From MI6: Your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to see Magna Carta before it leaves Houston

Editor’s Note: This document has been intercepted from MI6. We have taken it upon ourselves to charge you with 007′s mission (he’s on summer vacation).

Your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to visit the famed 800-year-old document now on display at HMNS. This special document (Magna Carta) is on borrowed time… and is soon leaving Houston forever (August 17), after which it returns to its original home at Hereford Cathedral.

The Magna Carta serves as the basis for Common Law as we know it. Besides creating limited royal authority for the first time in history, this document has provided inspiration to millions, including the founding fathers of the United States of America. 

Your task is to gain admittance to the exhibit, explore life in the Middle Ages and then finally, gaze reverently on this rare piece of history. Once your mission is complete, feel free to check out the rest of the museum (we’ve got some pretty neat stuff here).

As 007′s replacement, you must maintain a very low profile for this mission. First go to the Houston Museum of Natural Science and pre-order a ticket for the exhibit (they’ll never see that coming). 

After entering the exhibition, you’ll first pass through a medieval village. At the kiosk, there is an interactive station where you’ll be assigned a medieval profession — you’ll need this to blend in. 

Proceed through the village in your new guise to the area filled with medieval weaponry, including a jousting spear, suit of armor and swords. Take note that should you be intercepted by the enemy, they will be using these against you, so observe the mechanics of them well. 

Proceed into the next chamber. A family tree will greet you here. Take time to peruse the historical players who were instrumental in the creation of the Magna Carta — be on the lookout for King John.

Next you’ll find a quilted tapestry (this doesn’t have much to do with your mission, but it’s still awesome.

Get back on track. The final portion of your quest is nigh. At the rear of the illuminated chamber lies the Magna Carta and a copy of the King’s Writ… observe and marvel for as long as you need to. Remember this special moment, because after August 17 this once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the Magna Carta in Houston will be gone for good.

This message will now self destruct.

 

D-Day, Part II: “We will accept nothing less than full victory”

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a three-part series exploring the history and significance of D-Day as we approach the 70th anniversary of the battle. Click here to read part one. For information on D-Day: Normandy 1944, the 3D film now showing in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre, please visit us online.

General Dwight Eisenhower speaking with paratroopers, June 5 1944 (Image Wikimedia).

General Dwight Eisenhower speaking with paratroopers, June 5, 1944 (Image: Wikimedia)

“I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory!” – General Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 6, 1944. 

With these words, General Dwight D. Eisenhower ended his message to the troops as they headed for the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6th, 1944. 

Once the decision had been made at the Trident Conference to open a second front and invade Western Europe, preparations needed to be made to ensure the mission’s success. This involved deciding when and where to land, devising measures to deceive the Germans, and working out all the logistics to make these plans work.

As to the “where,” the German High Command assumed that the Pas de Calais in Northern France was the likeliest place for an Allied invasion. This was not unreasonable. At 21 miles, it marks the shortest distance between German-held territory and Allied-held territory. To put things in perspective, this distance of 21 miles is slightly less than the length of the causeway across Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans.

The Germans looked at this spot as a jumping off point for their own invasion of England. One photo shows German officers, including Herman Goering, standing on the beach at Pas de Calais, looking at the white cliffs of Dover. That was as close as they would ever get.

German officers standing on the beach at Pas de Calais, looking at the white cliffs of Dover

 

Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana. The city of New Orleans is visible to the south of the lake. The causeway is the straight line crossing the lake, covering a distance equal to that between Calais, northern France and Dover, England. (Image: Wikimedia)

Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana. The city of New Orleans is visible to the south of the lake. The causeway is the straight line crossing the lake, covering a distance equal to that between Calais, northern France and Dover, England. (Image: Wikimedia)

The Allies selected Normandy for various reasons. It had good beaches, which were protected from western gales by the Cotentin Peninsula, or Cherbourg Peninsula. While it was further away from England than Pas de Calais, Normandy was also not the place where the Germans expected the landings to happen. The beaches in Normandy remained within easy reach of fighter airplanes, guaranteeing that there would be sufficient air cover to protect the troops when they hit the beach. By 1944, the German air force was no longer as powerful as it once had been.

As to when to invade Normandy, the Allies relied on tides, available moonlight, and good weather. Coming in with full knowledge of the tides would allow the boatmen of the landing craft to get close enough to the beach, while still being able to avoid the extensive belt of beach obstacles. In 1944, it was determined that optimum conditions would exist toward the end of May.

Once a “where” and “when” were decided upon, it became necessary to deceive the Germans. An operation this size could not remain hidden. The Allies decided that the best course of action was to make the Germans look the wrong way. The Allied deception plan – known as “Operation Bodyguard” — employed various schemes to mislead the Germans.

Inflatable tank, used during Operation Bodyguard. (Image Wikimedia).

Inflatable tank, used during Operation Bodyguard (Image: Wikimedia)

Fake infrastructure and equipment (including inflatable replicas of tanks and vehicles) was used to simulate non-existing army units. Radio traffic was generated to reinforce that impression, with messages exchanged among these make-believe units. Well known military figures, most famously General Patton, were also part of the deception plan. General Patton took on a high visibility profile in Southeast England, the area where the non-existing First United States Army Group was supposed to have set up camp. Ghost armies would continue to play a role during the remainder of the war.

The Allies also made use of diplomatic channels, double agents and other very creative ruses to leak tidbits of information to deceive the Germans into believing the main invasion would happen anywhere but Normandy, and that any action there would be part of a diversion and nothing more. Eventually, after an agonizing delay because of bad weather, the invasion was launched. D-Day was underway.

Wave after wave of airborne units had gone in ahead of the main body. Their job was to secure bridges, and secure the flanks of the invasion area. The invasion area was 50 miles wide; a mind-boggling distance roughly equal to what separates Houston from Galveston, or Washington, D.C. from Baltimore.

American, British, Canadian and other Allied forces came ashore that day facing a well-entrenched enemy. For more than a year, Marshal Rommel had been in charge of fortifying the mainland against an invasion they knew would come one day. A huge workforce had been employed to build strong points from Norway to the border with Spain — a distance of about 1,500 miles. A giant German version of the French Maginot line, these fortifications were named the Atlantikwall.

Fortified coastline of German-occupied Europe, known as the Atlantikwall, shown in green. (Image Wikimedia)

Fortified coastline of German-occupied Europe, known as the Atlantikwall, shown in green (Image: Wikimedia)

From 1943 to 1944, bunkers, observation points and gun emplacements were constructed at a feverish pace. Among these fortifications was a series of bunkers and gun emplacements at a location called Pointe du Hoc, a rocky promontory overlooking Omaha Beach. Allied intelligence surmised that these strong points sheltered huge 155 mm artillery pieces which, it was feared, could wreak havoc on the landing beaches. These guns had to be neutralized, and the U.S. Army Rangers were selected to do the job.

Pointe du Hoc bunker, remains of charred ceiling beams, evidence of the intense fighting that took place here. (Photo Dirk Van Tuerenhout).

Pointe du Hoc bunker, remains of charred ceiling beams, evidence of the intense fighting that took place here (Photo: Dirk Van Tuerenhout).

Intense fighting ensued. Bunkers were attacked with all available weapons, including flamethrowers as well as naval artillery. Much to their surprise, the Rangers established that the artillery, thought to have been in the emplacements, had been moved inland. They were able to locate and destroy them, as well as a huge ammunition dump nearby. In doing so, they saved a lot of lives.

Pointe du Hoc. US Ranger monument. (Photo Dirk van Tuerenhout)

Pointe du Hoc, U.S. Ranger monument (Photo: Dirk van Tuerenhout)

The commanding officer of the Rangers was Colonel James Earl Rudder. He was wounded during the attack, but survived and eventually became the sixteenth President of Texas A&M University. Among the huge armada of ships firing at the German fortifications was the USS Texas. She sailed up and down the coast, firing at Pointe du Hoc as well as the coastal guns defending the port of Cherbourg. Some of the Rangers wounded during the Pointe du Hoc operation were treated on the USS Texas.

By the end of the day, Allied forces had become sufficiently entrenched on the Normandy coast. It would take another year before the “1000-year Reich” came crashing down. That part of the story will be covered in the third and final blog on this topic.

D-Day Normandy 1944 now showing in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre

D-Day Normandy 1944 now showing in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre

The Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Wortham Giant Screen Theatre is now showing D-Day: Normandy 1944.  The film is running exclusively at HMNS in the Houston-Galveston area through November 11.

Click here to read the next in this series, D-Day, Part III: “We are coming by day and by night”

Come to England with us! World Trekkers + The Princess Bride = Awesomeness

We’re showing The Princess Bride as part of our World Trekkers: England event on Friday night. We know that this is basically one of the best movies ever (it has a HUGE cult following), but here are some special tidbits that make it that much more awesome:

Princess-Bride-cast

 

The Cliffs of Insanity are real

The “Cliffs of Insanity” are actually the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland (personally, I think Ireland should think about renaming this location to align with the movie). Dramatic movie scenes aside, they really are a natural wonder, standing at a staggering 702 feet at their highest point. Formed over millions of years from sedimentary deposits, the cliffs are rife with fossils, and are constantly (but slowly) changing due to erosion.

 

Whoopie Goldberg wanted to be Buttercup

Don’t get me wrong, I love Whoopie Goldberg, but I’m very glad that Robin Wright got the part. Virtually unknown at the time, this was Wright’s first major role. She went up against Courtney Cox and Meg Ryan, and yes, even Whoopie Goldberg campaigned for the role (now try picturing them in different scenes as you watch the movie – it’ll blow your mind).

 

Iocaine powder doesn’t exist

We’ve all considered building up a resistance to iocaine powder after seeing this film, just in case, but sadly it’s made up.

However (and we don’t recommend this), you can actually build up a resistance to some lethal substances. Mithridatism is the practice of protecting oneself against a poison by self-administering non-lethal amounts over a long period of time. The name comes from Mithridates VI, King of Pontus, who ingested small doses of poisons on a regular basis, to try and develop immunity. However, in modern times, this practice is almost exclusively performed by those who regularly risk exposure to venomous animals.

 

Vizzini’s line about land wars is Asia is a real quote (almost)

One of the most famous lines in the movie is when Vizzini says, “You fell victim to one of the classic blunders — the most famous of which is ‘Never get involved in a land war in Asia’ — but only slightly less well-known is this: ‘Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!’” This advice actually comes from Bernard L. Montgomery in a speech in the House of Lords in 1962 where he said, “Rule 1, on page 1 of the book of war is: ‘Do not march on Moscow.’ Rule 2 is: ‘Do not go fighting with your land armies in China.’”

 

Robin Wright used Andre the Giant’s hand as a hat

Some nights while shooting the film it apparently got rather chilly. In which case, Andre the Giant would place his hand on Wright’s head to help keep her warm. Now that’s a custom headpiece!

Now that you know all this, come watch The Princess Bride in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre (for an additional $6) during World Trekkers on Friday, March 21!

 

Feast your eyes, ears, and stomach! At World Trekkers, we’ve got something for everyone.

Come hang out with your favorite limeys, like Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and the Royal Guard. Feeling artsy? Take in a calligraphy demonstration or a painting class provided by Pinot’s Palette. Feeling dangerous? Watch some sword fighting demonstrations. Feeling classy? Enjoy tea time, provided by House of Té, and live music by Apollo Chamber Music. Feeling hungry? We’ll have food trucks out front, and free cookies (or as the Brits might say, biscuits) for the first 500 attendees. Feeling romantic? Watch The Princess Bride in the Wortham Giant Screen Theater (for an additional $6).

All this PLUS free admission to our Magna Carta exhibit!
Sealed almost 800 years ago, one of the most important legal documents in history is in Houston for an exclusive, limited engagement. And you can see it at World Trekkers at no extra cost.

Join the British sensation!
What are you waiting for? Come see everything England has to offer without leaving your own backyard — at HMNS during World Trekkers on Friday, March 21.

Understand the legacy of Magna Carta at an HMNS Distinguished Lecture

Nearly 800 years ago, on a summer day on the banks of the river Thames, 25 barons gathered waiting for King John. The document they sealed, under fluttering pendants, would come to underpin our modern conceptions of liberty, freedom and justice. But why — let alone how?

We would come to call this document Magna Carta – the “Great Charter.” But how did it come about?

There were many, many medieval charters. Yet, this is the one that became embedded in the consciousness of England and then the world. What relevance could this document possibly still hold for us as Americans, an ocean away and 800 years later?

Tonight we’ll answer these questions at “A Universal Charter? The Legacy of the Magna Carta” as part of our Distinguished Lecture series. Featuring Sir Robert Rogers, Clerk of the British House of Commons – an office that dates back to 1363 – we will delve into the history and influence of Magna Carta.

Join HMNS in giving our distinguished speaker a big Texas welcome at his lecture tonight in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre!

 

Robert - full regaliaA Universal Charter? The Legacy of the Magna Carta
Sir Robert Rogers, Clerk of the British House of Commons
Wednesday, February 19, 6:30 p.m.
Click here for tickets.

About the Speaker:
Sir Robert is well accustomed to the ways in which the old lives with the new. One of his tasks is to endorse Parliamentary bills in Norman French — but they are prepared using some of the most advanced text-handling software in the world.

Also an Honorary Bencher of the Middle Temple Inn of Court (the Temple Church plays a part in the story of Magna Carta), Sir Robert Rogers is author of two miscellanies about the British Parliament: “Order! Order!” and “Who Goes Home?” He’s the joint author of “How Parliament Works,” now going into its seventh edition.

UPCOMING MAGNA CARTA LECTURES:
Tickets $18, HMNS members $12
www.hmns.org/lectures

13th Century Sword & Buckler: Origins of the Knightly Fighting Arts
John Clements, Association for Renaissance Martial Arts
Wednesday, February 26, 6:30 p.m.
Click here for tickets.

The liberal arts in medieval times were those subjects studied by a free man — who was free precisely because he was armed and trained in the fighting arts. Much of what is known of 13th century sword and buckler training is documented in the only surviving fencing manual of the period. John Clements, martial arts historian, will describe the science of defense developed in this period, as well as the arms, armor and chivalric work of knights. This lecture will be followed by a live demonstration of medieval martial arts.

Conquest, Wars and Liberties of the Realm: the Long Run-Up to Magna Carta
Bruce O’Brien, Ph.D., International Early English Laws Project.
Wednesday, March 12, 6:30 p.m.
Click here for tickets.

To understand Magna Carta, one has to understand England’s past. Much has to do with the obligations of kings and their subjects, which was a point of negotiation. This process is writ large in pre-conquest Anglo-Saxon laws, in the monuments of the Norman kings such as Domesday Book and the coronation charter of Henry I, and in the legal reforms instituted by Henry II, which formed the basis for what came to be known as the Common Law.

Medieval Genealogy
Lynna Kay Shuffield, Genealogist
Wednesday, April 16, 6 p.m.
Click here for tickets.

Do you have royal lineage? Are you a descendant of a rebellious baron? Genealogy researcher Lynna Kay Shuffield will review tips to help you trace your family to medieval Europe. For those with English roots there is a fair chance you may find a Magna Carta link. Over 3,000 Texans are currently registered as descendants of the Magna Carta Dames and Barons from Runnymede. You do not need to be an avid genealogy researcher to enjoy this program.

ADDITIONAL MAGNA CARTA PROGRAMS

ADULT CLASS: Introduction to the Sword
Thursday, February 27, 6 p.m.
Click here for tickets.

The sword is an important symbol of power — from the gladius of gladiators to the light saber of the Jedi. It has been used to change history. Whether leading a conquest of the Normans or to helping to secure the seed of democracy, the sword is an important symbol of martial skill. Thought of as a “lost art,” swordsmanship is still taught using the writing and illustrations passed down from Renaissance sword masters. Learn the basics of this martial art in this class lead by John Clements, director Association of Renaissance Martial Arts. This program is for participants age 15 and up.

ADULT CLASS: Calligraphy, From Quill to Pen
Thursday, May 15, 9:30 a.m. – 3 p.m
Click here for tickets

Saturday, June 21, 9:30 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Click here for tickets

Calligraphy — from ancient Greek kallos for “beauty” and graphe for “writing” — is a visual art dating back to at least 5,000 BC, although our western letter forms were standardized during in the 8th century. In this beginner-level class, Cindy Haller, Houston Calligraphy Guild instructor, will teach you to use a dip pen (our modern answer to the quill) and ink to create the Italic script, and introduce you to the history of English script writing. All supplies are provided and are yours to keep. Participants must be 15 years of age or older.