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Historically interesting pubs

A lot of interesting things happen in pubs and taverns and we’re not talking about that thing your mate Dave can do with an egg.

Pubs, as is often said, are focal points of community life and over the centuries many have found themselves at the centre of great and important or just quite interesting events.

Scientific discoveries, criminal and punishment, military turning points, murderous encounters and scandalous liaisons have all taken place beneath the roofs of inns and taverns, bars and saloons the world over.

We present just a few of the notable events that have taken place in what could be your local. You never know, they could be the answer to a pub quiz one day.

1404: Death of Philip the Bold – Stag Inn, Halle

The first great duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, the man who banned Gamay from the Côte d’Or, expired in The Stag Inn aged 62.

The duke left his court in Brussels in April 1404 with the intention of heading to Paris but he made it no further than Halle a few miles south of the city.

His death on 27 April would ultimately send France spiraling into a protracted civil war as his son, John the Fearless, battled for power and political influence with his cousin (and Philip’s nephew) Louis of Orléans and which would see the pair dead before it was resolved.

Philip had been one of the great European statesmen and political maneuverers of his age. At the age of 12 he had stood by his father, King John II’s, side at the Battle of Poitiers where he earned his epithet and also the dukedom of Burgundy.

His life was spent accruing land and titles for his house and family in the two Burgundies, the duchy and the Franche-Comté or ‘Free County’ (now united in a recent departmental re-order) as well as Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands.

He laid the basis of a dynasty that ruled Burgundy for 100 years, was at the heart of the early northern European renaissance and cemented the reputation of Burgundian wine which Philip and his descendants used to lubricate the wheels of their political machinations, making it a favourite of popes and kings.

Sadly, the humble inn where Philip died no longer exists. It is postulated though that the nearby commune of Lembeek was where production of lambic beer originated or at least takes its name.

1455: Somerset’s last stand – The Castle Inn, St Albans

In May 1455 two armies squared off against each other at St Albans north of London.

In the town itself were positioned the retinues of the ‘Lancastrian’ nobility under Edmund Beaufort, the duke of Somerset and earls of Devon and Northumberland.

Outside, drawn up in land belonging to the nearby Cross Keys Inn, was the host of Richard, duke of York and his Neville allies, Richard, earl of Salisbury and his son Richard, earl of Warwick.

For years prior to the coming clash York and Somerset had sought to control the weak king, Henry VI, their struggle becoming increasingly bitter as they stripped each other of titles and influence as the ebb and flow of political influence washed between them. In the end both resorted to violence to resolve their differences.

The battle that followed was the first clash in what became known as the Wars of the Roses, a conflict that only ended in 1485 with the rise of the Tudor dynasty.

The end game of the battle, as York’s men stormed the town, saw Somerset make his last stand at the Castle Inn in the old market square. As with The Stag the place no longer exists but a plaque on the corner of St Peter’s Street and Shropshire Lane notes where it stood and Somerset’s last-ditch defence took place.

The duke is said to have fought manfully and killed four men before he was cut down in the doorway of the inn itself.

With Somerset’s death York’s main rival was gone but Henry Beaufort, the new duke took up his father’s cause and the war entered a new, bloodier and more vicious stage. York was killed in 1461 and Henry in 1464 and the killing went on, sporadically, until Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth 30 years later.

In another pub-related side note, the origins of the name ‘The Rose and Crown’ come from this period.

When Henry Tudor ascended the throne as Henry VII he married Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV. The marriage (which, surprisingly, was a happy one) was intended to unify the warring houses of York and Lancaster and bring peace to the kingdom.

The white rose of York and red rose of Lancaster were heraldic badges occasionally used by both sides so to represent this new alliance and end to the conflict, after the marriage a new device was created where the white rose was set within the red and surmounted by a crown. Two houses unified for the good of the realm, hence the name.

To be precise – The Dove, Hammersmith

A good place to watch the latter stages of the Boat Race – if you get there early enough – this pretty riverside inn was, so they say, once the secretive meeting place of Charles II and his famous mistress Nell Gwynn.

Except it wasn’t. As Martyn Cornell explains in his Strange Tales of Ale, despite many assertions that the restoration monarch and his comely actress squeeze had romantic trysts at the pub – including on its website – in fact it wasn’t built until 50 to 60 years after both of them had died.

The myth has gathered pace since the 1950s when a pamphlet mentioning the pub also stated that the pair had stayed in the area. Another claim that the poet James Thompson composed the music to ‘Rule Britannia’ in the pub is also bunkum.

To be precise, his surname was Thomson not Thompson and he was the librettist not the composer. Thomas Arne was the composer and Thomson wrote the lyrics at home, in Kew further down the river.

All of which goes to show, don’t believe everything you read in the guidebooks.

Gwynn was just one of many mistresses kept by the libertine Charles and the mother of some of his (many) illegitimate children, notably Charles Beauclerk, duke of St Albans.

In fact, Charles never had any legitimate offspring with his wife, Catherine of Braganza, as all of her pregnancies tragically ended in miscarriages.

On Charles’s death, therefore, the throne passed to his brother, James, but not without some resistance, which takes us neatly into the next tale of pub-related history.

One more quick fact however: which is that Charles and Catherine are often credited with introducing the custom of tea drinking to the British court (it was common in Portugal at the time).

1685: Hanging Judge Jeffreys – The George Inn, Norton St Philip

Over to sleepy Somerset and the gentle undulations of the Mendip Hills south of Bath.

In 1689 this West Country idyll was shattered by the Monmouth Rebellion as James Scott, duke of Monmouth, sought to claim the throne from James II, his uncle.

Monmouth was one of the many illegitimate children of Charles II, in his case by Lucy Walter. Like all of Charles’ children he was acknowledged and given land and titles.

A dashing and courageous soldier, Monmouth spent many years fighting for Louis XIV against the Dutch. At the siege of Maastricht in 1673 he fought alongside the famous musketeer D’Artagnan and a young John Churchill (more on him later).

Immensely popular in England, on the death of his father in 1685 he claimed the crown was his and attempted to depose his uncle. Landing in Dorset in February many locals did flock to his banner but the wider popular support never materialised and he was soundly beaten at the Battle of Sedgemoor in May. Captured a little later in Hampshire he was executed in London that July in a grisly and botched beheading attempt.

Possibly the most famous part of his rebellion now began – the aftermath and with it the introduction of the notorious ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffreys.

James II was not in the mood to be merciful to such early opponents of his reign and the reprisals were severe. Jeffreys travelled around the west and there passed judgment on numerous captured rebels in what become known as the ‘Bloody Assizes’.

The makeshift courts were usually set up in the biggest and most important local building – the pub. The George is just one of several pubs Jeffreys used on his judicial trip, another being The Antelope in Dorchester.

In Norton St Philip Jeffreys hanged 12 rebels and exiled several more. In total, just under 300 men were hanged and another 800-850 transported to the West Indies with many dying en route or soon after arriving because of disease, mistreatment and starvation. Many more were imprisoned and died of typhus while Elizabeth Gaunt has the gruesome distinction of being the last woman burnt at the stake in England for political crimes.

The George, despite its part in this bloody interlude, is worth visiting for more peaceable reasons too; notably that it is one of the country’s oldest taverns having apparently operated as such since the mid-14th century and that it once hosted the famous diarist, Samuel Pepys.

1703: The barmaid eaten by a tiger – The White Lion, Malmesbury

The inquisitive and eagle-eyed among you will have noted this story appear recently on the drinks business.

An intriguing fable, local legend in Malmesbury maintains that a barmaid at the White Lion pub was the first person in Britain eaten by a tiger.

A travelling menagerie stopped for a while in the Wiltshire town in October 1703 and set up their animals for display in the courtyard of the pub.

Hannah Twynnoy, the barmaid in question, spent the next few days provoking the tiger by various means despite a warning from its keeper.

One day the tiger, suitably enraged by the antics of the foolish woman, broke free from its cage and killed her.

Her gravestone still stands in the churchyard but, intriguingly, no mention of her exists in the parish records. A plaque in a nearby village church gave an explanation of her death and was copied down but the plaque itself went missing many years ago.

The pub still exists but is, sadly, no longer a pub having been turned into a private home in the 1960s.

1704: Eugene meets Marlborough – The Sun, Mündelsheim

Mündelsheim on the Neckar – not the Mosel

The little town of Mündelsheim on the Neckar in Baden–Württemberg prides itself on its wine heritage.

Like many other wine-producing towns and villages across the German wine regions the surrounding countryside is covered in vineyards and coupled with the looping oxbows of the Neckar river, at first glance you might be mistaken for thinking you were looking at part of the upper Mosel.

Mündelsheim may not yet have achieved the viticultural fame of the Mosel or Rheingau but its local ‘gasthaus’ has another claim to fame.

The Sun inn near the centre of the town (and standing to this day) was where one of the greatest pairings of military minds occurred on 10 June 1704.

The generals in question were Sir John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene of Savoy.

The two generals had come together to link their two armies and counter a French advance on Vienna, which threatened to knock Austria out of the War of the Spanish Succession.

The sign outside the “Sönne” gasthaus where Marlborough and Eugene met

Thus united they marched on the now rapidly retreating Franco-Bavarian army and decisively defeated it at the Battle of Blenheim.

They would go on to record other famous victories at Oudenaarde and Malplaquet becoming two of the most famous and celebrated commanders of their age.

Their first great victory at Blenheim made both it and Marlborough household names in Britain and we know which wine-producing region in New Zealand was named after it don’t we?

1876: Dead man’s hand – Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon, Deadwood

The town of Deadwood in Dakota Territory was about as dead-on an archetype for a Wild West town as one could wish for.

Its founding was the basis for a particularly excellent HBO series some years back, cruelly cut short in its prime – which was somewhat appropriate given some of the things that went on there.

A gold rush town, the early days of Deadwood are dominated by competing saloon and brothel keepers, prospectors, shootouts, the threat of Indian attack and lack of any visible law enforcement presence.

It was also the place where one of the west’s great legends got shot.

An incorrigible gambler and quick shooter, Wild Bill Hickok (pictured) arrived in Deadwood in July 1876 and despite a vague idea to do some gold prospecting in the surrounding hills, quickly took to playing poker at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon.

On 1 August he beat a player called Jack McCall but returned some of the money and advised him to buy something to eat with it.

McCall, apparently drunk, may have taken this as an insult and the next day returned to the saloon where Hickok was now a regular and, at point blank range, shot Hickok through the back of the head.

Famously, Hickok had his back to the door which was unusual. He always liked to sit with his back to a wall to prevent any potential enemies from sneaking up behind him, which, ultimately, proved to be the case. The four cards he was holding, black aces and eights, has become known as the “dead man’s hand”.

McCall was originally acquitted of the murder but went around bragging about it including in places such as neighbouring Wyoming where the rule of law had greater reach. Authorities there ruled that as Deadwood had no constitutional courts it had no right to acquit McCall. he was tried again and hanged in March 1877.

The old bar building still exists on Deadwood’s Lower Main Street and has served as both a bar and clothing store over the years and is now an antiques and souvenir shop.

1923: The Beer Hall Putsch – Bürgerbräukeller, Munich

Weimar Germany was a hotbed of political strife and agitation. The end of the First World War caused huge turmoil in Germany which experienced a short but bloody civil war known as the ‘Spartacist uprising’ followed by hyperinflation and its accompanying instability.

Germany, recently made a republic by the abdication of the Kaiser, had a burgeoning communist party and an equally strong nationalist party all of which attracted more and more supporters in this febrile atmosphere, as Germans sought an answer and solution to the political, social and economic upheaval their country was experiencing.

Even if they did not adhere to one side or the other, the issues of the day were the hot topics in bars and cafés across the country. Munich’s beer halls in particular were popular places for socilaising and engaging in political debate and one of the largest and most famous was the Bürgerbräukeller.

In November 1923 the hall was the scene of the failed seizure of power by Adolf Hitler and his nascent Nazi party.

While Bavarian state commissioner Gustav von Kahr was making a speech in the hall one evening, in marched Hitler at the head of some of his SA men and declared the place was surrounded. At the same time, old general Erich von Ludendorff moved his ‘freikorp’ out of another nearby beer hall, the ‘Löwenbraukeller’, to seize important buildings across the city.

The aim of the coup or ‘putsch’ was to seize power in Bavaria and then use it as a base before a final march on Berlin where Hitler and Ludendorff would seize power and ‘save’ Germany from the communists.

Staying in the beer hall overnight, the next day the plotters realised their coup was going nowhere. In a bid to rouse the city to their cause they marched on the Defence Ministry but there ran into 130 soldiers and policeman who refused to give way to the 2,000 SA men Hitler had at his back. The two groups began shooting and the Nazis came off worse. Sixteen of them were killed and Hitler and Hermann Göring were wounded. The rest of Hitler’s men scattered and Hitler himself was imprisoned. Unfortunately, this was not the end of the matter with consequences for both Germany and the world that are well-remembered.

Hitler returned to the Bürgerbräukeller in 1938 on the anniversary of the putsch but left the rally early thereby missing a huge bomb meant for him and which killed eight people instead.

Reopened as a beer cellar after the war the site was demolished in 1978 and is now occupied by the Gasteig Cultutral Centre and Hilton Hotel.

1953: The secret of life – The Eagle, Cambridge

On 28 February 1953 staff of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, having their lunch in the popular ‘Eagle’ pub were rudely interrupted by Francis Crick who walked in and declared: “We have found the secret of life.”

The “we” in this declaration was his collaborator and later fellow Nobel prize winner, James Watson, and the “secret” was the double helix structure of DNA.

The pair had cracked a mystery that many eminent scientists had been struggling with for decades. The concept of DNA and its role in carrying genes from one generation to the next had been understood and accepted since the Second World War but no one had any clue as to its molecular structure and how it was able to perform its job.

Watson and Crick’s, like many other scientists, worked on a model of what they thought DNA might look like but had no way of knowing if it was correct.

Up in London, a team of researchers at King’s College had been experimenting with x-ray chyrstallography and one of them, Rosalind Franklin, had managed to capture a diffraction pattern from crystalline DNA showing a clear cross pattern as Watson and Crick had postulated.

Maurice Wilkins let Watson see the image and, like that, the pair knew they had cracked it. So they went for lunch in the pub to celebrate.

In his book ‘The Double Helix’, Watson remembered that: “At lunch Francis [Crick] winged into the Eagle to tell everyone within hearing distance that we had found the secret of life”.

Crick was hazier on the exact details, particularly as to what he said, writing in his own memoirs, ‘What Mad Pursuit‘, he had “no recollection” of his declaration.

On the 50th anniversary of the discovery Watson told the BBC: “When we saw the answer we had to pinch ourselves. Could it really be this pretty? When we went to lunch [at the Eagle] we realised it probably was true because it was so pretty.”

1963: Plotting a robbery – The Star, Belgravia

A nice, quiet little pub in a mews just off Belgrave Square, The Star was (and we’ll throw in a ‘so they say’ here just to be careful) one of the meeting places of the gang that pulled off the Great Train Robbery.

During the 1950s and ’60s the pub had an eclectic clientele of gangsters, actors and actresses, the occasional disgraced maharaja and as well as the famous heist was the occasional meeting place of John Profumo and Christine Keeler whose affair caused a major scandal.

Access to the upper floors of the pub was strictly controlled by the then-landlord, Paddy Kennedy, and as such was a secure place for the gang’s chief planners to meet.

As the Star’s explains: “Reynolds, who co-ordinated the robbery, regularly drove his Aston Martin from his Streatham home to meet Edwards and one or two other members of the gang in The Star to go over details during the run-up to the robbery.

“Four was the maximum number to meet in public at any one time, in case the police were observing them. Reynolds’ friend, Terry Hogan, introduced him to The Star following the Eastcastle Street mailbag robbery of 1952 in which they both took part. Reynolds felt he’d broken through into the upper echelons of the criminal fraternity… here in The Star.”

The resulting robbery on 8 August saw the gang net £2.4 million (over £40m today) in what was and still is one of the biggest and most spectacular crimes in British history.

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