Another Book About SPARES (Though I Wrote Mine First!)
The perennial problem for English aristocratic or royal young men who are not due to inherit their father's title and estate or realm
In 2021 I wrote a book about the lives of a group of aristocratic British spares and specifically their extraordinary expedition to Jerusalem to find the Ark of the Covenant. The expedition ended in riots and disorder and headlines around the world. In January 2023 Penguin Books launched Prince Harry’s autobiography entitled Spare. It similarly has produced an enormous number of headlines around the world.
The issue for the male Spare is what to do with their life. Initially Prince Harry followed a familiar path which has been trodden by generations of young royal and aristocratic British men. Only later did he have to worry about what to do with his life. As a Spare in the British Royal Family Harry did not have to really worry about money.
He and many members of the Parker expedition shared the same route, firstly an education at Eton College, secondly service in an elite unit of the British Army, thirdly active service fighting for the British Army against a guerrilla force overseas and then once the military career was over the question of what to do. For one member of the expedition there was even the possibility of marriage to a famous American divorcee. A more detailed examination of the similarities between the members of the Parker expedition and the Duke of Sussex are in this blog post.
In 1911 newspapers in the US, UK and around the world reported on an explosive story following riots and disorder in Jerusalem:
- ‘Have Englishmen Found the Ark of the Covenant?’ – New York Times 7th May 1911
- ‘Englishmen Are Said To Have Looted the Sacred Mosque at Jerusalem’ – Chicago Tribune 4th May 1911
- ‘A Treasure Hunt in Jerusalem. British Explorers’ Alleged Sacrilege’ – The Guardian 4th May 1911
The Parker expedition had caused these headlines in their search for the Ark of the Covenant. The full story of the expedition which is told in full for the first time in English includes a deadly curse, bribery, betrayal, gun-running, riots, madness, bankruptcy and more. It sounds unbelievable; Downton Abbey meets Indiana Jones meets Dan Brown. But the Parker expedition is real. Rudyard Kipling on hearing an account from the participants wrote: ‘Talk of fiction! Fiction isn’t in it’.
Andrew Lawler, author of Under Jerusalem: The Buried History of the World’s Most Contested City said ‘The Parker expedition ranks as the weirdest of all archaeological excavations, yet the details of what took place in Jerusalem in the early 1900s have remained mysterious. Thanks to Graham Addison’s meticulous sleuthing, we now have a much clearer-and even more fascinating-glimpse into an expedition that rocked the world.”
The expedition started in 1908, when a Finnish scholar convinced a group of young Englishmen from wealthy and titled families he had uncovered secret cyphers in the Bible showing where the Ark was hidden. They were educated at Eton, had fought in elite units of the British military and socialised with European royalty and rich Americans. One had thwarted an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria when he was a schoolboy. Another had taken part in the infamous Jameson Raid which helped trigger the Boer War. Most of the funding came from the family of one of the richest men to have ever lived in Australia. They headed for Jerusalem on a private yacht to dig for the Ark. With them were a Swiss psychic, a Finnish socialist poet, and a Swedish captain who had experienced the darkest heart of colonial madness in the Belgian Congo.
Jerusalem is the most religiously contested city in the world and the Parker expedition unwittingly ‘scattered sparks in the religious tinder-heap’ that is Jerusalem. Its impact still has echoes today.
The New York Times was one of the first US newspapers to cover the incident and its aftermath. On 4th May 1911, the paper carried a report headlined ‘Fears Diggers Took Ark of Covenant’. Three days later, they ran a double-page spread headlined ‘Have Englishmen Found the Ark of the Covenant?’ and a sub-heading of:
‘A Mysterious Expedition, Apparently Not Composed of Archaeologists, Hunts Strange Treasure Under the Mosque of Omar, Sets the Moslems in a Ferment, and May Cause Diplomatic Incident’
The mystery surrounding the Ark of the Covenant’s location is one of the world’s greatest and most enduring. One of the Bible’s most sacred and powerful objects has not been seen for over 2,500 years. The missing Ark has inspired many quests and even a famous film.
Raiders of the Hidden Ark tells how the Parker expedition believed that they had solved the puzzle of where the Ark was hidden. The secret cyphers which the expedition was based on said it was hidden in tunnels just outside Jerusalem.
The cyphers also said that the Ark was protected in many ways to stop individuals accessing it. The Ark was protected by deadly radioactive radium and boobytraps. It was also protected by a deadly curse. This was not a curse like Tutenkhamen’s which was invented by a newspaper after the event. The Finnish biblical scholar Juvelius informed the expedition members that any person who attempted to disclose the secret chamber containing the Ark would be cursed ‘sixty and six fold’. Raiders of the Hidden Ark reveals for the first time the fate of those who went on the expedition.
It was often not a happy one. Within a few years, one was mad, three were dead, two were bankrupt, one divorced and another deported.