When I'm researching a book, I often discover facts that surprise me, and surprise many of my readers too. Sometimes these are curiosities; but sometimes they may change the way we look at history.
Over the years, I have accumulated quite a store of these. Each month a new fact will be posted on this website, and then added to this little archive into which you may care to delve from time to time.
The dreaded guillotine had actually been designed by Doctor Guillotin to ensure that executions were clean and painless. Some revolutionaries protested against using the guillotine for the aristocrats and enemies of the Revolution, because they didn't suffer enough.
ArchiveMay 2013 - Amazingly, in World War I, preparations were well under way before the war ended to build a fake model Paris, mostly of wood and canvas, just a few miles outside the real city, to deceive the German Gotha bombers if they made night raids.
April 2013 - Who was the father of Louis XIV of France ? It may have been his official father Louis XIII. But it may also have been his mother's close friend, Cardinal Mazarin, who himself may have been partly Jewish. It is said that the Sun King himself suspected his biological father was Mazarin.
March 2013 - In August 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. The police wrongly arrested several people on suspicion, including the young - Pablo Picasso !
February 2013 - The famous Bastille fortress in Paris was originally built to defend the Parisians against the marauding English.
January 2013 - New York's Statue of Liberty was built at 25 rue de Chazelles, in Paris. The inner framework was designed by Gustave Eiffel, just before he built his famous Tower.
December 2012 - In 1914, when the French needed to rush reinforcements from Paris to the front in a single day, the men were taken in 600 commandeered Paris taxis !
November 2012 - In the middle of the building of the Eiffel Tower, the men went on strike. Eiffel gave them a raise. He had no choice. He was running out of time.
October 2012 - In medieval Paris, like most medieval cities, the bridges across the river were covered with either houses or water mills. But the famous Pont Neuf of King Henry IV at the start of the seventeenth century was the first bridge without houses. The king wanted people to enjoy the fine views.
September 2012 - The story goes - it's probably an exaggerration of some window-dressing to impress foreign ambassadors - that when Catherine the Great of Russia took a river tour of the recently annexed Crimea in 1787, her lover and maybe secret husband Potemkin (it's pronounced Potyomkin) erected fake villages on the river banks each day to make the place look better than it was. Hence the expression : 'a Potemkin village.'
August 2012 - In Old Russia, all the senior state offices and army commands were taken by the great boyar families, who would even get into fights over whose family was older in determining their pecking order. One boyar might refuse to serve under another in battle if he thought his own family was senior - irrespective of military experience or competence. This was the world of the boyars that Peter the Great finally destroyed at the start of the eighteenth century.
July 2012 - Lenin, though a revolutionary, was technically a nobleman himself, and his fiery speeches were delivered surprisingly aristocratic accents.
June 2012 - St Petersburg is a lovely city. But Peter the Great built it in a hurry with a huge labour force that was short of supplies, food, and shelter from the harsh winter climate. Probably over a hundred thousand workmen died.
May 2012 - We think of heraldic coats of arms as shields carried by knights in armour - and so they were. But even in the Middle Ages, London merchants could get them. Shakespeare, a humble actor, was granted a coat of arms four centuries ago.
April 2012 - When the Mongol hordes swept out of Asia in the Middle Ages and subjugated old Russia, they mostly mounted their campagns in the winter. The reason? They could handle the cold, and the rivers were frozen, making movement much easier.
March 2012 - The oysters grown in the estuary of London's River Thames were so prized that in Roman times they were shipped all the way to the imperial city itself. By the eighteenth century, oysters were the food of the poor.
February 2012 - In SARUM, many readers have noticed that during Nelson's great naval victory of Trafalgar, in 1805, a ship named the Swiftsure was commanded by William Rutherfurd. This was in fact an ancestor of the author, and there is an account of the building of the ship in THE FOREST.
January 2012 - In 1588, when the huge Spanish Armada was sent by the Catholic King of Spain to conquer Protestant England, the councillors of Queen Elizabeth I were afraid that the English Catholics in the countryside might rise to support them.
December 2011 - In LONDON, there is a story of a brave apprentice who jumped into the River Thames to save his master's daughter from drowning, and then married her. This is based on a true story that the author found in the records of the Watermen's Company. The real apprentice's family name was Osborne. Not only did he become a great man in the city of London, but his descendants rose to become Dukes of Leeds.
November 2011 - In the seventeenth century, it was still not understood that bubonic plague was transmitted by fleas on rats. People thought that dogs and cats probably carried it. So in the Great Plague of London in 1665, orders were given to kill household pets. Daniel Defoe (author of Robinson Crusoe) estimated that 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats were killed in London at this time.
October 2011 - Traditionally, English theatre companies go on tours of the provinces in the summer months. This dates back to the days of Shakespeare when the players, like the nobility, left London in the summer months when outbreaks of the plague often occured in the city.
September 2011 - Saint Kevin's retreat, the monastery of Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains is one of the loveliest places in Ireland. But in the eighteenth century, some pretty wild parties took place up there. A later, highly respectable frequenter of Glendalough was Sir William Wilde, father of Oscar.
August 2011 - The lovely Wicklow Mountains overlook Dublin. Yet despite Wicklow's proximity to the English capital of the medieval island, it was mostly still 'beyond the Pale' and remained one of the last parts of Ireland to come under English control. Though welcoming tourists, Wicklow is somewhat a world apart, even today.
July 2011 - In the year 597, when the Pope sent Saint Augustine to convert the Saxons of England to Christianity, the saint was told to make for London because, using maps from the days of the Roman Empire, the Vatican thought 'Londinium' was the island's capital. In fact, London was then a deserted ruin. But there was a friendly king down in Canterbury, which is why England's primate is Archbishop of Canterbury to this day.
June 2011 - If you are ever in Salisbury Cathedral and know the story of Osmund Mason from Sarum, then go to the South Transept and through the door into the cloisters. As you do so, on the wall you'll see a memorial tablet to William Osmund, Mason of the cathedral, who died in 1875. This suggested the fictional character's name to the author.
May 2011 - In the great build up of Allied forces before D-Day in 1944, the huge spaces of Salisbury Plain just above Sarum were covered with military vehicles of every kind. Their camouflage was greatly aided by the huge ancient hedgerows that, in those days, still lay between the fields, under which a vehicle might completely disappear.
April 2011 - If you visit Sarum on a Tuesday or Saturday, you will find traders selling all kinds of goods in Salisbury's big medieval market place, where Market Days have been pretty much unchanged for eight centuries. Glance across at the west side of the Guildhall and you will see a street sign recently put up to celebrate a local author : Rutherfurd Walk !
March 2011 - The traditional Anglo-Saxon lawcourt had no advocates, no jury and heard no evidence. The case was decided by the number and status of the people who swore that one or the other party was in the right.
February 2011 - Around Sarum, it has been known for lightning to strike the ground and leave a scorch mark in a dead straight line across open ground - because it has earthed itself along the metalled surface of a buried Roman road.
January 2011 - During World War II, the five rivers that meet at Sarum were used as a natural signpost by the German Luftwaffe on their bombing raids into central England.
December 2010 - In 1915, Stonehenge was sold at auction. It was bought by a local gentleman, Mr Cecil Chubb. In 1918 he gave it to the nation.
November 2010 - For the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, a huge glass palace - the Crystal Palace - was built. Two years later, New York held its own exhibition, also with a Crystal Palace, just behind the huge, Egyptian revival Distribution Reservoir of the Croton Aqueduct water system, on Fifth Avenue - which would later be replaced by today's New York Public Library.
October 2010 - In the financial Panic of 1907, Wall Street was saved by the intervention of the legendary Pierpont Morgan. Credit was restored with a pledge from the US Treasury of the then huge sum of $30 million to Morgan, to use as he thought fit. Does this sound familiar?
September 2010 - Focus was a 1945 novel, set in Brooklyn, about American Anti-Semitism, and written by Arthur Miller. In 2001 it was made into a brilliant but disturbing movie, co-produced by today's Mayor Bloomberg. Nine years later, I was delighted to see, according to a recent filing, that the mayor had finally got some profit from his worthy investment.
August 2010 - The Empire State Building stands on the site of the house of the legendary arbiter of New York high society, 'The' Mrs Astor. After a family row, her nephew Waldorf left for England, where he bought a castle and became Lord Astor. And in revenge against his aunt, he tore down his father's house, which was next door to hers, and built a huge hotel there, called the Waldorf. After a while, her privacy destroyed, Mrs Astor moved out, and the Astoria hotel was built on the site of her house. Both were knocked down to make way for the Empire State Building. Today's Waldorf Astoria Hotel stands on Park Avenue.
July 2010 - During the construction of the Empire State Building, there were workers of many races working on the huge site, including teams of Mohawk Indian ironworkers. Everyone went to the canteen provided, except the Italians, who always brought their own pack lunches, knowing that only Italian food was good to eat!
June 2010 - Though the Crash of 1929 wiped out many people, the market actually recovered somewhat, early in 1930. The greatest damage was done by the terrible, slow slide that followed, until the final bottom in July 1932.
May 2010 - On Wednesday October 23, 1929, in a daring move, the great spire of the lovely Art Deco Chrysler Building was suddenly hoisted into place, taking its competitors by surprise and making it, for a brief time, the tallest building in the world. Ironically, the very next day was Black Thursday, the start of the great Crash of '29.
April 2010 - Perhaps the most famous Jazz club during Prohibition was the Cotton Club in Harlem, acquired and run by gangster Owney Madden while he was still in prison in Sing Sing. Though of Irish ancestry, Madden was born British, in Leeds, proudly spoke broad Yorkshire, [US : spoke with a broad Yorkshire accent] and regularly read the Yorkshire Post until he died.
March 2010 - Italian immigrants crossing the Atlantic to Ellis Island believed that the German liners that called at Italy's southern ports, had better conditions. Many Italian immigrants only came to work temporarily, and sometimes there would be more Italians returning to Italy than arriving.
February 2010 - Rolls Royce cars were so fashionable in America that by 1921 Rolls Royce had a factory in Springfield, Massachusetts, and in 1925, a further bodywork plant in Long Island City.
January 2010 - The Dakota building where John Lennon was tragically killed, is generally believed to be so-called because when it was completed in 1884, it was as remote from the fashionable addresses 'as Dakota'. An urban myth. Its builder, Edward Clark, loved all things Indian, and had already built another apartment house called the Wyoming.
December 2009 - Madame Restell - who was actually English, born Ann Trow in Gloucestershire - was notorious as an 'abortionist' in mid-nineteenth century New York because she sold birth control products. She made a fortune, and build a magnificent mansion on Fifth Avenue - right beside the new Roman Catholic St Patrick's Cathedral!
November 2009 - The idea of the Civil War was unpopular with New York, whose business was closely linked with the cotton plantations of the South. In 1861, just before the Civil War began, Mayor Fernando Wood proposed that New York should secede from the Union and set up as a sovereign city-state.
October 2009 - Lord North, the British Prime Minister during the American War of Independence, was probably the illegitimate half brother of King George III, whom he closely ressembled. The two brothers commanding the British forces sent to America, General Howe and Admiral Howe, were acknowledged by the king to be his illegitimate cousins!
September 2009 - Ben Franklin, who'd been living in London almost twenty years, ardently believed in the British Empire, supported King George III, and tried to avert the crisis with the American colonies almost until the Revolution began. His son, the loyalist Governor of New Jersey, remained on the British side.
August 2009 - Lord Cornbury, the British Governor of New York in the early years of the eighteenth century was accused of being what we nowadays call a cross-dresser. He was also the queen's cousin.
July 2009 - In England's Civil War, when Charles I and his Royalists fought agains Cromwell and Parliament, the farmers around the Sarum area became so sick of the rival armies that they formed their own force, the Clubmen, who would beat up soldiers from either side who gave them any trouble.
June 2009 - The world-famous tower and spire of Salisbury Cathedral have been standing for more than seven hundred years. But their weight is so great that the soaring stone pillars beneath have bent under the strain, as any visitor standing in the nave can plainly see. So say a prayer as you walk underneath!
May 2009 - The huge chalk downs that stretch from Dover in the east right across southern England to Stonehenge and beyond, are formed of marine deposits, from the time when all this land lay under the sea.
April 2009 - There used to be a three great oak trees in England's New Forest which would suddenly break into green leaf at Christmas each year. This may have been caused by lightning strikes resetting the trees' internal 'clocks', or by a genetic peculiarity. Nobody knows. But the 'miraculous oaks' certainly existed in Shakespeare's time, and probably long after.
March 2009 - The Rufus Stone in England's New Forest, visited by large numbers of tourists every year, marks the place where King William II was famously killed by an arrow, possibly shot by Walter Tyrrel, while hunting in the forest in the year 1099. But it's in the wrong place. The correct site, it's believed, is near Beaulieu Abbey, where a new memorial was set up by Lord Montagu and Edward Rutherfurd in 2001.
February 2009 - Jane Austen's highly respectable aunt was arrested for theft in fashionable Bath and kept in the common criminals' jail for weeks. Her loyal husband went to jail too, to keep her company.
January 2009 - The word 'Forest' in England's medieval forests, like the famous New Forest, does not refer to trees. In the legal latin of the middle ages, it meant a reservation, set aside for the king's hunting.
December 2008 - The markings on the hindquarters of a fallow deer are individual to each one, like a fingerprint. Whether the deer can identify them, we do not know!
November 2008 - In the great financial panic of 1825, London was also under a thick 'pea-souper' fog. Many customers, trying to withdraw their funds, were unable to do so because they couldn't find their banks in the fog!
October 2008 - The traditional wedding cake, with its many tiers, was invented in eighteenth century London. It was copied from the tower of St Bride's church, designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
September 2008 - While Sir Christopher Wren was building London's St Pauls cathedral, he concealed the fact that it was to have the dome for which it is famous. The London Protestants had objected to the fact that it looked like the Pope's great church of St Peters in Rome. Fortunately, Wren outlived the objectors, and the great dome was built.
August 2008 - Shakespeare's Globe theatre originally stood north of the river Thames. But because of a legal dispute, it was dismantled, taken across the Thames, and erected on the south bank.
July 2008 - Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales, is buried in Westminster Abbey - not because he was a great author, but because his house belonged to the abbey. Chaucer was a figure at the royal court. His aunt was the mistress of John of Gaunt, the king's brother.
June 2008 - In medieval London, most of the brothels were owned by the Bishop of Winchester. The regulations for the brothels may well have been drawn up by the future saint, Thomas Becket.
May 2008 - The great Tower of London was actually one of a pair of towers. The other, nearly identical, tower was built in the ancient east coast town of Colchester.
April 2008 - London once had a Roman arena, like the Colosseum, but nobody knew where it was. Recently, archeologists have discovered that London's central Guildhall is sitting in the middle of it.
March 2008 - The River Thames did not originally flow through London, but further to the north. The course of the river was shifted south by the ice cap during the last Ice Age.
February 2008 - Not only is there a big Norse mixture in all Irish ancestry, but every one of Ireland's coastal cities were founded by the Vikings.
January 2008 - Fashionable St Stephens Green in the heart of Dublin is named after a small hospital that used to be there - for lepers.
December 2007 - There were quite a lot of British in early Ireland. The Irish kept them as slaves.
November 2007 - Saint Patrick was not the first Christian missionary in Ireland.Ireland's lack of snakes had nothing to do with the saint.At the end of the last Ice Age, the arctic waters cut Ireland off from Britain before the snakes could get across.
October 2007 - Until the seventeenth century, Irish women had more freedom and more rights than English women. A man wanting to obtain the coveted freedom of Dublin could get it by marrying a woman who had it in her own right.
September 2007 - Divorce was common in early Ireland, right through the Christian Middle Ages. Married priests and abbots were also common in those days.
August 2007 - The Famine was undoubtedly made into a catastrophe by the British government. But the cause of their neglect was largely an economic, free-market dogma, misapplied in Irish conditions. The tragedy was chiefly the result of ignorance and stupidity rather than deliberate malice.
July 2007 - Daniel O'Connell, the Catholic Liberator, was a Deist (pretty much an agnostic in today's terms) and a Freemason as a young man. His family fortune came from smuggling.
June 2007 - The famous Hedge Schools of Catholic Ireland are much admired. But the schoolmasters who were most greatly prized were the mathematicians. By the end of the eighteenth century, many Irish insisted that their children be taught in English, because they thought it more useful.
May 2007 - Today the Presbyterians of Protestant Ulster are known for their determination to remain part of Britain. But originally, in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, they were persecuted for their religion, and allied with the Catholics against England.
April 2007 - Most people have heard of the Year of the French, the rebellion of 1798 inspired by the French Revolution. But Rutherfurd shows how the great Patriot movement and the Parliament of Grattan which preceded it grew directly out of the American Declaration of Independence and War of Independence.
March 2007 - Jonathan Swift's great book, Gulliver's Travels, contains some very curious names. Some of these are in fact jokes in the Irish language, which Swift could speak.
February 2007 - At the famous Battle of the Boyne, when Protestant King William defeated Catholic King James, there were large numbers of Protestant mercenaries on the Catholic side and the Pope in fact supported Protestant King William!!
January 2007 - Cromwell had to send many of his troops home before embarking for Ireland because they refused to fight a war that would deny Catholics the right to practice their religion. These English troops thought all men should be free to worship as they pleased.
December 2006 - Cromwell's army came in part to avenge the Irish massacre of Protestants of 1641. They were told that the Irish had killed 300,000 Protestants. The true figure - both sides actually killed each other - was probably under 5,000. This outrageous piece of anti-Irish propaganda was repeated and believed for another two and a half centuries.
November 2006 - The most sacred relic in Ireland, the Staff of Saint Patrick (supposedly burned at the time of the Reformation), was known to exist in last Elizabethan times and last recorded just before the Battle of the Boyne. It may still be out there somewhere!