Princess Elizabeth in World War II

The death of Queen Elizabeth II marks the end of a 70-year era full of conflict and change. Born in 1926, she is the same age as actors Marilyn Monroe and Andy Griffith, dictator Fidel Castro, author Harper Lee, and musicians Miles Davis and Chuck Berry. She is part of a generation that came of age during World War II, and as with many of that generation, the war was a defining experience in her life.

Princess Elizabeth was thirteen when World War II broke out in 1939, and like many London children, her parents sent her away from the city for her safety, though she lived in Windsor Castle and still saw her parents often. The future Queen Elizabeth II made her first public speech during this time, addressing the other children who were separated from their parents by the war. Her parents stayed at Buckingham Palace in solidarity with the people of London, and the royal residence was bombed by German planes during the Blitz.

When she turned eighteen in 1944, Princess Elizabeth enlisted in the Auxiliary Territorial Service, which was the female branch of the British Army designed to shift some non-combat military jobs to women to free men to fight. Her royal title didn’t earn her an automatic advancement, and she served as an auto mechanic and driver with a junior officer ranking. She was among 200,000 young women serving in the ATS, of which 335 were killed in the line of duty, and many others injured.

Princess Elizabeth wasn’t wounded in the line of duty, and the war ended in 1945. Probably breaking quite a few rules, she took to the streets to celebrate with everyone else, keeping her uniform hat pulled low so no one would recognize her. She linked arms with her future subjects and marched in celebration, and some rumors even say she danced in a Conga line.

Princess Elizabeth maintained an enjoyment of driving and engine repair into her reign as Queen Elizabeth II, and also an ability to connect with many of the citizens of her country. Some people credit her as the first royal British woman to serve in the armed forces. This ignores many medieval and Renaissance queens who took active roles in defending their countries, but it’s fair to say that Princess Elizabeth’s role in the war set a positive example for British women – royal and otherwise.

Princess Elizabeth in overalls changing a car tire.
Negative (H 41668) Original wartime caption: At a Vehicle Maintenance Class, Princess Elizabeth changes the wheel of a car. She is wearing overalls. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205513022

Wishes and curses

You may know that the tradition of tossing pennies into wells or fountains to make a wish goes back to ancient times when offerings were thrown into bodies of water to gain favors from the gods (if you didn’t before, you do now). But did you know that people also threw curses into sacred waters for the gods to enact? These curse scrolls or tablets were written asking for justice or revenge, and they give us a fantastic glimpse into the everyday life – and the gossip – of people who lived two thousand years ago.

The scrolls in these pictures are from the Roman baths in Bath, England. Sadly, my camera isn’t high resolution enough to capture the very faded writing on the lead tablets, but I did take a shot of the transcriptions as well (most of them are in Latin). The “tablets” themselves are pretty small, just a couple of inches across.

Faded and cracked thin, lead plates.
Latin transcriptions of the curse tablets above with an explanation that they are about the theft of a hooded cloak, the theft of a bracelet, and two instances of the theft of six silver coins.

Some of the translations say things like, “I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. It is for the goddess to exact from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola.” An interesting take on revenge, telling the goddess that she can have the coins if she gets them back from the thieves. Another is more specific, saying, “Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds and eyes in the goddess’s temple.” I guess he really liked those gloves, though it is a pretty infuriating feeling to have something stolen.

In some cases, people would write the curse backward, maybe to make it stronger or easier to read on the “other side,” and sometimes they added magical symbols or shoved nails through the scrolls to reinforce their curse.

One of the scrolls is in what scholars believe to be the only (known) written example of ancient British-Celtic.

A small fragment of a lead tablet.

There’s no translation of this tablet because British Celtic is an as-yet-untranslated language. The words read, “Adixoui Deuina Deieda Andagin Uindiorix cuamenai,” though the scroll and the message are incomplete. There are a couple of suggestions about what this might mean, but if you can figure it out, let us know (and the rest of the world)!

To end on a cheerful note, archeologists have also fished a lot of beautiful items out of ancient wells and ponds, and I would love a modern replica of this ancient Celtic brooch found at Bath.

A circular brooch with a long pin for holding a clock or tunic, with swirling designs on each end of the circle.