly city-dwellers. This caused huge, unheard of problems that the ruling classes struggle to deal with. How could they organise food and sanitation for such a concentration of people? How did they maintain order when faced with numbers like they had never seen before?
In the North, the conditions were particularly harsh and particularly stark. The city of Manchester had doubled every ten years for five decades running and the most of those newcomers had been rural, illiterate and unskilled. The damp climate that had made the city so perfect for cotton weaving – Manchester was (and is) so rainy that cotton never dried out and therefore was less of a fire risk – was also perfect for spreading diseases, which caused periodic epidemics among the population. Yet, despite the hardships of the city, the merchants and mill owners made untold riches from the profits of the labour. The French writer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of Manchester in 1835:
“From this foul drain the greatest stream of human industry flows out to fertilize the whole world. From this filthy sewer pure gold flows. Here humanity attains its most complete development and its most brutish, here civilization works its miracles and civilized man is turned almost into a savage.”
Understandably, the workers were not too keen on their hard work fattening the already rich, while they remained in poverty. The average working class person had no vote, little economic or social mobility and a short life expectancy. They organised the so-called “People’s Charter”, a list of demands handed to the government, in 1838, asking for universal suffrage and political reform. It was rejected out of hand. The workers regrouped and created a second charter in 1842, this one signed by three million people, which was again rejected by Parliament. The Northern Star, a radical newspaper, published this withering commentary on Parliament’s decision:
“Three and half millions have quietly, orderly, soberly, peaceably but firmly asked of their rulers to do justice; and their rulers have turned a deaf ear to that protest. Three and a half millions of people have asked permission to detail their wrongs, and enforce their claims for RIGHT, and the ‘House’ has resolved they should not be heard! Three and a half millions of the slave-class have holden out the olive branch of peace to the enfranchised and privileged classes and sought for a firm and compact union, on the principle of EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW; and the enfranchised and privileged have refused to enter into a treaty! The same class is to be a slave class still. The mark and brand of inferiority is not to be removed. The assumption of inferiority is still to be maintained. The people are not to be free.”
Many had tired of asking nicely. A huge wave of strikes broke out all over industrial areas, combining the goals of the Chartists with economic demands such as wage rises, a ten hour working day and lower rents. On Friday, August 12, 1842, three thousand people met in the northern city of Preston and began to go from factory to factory, pulling the workers out to join their protest. By Saturday, almost the whole town had ground to a halt and the major mill owner – who was also the town mayor – Samuel Horrocks called in the 72nd Highlanders, an army regiment stationed in the town.
Horrocks addressed the crowd and read the Riot Act, proclaiming the demonstration illegal. When the crowd did not disperse, the soldiers opened fire and shot 8 protestors. The mayor was thought to have given the order to fire, with the Northern Star writing:
“People could scarcely believe their senses. Riots had happened before in Preston but never before had the military been ordered to fire. Another attachment of the 7th Rifle Brigade, about 150 in number were marched into town, and the 72nd were marched out, no doubt to stem popular fury, it being the almost unanimous opinion that the Mayor ought to be tried for wilful murder.”
Of course, nobody was ever found guilty of the shootings and, indeed, many demonstrators found themselves imprisoned for their actions.
The most recent massacre on our list takes us back over the Irish Sea. The general attitude of the British state towards the Irish people might have changed since the Siege of Drogheda, but extreme brutality has rarely been far away. In the Troubles, the civil war that engulfed the North of Ireland for the latter third of the 20th Century, there was one incident that stands out among all others as the worst excess of the British Army against people who were – theoretically at least – British citizens.
The people of the City of Derry were no strangers to protest: they had successfully ejected the British Army from several areas of the city in 1968. The principle concern of the Catholic majority of the city was the continued domination of the Unionist, Protestant minority over vital issues like housing and infrastructure. Elections in the Northern Irish statelet were gerrymandered so that Protestant votes always carried the day and, inspired by the civil rights struggles in the United States, the people organised their own campaigns for equal voting rights and better housing provisions. It is worth mentioning that, when these campaigns started in 1968, there was little tinge of Irish nationalism or republicanism about the protests: the people of Derry wanted to be treated like everyone else in Britain first and foremost, before any discussion on Irish nationalist politics.
When the civil rights movement had been repelled violently by the police, a military struggle began that escalated and escalated to the point at which the British Army was called into the streets. The Catholic civilians actually welcomed the soldiers, as they were seen as neutral and fair, compared to the Protestant-dominated Police. That did not last. In 1971, internment was introduced for anyone suspected of being a member of a paramilitary organisation, which in practice saw hundreds of Catholic men imprisoned without trial. This swelled the ranks of the paramilitaries further, as well as sparking social struggles such as demonstrations and strikes. It was on one of these protests that our final massacre would occur. On January 30, 1972, a protest against internment set off from the Creggan, a Catholic district of Derry. It was over ten thousand strong and headed for the city centre, but was stopped by Army barricades. The march redirected towards the Bogside, another Catholic area, but a group peeled off and began pelting the soldiers with stones. The Parachute Regiment, the soldiers in question, responded with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. This was a relatively normal scene in protests in Ireland. What was to follow was not normal.
A group of soldiers in a nearby building opened fire on unarmed civilians, hitting two. The Paras then attempt to arrest several protesters by forcing their way into the Bogside, knocking several over with their armoured cars and assaulting anyone they caught. They later shot and killed people near a barricade that had been erected, including shooting people in the back who were fleeing from the scene. Within ten minutes, 26 people had been shot and 13 lay dead. Most were teenagers.
Don Mullan, who was a young boy at the time, remembered:
“The riot that ensued by Bogside standards, particularly when you compare it to the Battle of the Bogside in 1969, was quite minor. One feels if it had been allowed to peter out as the evening came on then the atrocity that followed would never have been…I reached the barricade and I remember one paratrooper, probably only about 20 or 30 yards away from me standing in the middle of Rossville Street. He had a rubber bullet gun and he fired that towards barricade. And then I remember another paratrooper diagonally across the road from me, in a kneeling position, his rifle aimed.
“At that stage I had a sense this was more than a snatch squad. And then the unmistakable crack of high velocity SLR rifles began to pierce the air. Literally two and a half feet from me I heard one young man cry out and he was Michael Kelly and he fell to the ground. At that point things become quite confused in my mind. There was a lot of panic and a lot of fear. I can recall a bullet hitting the wall above my head, quite high above my head. At that stage I came to my senses and began to run.”
The events of Bloody Sunday were initially covered up by the British state, with all present telling an inquiry that those that they shot were armed. It took until 2010 for the United Kingdom government to apologise for the massacre and to accept that their soldiers had been in the wrong.