December 6, 1240 Golden Horde

Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. Each rider has have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses, and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep his horses fresh.  In this way, riders could cover 100 miles and more in a day.  Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, including to the rear.

The Eurasian Steppe is a vast region of grasslands and savannas, extending thousands of miles east from the mouth of the Danube, nearly to the Pacific Ocean. There’s no clearly defined southern boundary, as the land becomes increasingly dry as you move south. To the north are the impenetrable forests of Russia and Siberia.

The 12th century steppe was a land of inter-tribal rivalry, immersed in a poverty so profound that many of its inhabitants went about clad in the skins of field mice. Ongoing acts of warfare and revenge were carried out between a kaleidoscope of ever-changing tribal confederations, compounded and egged on by the interference of foreign powers such as the Chinese dynasties of the Song and the Jurchen, to the south.

Mongol Golden Horde

Into this land was born the son of the Mongol chieftain Yesügei, born with a blood clot grasped in his fist. It was a sign, they said, that this child was destined to become a great leader. By 1197, the boy would unite the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia into the largest contiguous empire in history, extending from Korea in the east, through Baghdad and Syria all the way into eastern Europe.  One-fifth of the inhabited land area, of the entire planet.

His name was Temujin. He is known to history as the Great Leader of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan.

NatGeo Cover, Afghan girlThe Steppes have long been a genetic crossroad, the physical features of its inhabitants as diverse as any in the world. The word “Rus”, from which we get Russia, was the name given to Viking invaders from earlier centuries. History does not record what Genghis himself looked like, though he’s often depicted with Asian features.  There is evidence suggesting he had red hair and green eyes. Think of that beautiful young Afghan girl, the one with those killer eyes on that National Geographic cover, a few years back.

The Mongols called themselves “Tata”, while others called them after the people of Tartarus, the Hell of Roman mythology. They were the “Tatars” to the people they terrorized: “Demons from Hell”.

The two most prominent weapons in the Mongol arsenal can be found in the words “Horse Archer”.  Imagine an army of circus riders, equipped with composite bows and a minimum of 60 arrows apiece, each capable of hitting a bird in flight. Each rider has have no fewer than 3-4 small, fast horses, and is able to transfer mounts in mid-gallop in order to keep his horses fresh.  In this way, riders could cover 100 miles and more in a day.  Stirrups allowed them to fire in any direction, including to the rear.

Horse Archer

The bow, a laminated composite of wood, horn and sinew, combined the compression of the interior horn lamina with the stretching of animal sinews, glued to the exterior.  The weapon was capable of aimed shots at five times the length of a football field.  Ballistic shots into large groups were common as far as 2½ times that distance. The average draw weight of a first-class English longbow is 70-80 lbs.  The Mongol composite bow ranged from 100 to 160 lbs, depending upon the physical strength of its user.

After the death of Genghis’ eldest son Jochi, who pre-deceased his father, the Great Khan installed his grandson Batu as Khan (Chief of State) of the Kipchak Khanate to the north. In 1235, the Great Khan Ögedei, who had succeeded his father on Genghis’ death in 1229, ordered his nephew Batu and an army of 130,000 of these circus riders to conquer Europe, beginning with the Rus.

Mongol Invasion of the Rus

13th century Russia was more a collection of principalities than it was a single nation. One by one these city-states fell to the army of Batu, known as the “Golden Horde”. Ryazan, Kolomna and Moscow. Vladimir, Rostov, Uglich, Yaroslavl, and a dozen others. Some of the names are familiar today, others were extinguished for all time. All fell to the Golden Horde.  Smolensk alone escaped, having agreed to submit and pay tribute. The city of Kitezh, as the story goes, submerged itself into a lake along with its inhabitants, at the approach of the Horde.  On this day, December 6, 1240, Mongols under Batu Khan occupied & destroyed Kiev, following several days’ struggle.

By the end of 1241, Mongol armies had crushed opposing forces from the Plains of Hungary, to Eastern Persia, to the outskirts of Austria. That December, plans were being laid for the invasion of Germany, Austria and Italy, when news arrived informing the Mongol host of the death of the Great Khan, Ögödei.  Batu wanted to continue, but the Law of Yassa required that all Princes of the Blood return to Karakorum and the Kurultai, the meeting of Mongol Chieftains.

The Abbasid Caliphate of Islam, descended from the uncle of Muhammad Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib and established in 750, was the third Islamic Caliphate since the time of Muhammad. Centered in Baghdad, the Abbasid Caliphate became a center of science, culture, philosophy and invention, during what has come to be known as the Golden Age of Islam.

Since 1241, the Abbassids paid tribute to the Khanate in the form of gold, military support, and, according to rumors, Christian captives of the Crusades. That came to a halt in 1258, when Caliph Al-Musta’sim refused to continue the practice. The Abbassid Caliphate ceased to exist on February 10, following a twelve-day siege by the Mongol army of Hulagu Khan, brother of the Khagan (great kahn) Möngke.

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The Mongols first looted and then destroyed mosques, palaces and hospitals.  The “House of Wisdom”, the grand library of Baghdad, compiled over generations and  comparable in size and scope to the modern-day Library of Congress, the British Library in London or the Nationale Bibliotheque in Paris, was utterly destroyed.  Survivors said that the muddy waters of the Tigris ran black with the ink of the books hurled into its waters, and red from the blood of the slain.

Estimates of the number killed in the fall of Baghdad, range from 90,000 to one million.  Hulagu needed to move his camp to get upwind, so overwhelming was the stench of the dead.

Believing the earth to be offended by the spilling of royal blood, Mongols rolled Caliph Al-Musta’sim himself up in a carpet and trampled him to death, with their horses.

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In 1281, a massive Mongol fleet of some 4,000 ships and 140,000 men set out under Kublai Khan, to invade Japan. This was the second such attempt, the largest naval invasion in history and not to be eclipsed until the 20th century D-Day invasion, of Normandy. As with the previous attempt, a great typhoon came up and destroyed the Mongol fleet. As many as 70,000 men were captured.  The Golden Horde never again attempted the invasion of Japan. To this day, we know this “Divine Wind”, as “Kamikaze”.

Tamerlane
Tamerlane

Berke, grandson of Ghenghis and brother of Batu, converted to Islam, creating a permanent division among the descendants of the Great Khan.

Timur-i-leng, “Timur the Lame”, or “Tamerlane”, professed to be a good Muslim, but had no qualms about destroying the capitals of Islamic learning of his day.  Damascus, Khiva, Baghdad and more he destroyed.  Many, have never entirely recovered.  Best known for the pyramids of skulls he left behind, as many as 19 million fell to the murderous regime, of Tamerlane.

The violence of the age was so vast and horrific that it’s hard to get your head around. WWII, the deadliest conflict in human history, was a time of industrialized mass slaughter.  From the battlefields to the death camps, WWII ended the lives of 40 to 72 million souls, killed in a few short years.  Roughly 3% of the inhabitants of earth.  By comparison, the Mongol conquests killed 30 million over 162 years, mostly one-by-one with edged or pointed weapons. When it was over, 17% of the entire world’s population, had vanished.

The Celtic warrior Calgacus once said of the Roman conquests that “They make a desert, and they call it peace”. It was likewise for the Mongol Empire; a time of peace for those who would submit and pay tribute.  A time when “A maiden bearing a nugget of gold on her head could wander safely throughout the realm.”

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The Catalan Atlas depicts Marco Polo traveling to the East during the ‘Pax Mongolica’.

This “Pax Mongolica” lasted through the reign of the Great Khan and his several successors, making way for the travels of Marco Polo. The 4,000-mile long “Spice Roads”, the overland trade routes between Europe and China, flourished throughout the 14th and 15th centuries under Mongol control.

In the 14th century, the “Black Death” began to change the balance of power on the Eurasian steppe. 100 years later, the fall of Byzantium and marauding bands of Muslim brigands were making the east-west overland trade routes increasingly dangerous. In 1492, the Spanish Crown hired an Italian explorer to find a water route to the east.

Black DeathThe Mongols would never regain the lost high ground of December 1241, as chieftains fell to squabbling over bloodlines.

The Golden Horde ruled over parts of Russia until the time of Ivan IV “Grozny” (The Terrible), in the 1550s.

The Mongol hordes never went away, not entirely. Modern DNA testing reveals that up to 8% of certain populations across the Asian subcontinent, about one-half of one per cent of the world’s population, descends directly from that baby with the blood clot, grasped in his fist.  Genghis Khan.

 

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November 5, 1605 The Gunpowder Plot

So it is that today, November 5th, is “Guy Fawkes Day”. People all over England will “remember, remember, the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.” Effigies of Guy Fawkes will be burned throughout the land.

The Tudor King Henry VIII began to take control of the English church in 1533, barely 16 years after Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the church door. The Protestant Reformation was barely underway, and both sides would come to regard the other as heretical.

Henry fell out with Pope Clement VII over the latter’s refusal to grant him an annulment from Catherine of Aragon. By 1540, the break between the Church of England and the Church of Rome was complete.

henryviiiEnglish Catholics became increasingly marginalized for the remainder of Henry’s reign, and that of his daughter, Elizabeth I, who died in 1603 without issue. There were several assassination attempts against Protestant rulers in Europe and England, including a failed plot to poison Elizabeth I, and the assassination of French King Henry III, who was stabbed to death by a Catholic fanatic in 1589.

King James VI of Scotland succeeded the “Virgin Queen” in 1603, to the great disappointment of English Catholics. The moderates among them favored James’ and Elizabeth’s cousin Arbella Stuart, a woman thought to have Catholic sympathies. More radical Catholics looked to the infant daughter of Phillip II of Spain, the Infanta Isabella.

There had already been at least two plots to remove the King from office, when James discovered that his wife, Queen Anne, had secretly received a rosary from the Pope. James responded by denouncing the Catholic Church, ordering Jesuit and all other Catholic priests to leave the country. He re-imposed “recusancy fees”, which had earlier been implemented by Elizabeth. The sum of these fines soon rose to £5,000 a year, equivalent to well over £10 million today.

Among those who believed that ‘faith did not need to be kept with heretics’, regicide seemed the only way out.

The “Gunpowder Plot”, also known as the “Jesuit Treason”, was inspired by Robert Catesby, a man of “ancient, historic and distinguished lineage”.

Catesby, along with about a dozen others, planned to blow up the House of Lords on November 5, 1605, killing King James along with several relatives and members of his Privy Council. This would lead, they thought, to a popular revolt in the Midlands, ending in the installation of James’ 9-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, as the Catholic head of state.

gfawkesGuy Fawkes, who had 10 years of military experience fighting for the King of Spain in the Netherlands, was put in charge of the explosives.

At least 36 barrels of powder were installed in a room under the House of Lords, when a letter came to light warning of the plot. Two separate searches on the evening of the 4th revealed the gunpowder barrels, hidden under piles of sticks and coal. Guy Fawkes was discovered nearby, carrying slow matches and touchwood.

Fawkes endured several days of torture, increasing in severity, until finally being “broken” on the rack. In January, all but two of the 13 conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered for their treason. Those two, who had died in their attempt to flee, were dug up and decapitated. Fawkes, though weakened by torture and weeks of confinement in the tower of London, managed to jump off the scaffold and break his neck, sparing himself the ordeal of being cut down and dismembered while still alive.

Guy Fawkes MaskSo it is that today, November 5th, is “Guy Fawkes Day”. People all over England will “remember, remember, the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot.” Effigies of Guy Fawkes will be burned throughout the land.

A stylized version of the “Guy Fawkes Mask” came to be in the 1980s, with a comic book series and its later film adaptation, “V for Victory”. The story depicts a vigilante effort to destroy an authoritarian government in a dystopian future Great Britain.

Since that time, groups ranging from the hacker/activist group Anonymous to Occupy, even radical Libertarians have used the Guy Fawkes mask. A symbol of protest against what they see as out of control, tyrannical government, political and banking institutions.

November 4, 1914 Battle of the Bees

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck came to loathe Adolf Hitler, and tried to establish a conservative opposition to the Nazi political machine. When offered the ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, he apparently did more than merely decline the job. He told Der Fuehrer to perform an anatomically improbable act.  Years later, Charles Miller asked the nephew of a Schutztruppe officer about the exchange. “I understand that von Lettow told Hitler to go f**k himself”.   “That’s right”, came the reply, “except that I don’t think he put it that politely”.

When WWI broke out in 1914, a map of Africa looked nothing like it does today. From the Belgian Congo to Italian Somaliland, most of the continent was carved into colonies of the various European powers. France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and Spain.  All administered parts of the African continent.

The 2nd Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment was stationed in Bangalore, southern India, at the outbreak of war.  By mid-October, the more experienced of their Indian allies had shipped off to France, Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Little but leftovers were assigned to the German East African invasion.  Many had never even fired a rifle, let alone a machine gun.

Since August, there had been an informal agreement that the African territories would be left alone. That changed on November 2, when an allied force of 8,000 British troops and their Indian allies arrived at the seaport town of Tanga, in what is now Tanzania.

Deutsch-Ostafrika, Askari im KampfThis invasion force, commanded by General Arthur Aitkin, spent that first day and most of the second sweeping for non-existent mines, before finally assembling an assault force on the beaches late on November 3rd. It was a welcome break for the German Commander, Colonel Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, who had assembled and trained a force of Askari warriors around a core of white German commissioned and non-commissioned officers.

The Germans used those 2 days to bring in more defenders, increasing their number from two companies to almost a thousand individuals. The German and Ascari defenders were well situated and very familiar with the terrain, unlike the British-led allied forces, who had conducted no reconnaissance whatsoever.

The fighting of November 4 met with mixed results. Several columns bogged down in the swamps approaching town, leaving much of their lines in disarray. The harbor contingent had some successes in the fighting that followed, with Gurkhas of the Kashmiri Rifles and the 2nd Loyal North Lancashire Regiment capturing the customs house and Hotel Deutscher Kaiser.

Though outnumbered 8 to 1, the defenders managed to turn their attackers when they got some help from an unexpected direction. Millions of bees, agitated by the gunfire, had joined in the fight.

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Charge of the Bengal Lancers

“Killer” bees are a strain of western honey bees that have been “Africanized”; cross bred with larger, more aggressive African bees, in order to produce more honey in tropical conditions.

The honey producers who crossed these creatures in the 1950s quickly learned what Aitken’s men could have told them in 1914. These things are aggressive, they swarm, and, if angered, they will chase you for a mile and more.

The Germans got some of it, but the bees spent most of their wrath on the British and the Indians, who found themselves pelting for the beaches at maximum speed. I don’t know if it’s true or just a story, but I’ve heard of one radio man who stayed at his post, directing the beach withdrawal as he was stung to death by thousands of bees. According to the story, he received the Victoria Cross, posthumously, for gallantry “while sustaining aerial attack”.

The Battle for Tanga was a humiliating defeat for the British. The Royal Navy refused to carry heavy machine guns back, fearing that they might damage their small landing craft. The guns would be left behind, for future allied forces to deal with.  It was a gift for Lettow-Vorbeck, whose forces found enough modern rifles for three Askari companies, along with 600,000 rounds of ammunition, 16 machine guns, several field telephones and enough clothing to last the Schutztruppe for a year.

Askari-on-MarchColonel, and later General Lettow-Vorbeck, was called “Der Löwe von Afrika“, the Lion of Africa. He never once had more than 3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askaris under his command, yet he wore the allies out, leading no fewer than 300,000 British, Belgian, and Portuguese troops in a four-years long wild goose chase all over equatorial Africa.

The Lion of Africa returned to Germany a conquering hero at the end of WW1.  Of all German field commanders in all theaters of the war, von Lettow alone was undefeated in the field, acclaimed as leading “the greatest single guerrilla operation in history, and the most successful”.

lettowvorbeckportraitPaul von Lettow-Vorbeck came to loathe Adolf Hitler, and tried to establish a conservative opposition to the Nazi political machine. When offered the ambassadorship to the Court of St. James in 1935, he apparently did more than merely decline the job. He told Der Fuehrer to perform an anatomically improbable act.  Years later, Charles Miller asked the nephew of a Schutztruppe officer about the exchange. “I understand that von Lettow told Hitler to go f**k himself”.   “That’s right”Came the reply, “except that I don’t think he put it that politely”.

Persecuted by the Nazis, the Lion of Africa was a broken man by the end of WWII, surviving only due to his former hero status. His home was bombed out and his two sons Rüdiger and Arnd, were dead.

Lettow-Vorbeck would get back on his feet, but for a time he had to depend on food packages from England, sent to him from Sir Richard Meinertzhagen and General Jan Smuts.  Two who took to feeding the man, so great was their respect for their former adversary in the earlier war.

October 31, 1897 The Real Dracula

In the end, we are left with the tale of a warlord.  A prince.  A sadist.  An impaler.  A psychotic madman who, 400 years after his death, would inspire the name of Count Dracula.

In modern Romanian, “Dracul” means “The Devil”.  In the old language, it meant “the Dragon”, the word “Dracula” (Drăculea) translating as “Son of the Dragon”. Count Dracula, favorite of Halloween costume shoppers from time immemorial, has been with us since the 1897 publication of Bram Stoker’s novel, of the same name.

Stoker’s working titles for the manuscript were “The Un-dead”, and “Count Wampyr”.  He nearly kept one of them too, until reading about Vlad Țepeș (TSE·pesh), a Wallachian Prince and 15th century warrior, who fought on the front lines of the Jihad of his day.  

Stoker wrote in his notes, “in Wallachian language means DEVIL“.  In a time and place remembered for its brutality, Vlad Țepeș stands out as extraordinarily cruel.  There are stories that Țepeș disemboweled his own pregnant mistress.  That he collected the noses of vanquished adversaries, some 24,000 of them.  That he dined among forests of victims, impaled on spikes.  That he even impaled the donkeys they rode in on.   

Founded in 1330, the Principality of Wallachia is a region in modern-day Romania, situated between the Lower Danube river and the Carpathian Mountains.  A crossroads between East and West, the region was scene to frequent bloodshed, as Ottoman forces pushed westward into Europe, and Christian forces pushed back.

Order of the DragonIn 1436, Vlad II became voivode, (prince), of Wallachia.  The sobriquet “Dracul” came from membership in the “Order of the Dragon” (literally “Society of the Dragonists”), a monarchical chivalric order founded by Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund in 1408, dedicated to stopping the Ottoman advance into Europe.

Shifting loyalties put the Wallachian prince in a weakened position, forcing him to pay homage to Ottoman Sultan Murad II, including participation in the Ottoman invasion of the nearby Romanian principality of Transylvania.

Transylvanian voivode John Hunyadi persuaded Vlad to fight with him against the Ottomans.  Vlad was summoned to a diplomatic meeting in 1442 with Sultan Murad II, and brought his two younger sons, Vlad III and Radu, along.  The meeting was a trap.  Vlad was thrown in prison but later released in exchange for a pledge to pay annual tribute, and the promise of 500 Wallachian boys to serve as janissaries in the Ottoman army.  Vlad III, age 12, and his younger brother were left behind as hostages, to ensure the loyalty of their father.

The timeline is unclear, but Vlad Dracul appears to have been convinced that his sons were “butchered for the sake of Christian peace”, sometime around 1444.   Byzantine historian Michael Critobulus writes that Vlad and Radu fled to the Ottoman Empire in 1447 following the murder of their father and older brother Mircea, suggesting that the two were released, most likely following Vlad’s pledge of homage to the Sultan.

The terms of the boys’ captivity were relatively mild by the standards of the time, and Vlad became a skilled horseman and warrior.  Radu went over to the Turkish side, but Vlad hated captivity, developing a deep enmity for his captors that would last all his life.

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Vlad III Țepeș

With the death of his father and older brother, Vlad III became a potential claimant for the throne in Wallachia.  Vlad won back his father’s seat in 1448 with Ottoman support, only to be deposed after only two months.  Sometime later, he switched sides in the Ottoman-Hungarian conflict.

Following the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire stood ready to invade all of Europe.  

Vlad III regained the Wallachian throne in 1456 with military support from King Ladislaus V of Hungary.  The new prince made it his first order of business to cut ties with the Ottoman Empire, terminating the annual tribute which had formerly ensured peace between Wallachia and the Caliphate. 

A group of visiting Ottoman envoys declined to remove their turbans in Vlad’s court, citing religious custom.  The prince commended them for their religious devotion and ordered the turbans nailed to their skulls, assuring them that now, they would never be removed.

According to stories circulated after his death, Vlad III needed to consolidate power, against his fractious nobles (boyars).  Hundreds of them were invited to a banquet, only to be stabbed, their still twitching bodies then impaled on spikes.

Vlad Dracul statue5Ethnic Germans had long since emigrated to these parts, forming a distinct merchant class in Wallachian society.  These Saxon merchants were allied with the boyars.  It was not long before they too, found themselves impaled on spikes.

Vlad invaded the Ottoman Empire in 1461, by his own count killing “23,884 Turks and Bulgarians”.

Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople, invaded Wallachia at the head of an army 150,000 strong in 1462, only to find the roads lined with a “forest of the impaled”, and the capital city of Târgoviște, deserted.

The Byzantine Greek historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles writes: “The sultan’s army entered into the area of the impalements, which was seventeen stades long and seven stades wide. There were large stakes there on which, as it was said, about twenty thousand men, women, and children had been spitted, quite a sight for the Turks and the sultan himself. The sultan was seized with amazement and said that it was not possible to deprive of his country a man who had done such great deeds, who had such a diabolical understanding of how to govern his realm and its people. And he said that a man who had done such things was worth much. The rest of the Turks were dumbfounded when they saw the multitude of men on the stakes. There were infants too affixed to their mothers on the stakes, and birds had made their nests in their entrails”.

To give a sense of scale to this horror, a “stade” derives from the Greek “stadeon” – the dimensions of an ancient sports arena. 

In the end, the Romanian principalities had little with which to oppose the overwhelming force of the Ottoman Empire.  Vlad III Țepeș would be twice deposed only to regain power.  Unable to defeat his more powerful adversary, Vlad was exiled for several years in Hungary, spending much of that time in prison.  Heaven help the poor rodent who fell into his hands, in that wretched cell.

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Bran Castle

Vlad successfully stole back the throne following the death of his brother Radu at the head of an Ottoman column in 1475, but this last reign would be brief.  The prince of Wallachia was marching to yet another battle with the Ottomans in 1477, when he and his small vanguard of soldiers were ambushed, and Vlad was killed.

Today, the mountaintop Castle in Bran, Romania is celebrated as the “home” of Count Dracula.  Ironically, neither Bram Stoker nor Vlad Țepeș ever set foot in the place.  There is some debate as to the veracity of these tales, and whether they were significantly embellished. Johannes Gutenberg invented the modern movable type printing press in 1439 when Vlad III was about 8, so his contemporaries had ample opportunity to tell their stories. Many were written by his detractors, of which a guy like Vlad “the Impaler”, had many.  Yet the details of these stories are virtually identical, suggesting they contain significantly more than a grain of truth. 

Statues of Vlad Țepeș dot the Romanian countryside, though his burial place is unknown.  In the end, we are left only with the tale of a warlord.  A prince.  A sadist.  An impaler.  A psychotic madman who, 400 years after his death, would inspire the name of Count Dracula.

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Territories held by Wallachian prince Mircea the Elder, father of Vlad II “Dracul”, c. 1390

October 16, 1793 Let them eat Cake

Marie-Antoinette’s hair was cut off on October 16, 1793. She was driven through Paris in an ox cart, taken to the Place de la Révolution, and decapitated. She accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot on mounting the scaffold.  Her last words were “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it”.

Alliances came and went throughout 18th century Europe, and treaties were often sealed by arranged marriages. One such alliance took place in 1770 when Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and his wife Maria Theresa, the formidable Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, married their daughter Maria Antonia to Louis-Auguste, the son of Louis XV, King of France.

The happy couple had yet to meet when the marriage was performed by proxy, the bride remaining in Vienna while the groom stayed in Paris. At 12 she was now the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette, wife of the 14-year-old Dauphin, future King of France.

Marie_Antoinette_girlThere was a second, ceremonial wedding held in May, after which came the ritual bedding. This wasn’t the couple quietly retiring to their own private space.  This was the bizarre spectacle of a room full of courtiers, peering down at the proceedings, to make sure the marriage was consummated.

It was not, and that failure did damage to both of their reputations.

The people liked their new Dauphine at first, but the Royal Court was another story. They had promoted several Saxon Princesses for the match, and called Marie Antoinette “The Austrian Woman”.  She would be called far worse.

The stories you read about 18th century Court intrigue make you wonder how anyone lived like that. Antoinette was naive of the shark tank into which she’d been thrown. Relations were especially difficult with the King’s mistress, the Comtesse du Barry, and Antoinette was somehow expected to work them out. The King’s daughters, on the other hand, didn’t care for du Barry’s unsavory relations with their father. Antoinette couldn’t win. The sisters complained of feeling “betrayed” one time, when Antoinette commented to the King’s mistress “There are a lot of people at Versailles today”.

Court intrigues were accompanied by reports to Antoinette’s mother in Vienna, the Empress responding with her own stream of criticism. The Dauphin was more interested in lock making and hunting, she wrote, because Antoinette had failed to “inspire passion” in her husband. The Empress even went so far as to tell her daughter that she was no longer pretty. She had lost her grace. Antoinette came to fear her own mother more than she loved her.

Marie_Antoinette_by_Joseph_DucreuxLouis-Auguste was crowned Louis XVI, King of France, on June 11, 1775. Antoinette remained by his side, though she was never crowned Queen, instead remaining Louis’ “Queen Consort”.

With her marriage as yet unconsummated, Antoinette’s position became precarious when her sister in law gave birth to a son and possible heir to the throne. Antoinette spent her time gambling and shopping, while wild rumors and printed pamphlets described her supposedly bizarre sexual romps.

France had serious debt problems in the 1770s, the result of endless foreign wars, but Antoinette received more than her share of the blame. As first lady to the French court, Antoinette was expected to be a fashion trendsetter. Her shopping was in keeping with the role, but rumors wildly inflated her spending habits. Her lady-in-waiting protested that her habits were modest, visiting village workshops in a simple dress and straw hat. Nevertheless, Antoinette was rumored to have plastered the walls of Versailles with gold and diamonds.

The difficult winter of 1788-89 produced bread shortages and rising prices as the King withdrew from public life. The marriage had produced children by this time, but the legend of the licentious spendthrift and empty headed foreign queen took root in French mythology, as government debt overwhelmed the economy.

French politics boiled over in June 1789, leading to the storming of the Bastille on July 14. Much of the French nobility fled as the newly formed National Constituent Assembly conscripted men to serve in the Garde Nationale, while the French Constitution of 1791 weakened the King’s authority.

Bastille

Food shortages magnified the unrest. In October, the King and Queen were placed under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace. In June they attempted to flee the escalating violence, but were caught and returned within days. Radical Jacobins exploited the escape attempt as a betrayal, and pushed to have the monarchy abolished altogether.

marie-antoniette-french-historyUnrest turned to barbarity as Antoinette’s friend and supporter, the Princesse de Lamballe, was taken by the Paris Commune for interrogation. She was murdered at La Force prison, her head fixed on a pike and marched through the city.

Louis XVI was charged with undermining the First Republic in December 1792, found guilty and executed by guillotine on January 21, 1793. He was 38.

Marie-Antoinette became prisoner #280, her health deteriorating in the following months. She suffered from tuberculosis by this time and was frequently bleeding, possibly from uterine cancer.

Antoinette was taken from her cell on October 14, subjected to a sham trial whose outcome was never in doubt. She was accused of molesting her own son, a charge so outrageous that even the market women who had stormed the palace demanding her entrails in 1789, spoke in her support. “If I have not replied”, she said, “it is because nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother.”

marie-antoinette over the yearsMarie-Antoinette’s hair was cut off on October 16, 1793. She was driven through Paris in an ox cart, taken to the Place de la Révolution, and decapitated. She accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot on mounting the scaffold.  Her last words were “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it”.

“Let them eat cake” is often attributed to Marie Antoinette, but there’s no evidence that she ever said it. The phrase appears in the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “Les Confessions”, attributed to a “Grande Princesse” whom the book declines to name. Considering the lifetime of cheap and mean-spirited gossip to which Marie Antoinette was subjected, it’s easy to believe that this was more of the same.

October 9, 768 Holy Roman Empire

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked that “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

In Medieval Europe, most of the government powers that mattered were exercised by a chief officer to the King, the “Mayor of the Palace”.  This Maior Domus, or “Majordomo” was created during the Merovingian Dynasty to manage the household of the Frankish King.  By the 7th century, the position had evolved into the power behind the throne of an all but ceremonial monarch.

In 751, the Mayor of the Palace forced King Childeric III off the throne and into a monastery.  He was the younger son of Charles “The Hammer” Martel and his wife Rotrude, destined to become sire to the founding father of the European Middle Ages.  He was Pepin III, “The Short”.

The Hammer
Charles “The Hammer” Martel who Saved Europe from an Invasion by the Ummayad Caliphate in 732 at the Battle of Tours

Pepin’s first act as King was to intercede with King Aistulf of the Lombards, on behalf of Pope Stephen II. Pepin wrested several cities away from the Lombards, forming a belt of central Italian territory which would later become the basis for the Papal States.  In the first crowning of a civil ruler by a Pope, Stephen anointed Pepin “Patricius Romanorum” (Patrician of the Romans) in 754, naming his sons Charlemagne and Carloman as his heirs.  This was the first vestige of a multi-ethnic union of European territories which would last until the age of Napoleon – the Holy Roman Empire.

Pepin died on campaign at age 54, his sons crowned co-rulers of the Franks on October 9, 768. Three years later, Carloman’s unexpected and unexplained death left Charlemagne undisputed ruler of the Frankish kingdom.

images (3)Charlemagne led an incursion into Muslim Spain, continuing his father’s policy toward the Church when he cleared the Lombards out of Northern Italy.  He Christianized the Saxon tribes to his east, sometimes under pain of death.

Pope Leo III was attacked by Italian enemies in the streets of Rome, who attempted unsuccessfully to cut out his tongue.  For the third time in a half-century, a Pope reached out to the Frankish Kingdom for help.

Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne “Emperor” on Christmas day in the year 800, in the old St. Peter’s Basilica. The honor may have been mostly diplomatic, as the seat of what remained of the Roman Empire remained in Constantinople.  Nevertheless, this alliance between a Pope and the leader of a confederation of Germanic tribes, was nothing short of a tectonic shift in western political power.

By the time of his death in 814, Charlemagne was “Pater Europae”, the Father of Europe.  German and French monarchies alike have traced their roots to his empire, ever since.

The title fell into disuse with the end of the Carolingian dynasty, until Pope John XII once again came under attack by Italian enemies of the Papacy.  The crowning of Otto I began an unbroken line of succession, extending out eight centuries. Charlemagne had been the first to bear the title of Emperor.  Otto I is regarded as the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, the date of his coronation in 962, as its founding.

Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000
Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000

Henry III deposed three Popes in 1046, personally selecting four out of the next five, after which a period of tension between the Empire and the Papacy lead to reforms within the church.

Simony (the selling of clerical posts) and other corrupt practices were restricted, ending lay influence in Papal selection.  After 1059, the selection of Popes was exclusively the work of a College of Cardinals.

The Papacy became increasingly politicized in the following years.  Pope Gregory decreed the right of investiture in high church offices to be exclusive to religious authorities.  Great wealth and power was invested in these offices, and secular authorities weren’t about to relinquish that much power.

Schism and excommunication followed.  Urban II, the Pope who preached the first crusade in 1095, couldn’t so much as enter Rome for years after his election in 1088.  The “anti-pope” Clement III ruled over the holy city at that time, with support from Henry IV.

The Kingdom had no permanent capital, Kings traveled between multiple residences to discharge their duties.  It was an elective monarchy, though most Kings had sons elected during their lifetime, enabling them to keep the crown within the family.  Many of the dynastic families throughout history have their origins in the Holy Roman Empire.  The Hohenstaufen, Habsburg and Hohenzollern among the Germanic Kings, the French Dynasties of the Capetian, Valois and Bourbon, as well as the Iberian dynasties of the Castilla, Aragonia and Pamplona y Navarre.HRE 1500

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked that “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

The Holy Roman Empire became bogged down in struggles of succession in the 18th century. There was the War of Spanish Succession. The War of Polish Succession. The Wars of Austrian Succession and of German Dualism. The Holy Roman Empire peaked in 1050, becoming increasingly anachronistic by the period of the French Revolution. The last Holy Roman Emperor was Franz II, Emperor of Austria and Germany, who abdicated and dissolved the Empire in 1806, following the disastrous defeat of the 3rd Coalition by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at Austerlitz, in 1804.

Napoleon sarcastically commented that the German states were always “becoming, not being”. Ironically, the policies of “the little corporal” directly resulted in a rise of German nationalism, clearing the way to a united German state in 1870.  The polity which emerged would humble the French state in two World Wars.

September 17, 1940 Battle of Britain

Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured the spirit of the period, as only he could. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”. – Winston Churchill

When the allies invaded Europe in 1944, they had to land on the beach in order to get a foothold. At that point, they controlled none of the European continent. The Nazi war machine had been so successful, that a map of Europe at that time could have been drawn in only two colors. One for the occasional neutral nation, the other for Nazi controlled or occupied territory.

dunkirk2
Allied evacuation of Dunkirk, May 1940

Your eyes would have to cross the English Channel on that map to find a third color, that of Great Britain, which in June of 1940 stood defiant and alone in the face of the Nazi war machine.

Rooftop Observer

In his “Finest Hour” speech of June 18, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said “What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin“.

In Germany, street decorations were being prepared for the victory parades which were sure to come, as Hitler considered plans for his surprise attack on his ally to the East, the Soviet Union. After Great Britain and her allies had been hurled from the beaches of Dunkirk, Hitler seemed to feel he had little to do but “mop up”.

Battle of britain, children evacuatedGermany needed air supremacy before “Operation Sea Lion”, the amphibious invasion of England, could begin. Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring said he would have it in four days.

Military planners of the 1930s believed that “The Bomber will always get through”, and Luftwaffe strategy was based on that assumption. Air Chief Marshal Sir H.C.T. “Stuffy” Dowding, leader of RAF Fighter Command, had other ideas. Dangerously low on aircraft and the pilots to fly them, the “Dowding System” employed a complex network of detection, command, and control to run the battle. The RAF hadn’t the faintest prayer of defending their entire coast, but Dowding’s system allowed them to dispatch individual squadrons to intercept each German air raid.

Battle of Britain, cleaning up
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN 1940 (HU 104718) Workmen carry part of the bullet-riddled fuselage of a Dornier Do 17, alongside the wreckage of other crashed German aircraft at a scrapyard in Britain, August 1940. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205227877

The “Channel battles” beginning on July 10 were followed by a month of Luftwaffe attacks on English air fields. Losses were catastrophic for the RAF, but worse for the Luftwaffe. On only one day during this period, September 1, did the Germans succeed in destroying more aircraft than they lost.

German tactics changed on September 7. For almost two months, Luftwaffe attacks concentrated on cities and towns.

battleofbritain2

The Imperial War Museum online library (http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/search?query=battle+of+britain&items_per_page=10) overflows with images of every day English life, set against a backdrop of catastrophic destruction. Children climbing over piles of rubble on their way to school. A milk man on his rounds, picking his way through shattered streets.  Adults browsing through stacks of library books, the ceilings open to the sky, great beams and rubble littering the aisles between the stacks.

23,002 English civilians died in the raids.  Another 32,138 were injured.

Battle of Britain, score
BATTLE OF BRITAIN (HU 810) A newspaper seller in the street watching a dog-fight during the Battle of Britain. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205226579

Interestingly, the most successful RAF squadrons to fight in the Battle of Britain weren’t British at all, but Polish.

battle of britain, kidsCzechoslovakia fell to the Nazis on the Ides of March, 1939, Czech armed forces having been ordered to offer no resistance. Some 4,000 Czech soldiers and airmen managed to get out, most escaping to neighboring Poland.

Tales of Polish courage in the face of the Nazi invasion of September 1 are magnificent bordering on reckless, replete with images of Polish horse cavalry riding out to meet German tanks. Little Poland never had a chance, particularly when the Soviet Union piled on two weeks later. Poland capitulated in a month, but the German victory was more costly than expected. Much more.  It’s estimated that the Wehrmacht expended twice as much ammunition defeating Poland as they did France the following Spring.  A country with a third larger population.

Battle of Britain, where from

The combined fighting forces of the two nations wound up in France in accordance with the Franco-Polish Military Alliance of 1921, thence to Great Britain following the French capitulation of June, 1940.

Battle of Britain, MilkmanBritish military authorities were slow to recognize the flying skills of the Polskie Siły Powietrzne (Polish Air Forces), the first fighter squadrons only seeing action in the third phase of the Battle of Britain. Despite the late start, Polish flying skills proved superior to those of less-experienced Commonwealth pilots. The 303rd Polish fighter squadron became the most successful RAF fighter unit of the period, its most prolific flying ace being Czech Sergeant Josef František.  He was killed in action in the last phase of the Battle of Britain, the day after his 26th birthday.

145 Polish aircrew served with the RAF during this period, making up the largest non-British contribution to the Battle of Britain.  The smallest is a two-way tie at one each, between Barbados and Jamaica.

Polish_airforce_memorial,_St_Clements
Polish Air Force memorial, St Clement Danes, London

In the end, Great Britain could not be defeated. German resources greatly outnumbered those of the English, but the ratio was reversed when it came to losses. The two nations were at a stalemate and none but a Pyrrhic victory was possible for either. Hitler indefinitely postponed Operation Sea Lion on September 17. By the end of October, the air raids had come to an end.

In the end, the Battle of Britain remains a story we remain free to tell, in English.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill captured the spirit of the period, as only he could.

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.

 

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