Men of Harlech and the Rise of a New Wales?:
By the Spring of 1404, Owain Glyn Dwr had all but gained control of the whole of Wales. The one castle which eluded capture was Harlech. Both strategically and spiritually it was the most important, the key to the gateway in and out of Snowdonia. Once Harlech was theirs, the rebels could truly claim to be in control of the whole of Wales. Harlech was protected on two sides by the sea and by two-metre thick concentric curtain walls, with a barbican gatehouse, almost impossible to take by storm. Owain’s French allies came to his aid with an army of 2,500 men and artillery, especially trebuchets. With these, he laid siege to the castle, while the French stopped any supplies reaching the defenders by sea. After three months of constant bombardment, and with only twenty survivors left inside, Harlech is thought to have fallen on St George’s Day, 23 April 1404. In the Great Hall, Glyn Dwr declared Welsh independence, called his first Welsh Parliament to meet at Machynlleth, and began to establish a fully independent Welsh Church. He even began to plan a full-scale invasion of England, together with Mortimer and Northumberland.
With the capture of Harlech, and certainly by the end of 1404, Glyn Dwr had effectively driven the English out of the whole of Wales. With the military campaigns at an end, he maintained popular momentum by putting an end to feudal payments to the lords and the crown; they could raise enough money from the parliaments they called, attended by delegates from all over Wales – the first and (so far) last Welsh parliaments in Welsh history with the power to raise taxes. From the gentry came Owain’s best leaders like Rhys Gethin and the Tudor brothers, from the clergy came intellectuals who charged his principality with principle. From the ordinary people by the thousand came a loyalty which had enabled him to lead a divided people one-twelfth the size of the English against a dozen royal armies. It was at once an undeniable fact, which became both a myth and a legend, as Gwyn Williams remarked, that..
Owain Glyn Dwr was one Welsh prince who was never betrayed by his own people, not even in the darkest days when many of them could have saved their skins by doing so. There is no parallel in the history of the Welsh.
Glyn Dwr now had a base at Harlech, and a staff of civil servants and diplomats, with contacts in Rome, Avignon, Burgos and Paris. In 1404 he concluded an alliance with France. There was a takeover by professional ‘courtiers’ such that his correspondence became weighty and official. Having summoned his parliament to Machynlleth, in the heart of liberated country, in the shape of four men from every commote in Wales, he required of them to raise money, ratify an alliance with France, the key to survival, and to witness his formal coronation in the presence of envoys from France, Scotland and Castile. He was now Owain, by the grace of God, Prince of Wales, with a great seal and a privy seal, showing a figure with a slightly forked beard, seated and crowned with orb and sceptre. His envoys to France were Gruffudd Young and John Hanmer. A French fleet of sixty ships sailed, but dispersed their efforts along the southern coasts of England.
The following February, Glyn Dwr drew up a tripartite agreement with Sir Edmund Mortimer and the earl of Northumberland, whereby England and Wales were to be divided between the three leaders. Interestingly, Sir Edmund had by this time abandoned the fiction that he was acting on behalf of his nephew, and claimed the English crown for himself. In addition, Mortimer would control the south of England, Percy the north and Glyn Dwr a Wales which would run from the Mersey to the Severn, taking in great tracts of the West Midlands, with a frontier deliberately drawn to include the Six Ashes on the Bridgnorth Road where Merlin had prophesied the Great Eagle would rally the Welsh warriors for the day of deliverance. A second parliament was summoned, this time to Harlech, and this funded an army of ten thousand men to support a rising in the north of England and a small French army of about two thousand men which landed at Milford Haven, forced the (English)men of south Pembrokeshire to buy their peace and marched with the Welsh in a triumphal progress across south Wales to pause at Worcester.
Meanwhile, in England, the close involvement of Sir Edmund in these treasonable conspiracies to invade had repercussions for his nephew, who, with his brother, was still in royal custody. The situation became grave in February 1405, when Lady Despencer, the mistress of Edmund of Langley, the boys’ other uncle, arranged for their abduction from Windsor. It was intended that the boys be taken to Lady Despencer’s estates in south Wales, possibly to become figureheads for the invasion, but they were recaptured at Cheltenham and placed under closer guard.
By this time, the tide was also beginning to turn against Henry’s enemies in both Scotland and France. The allies could get no further and withdrew, with many of the French returning home. Yet in 1406 came the glittering climax for the new Welsh nation and its prince. In return for their support, the French had required the Welsh to transfer their allegiance to the Pope at Avignon. In response, the Welsh required Avignon to recognise the newly created independent Welsh Church. At a great Synod near Machynlleth that Church adopted a sweeping policy designed not just to restore to the new Wales its own form of Catholicism, independent of Rome, but also to re-establish it its own bureaucracy and intelligentsia. The Welsh Church was to be free of Canterbury, with its own metropolitan Archbishopric at St. David’s exercising control over the western English diocese of the Tripartite Indenture as well. Welsh clerics were to be Welsh-speaking, Welsh Church revenues were to be devoted to Welsh needs and two universities were to be created, one in the north and another in the south, to train Welshmen in the service of the new Wales.
But, in the cold light of where real power lay, all this was illusion. The ground beneath the insurrection had already begun to give way. During 1406 Gower, parts of the Tywi valley and Ceredigion crumbled, while Anglesey made its own peace with the king. The Mortimer boys also remained tightly under the control of the English king. In 1406 they were placed in the custody of Richard, Lord Grey of Codnor, and in 1409 made wards of the ‘rightful’ Prince of Wales, Hal, later Henry V. In the same year, Roger, the younger of the two boys died, and Sir Edmund was killed at Harlech, when the castle was retaken for the crown as one of the last outposts of Welsh resistance.
By 1406, the armies of Henry IV had also begun to gain the upper hand in the war in the March. It was the Monmouth-born Prince Hal who had finally begun to recover the marcher lands lost to the Welsh. As Bolingbroke, his father had held extensive lands in the March, acquiring Brecon and Hay by marriage to Mary de Bohun, heiress to the earl of Hereford, and Monmouth, Kidwelly and Iscennen in south Wales which he had inherited from his father. These holdings were what enabled him to strike at the heart of Richard II’s power and popularity in Wales and the March. As a fifteen-year-old, Prince Hal had been injured in the face fighting the Welsh in 1403, and returned with a vengeance in 1405, at first storming through Wales, re-taking towns and villages, but then slowly and deliberately taking back the castles one at a time, re-garrisoning them before moving on to the next objective. He won his first major victory at Usk, where he captured three hundred of Glyn Dwr’s men, slaughtering them all. He also imprisoned Owain’s son Gruffudd, sending him to the Tower of London, where he was tortured mercilessly. Welsh nobles and gentry were publicly executed and parts of their bodies were displayed across Wales as a deterrence. During 1407, the Welsh maintained their position but were now fighting against the odds as resistance in Scotland slackened and France slithered into internal conflict. The royal armies carted great guns from Yorkshire through Bristol in order to mount the final sieges, though Aberystwyth under Rhys the Black beat off a fierce attack. Henry, now strongly Roman Catholic and seeking European help against the Welsh, was able to expel Glyn Dwr’s appointments from St Asaph’s and St David’s.
In 1408 Aberystwyth finally fell, and only Harlech Castle still stood against the English, who had reconquered the rest of the country. In July, a thousand of Hal’s men arrived at its walls, ready to lay siege to it. Cannons were used, almost for the first time, but however hard they pounded, the inner walls never collapsed. In February 1409, it was still going strong, disease and starvation having killed off most of the men inside. When they finally gave up the castle due to starvation, Owain was nowhere to be found. Legend has it that he had slipped out of the castle at night before the siege ended, though his family were captured and sent to the Tower. The last of his northern allies had again been cut down. The Welsh nation, established and visible for four years, vanished back into the woods. Glyn Dwr himself headed for the hills, once more an outlaw. Together with his other son Maredudd and a handful of his best captains, and a handful of Scots and French, Owain was at large throughout 1409, devastating wherever he went; at the end of the year the officers of the north-eastern March were ordered to stop making truces with him. His last big raid came in 1410, when his raiding party swooped into Shropshire, which in 1402 had made its own peace with ‘the land of Wales’. They were beaten back, and Rhys the Black, Philip Scudamore and Rhys Tudor were executed. After that, wrote a chronicler, Glyn Dwr made no great attack. The last direct reference to him was made in 1412, when he led a successful ambush of an English force at Brecon, taking their leader, Davey Gam, captive. Gruffudd Young carried on the fight, and the campaign for the Welsh Church, a little longer, but the Welsh war of independence was effectively over.
No one knows what happened to Glyn Dwr. He simply vanished once more. One suggestion is that he spent his last days in Herefordshire’s ‘Golden Valley’ (Cwm Dwr in Welsh, mistaken for d’or in French), sheltered by his son-in-law John Scudamore. Henry V, the new Welsh-born English king, who had taken Owain’s remaining son into his service, twice offered the rebel leader a pardon, but the old man was too proud to accept. After the death of Sir Edmund in the English siege of Harlech in 1409, Lady Mortimer and her daughters were taken to London and were apparently all dead by 1413. Although there is no evidence to suggest that there was any compliance by the young earl in the treason conducted by his uncle in his name, his position remained difficult, as his claim to the throne of England was strong. There was a real threat of conspiracy to place him on the throne after the death of Henry IV in 1413. The young Henry V therefore showed great magnanimity, and not a little political skill, when in June 1413 he released Edmund from captivity and returned his estates to him. The king was rewarded for this when another conspiracy to place Edmund on the throne was revealed to the king by his former charge. When Henry V embarked for Normandy in August 1415 he was accompanied by Edmund Mortimer, whose retinue included 160 mounted archers. He was active in the siege of Harfleur, but contracted dysentery and was forced to return home, leaving his troops take part in the epic ‘English’ victory of 25 October. In 1417 Henry V mounted a second expedition with the serious intention of conquering Normandy. Edmund again took part with a force of a hundred lancers and three hundred archers. The success of his troops led to Edmund’s appointment as the king’s lieutenant in Normandy.
In the traumatic fifteen years of 1398 to 1413, Wales had been propelled not only into a war of national liberation within itself but into a civil war stretching into England as well. Gwyn Williams assessed its significance in the following terms:
The whole complex of contradictory and often unpleasant attitudes which had characterised Welsh political life since the tenth century assumed permanent and painful form in the minds of most Welsh people. Half-suppressed, for in modern Wales and particularly among people of substance, Owain is still something of an outlaw prince, it has helped to make the Welsh the peculiarly schizophrenic people we are.
Since 1410 most Welsh people most of the time have abandoned any idea of independence as unthinkable. But since 1410 most Welsh people, at some time or other, if only in some secret corner of the mind, have been ‘out with Owain and his barefoot scrubs’. For the Welsh mind is still haunted by its lightning-flash vision of a people that was free.
If we are to view Owain Glyn Dwr as an unsung hero of Welsh history, we must also admit that, ultimately, he was a heroic failure. In this context, we need to ask why and how, forgotten until the late eighteenth century, he could be hailed first as a romantic hero and then in the nineteenth century as a founding father of Welsh nationalism. As Dai Smith has pointed out,
He justified his revolt against the English Crown by reference to rights enjoyed in the past when the Welsh were the original British. He called on ancient genealogies to prove his claim to be Prince of Wales. The fifteen-year struggle did have an anti-English tap-root in a time of severe dislocation, but the revolt was sparked by a personal grievance, fed on the uncertainties of English civil strife, and was never a popular uprising.
Glyn Dwr led a group of patricians with a similar list of grievances which they were intent on settling. He may have had a consciousness of all of Wales in the way that fifteenth-century Europe was beginning to nurture nation-states, and this concept was supported by the clerks and gentlemen who added him in his plans for a Welsh ‘parliament’ at Machynlleth and a Welsh ‘university’ to service the rule. He was, though, not averse to including chunks of English territory and English-speakers in his Wales, and his revolt was more a regional conflagration than a national war for ‘independence’.
On the whole, Dai Smith’s assessment of the significance of the Glyn Dwr rebellion seems to be more convincing to me, in that it assesses the narrative of events against the backcloth of the dynastic struggles of the English kings and the Marcher lords. There is certainly room in this narrative for both the contemporary myths and the lasting legends surrounding the enigmatic leader of the rebellion, which turned into both a civil war and a national war of independence, but that is not the same as mythologising him as a founder or a forerunner of modern Welsh nationalism.
Charles Hopkinson & Martin Speight (2011), The Mortimers: Lords of the March. Herefords: Logaston Press.
Gwyn A. Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales? Hemel Hempstead: George Allen & Unwin.
Dancing with the Devil Himself:
Had Horthy decided to do his little dance with Hitler before the Italians pulled out, there might have been a small chance that Hitler would have overlooked his effrontery in attempting to pull Hungary out of the war. In the early Spring of 1944, Edmund Veesenmayer, Hitler’s envoy to Budapest had been reporting that, at best, Hungary was a hesitant and unreliable ally. At worst, Hungary was a liability. At seventy-six, the Regent was befuddled by age, and would have to be swept aside. Prime Minister Kállay had made the mistake of his predecessors in thinking that the Russians were the greater threat to Hungarian independence. Veesenmayer was made Reich plenipotentiary, and Hungary ceased, in effect, to be an independent country. Jewish matters would be administered by the SS, two detachments of which soon arrived in Budapest. Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann’s special unit arrived in the capital a few days later. Himmler had already decided to do away with the services of the Abwehr intelligence network, and to absorb it into the SS and the Security Service.
Before his arrest, the Abwehr leader, Winninger did however suggest to Brand and Kasztner that money and valuables might prove to be useful in dealing with the SS, in exchange for something of no value to them: Jewish lives. That was the first suggestion of what became known as the blood for goods deal. Despite what the Abwehr men had said, however, a Jewish community meeting at Samuel Stern’s house concluded that the Reich had greater problems than the Jews. They refused to accept that Hitler and Himmler had already ordered the liquidation of the Jews of Hungary, the last large Jewish population left in central Europe.
Above: Dohányi Street Synagogue
As long as Horthy was still in power, Stern believed, they would still be safe.The Hungarians would not abandon their Jewish citizens. We have lived here for a thousand years, he reminded his friends. Hungarian Jews were fully integrated at all levels of society, especially in manufacturing and commerce, the legal and medical professions, teaching, musical life and the media. Tom’s grandfather, Ármin Leimdörfer (Dádi) had been an officer in the imperial army in the First World War, serving in Serbia, as had many Jews. Nearly twenty per cent of Budapest was Jewish and even the aristocracy and the senior government figures had inter-married and had some Jewish relatives. There was also the poor Jewish quarter in Pest. It was true that these Jews had been prominent (along with other socialists) in the communist revolution of 1919, which had been crushed. There had been no further association with revolutionary violence, but these fears were easy to stoke up by home-grown fascists. The government under Regent Horthy was reluctant to agree to full-scale deportations, but was in no position to resist. Rezső Kasztner described the situation which existed from 19 April onwards:
From now on, the Gestapo ruled unhindered. They spied on the government, arrested every Hungarian who did not suit them, no matter how high their position and, by their presence, instilled fear into those who would have attempted to save the remnants of Hungarian sovereignty or protest against German orders. Concerning the Jewish question, the supreme, the absolute and the unfettered will of the monster ruled… the head of the Jewish command, Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann.
Sam Springmann was one of the first to ‘disappear’. He had known that he would be high up on the list since, as he told Kasztner, they have me both ways. I am Polish and I am a Jew. Reviving the Europa Plan seemed the only hope now that the German Eagle had landed. Regent Horthy, whose train had been held up near Vienna while the Germans occupied Hungary, announced a new government under the protection of the Reich. Döme Sztójay was named PM. A devout follower of National Socialism, he was a vocal anti-Semite who had been Hungary’s minister in Berlin, where he had formed close relationships with several high-ranking Nazis. German cars sped like angry wasps from street to street, their back seats occupied by machine-gun-wielding SS men. They stopped in front of houses and apartment blocks, dragged people from their homes and took them to the Buda jail or to the Astoria Hotel. Not long before, there had been spring dances in the ballroom of the stately hotel; now the Gestapo had taken over all the floors. Prisoners were held in the basement, their piercing screams keeping pedestrians from the nearby pavements for more than a year following.
On 20 March, Wisliceny called a meeting of representatives of the entire Jewish community at which he instructed them to establish a council whose orders would be obeyed, with no questions asked, by all Jews in the country, not just in the capital. As a first task, the new council had to invite Jewish leaders from across the country to an information meeting to be held on 28 March. The Budapest Jewish leaders were impressed with the respect shown to them by the gentlemanly SS officers. Their job, unbeknown to the assembled Jewish leaders, was to annihilate every one of them as well as all the other Jews in Hungary. They simply wanted to achieve it as calmly and cleanly as possible, without the unpleasantness of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The means to do this lay with the Jewish Council. Despite this plan, more than ten thousand people were arrested during the following week, about a third of them Jewish. Their valuables, including furniture and paintings, were then put into trucks and transported to Germany. The prisoners were beaten, deprived of sleep and tortured.
On 22 March, PM Sztójay informed the government that Dr Veesenmayer had insisted that Jews throughout the country wear a distinguishing yellow star. Regent Horthy asked that, in future, such “requests” should not be made to him. He told Samuel Stern that his hands were tied and that Veesenmayer had told him that, in future, he would be excluded from all political decisions. He had held out for far too long on the Jewish question. The order went into effect on 5 April. Members of the Council were exempted, together with war invalids and heroes, and those who had converted to Christianity before 1 August 1919. But on 31 March, after a meeting with Adolf Eichmann, the Jewish leaders were stunned by several new decrees regarding Hungarian Jews: they could no longer work as lawyers, journalists, or public servants, or in the theatrical and film arts; they were not allowed to own motor vehicles or to drive them, even if they belonged to someone else. Nor could they own motorbikes or bicycles. They also had to hand in their radios and telephones and all were now expected to wear yellow stars.
On the morning of 3 April, British and American aircraft bombed Budapest for the first time since the beginning of the war. In response, the Hungarian security police demanded that the Jewish Council provide five hundred apartments for Christians who had been affected by the raid. Those Jews moving out of their homes were to be concentrated in apartment buildings in an area between the National Theatre and the Dohány Street synagogue. The following day, 4 April, László Baky and Lieutenant-Colonel László Ferenczy of the gendarmerie met to firm up plans for the ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews of Hungary. All Jews, irrespective of age, sex or illness, were to be concentrated into ghettos and schedules were to be would be set for their deportation to Poland. The few people who were still employed in armaments production or in the mines were temporarily spared, but only until suitable replacements could be found for them. Each regional office would be responsible for its own actions. The “rounding up” of the Jews was to be carried out by the local police and the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie units. If necessary, the police would assist the gendarmerie in urban districts by providing armed help. It took until 16 April for the full directive and extensive explanations to be typed in multiple copies and sent to local authorities, but the ghettoisation had already begun on 7 April. The orders were marked “secret” and bore the signature of László Baky. He declared:
The Royal Hungarian government will cleanse the country of Jews within a short time. I hereby order the cleansing to be conducted district by district. Jews are to be taken to designated collection camps regardless of gender and age
This was the basis on which the Hungarian government agreed that the Gestapo could organise the removal of the roughly 450,000 Jews from the provinces, but not the 200,000 from Budapest. It was Adolf Eichmann’s task to organise the liquidation of Hungarian Jews. Between 7 April 1944 and 8 July 1944, we know (from the meticulous records kept) that 437,402 men, women and children of all ages were forced to leave their homes, first herded in to ‘collection camps’ or ghettos and then transported to Auschwitz. They were transported in 148 long trains of cattle wagons. Few survived, and of those who did, even fewer returned to their former homes. Once gathered in the collection camps, they were effectively doomed to annihilation, even before they boarded the trains. My wife’s mother avoided deportation herself because, although she had both a Jewish father and step-father, Imre Rosenthal, she was illegitimate and adopted, so there was no proof of her Jewish parentage. As a sixteen year-old, she remembers a Jewish family from the same apartment block in Békescsaba being taken to the detention camp. Some days later her mother made some stew for them and asked her to take it to them, as the camp was not far from the centre of the town. When she approached the guard, a Hungarian gendarme, at the gate to the compound, he raised his machine-gun and threatened to shoot her. She immediately knew this was no bluff, and never tried to make contact with the family again. The story underlines the futility of resistance to the almost overnight operation which was put into effect across the Hungarian countryside.
Tom Leimdörfer’s Breuer great grandparents were spared the ordeal. They both died the year before and their daughter, Zelma cared for them in their last months. Tom’s grandfather Aladár spent much of his time on his allotment just outside the town, where he also kept bees, enjoying the simple life in retirement. Tom’s mother told him that we visited them in the early spring of 1944, when he was 18 months old, just a few weeks before they were taken. The story of the lively Jewish community in Szécsény was told by the photographer Irén Ács in a moving account and photos of her friends and family. She also survived in Budapest, but nearly all her friends and family perished. Early in May, the Jews of Szécsény were ordered to leave their homes and belongings apart from a small case with a change of clothes and essentials. They were restricted to a ghetto of a few houses near the school. On the 10 June 1944, they were taken under special forces’ escort to the county town of Balassagyarmat, some 20 km away. There were no Germans in Szécsény, the whole operation was carried out by Hungarian special forces. In Balassagyarmat, the Germans supervised the loading of the wagons from the whole region with ruthless efficiency. By nightfall, the long train of cattle wagons carrying over 2,500 men, women and children were on their way to Auschwitz. Tom is in no doubt that his grandparents would have been taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. The memorial in the Jewish cemetery of Szécsény has 303 names of those killed in the holocaust from that town of around 6,000 people. A similar fate befell villages across Hungary, where there was no time for any reaction, let alone organised resistance, by the Jewish families or their Christian neighbours. I have recently documented the recollections of the people of Apostag, and these appear in an article elsewhere on this site. The large village, roughly the same size as Szécsény, lost all of its six hundred Jews in one afternoon, transported on their own carts to Kalocsa, with their neighbours watching from the woods. Two weeks later, they were taken in cattle trucks from Kalocsa to Auschwitz.
The deportations soon became common knowledge in Budapest and this terrible news was added to the rumours about the extermination camps. One of Tom’s German relatives, having escaped from Dachau had already given an account of the dreadful nature of the camps. Two Slovak men, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz on 7 April 1944. For a week they travelled at night, avoiding the local residents and hiding in barns or outbuildings during the day. When they reached Bratislava, they contacted the Jewish Council the next day. They told their incredible story, illustrated by drawings of the barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria. They reported on the selection process that sent women and children directly from the trains to be gassed, on the desperate attempts of people to save themselves, on the collection of valuables, and on the systematic disposal of bodies. Only twenty years old, Vrba was already a veteran of the most terrifying place on earth. He felt overwhelmed by the importance of his message to all surviving Jews, particularly the Hungarians: do not board the trains.
The Auschwitz Protocols, as Vrba and Wetzler’s report was labeled by the Bratislava Working Group, was translated into German and English within a fortnight. Then they tried to decide what to do with the information, knowing that anyone caught with the document in the occupied countries would be executed, along with its authors. For this reason, the awful truth about Auschwitz was not fully and widely told until after the war. By the time Tom’s second birthday approached, his mother suspected, but did not know for sure, that she had lost her husband and both her parents.
A significant birthday:
While the dreadful events were unfolding in rural Hungary, the Jews of Budapest were living with increasing fear and repression. All had to wear yellow stars and live in homes marked with a yellow star of David. Tom’s house was marked, so they were allowed to stay at home. His grandfather’s timber business was confiscated; his business partner (Imre Révész) had recognised the signs and emigrated to England just before the war. The warm summer of 1944 was also a summer of allied (mainly RAF) airstrikes. Tom often played outside in their small but secluded front garden. They had a radio and were generally the first to hear the air raid warnings. The bombers normally came from the south and the direction given over the air waves was: ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’. These were amongst Tom’s first words, acting as an air raid warning to people in the flats above us as he ran around naked in the garden shouting ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’! We would then all go down to the cellar, which served as a very inadequate air raid shelter.
Tom’s mother’s brother Bandi had emigrated in 1939 and was in the British Army. He left for a tennis tournament and did not return. He was an illegal immigrant in Britain, sheltered by tennis playing friends, till he had the opportunity to volunteer for the army, change his name to Roy Andrew Fred (R. A. F.) Reynolds and was allowed to stay. The RAF was bombing us, but they were not ‘the enemy’ even though our lives were threatened by them. My father was ‘missing’ on the Russian front, Russian troops were advancing towards Hungary with all the uncertainties and horrors of a siege of Budapest approaching, but they were not our ‘enemy’, but hoped-for liberators. Yet Tom’s maternal grandparents were taken by Hungarian special forces on the orders of the Gestapo with no objection or resistance from their neighbours. Looking back, the ‘enemy’ was war and inhumanity, hatred and anti-Semitism.
There were some signs of hope that summer. Regent Miklós Horthy could no longer stomach the activities of Eichmann. On 29 August he sent word to Edmund Veesenmayer that he had decided there would be no more deportations, at least for the time being. With the transportation of Jews from the provinces completed, there were only the Jews in the capital left. Himmler approved the suspension of deportations and the continuation of negotiations through Kasztner and Brand. Himmler, like the Hungarian government itself, had been thinking of an acceptable way of bringing the war to an end. Once back in his office in Budapest, Kasztner was astonished to learn from Dieter Wisliceny that Eichmann and his unit had been ordered out of Hungary. You have won, the Nazi officer told him, the Sonderkommando is leaving. Eichmann, furious with Himmler’s vacillations, retired to sulk at his estate near Linz. The latter later compensated him with the order of an Iron Cross, Second Class. Kasztner, unlike the members of the Jewish Council, had no faith in Horthy’s protestations that he had been duped into allowing deportations in the first place and even less faith in Himmler’s change of heart. He pressed on with his negotiations for the lives of the remaining Jews of Budapest, Bratislava and Kolozsvár. In the late summer of 1944 a bloody insurrection erupted in Slovakia. A few parachutists from Britain and two Soviet airborne brigades also took part in the uprising, as did some Jewish partisans, including Rudolf Vrba, one of the authors of The Auschwitz Protocols. The uprising failed and led to further reprisals against Bratislava’s Jewish community. In Budapest itself, there was what Kasztner thought of as a brief lull in the terror in the early autumn. Nevertheless, there was a widespread belief that the Germans would pack up and go home. The cafés and restaurants were full, and no-one left even when the sirens sounded.
By mid-October the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts were ready to execute Stalin’s order to take Budapest quickly. Arrow Cross newspapers accused the Jews of signaling bombers from rooftops, directing bombs to specific targets. Raoul Wallenberg had opened the door of the Swedish Embassy and directed his staff to hand out Swedish protection papers to all Jewish applicants. The certificates claimed that the holders were Swedish citizens awaiting exit visas. The number of Jews with official Swedish papers exceeded 4,500 by the end of October, and another three thousand fake Swedish certificates were handed out by the Rescue Committee and its halutz workers. They all waited for permits to leave the country and be allowed into Palestine. The Swiss Red Cross had received over three million Swiss francs from the Jewish ‘Joint’ in the US to pay for food in the protected Star Houses bearing the Swedish colours, and in the Columbus Street camp.
Throughout the period of Géza Lakatos’ premiership, rumours abounded that Horthy was getting ready to exit the war, and that all he needed was an honourable way out. He wanted to sue for peace, but not if that peace included Stalin. The British and the Americans were not interested and insisted that nothing less than unconditional surrender would do. I have written elsewhere on this site about these unsuccessful diplomatic overtures and how Horthy’s insistence on hanging onto his German alliance, however reluctantly, did not help his country’s cause. In final desperation, Horthy sent Lieutenant General Gábor Faragho across the front lines to present Hungary’s case to the Russians. On 11 October, Faragho returned with a draft armistice agreement requiring Hungary to give up, once again, its historic territories in Transylvania, everything he had fought for during his years as head of state. His hesitation gave the Germans the time they needed to prepare a coup.
On Sunday morning, 15 October, Tom Leimdörfer’s second birthday, there were rumours that the Regent’s son had been abducted, together with a general and two senior officers. It was a warm, sunny autumn morning. German planes had dropped leaflets over the city urging a rebellion against the government. Politicians had also been arrested. Hungarian Radio announced that the Regent would make a general proclamation at 1 p.m. In a soft and shaky voice, Horthy gave a long, detailed statement, in which he announced his decision to sign a separate peace treaty with the Allies, that Hungary had withdrawn from the war and had declared that it is returning to its neutral status. All laws relating to the repression of the Jewish population were revoked. The Reich had lost the war and had also broken its obligations to its Hungarian partner when it had occupied the country in March and arrested many Hungarian citizens. He blamed the Gestapo for dealing with the “Jewish problem” in an inhumane way and claimed that his nation had been forced to persecute the Jews. The news spread like wildfire on what was a glorious autumn afternoon: Anna Porter has described the scenes…
…the sun was shining and the trees along the boulevards displayed their startling red, yellow and deep-purple colours as if the horrors of the past few weeks had not happened, as if the houses lining the avenues had not been turned into rubble. People came out of their cellars, put on their best clothes and walked, holding hands and greeting each other as in peacetime. Many Jews who had been in hiding paraded their newfound freedom; some tore the yellow stars off their breasts and ordered shots of pálinka in bars where they used to go, or dared to use a public telephone and take rides on streetcars where the tracks had not yet been bombed..
But the atmosphere of general euphoria did not last long. The Germans had listened into every conversation in the castle, and were not surprised by the attempt to break free. They were aware of the plan to bring two Hungarian regiments into the city, and knew of the arming of the Jewish battalions. German troops and armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of Budapest and set up control points. A further announcement came over the waves: Horthy had been forced to abdicate, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nazi) party has formed a government under its leader Ferenc Szálasi. Hungary was back in the war on the Axis side, and all anti-Jewish legislation was back in force. With the Arrow Cross in charge, the Jews realised that Eichmann would be back to complete their transportation and that random killings would be carried out by the Arrow Cross units themselves. Tom Leimdörfer recalls his family’s fears:
The lives of all of us were in immediate danger. What followed was six months of hell redeemed by some amazing bravery and kindness on the part of some who were willing to risk their lives for us.
Edit Leimdörfer, Tom’s mother, in 1957
Tom continues the family’s story:
By now, my grandparents (Sári and Ármin) and my aunt Juci all lived in our flat. Juci’s husband Gyuri was in a labour camp. He had a dreadful accident there in March 1943 when he fell off a scaffolding. For some time, his life was in the balance, but he recovered albeit with a back injury which gave him much pain for the rest of his life. He was allowed home when he was in plaster recuperating, but was then back again in the forced labour camp outside Budapest. As the family wondered what to do on the evening of my eventful second birthday, Dr. Groh arrived. A kindly medical consultant, he was one of my grandfather’s customers who became a friend. He was a Roman Catholic who was appalled by the treatment of Jews and by the apparent acquiescence of his church. He said we were in danger and should leave our home immediately as Jews were being herded from ‘marked’ houses to designated ghettos. He insisted that we should all (15 of us!) go into hiding with his family even though that risked their lives
Dr.Groh and his wife had six children. They made a room available for us and kept its shutters closed. For the next eight days we huddled together in that room, joining the family when there was nobody around who might report our presence. With Arrow Cross gangs and police raids everywhere, this was not a safe hiding place and the Groh family were at great risk. In spite of their protests, we crept back to our home one night to pick up some essentials and left for different destinations. Soon after we left, an Allied air raid hit the Groh’s house and tragically one of their daughters was killed. The room where we had been hiding was a pile of rubble.
My mother and I first headed across the Danube to the Pest side, to a house protected by the Swedish Embassy, where Feri bácsi and Manci néni (my grandparents younger siblings) were already staying. The Swiss and Swedish embassies as well as some churches had tried to set up ‘protected houses’ outside the overcrowded main Jewish ghettos. These were not always ‘safe’ as the Arrow Cross raids were unpredictable and (depending on the particular gang commander) would carry out atrocities without respect for any foreign diplomacy or even orders from their own Nazi puppet government, with its very thin veneer of legality. There were no more trains for Auschwitz, but there were the ‘death marches’ towards Austria organised by Eichmann as well as the random Arrow Cross raids. Diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg did all they could to thwart the murderous onslaught by distributing Swedish and Swiss passports and demanding safety for their ‘citizens’, by declaring houses as being under their protection and by threatening allied retribution after the war. With the Russian army advancing, this had some effect.
One Arrow Cross raid resulted in tragic losses for our wider family. On Christmas Day 1944, six members of the family were marched to the banks of the Danube and shot into the river. This included my grandmother’s sister Erzsi, her husband and son as well as three members of Juci’s husband Gyuri’s family. Gyuri’s mother (Ilonka néni) had a miraculous escape. The shots missed her, she jumped into the freezing cold water and managed to swim far enough downstream to clamber ashore unseen. It was a compassionate policeman who found her shivering and took her along to the Swiss embassy.
My mother followed her instincts as she balanced risks in those desperate weeks as she moved between places of hiding. When she ventured out she did not wear the compulsory yellow star, gambling on her Aryan looks and her false identity documents with no trace of Jewish origin and using her hungarianised maiden name of Lakatos. She told me she had a narrow scrape on one occasion when she was stopped and interrogated and the papers were carefully examined. Even though my mother was a devout Jewess, I was not circumcised precisely because my mother could foresee the possibility of having to negotiate checkpoints. On this occasion, my genitals were part of the ‘proof’ that we were not Jewish.
For a while, my mother joined Juci and others at a flat provided by Emil and Mary Hajós, which was like a crowded refugee camp. Gyuri (Juci’s husband) managed to get away from the labour camp as a result of Sári mama’s brave and brazen ingenuity and the use of more forged documents. Emil and Mary were friends of the family. They were a Jewish couple who became Christians and worked for a Presbyterian (Calvinist) mission known as ‘Jó Pásztor (Good Shepherd)’, helping to shelter Jews and at the same time-sharing their newfound Christian faith. Their bravery, kindness and fervour had a great influence. Juci first, then Gyuri embraced Christianity during those times of crisis and Edit, my mother, gradually moved in that direction. While my father’s family were secular Jews (observing the festivals but not much else), my mother was brought up as an observing, though not orthodox, Jewess. Unlike Juci and Gyuri, she did not get baptised till much later. She did not wish to change her religion while still hoping for my father to return.
Day by day, the dangers shifted. By January, the siege of Budapest was in full swing. As the threats from the Arrow Cross and the Gestapo reduced, the danger of being killed by shelling increased. We huddled together crowded in cellars, hardly venturing out to try to get whatever food we could. At least the freezing temperatures helped to preserve any perishable supplies. I am told that I provided some welcome entertainment in those desperate days. Amidst the deafening noise of artillery, I appeared to display premature military knowledge by declaiming: ‘This is shelling in!’ or ‘This is shelling out!’
Budapest was liberated by Russian troops on the 26 February. Those days were a mixed experience for the population as a whole depending on contact with the actual units. There were instances of rape and other atrocities, but also acts of kindness. The soldiers who found us were keen on acquiring watches. When some were handed over, they became all smiles and one of them gave me a piece of chocolate.
Gradually the remains of the family found each other and counted the loss. Altogether sixteen members of our wider family were killed in the holocaust by one means or another. Those of us who remained started to put our lives together. Our flat was intact, but empty. Gradually, some items of furniture and possessions were returned by neighbours who said they kept them ‘safe’ in case we came back. There was much that was not returned. Amidst all the tragedy of war and losses I could not guess at or comprehend, I knew that I had lost my lovely large panda bear. Whatever happened to it, my mother told me ‘it was taken by the Germans’. On more mature reflection this was unlikely, but for years I had the image of German troops retreating, blowing up all the bridges over the Danube (which they did) taking with them priceless treasures (which they did) and worst of all – my panda. Perhaps my panda was for my mother just one symbol for her happiness – ‘taken by the Germans’.
By contrast, Tom recalls the happier times he experienced as a young child growing up in Budapest after the war:
Paradoxically, my early memories of the post war years were mostly happy. Children can be very resilient. The love and care I received soon healed the scars left by the horrors. The remnants of the family became very close-knit. I was the first of my generation in the family on my grandmother’s side. One small baby second cousin was separated from her parents during an Arrow Cross raid and tragically starved to death. On my grandfather’s side, my second cousin Éva survived but lost her father and three of her grandparents. She is two years older than me and we had great fun playing ‘hide and seek’ on the monthly ‘family days’ while the adults discussed the latest political turn of events and sorted out how help could be given to anyone in the family who was in need.
Tom with second cousin Kati at New Year, 1946?
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable (2008).
Aftermath: Autumn into Winter…
1-3 December: To flee or not to flee?…
For the recently extended family of Tom Leimdörfer, the first few days of December were totally surreal. Fourteen-year-old Tom, his mother Edit, Gyuri Schustek and his two children, Ferkó (16) and Marika (12) had already taken the decision to leave their homes in Budapest and to flee Hungary, following the onset of the Soviet repression. They were in a state of suspended animation in which the various experiences of excitement, planning, doubt and fear abounded. Were they too late to escape? News of the first waves of arrests at the border reached them as the border guard units were reconstituted. There was plenty of news of arrests as well as rumours of executions, as the Kádár regime asserted its authority, but the dominant feeling was one of uncertainty: Were the phones being tapped again? Had the secret police been re-established to a degree that they could be under surveillance?
Tom had been the only one of the family of five to take part in the revolutionary demonstrations of 23 October, and it was unlikely that anyone had noticed his spontaneous action in leaving their city centre flat that afternoon to join the mass crowds in the square outside Parliament. The police forces seemed only to be after known prominent figures. Getting caught while trying to flee, however, would certainly put them under suspicion, especially since Gyuri Schustek already had a prison record. In addition, many fourteen-year-olds had already been detained and questioned about their roles in the street demonstrations and fighting which had taken place from the 23rd to mid-November.
Both the contemporary and potential intellectual leaders and other icons were over-represented among those fleeing the country, and included the poet György Faludy, a distant relative of the Leimdörfers, who had spent time in the Rákosi era working in stone quarries and later recorded his experience in the book My Happy Days in Hell, and the pianist György Cziffra. Among the figures who stayed and received sentences were the writers István Bibó, Tibór Déry, Zoltán Zelk, Gyula Háy and the writer, translator (of Tolkien) and post-1989 Head of State Árpád Göncz, as well as the historian Domokos Kosáry. Of course, it is impossible to enumerate those who were removed from their jobs as punishment or in order to narrow their sphere of intercourse and influence.
With all its horror, however, Kádár’s ‘terror’ was not of the Stalinist kind in which Rákosi indulged. While it was an act of arbitrary power, its victims were not selected in any arbitrary manner and it did not collectively punish whole social groups in the name of some general political strategy, but aimed, on the basis of very specific political calculation and selectivity, at individuals who had proved to be, or were considered to be, dangerous to the Kádár régime. Almost from the beginning, the usurper’s isolation of this active minority through administrative and police measures were not pursued with any great consistency.
Naturally, those choosing to flee the country in the winter of 1956-7 were not in a position to make this judgement or take the risk. Domokos Szent-Iványi, Horthy’s cabinet secretary and envoy to Moscow, had faced a similar dilemma in 1946, when the Rákósi dictatorship began, and had chosen to stay, only to be arrested, remaining in prison for a decade before his release on 18 September 1956. He later wrote :
The first question I was confronted with after my release was whether I should flee from Hungary or not? This question became particularly acute at the time of the mass emigration from Hungary after the collapse of Hungarian resistance on or about 7 November 1956. For many reasons I decided to stay and so… until… September 1968, I dropped all ideas of leaving Hungary… several of our friends, like András, Sándor Kiss, Jatzkó, Szent-Miklósy, Veress and others, left the country…
He must have feared re-arrest at any moment. Reflecting on his decision in 1977, he was able to put it in the broader context of Hungarian history and, in particular, its experience with the fake promises of freedom held out by ‘the Western democracies’, contrasted with their real imperial priorities in the Middle East:
As in the past, in 1241, in 1526, in 1711, in 1849 and in 1920, Hungary was once more abandoned in 1956 by the Western Powers which believed that their interests had more to be defended around the borders of Suez and Israel and not on the Eastern bulwark of European Civilisation… As Hungary could not and cannot expect any effective help from the Western democracies, Hungary must renounce her centuries old idea of protecting European peace, prosperity and civilisation, and must try to arrive at some peaceful settlement and cooperation with her most powerful eastern neighbour, the Soviet Union.
3-12 December: The Diplomatic Crisis in Bucharest, New York & Washington…
On 23 November, the day after the abduction of the Nagy group from the Yugoslav Embassy (the occupants of the bus had refused to leave it when they arrived at the Soviet HQ and had to be pulled off by force, the women screaming and the children shrieking in fear), the Kádár government had issued a statement which was published in the press to the effect that Imre Nagy and his friends have left at their request for the Popular Republic of Romania. Of course, the truth soon became public knowledge, but it had taken until 26 November for Kádár to reply to a request for an explanation from the National Workers’ Council. He had broadcast on Radio Budapest:
We promised that the behaviour of Imre Nagy and his friends would not be subject to legal proceedings. We will keep that promise. We do not consider their departure as permanent. But, in our opinion, it is to the advantage of Imre Nagy and his associates and their families to leave Hungary for a certain period of time.
Several days later, at the plenary session of the United Nations on 3 December, the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs declared:
The Romanian government assures that Prime Minister Imre Nagy and his group will enjoy the full benefit of the right of political exile. The Romanian government will observe the international rules regarding this right.
The US government also kept up its diplomatic pressure on the USSR, verbally protesting the unwarranted use of Soviet force against Hungarian citizens to the Soviet Ambassador in Washington. The US diplomats specifically noted the Soviet tanks that had parked on the sidewalk outside their Legation in Budapest. The Department of State also protested twice when the Soviets interfered with Americans who were trying to leave Hungary. It also protested to the Hungarian Legation in Washington concerning the interruption of telegraphic communications with the US Legation in Budapest. The UN General Assembly also adopted a resolution calling on the Soviet Union and Hungary to comply with earlier resolutions on the Hungarian question and to allow UN observers to visit Hungary. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld offered to visit personally, but the Kádár government refused to receive either him or admit observers. On 12 December, the GA adopted a resolution calling on the USSR to end its illegal intervention in Hungarian affairs and to make arrangements for a UN-supervised withdrawal from the country.
The same day, President Eisenhower announced the organisation of the President’s Committee for Hungarian Refugee Relief. He also announced that Vice President Richard Nixon would visit Austria between 18 and 23 December to discuss assistance to the Hungarian refugees there. In total, up to May 1957, the United States resettled 32,075 Hungarian refugees, most of whom were processed at Camp Kilmer, a former army base in New Jersey. This was over ten thousand more than Eisenhower had promised to resettle on 1 December, with the utmost practical speed. It also provided an additional $4 million to the UN to aid Hungarian refugees, popularly known as freedom fighters, besides the funds committed by private organisations in the US.
The Women’s Demonstration in Heroes’ Square, 4 December…
No major demonstrations or events had taken place in Heroes’ Square during the Uprising, but on 4 December, exactly one month after the second Soviet intervention, there was a silent protest of women in the square. This has not received the attention it deserves in the histories of the events of 1956. The demonstration was promoted by the underground newspaper Élünk (We Live) and was not only against the continued occupation by Soviet forces, but also a vigil for those killed in the Uprising and its suppression. The focal point was the memorial at the foot of the column in the centre of the square, originally inscribed in memory of those who had fought in World War I. It had recently been officially rededicated in memory of those who had given their lives for the freedom of the Hungarian people.
Above: Heroes’ Square
Zsuzsanna Pajzs, a 25-year-old doctor at the time, was one of those present at the demonstration . She later recalled a line of women entering the square, one hand on the shoulder of the person in front, a candle in the other. She remembered the presence of Soviet tanks, but they made no move on the silent demonstration, and both the soldiers and the Hungarian security troops looked on in silence, according to thirteen-year-old schoolgirl, Márta Boga. She recalled how:
We believed, with the minds of children, that everything was starting again. There were lots of women. Those who had lost someone were dressed in black from head to toe. There were candles burning in many windows. There were some with pushchairs. No one shouted out. This was a silent demonstration.
A report in the Yugoslav publication Borba spoke of columns of demonstrators arriving from fifteen different directions at around 10.30 am. There were two or three women in each line carrying either the Hungarian tricolour or black flags. . The report quotes from leaflets protesting against the slanders calling our dead ‘counter-revolutionaries’ and our Hungarian revolutionaries ‘fascists’. There were old and young, and all had flowers in their hands.
Borba also reported that Soviet armoured cars arrived and blocked Andrassy út (as it was named before 1950 and has been since 1990). Shots were fired in the air. Some women were pushed back and told to disperse, though there was some dialogue between the women and the Soviets. The AP reporter Endre Marton also witnessed these scenes, estimating that the demonstrators numbered twenty thousand. It constituted a cross-section of society,
the famous actress with the streetcar conductor… the lovely straight avenue… teeming with women and only women.
Tanks appeared and stopped the silent demonstration two blocks from Heroes’ Square, Marton reported. A Soviet colonel got up on one of the tanks, shouting at the women in Russian. According to Marton, the women’s lines…
…opened up and then closed again behind the monsters, leaving them hopelessly engulfed by the oncoming thousands.
When the lines reached the square, in seconds the tomb was bedecked with flowers… The colonel now turned his eyes to the few journalists observing the events in the square, whom he began to harangue and harass:
He could not stop this mass demonstration, but wanted to prevent the world from learning what had happened.
The women then hived off and went to demonstrate in front of the US and British embassies. A Soviet tank arrived at the latter Legation. József Molnár, employed as an interpreter there, remembered an amusing exchange which occurred as Sir Leslie Fry, the British ambassador telephoned Yuri Andropov, the Soviet ambassador, for an explanation:
The Soviet ambassador said that the tank had been sent to protect the Legation from the demonstrators. To this Sir Leslie Fry responded that if the Soviet armed forces had nothing better to do in Hungary than to protect the British Legation from Hungarians, then they could peacefully go home since the Legation had no need for it.
The following day several hundred women attempted to demonstrate and lay flowers at the Petőfi statue in Március 15 tér, but were prevented from doing so by Soviet and Hungarian security forces. In the course of the next five days there were further women’s protests in the provincial towns of Gyula, Székesfehérvár, Esztergom, Pécs, Miskolc and Eger.
6-27 December: The Workers’ Councils of Budapest and Csepel…
Throughout the early weeks of December, the Budapest Central Workers’ Council continued to offer the last bastion of opposition still operative in Hungary. Since it was an elected body, with representatives from each major workplace, it had great credibility, and both the Kádár régime and the Soviets had to take it seriously. Despite the revival of the strike following the abduction of the Nagy ‘rump’, Kádár still hoped to use the council to control the workers. Its members were given travel passes, whereas most workers were restricted to travel between home and work, and were also authorised to carry arms. The security forces also appointed their own delegate, a colonel, to the council, and even Kádár and senior Soviet officials sometimes attended its meetings. Sándor Rácz, president of the council, was only twenty-three and had little public education, but as he was a remarkable speaker he had been elected to head the council. However, by the beginning of December, it seems that the Soviets, if not Kádár himself, were beginning to run out of patience with the council. By the 2-3 December, although there was still a chance that there might be some agreement between the KMT (the Central Workers’ Council) and the Kádár government, the negotiations were in their final phase. The end game was approaching and, as things turned out, it could be argued that the KMT should have been much bolder. In the event, Rácz was summoned to their general HQ where the Soviet envoy and commander, General Serov was waiting for him, and abruptly informed him:
It’s finished. We don’t want to hear any more phony demands from you and you are not going to continue the strike. Consider yourself fortunate that I allow you to walk out of this room.
On 6 December, the Greater Budapest Workers’ Council issued a memorandum which had a rather fatalistic tone, admitting its failure to reach a compromise in its negotiations with the Kádár government:
…Our wish is the same as all workers, indeed the whole Hungarian people: decent standards of living, peace, a life without fear, independence and a strong government controlled by the workers and peasants of this country. We know that the working class is the greatest force in creating and safeguarding these aims… We drew a sharp line between ourselves and those who are bent on mischief, armed forays, or acts of terror. We must state here and now that our efforts have not brought the desired results. While we have done our best to restart productive work in all workplaces throughout the countryside, we have suffered provocations from many sides, sometimes leading to strike action… We accept that Prime Minister János Kádár is doing his level best to bring the country back to normal conditions. But it seems that he is not strong enough to remove certain persons in his entourage who have earned the undying hatred of Hungarian workers.
The memorandum went on to complain about the numerous arrests of workers’ councils’ members throughout the country and the disruption of meetings, concluding that these seemed to be part of an organised attack. These abuses had been brought to the attention of the government, it stated, in the hope that an impending catastrophe might be avoided. It’s conclusion, however, was that our efforts have been fruitless. After that, its demand that the government should disclose its plans on the radio the following day (7 December) seem, in retrospect, rather weak. There was not even a hint of a threat of action by the KMT to force this. On 8 December, in what seems now like an act of desperation, the KMT addressed, in very diplomatic language, an address to Nikolai Bulganin, the USSR’s Prime Minister:
We should be deeply obliged to Your Excellency, and you would render a great service to the cause of Hungarian political consolidation, if you could give an opportunity to the democratically elected delegates of the Hungarian working class to submit to you their views on Hungarian economic-political reality.
On the same day, the KMT held a meeting with workers’ councils’ delegates from the provinces in Budapest. One of the major items on the agenda was the continuing arrest of workers’ councils’ members. As the meeting got underway, news came through of the fatal shooting of a number of workers during a protest demonstration in Salgótarján, an industrial town to the northeast of the capital. The result was an immediate call for a forty-eight-hour, nationwide general strike for 11-12 December, with the exemption of medical and energy supplies.
Meanwhile, communiques were published among the public, assuring them that Imre Nagy and his group were enjoying the hospitality of the Romanian government in an excellent atmosphere marked by mutual understanding. Despite these attempts at placating the public, On 11 December, the forty-eight-hour strike began. As Sándor Rácz recalled in 1983:
… the strike of December 11-12 and the appeal were the last things we did. We didn’t have anything left to say to Kádár’s lot who, in place of negotiating with us, had fired on us. You know, it’s my feeling that the Central Workers’ Council of Greater Budapest put its stamp on the whole revolution, showing that this wasn’t an uprising of hooligans, but of workers.
As the strike was getting underway, the government issued a strongly worded pronouncement declaring a state of emergency, introducing measures such as summary jurisdiction. At the same time it declared:
…the Central Workers’ Council of Budapest, the district workers’ councils of the capital, and the county and town workers’ councils to be illegal… sober working men have been unable to gain ground against a counter-revolutionary majority. These… elements are working for nothing less than to turn the workers’ councils of Budapest into bastions of the counter-revolution. Their armoury consists of spreading rumours, acts of terror, calls for strikes and renewed armed provocations.
In the government’s view the deaths and injuries at Salgótarján had been caused by counter-revolutionary provocateurs who had opened fire on the demonstrators, though it gave no evidence to support this claim in its pronouncement.
Sándor Rácz was called before parliament on 11 December, supposedly for more talks. Reluctantly, he made his way there despite the beginning of arrests of other leaders of the Greater Budapest Workers’ Council. Arriving at the door of the Parliament House, he was also arrested and bundled off to the Fő utca prison in Buda. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment. The repression continued across the city, with further arrests and the occupation of factories by Soviet troops. The general strike of mid-December was the high point for the KMT, but it also marked the beginning of its speedy decline.
This left the Csepel Workers’ Council as the only remaining organised force capable of offering resistance to Soviet control. The Council decided to take over the responsibility of negotiating with the government, in order to stop the arrests, free those who had been arrested, and preserve what elements it could of workers’ control and self-management. The Csepel workers had refused to support the general strike call and János Kádár assured them that their councils, as factory-based organisations, were not regarded as outside the law. In the end, however, negotiation with his government proved just as difficult and frustrating a task as it had done for the KMT.
The Csepel Works, on the Danube, south of Budapest, photographed in the 1990s, following privatisation.
The leader of the Csepel Workers’ Council, Elek Nagy, had an interesting confrontation at a weekly press conference with a New York Times reporter who asked why the Csepel workers were so unprincipled and opportunistic, why they had returned to work rather than sticking to the call for the removal of Soviet troops. Nagy lost his temper and responded that he was well aware that America was anti-Soviet, and pointed out that the degree of Soviet friendship in Budapest could be judged from the widespread ruins. He asked the reporter if he would prefer not to see any building standing in the city, and to see thousands of orphans and widows, so that the critics could censure the Soviets all the more:
You would only have the moral right to raise your question if the Russian army had killed proportionately as many Americans as it has here, and was ruining your country. Until then you have no right to talk about principles and opportunism.
A correspondent for Pravda, who asked about the fulfilment of the production plan got off no more lightly. Nagy ranted in response:
Hungary isn’t working under a plan. What do you want? To tell more lies? You’ve told enough already. Rather write about how the Great Boulevard and Andrássy út are in ruins; write about how your liberating troops behaved when faced with a small nation fighting for national independence; write this rather than how we have already fulfilled the socialist norm by 150 per cent!
Negotiations with the Kádár government continued in parliament, but in an increasingly antagonistic atmosphere, the two sides failing to see eye to eye over their respective roles. József recalled one of the last meetings, on 27 December, when Kádár reiterated strongly that the Party must have the leading role, and when his fellow minister György Marosán angrily jumped up, shouting…
…Take note! Here power is in the hands of the Party, and there can be no counting on any solution which puts a question mark over the Party’s political monopoly. Meanwhile you continually talk about revolution. You should understand that it was a counter-revolution here.
By the end of the year, whatever contemporary or historical perspective was applied to the events of the previous ten weeks, the Revolution had come full circle, and remained in the same position for the next thirty years, at least.
Reflections and Projections on the fate of the Revolution and Communism
Above: Painting by Krisztina Rényi, The János Kádár Era (1956-89). Rényi was born in 1956, at the beginning of the era, and her son was born in 1989, at its end.
Hannah Arendt’s Reflections on the Hungarian Revolution in her renowned The Origins of Totalitarianism is often quoted and referred to as a positive appreciation of the 1956 events from a Marxist perspective, but those quoting her rarely reflect deeply on her comments about the direct democracy of the workers’ councils which emerged as being at the core of what was positive about these events. She has pointed out that whenever and wherever such councils have emerged they were met with utmost hostility from the party-bureaucracies from Right to Left, and with the unanimous neglect of political theorists and political scientists. Certainly, the role of the workers’ councils in 1956 has been (conveniently) neglected in much of both historical and commemorative writing since the tag counter-revolution was officially abandoned in October 1988.
Apart from Arendt’s writing, that of Milovan Djilas, once the friend and later the persecuted critic of Tito, reflects a positive, contemporary appraisal of the role of the Hungarian Revolution in the context of a prophetic view of the long-term, terminal decline of Communism in Eastern Europe. In The New Leader, written at the end of 1956, he drew the following lessons from that year’s events:
The Communist régimes of the East European countries must either begin to break away from Moscow or else they will become even more dependent. None of the countries – not even Yugoslavia – will be able to avert this choice. In no case can the mass movement be halted, whether it follows the Yugoslav-Polish pattern, that of Hungary, or some new pattern which combines the two.
Despite the Soviet repression in Hungary, Moscow can only slow down the processes of change; it cannot stop them in the long run. The crisis is not only between the USSR and its neighbours, but within the Communist system as such. National Communism is itself a product of the crisis but it is only a phase in the evolution and withering-away of contemporary Communism… the revolution in Hungary means the beginning of the end in Communism.
… The Hungarian Revolution blazed a path which sooner or later other Communist countries must follow. The wound which the Hungarian Revolution inflicted on Communism can never be completely healed. All its evils and weaknesses, both as Soviet imperialists and as a definite system of suppression, had collected on the body of Hungary and there, like festering sores, were cut out by the Hungarian people.
I do not think that the fate of the Hungarian Revolution is at all decisive for the fate of Communism in the world. World communism now faces stormy days and insurmountable difficulties, and the people of Eastern Europe face heroic new struggles for freedom and independence.
Those heroic new struggles for freedom and independence began on 23 October 1988, when it was announcement on the radio that the struggle in 1956 would no longer be viewed by the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party as a counter-revolution and that the Soviet Union had agreed to star withdrawing its troops from the country the following spring. The wheel of revolution was beginning to turn again, but this time it would bring about the final fall of Communism by accelerating the development of privatisation and free-market economies throughout the Eastern states, together with a switching of military alliances.
László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz
Bob Dent (2006), Budapest: Locations of a Drama. Budapest: Európa
Bloody Thursday, 25 October, in Budapest
Alex von Tunzelmann, speaking about her book on the twin crises of the autumn of 1956, states that ‘Bloody Thursday’, 25 October, is still a very significant date in Hungarian history. It’s still very hard, she claims, to know precise details of what happened, and there are still very many contradictory reports, but effectively thousands of people were gathered in a large and peaceful protest in the main square in Budapest when somebody started shooting. The previous day, as the Hungarian historian Sándor Kiss has pointed out, there were armed conflicts throughout Hungary, so that it was completely natural that the authorities wanted to protect their headquarters. That morning, at dawn, the thirty thousand Soviet troops from barracks in the countryside and border patrol units entered Budapest, and sealed off the capital city. Although the First Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party, Gérő had made the request for military assistance by telephone to Khrushchev the day before, it was not until the 26th that the outgoing PM, Hegedus, signed the order, antedating it to the 23rd in order to give it a semblance of legality.
Tom Leimdorfer, a fourteen-year-old schoolboy at the time, recalls hearing the announcement that ‘there will be no school today’. This was no surprise to him, as there had been no school the day before either. The radio also spoke reassuringly of peace returning apart from ‘isolated snipers’ and dispersed ‘counter-revolutionary’ elements. People were advised to stay indoors and there was to be a curfew every evening, as there had been overnight. Later that morning of 25th, less than forty-eight hours after the initial demonstrations on the first day of the uprising, it seemed to some that it might soon be all over, since the impossible seemed to be happening. As the overnight curfew ended and people began going out to work or to look for food. On the streets of the capital Soviet troops continued to fraternise with the Hungarian people.
There is no real consensus about what happened in Kossúth Square on ‘Bloody Thursday’, though there is general agreement on how the events of the day began. In the morning American journalist Leslie Bain was on the streets, near the Astoria Hotel, when he saw three Soviet tanks draped with Hungarian flags and flowers. Girls were kissing Soviet soldiers who were reacting in a friendly manner. Many eye-witnesses have recorded similar scenes. Leaflets in Russian had been distributed asking the soldiers not to fire on Hungarians, who were not ‘fascist counter-revolutionaries’ as the soldiers had been told by their commanders. Bain wrote that it was the most joyous fraternisation between a populace and foreign troops I had ever seen, including the reception received by American liberating troops in Paris.
Apparently, throughout the morning a false rumour spread around the capital that Imre Nagy would be making a speech from the balcony of the Parliament building later that day. People joined together in groups for safety which meant that even larger crowds than two days earlier began marching to Kossúth Square again. Tom Leimdorfer watched many of them streaming past their apartment block (their flat was on second floor of the five-storey block). The demonstration was quite spontaneous, with the crowd, accompanied by Soviet tanks, heading for Parliament. The cries were ‘Down with Gerő!’, ‘We are not fascists!’ and ‘We want Imre Nagy!’ The demonstrators were unarmed, but this time there was no question of Tom joining them.
On reaching the square, now numbering several thousand, they found other Soviet tanks and armoured cars guarding parliament. According to Sándor Kiss, in order for them to have the square under control, the tanks needed between four and six points at which army units could be gathered, ready to intervene if necessary. So, before any firing occurred, the square had been secured under weapons cover by the Soviet and Hungarian troops. While the crowds arrived fraternisation continued, as the picture below of a captured Soviet tank in front of the parliament building shows. This was not one of the tanks guarding parliament, but had been captured earlier in the morning near the Astoria Hotel. This time, the rebels were waving the flag of the usurped post-war democratic Hungarian Republic from the tank.
Throughout the square the crowd, several thousand strong, waited patiently for the Prime Minister’s speech. Some reports say that a delegation from the demonstration entered the parliament building looking for Imre Nagy, though at the time he was still at the Party HQ in nearby Akadémia utca, negotiating with the Soviets and his Party colleagues, not expecting to make a speech to the crowds. A technician from the Plastics Research Institute, twenty-seven-year-old George Jalics was on the streets with his sister Zsófi that morning. They had joined the demonstration and found themselves towards the head of it. Jalics later recalled:
When we got to the square in front of the parliament, we were practically in the first row… Defending the building were five T-34 Russian tanks in a semi-circle. The crowd stopped about a hundred yards from the tanks. Somebody even said that it was not worth getting shot just for a few yards. But then, a strange thing happened. A dialogue began between the throng and the crew of one of the tanks. Suddenly eight or ten people ran up to the tank, climbed up on it, and stood there, signifying the accord between the demonstrators and the tank crews… since there was no reason to fear the tanks any more, we all continued on our way to the parliament. Zsófi and I had been in the first row, so we ended up at the top of the steps, on the left side. By this time the square was packed with demonstrators.
We all sang the National Anthem and waited. For a while there was no reaction from the building. Then a huge Hungarian flag, without the hated communist emblem, was hoisted up on the building. Then we chanted, ‘We want Imre Nagy!’
Suddenly, around midday, the carnival mood had changed completely, as Tom describes:
Soon we could hear shouting and then sound of machine-gun fire, cries, shouts, people running, complete mayhem. We kept back from the window, but from where we were, we would not have seen the broken bodies of over a hundred massacred demonstrators, mowed down by the AVO with many others injured. We only heard the details later, but were fully aware that something dreadful happened just a stone-throw away from our door.
George Jalics recalled that the guns opened fire when the demonstrators began demanding the removal of the Party First Secretary:
After a few minutes had passed, we began to shout ‘Down with Gerő!’ …At that, there was plenty of reply from the ÁVÓ submachine guns located on the rooftops. We only learned about this several years later. As the volleys hit, the crowd scattered in all directions. We were swept along with the crowd down the steps, and then in a big ‘U’ ended up next to the south side of the building, under the roof of one of the side entrances.
The shooting came, most probably, from ÁVH units hidden on nearby rooftops, and killed almost a hundred of the demonstrators. In the confusion, some of the Soviet tanks returned fire on the ÁVH units on the rooftops. Jalics related how…
As we stopped, tightly hemmed in, we noticed that two or three steps from us, in the direction of the square was a Russian armoured car, with a mounted heavy machine gun, firing at the roof of the Agricultural Ministry building across the square. It was so close that the empty shell cases almost fell on us. During breaks the Russian gunner would assure us that everything would be fine. It was obvious that he was not going to harm us.
Sándor Kopácsi, Budapest’s chief of police who later defied the occupying Soviets, had a view over the square from his office in the central police HQ when the events unfurled below him. His account, written in French in 1979, differs in some important details, but confirms the overall narrative given by Jalics:
If we weren’t having much influence on the course of events, at least we had front-row seats. For quite a while we had been hearing a noise, like that of a storm, punctuated by ringing cries. Suddenly, from the upper windows, we saw an immense crowd arrive on the adjacent street. They had come from the municipal park, and were carrying flags and banners and chanting ‘Russians go home!’ and ‘Down with Gerő!’
Men, women, young people – there must have been at least ten thousand of them. From where we were, we saw, as the crowd could not, the three large Soviet Joseph Stalin tanks coming from the opposite direction, straight toward the crowd.
It was like a nightmare. How would the crowd react? Would the Russians panic? We were petrified, powerless to do anything but pray. The tanks arrived on the street. The tank soldiers saw the crowd and the crowd saw the tanks. They were nose to nose.
The tanks stopped and stayed in place, motors idling. The crowd couldn’t stop; it kept coming, swarming around the tanks… Any second, the automatic weapons in the tanks could trigger a bloody slaughter. Instead of that, something else happened.
A boy, undoubtedly a student – the scene took place just below us – pushed his way through the crowd to the first tank and passed something through the loophole. It wasn’t a grenade but a sheet of paper. It was followed by others. These sheets, many of which my men would later collect, were tracts in Russian composed by students in the faculty of oriental languages. They reminded the Soviet soldiers of the wishes of the Hungarian nation and the unfortunate role of policemen in which they had been cast. The tracts started with a citation from Marx: ‘A People that oppresses another cannot itself be free.’
Then the top of the turret of the lead tank opened a little, and the commander… emerged slowly into the view of the apparently unarmed crowd. Then he flung the turret open and perched himself on the top of his tank. Immediately hands reached out to him. Young people leapt up on the tank. A young girl climbed up and kissed him. Someone handed the commander the Hungarian tricolour, and instantly the flag was affixed to the tank. The crowd erupted in a frantic ovation. In this jubilant atmosphere, the commander’s cap was thrown into the middle of the crowd. In exchange, someone plunked a Hungarian Army ‘kepi’ on his head. The crowd sang ‘Kossúth’s Song’ and then the Hungarian National Anthem. And, at the top of their voices, they cried, ‘Long live the Soviet Army’. Yet these were the same people who, fifteen minutes before, had determinedly chanted ‘Russians go home!’
Half an hour later, Kopácsi received a telephone call, however, received a frantic call from the female police captain who had reported to him the previous day informing him of the ÁVH platoon which had armed itself with heavy machine guns on the roof of the Parliament building. The lieutenant commanding the platoon came down to get water for his men. When he saw the crowd he hurried back up yelling, “This can’t happen. We’ve got our orders.” Kopácsi passed the news to his senior officers, but none of them could believe that the ÁVH would fire on an unarmed crowd accompanied by Soviet tanks. To make sure, he called the Ministry of Interior to explain the peaceful nature of the crowd, to be assured that the ministry knew what was going on. Three minutes later, his captain called him again with the dreadful news that the ÁVH had opened fire ‘from every roof’, and that the Soviet tanks had returned fire in defence of the crowds. The ‘butchery’ ended with the intervention of the twenty Soviet tanks surrounding parliament. Their captain fired his guns at the security forces, forcing them to abandon their positions. Eventually, in the meantime, the police chief managed to get through to Imre Nagy:
“There’s a crowd in front of the Parliament demanding Gerő’s dismissal. They’re being slaughtered”
“The comrades from the Soviet Politburo have just left. Gerő has been dismissed and replaced by Kádár at the head of the party. I am prime minister. What else does the crowd want?”
“Comrade Nagy, perhaps you haven’t yet been informed of what is happening. The ÁVH is slaughtering unarmed people. There are three hundred dead in front of parliament. Your new government is drenched in the blood of innocent people. I can’t find the words to tell you…”
Nagy understood. In a voice suddenly changed, he said, “I’ll do what is necessary right away. This is horryfying, it’s a disgrace.”
The massacre released new passions, especially as news of similar events were arriving from some of the provincial towns. A hunt for the ÁVH agents started, resulting in their lynchings and torture. Under these circumstances, Gérő’s replacement by János Kádár went almost unnoticed. Like Nagy, Kádár was another of those who had been purged in the early 1950s. He was also brought back into government and appointed First Secretary of the party, replacing Gérő, as well as Foreign Secretary. This was an initiative of the Soviet advisors, Mikoyan and Suslov, who had arrived on 24th. Gérő disappeared, suddenly and permanently. The radio announced the fall of the First Secretary, and Kádár made the following broadcast:
The politburo of our Party has entrusted me with the post of First Secretary of the Central Committee in a grave and difficult situation… The Government should conduct negotiations with the Soviet Government in a spirit of complete equality between Hungary and the Soviet Union.
Not a word was broadcast about the butchery in front of parliament. The official statement, released much later, had it that the perpetrators were not the ÁVH, but insurgent provocateurs. A few hours earlier, the announcement of Gerő’s departure might well have quelled the discontent. Now, the massacre in the square had turned the atmosphere too ugly for such a compromise. The horrible news of the massacre spread rapidly throughout the city and the hunt was on for those responsible. Toward 3 p.m., ten thousand people surrounded the national police headquarters, which was thought, mistakenly, to house the ÁVH. Fighting continued, while the party organisation and the local administration started to collapse, their role being taken over by spontaneously appointed local revolutionary committees and councils; workers’ councils were created in factories. Nagy assured Moscow of Hungary’s loyalty, but the Kremlin was split between those who wanted to accommodate the new government and those advocating a further show of strength. Nagy had to decide between crushing the uprising by resorting to Soviet arms, and trying to solve the crisis with the revolutionaries. Meanwhile, those revolutionaries were busy removing all the red stars they could find from government buildings.
There are no official documents to confirm Kopácsi’s account of how the first shot came to be fired. It was widely held at the time, by eye-witnesses, that the shooting had come from the roof of the Ministry of Agriculture (above), directly across from parliament, and that the perpetrators were indeed the state security authority (ÁVH or ÁVO). Their immediate motive was almost certainly to put an end to the fraternisation, but had perhaps received previous orders to open fire if they feared an attack on parliament, as Kopácsi suggested. Historian Sándor Kiss has pointed out that,
The massacre had a retributive purpose. The crowd demonstrating was not armed, and they arrived with peaceful intentions. They wanted to demonstrate their support for Imre Nagy, and this demonstration was dispersed not once, but on two occasions. If we look at… (recent) research,… we find that they shot at the people trying to escape… If you just wanted to clear the square, then you only shoot at those that are there, to scare them away, by shooting in the air. No, not here, they shot directly (at the people), and that’s the point.
The ‘innocence’ of the crowds themselves is also confirmed by the absence of legal documentation. At the reprisal trials conducted after the defeat of the Uprising, where the Kádár régime’s prosecutors could pin some act of violence on the insurgents they immediately began court proceedings. In the case of the Kossúth tér shootings, they did not do so. Even the ‘official’ versions of the early Kádár era tended to accept that the first shots had been fired from the roof of the ministry building. For instance, the report of the Hungarian parliamentary guard, published in the third volume of the White Books concurred with the view of Jalics and Kopácsi given above. Nevertheless, as late as 1986 the view that the firing into the crowd was a provocation by the insurgents was still being repeated. Other Eye-witness accounts contained the following observations:
At first it sounded like a single or a short series of shots, later it was continuous shooting.
We threw ourselves to the ground and began to crawl over under the arcade (at the entrance to the Ministry building).
I was standing in the doorway (of the Ministry… wondering) where I should go, should I follow the children? I didn’t dare to step out, and then people were running from the Ministry of Agriculture. I saw one man had pieces of brain on his trench coat. Then I began to cry, and I didn’t know what was going to happen or what was happening. Then there was quiet, the circus was over and I ran to the square… My little daughter was lying right there by the Rákóczi statue. I held her in my arms. I didn’t know she wasn’t alive. My daughter had long hair and it was covered with blood. She must have been shot in the throat. I didn’t dare to take the personal identification to the 5th District city council for a long time…
Perhaps the most credible view of how the events of ‘Bloody Thursday’ developed comes from John MacCormac’s account in the New York Times of 27 October in which he wrote that the political police opened fire on the demonstrators and panicked the Soviet tank crews into the belief that they were being attacked. Yet even he gives contradictory accounts of the actions of the Soviet tank crews, claiming that one of them also opened fire on demonstrators, and admitted that the whole episode took place in mysterious circumstances for which no explanation has been forthcoming. The historian Miklós Horváth concludes:
Uncontrolled shooting begins, there are many different armed units, from government guards to border control, to soldiers, the area is filled with those from the ministry of the interior and the secret police.
They (a Russian unit) came up to the square, and an armoured vehicle arrives at Báthory Street, today the corner of ‘Martyrs’ Square, and they have no idea how the fire fight broke out, and they’re shooting at everyone. This armoured vehicle… also shot fragmentation grenades in the direction of the Rákóczi Statue (in the centre-left of the square facing parliament). This caused the greatest slaughter.
I can’t rule out that they shot from the Ministry of Agriculture building, though in the square the shots echoed. It’s not known if these were the rounds hitting the building’s walls, or the sound of the shots coming from the square which they thought were coming from the roof of the building, but the injuries of the dead and their location indicates that most victims, a significant number, were the victims of Soviet weapons.
The two views are not mutually exclusive, of course. The UN Report of 1957 agreed that the firing directed at the crowds came from both the rooftops and some of the Soviet tanks. This is the position followed by the latest memorial to the victims (below), which takes the form of a display of memorabilia and re-enacted video/ photographic images.
The Monastic Settlements and Churches of East Anglia and Southern England:
The great men of the counties and boroughs were not only concerned with wealth and power in this life, but also with their status in the next. That was why they erected churches, chantries and noble tombs to house their earthly remains, and paid priests to say masses for their souls in perpetuity. As we have already noted, the Normans were as muscular and and progressive about their Christianity as they were about their conquest and administration of foreign lands. The rule of the Conqueror coincided with a great revival of monasticism across western Christendom, from Scotland to Hungary. Even so, the number of new houses for monks and nuns built in Suffolk alone is remarkable. By 1200, there were twenty-eight monasteries and abbeys where small religious communities were permanently employed in caring for the sick and singing masses. At Bury St Edmunds (below), while the townsfolk grumbled in their urban hovels, the monks spent a large part of their income on making their abbey one of the grandest in Christendom. The poet-monk John Lydgate tells us that, not satisfied by the additions made to the buildings by Cnut, the now non-Saxon monks began, immediately after the Conquest, to build a new church with stone brought from Caen in Normandy.
The destruction and re-building of the old Saxon minsters, such as at Winchester, and the great town abbeys, as at Bury St Edmunds, should not be taken as a model for most of the parish churches of England. Suffolk people continued to be as devoted to their parish churches as they were distrustful of the great abbeys. There was scarcely a church in the county that did not experience some enlargement, extension or alteration in almost every medieval generation. The Normans built many churches but only a few, such as St Mary Wissington retain the original Norman pattern. Naves were widened to accommodate an increasing population in the thirteenth century, and chancels were extended. From about 1200, chantry chapels were enlarged or incorporated within existing buildings. The village churches we associate with the Normans are, for the most part, much later in construction, although they may retain Romanesque features, especially in their interiors, a few of which are survivals from the earlier eleventh century. Of course, the most famous abbey in England, was initially built under Edward the Confessor, but owes much to the Romanesque style he had observed during his exile in Normandy.
The Expansion of Christendom: England, The British Isles and the Continent:
In the forty years from 1093 to 1133 that was taken to building the great columns of Durham Cathedral and the vaults that they support, Jerusalem was taken for Christianity, as a result of the First Crusade of 1096, and the population of north-western Europe had expanded to a point unsurpassed since the Celtic migrations of the fourth century BC.
The expansion of Roman Catholicism in the west was delivered at the edge of a Norman sword in much of England, but we only have to look at the monastic remains in Scotland and Ireland to be aware of the broader cultural assimilation that was taking place by largely peaceful means by the end of the eleventh century. Irish Romanesque has left many fine examples in the ruins of churches at Kilmacduagh and at Clonfert Cathedral, originally the foundation of St Brendan the Navigator.
Shortly after this was built, Somerset masons must have brought to Ireland not only their skills but the stone they knew from building the first Gothic cathedral in Europe to employ the pointed arch throughout, that of Wells. With this stone they constructed the first cathedral of Dublin, Christ Church, of which only the north side of the nave remains as their original work. Some years before, the first Cistercians, chief among the patrons of the Gothic style, had arrived at Mellifont north of Dublin.
The religious order most favoured by William the Conqueror and the early Norman kings was that of Cluny. The two most notable sites of Cluniac foundations are at Thetford and Castle Acre in Norfolk. All the new orders introduced in the twelfth century, the Premonstatensians and Victorines, the Tironensians, Carthusians, Augustinians and Cistercians were all of foreign origins except for the Gilbertines, founded by St Gilbert of Sempringham. Between them, they had a profound effect on the political and historical development, the landscape, and the agriculture of the British Isles as a whole, one that was largely independent of temporal authorities, however. Over the following four and a half centuries, from the Conquest to the Reformation, these orders entered nearly every region, to raise their churches and cloisters, and to establish around themselves new communities.
The Premonstratensians, drawing on their origins from Prémontré outside Laon, built one of their earliest abbeys in Suffolk, and then found they had to move it away from the swampy lands to near the small town of Leiston (see photos above). They were also particularly important in Scotland, founding the great Border house of Dryburgh and also reviving the holy site of St Ninian’s white church at Whithorn. In the reign of Henry I, his Queen Consort, Matilda of Scotland, founded the house of Holy Trinity in Aldgate for the Augustinians. Henry I also handed over to them what was to be their richest abbey, at Cirencester, where they also built the splendid parish church for the townspeople.
In Scotland, Bishop Robert , with the agreement of David I, dispossessed the Celtic monks or Culdees at St Andrews (left) in order to place the most sacred relics in Scotland in the care of the Austin canons. The Culdees were given another site, St Mary of the Rock. Bishop Robert had been prior of the Augustinian house at Scone and he built on the promontory of St Andrews the church dedicated to St Regulus, the Syrian monk who, according to legend, had brought the bones of St Andrew to Scotland in the fourth century AD. The tall tower of St Rule still stands outside the ruins of the cathedral which was begun by Bishop Arnold in 1160. The Augustinians were particularly close to the Scottish royal family: they also held the famous abbey of Holy Rood in Edinburgh and the great Border abbey at Jedburgh.
The Cistercians founded abbeys throughout the British Isles. In Scotland they established the greatest of the Scottish border abbeys at Melrose (right), on the request of David I, in the place where St Aidan had first founded a monastery, and where St Cuthbert had been born. In Ireland their first house, at Mellifont, was founded in 1142. In Wales, their first and most famous house was at Tintern in the Wye Valley, founded in 1131, but they also went on to found the abbeys at Strata Florida and Valle Crucis, near Llangollen in north Wales.
The twelfth century saw the rapid expansion of monasticism throughout the British Isles, especially among the Cistercians and the Gilbertines, and was part of a continental expansion, including in Normandy itself. It was a historical phenomenon which stemmed partly from Rome, partly from Christian rulers, but mainly from the mission of the monks themselves to open their doors to the humble and illiterate who desired the monastic life, to the growing number of poor pilgrims who needed hospitality, and to those in need of treatment for their illnesses.
The devotion of both Saxon and Norman kings and queens, as well as some of their lords may have aided this development of monasticism, but it was not part of a Norman conquest which left Scotland, Wales and Ireland untouched until the Plantagenets attempted to enlarge their empires to the north and west.
The Hidden Legacy of the Saxons: Signs of Survival:
In recent years, the careful cataloguing of surviving Anglo-Saxon churches, that it has become clear how many of these there are. In 1978, 267 churches were listed, identified from structural analysis and visible architectural detail as at least partly Saxon. More should probably be added. Few remains of the earliest churches have survived, mostly only as post-holes under later-excavated churches, since these were mostly built of timber. The timber church that does still remain at Greensted in Essex seems also to incorporate later Scandinavian influence. A few stone churches can be dated to the seventh or eighth centuries, usually from historical sources. Most of these are in Kent, where the first Augustinian mission was based, such as St Martin’s in Canterbury (above). There is also a group in northern England, including Jarrow, where a foundation stone gives the precise date of 23 April 684 for the dedication of St Paul’s. Unfortunately, most of that church was demolished, not by the Normans, but by the Georgians in 1782, and all that remains in Gilbert Scott’s nineteenth century church of the Saxon original is the chancel.
Escomb in County Durham gives a better idea of an early Saxon church. This simple two-celled building still sits in its round churchyard (left). It was larger once, with a western annexe and a side chapel to the north of the nave, but its present classic simplicity makes it a model for the reconstruction of early Saxon churches.
The proportions of the nave and chancel arch, which are tall and narrow, are a classic feature of Saxon architecture, as are the massive stones which form the corners of the nave and side of the chancel arch, possibly brought from an earlier Romano-British site which became a quarry. The windows are small, intentionally designed to reflect as much light as possible in the small space, whilst at the same time seeking to economise in the use of glass, or, if left unglazed, to minimise the draught.
Brixworth in Northamptonshire is perhaps the most impressive surviving Saxon church. The arches of the Saxon aisles still exist, made from bricks which have been dated to Romano-British times, but they are blocked up. Many different kinds of stone have been used in the construction of the church, showing how other Saxon churches might have been added to and changed, using different raw and recycled materials, from one phase to another.
The majority of churches defined as Saxon belong to a later period than Escomb and Brixworth, to the tenth or eleventh centuries, when many were rebuilt after the Viking destruction. However, parts of these churches were rebuilt from original blocks and features, including stone strips, pilasters, which can be seen on two well-preserved towers at Earls Barton and Barton-on-Humber. Some of the more decorative features can be compared to those on contemporary continental buildings. At Barton-on-Humber (see photo above), a very small church was built originally, with the tower forming the nave crammed between a small chancel and a baptistery. Over the centuries the original building was gradually added to. Archaeologists were able to trace this growth because the later church had become redundant and they could therefore excavate the whole of the interior. They were therefore able to expose a round apse, as well as to excavate part of the cemetery, where they found Anglo-Saxon burials. In other churches which have been proved to have much surviving Saxon fabric, it has been more difficult to excavate because the early walls were covered with plaster inside and later concrete rendering outside, leaving only windows and doors as a means of dating them.
A church of Saxon proportions may well contain pre-Conquest fabric, but even if none is found, continuity can be argued because the original church has been added to piecemeal over the centuries, so that its original shape has become fossilised in the later versions. Medieval builders sometimes built around an old church, reproducing it exactly, only in larger dimensions, and pulling down the old church only when finishing the new, so that the congregation could always worship with a roof over their heads. One such church is at King’s Sutton in Northamptonshire, where no visible features are earlier than the twelfth century, but the nave has classic early proportions. The walls of the nave are quite probably Saxon, with twelfth-century aisles and much later clerestory windows cut through them. Historically, this was a minster, a large and important church served by a group of priests, and serving several parishes. Later in the Anglo-Saxon period this type of church government gradually gave way to the parochial and diocesan system we know today, but it is still possible to work out where many of the original minsters were.
Many more churches than those defined as having Saxon architectural origins still incorporate the remains of Saxon buildings. In fact, if we could count the numbers destroyed in the great Victorian rebuilding, we would probably discover that a very substantial proportion of the smaller churches of England had not fallen victim to Norman builders, and that, after the Conquest, many people would have worshipped in the same church as their Saxon and British ancestors before 1066. Much of the visible fabric of the ordinary villages and market towns of Anglo-Saxon England was still to be seen in Norman and early medieval times, if not into late medieval and early modern times.
Pride and Prosperity:
The continuing passion for building and rebuilding reveals considerable local pride and devotion, and illustrates a talent for united and well-organised effort. It also provides evidence of enormous wealth, much of it stemming from the trade in wool. At the time of the Domesday Suvey there were about eighty thousand sheep in East Anglia, spread fairly evenly over the whole region. Every farming community made its own cloth and sold its surplus wool in the local markets. To these markets at Bury, Ipswich, Sudbury came merchants from London and Europe. Throughout the early Medieval period wool was Suffolk’s most important export and the basis of its extraordinary prosperity.
However, compared with the prime sheep-rearing regions such as the Welsh borders and the Yorkshire moors, Suffolk wool was of an inferior quality. Shropshire fleeces were fetching fourteen marks a sack when the Suffolk farmer could only get four marks for his. Nevertheless, Suffolk was richer than Shropshire due to the volume of trade, since it was closer to continental customers. Most of the buyers came from across the North Sea from Germany, the Baltic States and the Low Countries, regions with which East Anglians had long and close commercial contacts. The sight of these buyers riding eastwards to Ipswich or Dunwich followed by long lines of laden packhorses was a very familiar one to medieval Suffolkers.
However, by the beginning of the twelfth century, the development of international trade, the building of castles, churches and cathedrals, due to the growth of important centres of pilgrimage, had all contributed to the concentration of population and the growth of towns such as Ipswich (above). The case of Bury St Edmunds showed that it was impossible for feudal law and custom to apply to emerging centres of trade and commerce.
The Norman Conquest was a military invasion that left physical remains in the archaeological and architectural record. However, much of the fabric of everyday life did survive the Conquest. There were no real changes in religion, in burial rites, house types, jewellery, pottery or coinage. The basic ethnicity of the population remained the same, so that genetic analysis of skeletons in recent years has shown little change in composition. The Normans simply added a top deck or layer to Anglo-Saxon society, a ruling élite, and one that was not simply Norman, and certainly not very Norse. In fact, the ‘Conquest’ helped to re-orientate England from being part of Cnut’s North Sea trading empire, to a commercial fulcrum with the European mainland, which it has remained as for the past 950 years. Linguistically, Norman French, which became the Court language, did not supplant the dialects of the Anglo-Saxons as a dominant lingua franca, and these dialects gradually became a common tongue based on the Mercian dialect, incorporating Danish vocabulary, with a few French synonyms added. Latin remained the language of government and administration, as it had been under the House of Wessex. Culturally, the British Isles became more integrated within Christendom, a process which, under Edward the Confessor, was already in progress before the successful invasion. Only in the way castles were sited and in the drastic rebuilding of significant religious monuments do we have unequivocal evidence of a full-scale and widespread conquest. Even then and there, these kinds of change need to be evaluated in longer-term historical and broader geographical contexts.
Printed Sources: as previously listed in earlier parts, especially Copinger (1905).