May 23, 1928 Wreck of the Airship Italia

The little fox terrier Titina would accompany Captain Nobile on his every mission. This time she resisted, with everything a little dog could muster.  Maybe it was a premonition, and maybe not.  For the first time Nobile ignored the little dog’s behavior and picked her up, to bring her on board.

The semi-rigid airship Italia departed from Milan on April 15, 1928, headed for the Arctic.  Italia carried some 17,000 pounds of fuel and supplies, a crew of 13, two journalists, three scientists and an expedition mascot.

A favorite of the rising Fascist party in Italy, Captain Umberto Nobile was never far from his beloved dog, a little Fox Terrier he called Titina.

Before each mission, Nobile would pay close attention to the mood and demeanor of the terrier.  Some said even more so, than to that of his men.

Titina would accompany Nobile on his every mission but this time she resisted, with everything a little dog could muster.  Maybe it was a premonition, and maybe not.  For the first time Nobile ignored the little dog’s behavior and picked her up, to bring her on board.ItaliaTwo years earlier, the Norge (“NOR-gay”) had demonstrated that such an airship, could reach the north pole.  This time they were coming back, for further exploration.

italia mapThe first of five planned sorties began on May 11, before turning back only eight hours later in near-blizzard conditions.  The second trip took place in virtually perfect weather conditions with unlimited visibility.  The craft covered 4,000 km (2,500 miles), setting the stage for the third and final trip.

At 04:28 on May 23, 1928, the airship Italia departed on her final voyage.

Strong tailwinds aided the passage as Italia traveled north along the Greenland coast, arriving at the north pole only 19 hours after departing Spitzbergen.

Though wind conditions prevented scientists from descending onto the ice sheet, the midnight arrival was itself, a victory.  Nobile dropped an Italian flag at the pole and a cross, personally given him by the Pope.  Jubilant radio messages were sent as the triumphant crew polished off a bottle of cognac, in celebration.

Trouble began almost immediately, as the tailwinds that brought them to the pole were now strong headwinds heading south to King’s Bay. Fuel consumption was doubled as the airship struggled to make headway.  After 24 hours, they were only halfway back.

A cascade of events took place on the morning of the 25th, causing Italia to be tail-heavy and falling at a rate of two feet per second. Captain Nobile ordered Chief technician Natale Cecion to dump ballast chain, but the steep deck angle complicated the task. Seconds later, the airship hit the jagged ice below, smashing the control cabin and spilling ten crew members and a Fox Terrier, onto the ice.

“The wide 50-meter-long red strip of aniline paint that had seeped from the spherical containers the airship’s crew used for measuring altitude resembled a bloodstained trail left by an injured beast”. – Czechoslovakian physicist, Frantisek Behounek

With a broken leg and feeling as though his intestines were damaged beyond repair, Captain Nobile thought to himself, at least he wouldn’t have to witness the prolonged death agonies, of his comrades.  Senior Cecione likewise suffered a broken leg.  Engine operator Vincenzo Pomella was already dead.

Now relieved of the gondola’s weight, the envelope of the ship began to rise with a gaping tear where the control cabin used to be.

What followed was a pure act of selfless heroism, a remarkable display of calm under the most extreme sort of pressure. As the airship italia-crashfloated away, Chief Engineer Ettore Arduino threw everything he could get his hands on, down to the men on the ice. These were supplies intended for the descent to the pole, but they were now the only thing that stood between life and death.

Arduino himself and the rest of the crew drifted away with the now helpless airship.

Ten men and a dog were stranded on the drifting ice pack.

Those who were able to  do so immediately set about, searching for supplies.  They scavenged across the ice and found a radio, and jury-rigged a mast from crash debris.  A tent was set up and dyed a bright red, using that same aniline paint.

A colt revolver was found along with a box of cartridges.  Five days later, Swedish meteorologist Finn Malmgren would use it to kill a polar bear, adding considerably to their food supplies.

The aftermath of the Italia disaster is a story in itself, a rescue unfolding over nearly two months and involving six countries, 18 vessels, 21 aircraft and 1,500 men.  Many would-be rescuers became stranded themselves or vanished into the arctic, never to be seen again.  Rescue operations were brought to a halt with seventeen dead, between Italia’s crew and her rescuers.

Roald Amundsen
Raould Amundsen

The famous polar explorer Raould Amundsen, the man who first reached the pole in 1926, disappeared on June 18 while on a rescue mission with Norwegian pilot Leif Dietrichson, French pilot René Guilbaud, and a three-man French crew.

The American woman Bess Magids, engaged to be married to Amundsen, was already on the way to Norway, for the wedding that would never take place.

Rescue expeditions were launched from Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway, Soviet Russia, Sweden and the United States.

Forty-nine days would come and go, before the last of the crash survivors and stranded would-be rescuers, would be found.  The red tent was relocated several times to avoid getting wet, on the shrinking ice pack

Umberto Nobile was a subject of scorn, for allowing himself to be rescued before his men.  And for bringing Titina, thus elevating the life of the dog over the lives of his men.   Titina herself was sick with scurvy when rescued from the ice and went to a dentist, to have several teeth removed.  Rumor has it that Nobile had them replaced, with gold teeth.

The fate of the journalist, the three mechanics and the scientist who drifted away on the Airship Italia remains a mystery, to this day.

April 1, 1957 The Fabulous Swiss Spaghetti Tree

In Poland, “Prima Aprilis” is so strong that the anti-Turkish alliance with Leopold I, signed on April 1, 1683, was backdated to March 31.

April Fools. The ancient Roman festival of Hilaria, held on March 25, may be a precursor. The Medieval Feast of Fools, held December 28, is still a day on which pranks are played in Spanish-speaking countries.2019_CKS_17294_0141_001(william_james_webbe_chanticleer_and_the_fox)

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, “March 32” of 1392 is the day the wily fox tricked the vain cock Chanticleer. The fox appealed to the rooster’s vanity and insisted he would love to hear the cock crow, just as his amazing father had. Standing on tiptoe with neck outstretched and eyes closed, the rooster obliged.  with unfortunate, if not unpredictable results.

april-fishIn 1582, France switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian moving New Year to January 1 as specified by the Council of Trent of 1563. Those who didn’t get the news and continued to celebrate New Year in late March/April 1, quickly became the butt of jokes and hoaxes.

Paper fish were placed on their backs, as these “poisson d’avril” (April fish) were said to symbolize the young, naive, easily caught fish of Spring.

The Flemish children of Belgium lock their parents or teachers out, letting them in only if they promise to bring treats that evening or the next day.

In 1539, Flemish poet Eduard de Dene wrote of a nobleman who sent his servants on fool’s errands on April 1.

b59b43022c5e5078d8b3c860306b989fIn Scotland, April Fools’ Day is traditionally called Hunt-the-Gowk Day. Although it’s fallen into disuse, a “gowk” is a cuckoo or a foolish person. The prank consists of asking someone to deliver a sealed message requesting some sort of help. The message reads “Dinna laugh, dinna smile. Hunt the gowk another mile”. On reading the message, the recipient will explain that to help, he’ll first need to contact another person, sending the victim to another person with the same message.

In Poland, “Prima Aprilis” is so strong that the anti-Turkish alliance with Leopold I, signed on April 1, 1683, was backdated to March 31.

festival-of-foolsAnimals were kept at the Tower of London since the 13th century, when Emperor Frederic II sent three leopards to King Henry III. In later years, elephants, lions, even a polar bear were added to the collection, the polar bear trained to catch fish in the Thames.

In 1686, John Aubrey referred to the holiday as “Fooles holy day”, the first British reference.

On April 1, 1698, citizens were invited to the Tower of London to see the “Washing of the Lions” in the tower moat. Quite a few were sucked in. The April 2 edition of Dawks’ News-Letter reported that “Yesterday being the first of April, several persons were sent to the Tower Ditch to see the Lions washed.” The “annual ceremony of washing the lions,” lasted throughout the 18th & 19th centuries, always held on April 1st.

The prank became quite elaborate by the mid-nineteenth century. Tickets were printed and distributed for the event, specifying that attendees be “Admitted only at the White Gate”, and that “It is requested that no Gratuities will be given to the Wardens on any account.”washing-of-the-lions-ticketIn “Reminiscences of an Old Bohemian”, Gustave Strauss laments his complicity in the hoax in 1848. “These wretched conspirators”, as Straus called his accomplices, “had a great number of order-cards printed, admitting “bearer and friends” to the White Tower, on the 1st day of April, to witness…the famous grand annual ceremony of washing the lions”.

Pandemonium broke out when hundreds showed up, only to realize they’d been pranked. “In the midst of the turmoil” Strauss wrote, “some one spotted me to whom I had given an order of admission, and he would have set the whole mob upon me. Knowing of old that discretion is, as a rule, the better part of valour…I had to skedaddle, and keep dark for a time, until the affair had blown over a little”.lefthandedwhopperIn 1957, (you can guess the date), the BBC reported the delightful news that mild winter weather had virtually eradicated the dread spaghetti weevil of Switzerland, and that Swiss farmers were now happily anticipating a bumper crop of spaghetti. Footage showed smiling Swiss, happily picking spaghetti from the trees.spagtree (1)An embarrassingly large number of viewers were fooled, calling BBC offices asking how to grow their own spaghetti tree. Callers were told to “Place a piece of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce, and hope for the best.”

Warby-Barker-Canine-Sunglasses-April-FoolsThe Warby Parker Company website describes a company mission of “offer[ing] designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially conscious businesses”.

On April 1, 2012, Warby Parker released a new line of eyeglasses for dogs, appropriately called “Warby Barker”.

For only $95, your hipster pooch could be sporting the latest styles in canine eyeware, in irresistible dog treat shades like “Gravy Burst” and “Dusty Bacon.” There was a monocle option too, for those partial to that Prussian Field Marshall look.

Anyone falling for the gag, got an “April Fools!” message on the on-line shopping cart.

Two days ago, Burger King announced the introduction of a new, Whopper flavored mouthwash, for those who just can’t get enough of a good thing. I know it’s true because I read it on-line, but it should be mentioned here. There is no “White Gate” at the Tower of London. Never was.

8-Spore-April-Fools-Pranks-That-Will-Make-You-Smile-Amid-The-Grim-Covid-19-Outbreak

March 17, 432 Saint Patrick

Today we know him as “Patrick” but his birth name was Maewyn Succat in his native Brythonic. 

“Celtic languages are traditionally thought to have originated in central Europe and spread across vast areas of Europe, being gradually replaced by Germanic, Romance, or Slavic languages in most areas. The Continental Celtic languages, such as Gaulish, Hispano-Celtic, and Lepontic, are all now long extinct.” – Oxfordbibliographies.com

download - 2020-03-17T203213.007Today, the “insular” Celtic languages are all that’s left, relegated to two sub-groups:  the Goidelic (or Gaelic) spoken by Irish and Scots speakers and once on the Isle of Man, and the Brythonic or Brittonic once spoken in Wales, Brittany and Cornwall.

Today we know him as “Patrick” but his birth name was Maewyn Succat in his native Brythonic.  His father was Calpornius,  a Deacon of the Church and an officer in the Roman Army.  As a boy, Maewyn Succat had little time for religion.

He was a late fifth-century Roman teenager living in Great Britain when he was kidnapped by pirates at the age of 16, and brought to Ireland.  There he found religion during six years as a slave, tending sheep and hogs in county Antrim.  He would escape in time to rejoin his family before traveling to France, to join a Monastery.  In twelve years he returned to the shores of Ireland,  this time as a Bishop, with the blessing of the Pope.

There he came to be known as Patricius in the Latin (“nobleman”) or Pádraig (Gaelic), a simple priest ministering to Irish Christians and converting the pagan, to Christianity.  In time, “Patrick” would go on to become Bishop of all Ireland, and one of its primary Patron Saints.

Saint PatrickInterestingly, Patrick is listed among the 10,000 or so Roman Catholic Saints though it seems he never was actually canonized, by a pope.

Saint Patrick’s Day is observed on March 17, the date generally agreed to be the date of his enslavement in 432 and his death in 460.

The date is celebrated in Ireland as both a liturgical and non-liturgical holiday, where in some diocese it is both a solemnity and a holy day of obligation. Outside of Ireland, the day has become a general celebration of all things Irish.

The legend that St. Patrick banished the snakes likely springs from his work converting the pagans of his day, many of whom wore snake tattoos on their arms. This idea is supported by a Gallic coin of the time, which carries on its face the Druidic snake.

Be that as it may, Ireland has no snakes today, a trait it has in common with Antarctica, New Zealand, Iceland, and Greenland.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAnother legend involves a walking stick of ash, which Patrick carried with him wherever he went. He would thrust this stick into the ground wherever he would preach. At a place now known as Aspatria, (ash of Patrick), the message took so long to get through to the people that the stick took root.

The shamrock which came to symbolize the day was seen as sacred by many in pre-MedievalMonkChristian Ireland, with its green color evoking rebirth and eternal life.

The three leaves symbolize the “triple goddess” of ancient Ireland. Patrick is said to have taught the Irish about the Holy Trinity, using the three leaves of the shamrock to illustrate the Christian teaching of three persons in one God:  the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Most of the rest of Europe would suffer barbarian invasion from the fifth century onward, plunging into what are known today as “The Dark Ages”.  Almost alone, cloistered monks in the monasteries of Ireland, spiritual descendants of St. Patrick, acted as repository for Christian civilization, at a time when such advancement was almost extinguished elsewhere.

It’s been said of this period that the Irish saved civilization. Who knows.  They may have done just that. On this day it’s said that everyone’s Irish.  Here in the US some some 33 million really are according to census data, nearly seven times the population of Ireland itself.

So here we are.  A parade dating back to 1737 here in Boston is canceled, as we all hide from the Wu Flu.   So lift a glass to Saint Patrick, though the streets be empty and the bars be closed.  “May your glass be ever full. May the roof over your head be always strong. And may you be in heaven, half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead”  Sláinte.l_irish-pub-signs-slainte-metal

March 3, 1817 Land of the Vine and Olive

Thus begins one of the more romanticized chapters in Alabama folklore.  The noble heroes of the Napoleonic wars, carving a new world of French language and culture from the wild frontier.

In the Treaty of Paris in 1783,  the British Crown formally recognized American Independence, ceding vast territories east of the Mississippi, effectively doubling the size of the fledgling United States and paving the way for westward expansion. north_america_1670Those first ten years of independence was a time of increasing unrest for the American’s French ally, of the late revolution.  The famous Storming of the Bastille of July 1789 led to the Women’s March and the abolition of the French monarchy the following year.  King Louis XVI was beheaded by guillotine in January 1793 followed ten months later by the execution of the Queen Consort of France, Marie Antoinette.

The orgy of violence known as “The Reign of Terror” killed nearly twice as many Frenchmen over the next two years, as that of Americans killed during the entire seven years of the Revolution.

A certain Corsican corporal emerged from this mess, with designs on La Louisiane.  Napoleon envisioned a vast north American empire stretching from the gulf of Mexico to the modern state of Montana and east to the Great Lakes, all of it centered on a vast trade in Caribbean sugar.napoleon_bonaparte_promoIt wasn’t meant to be. The slave insurrection of Toussaint Louverture in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) put a strain on French finances, to say nothing of the never-ending series of wars on the European landmass.  By 1803, Bonaparte needed to cash his chips and move away from the American table.

Robert R. Livingston, one of the committee of five who drafted the Declaration of Independence, was minister to the French Republic.  President Thomas Jefferson instructed Livingstone to open the way for commerce on the western frontier, authorizing the diplomat to pay up to $2 million for the city of New Orleans and lands on the east bank of the Mississippi river.

French Foreign Minister Talleyrand surprised the American diplomat, asking how much the Americans would pay for the Entire Louisiana territory.  The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 added 828,000 square miles of new territory at a cost of fifteen million dollars.louisiana-purchaseNapoleon Bonaparte, crowned Emperor the following year, would fight (and win) more battles than Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great, combined.

It was all for nothing.  The first fall of the Napoleonic dynasty brought about the restoration of the Bourbon monarchs in 1814, leading to the “100 days” and Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, at a place called Waterloo.

Philadelphia and New Orleans both, would soon become sanctuaries for French refugees of the Napoleonic wars, and the Haitian Revolution.

download - 2020-03-04T061100.354 Jean-Simon Chaudron founded the Abeille Américaine in 1815 (The American Bee), Philadelphia’s leading French language newspaper.  Himself a refugee of Santo Domingo (Saint-Domingue), Chaudron catered to French merchants, emigres and former military figures of the Napoleonic era and the Haitian revolution.

The idea of a French agricultural colony in the old southwest (now the central southeastern states) first came about in 1816 and Chaudron used his newspaper to promote the project.

The Colonial Society came about that November (later renamed the Society for the Cultivation of the Vine and Olive), with General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, at its head.

Congress soon took an interest in the project as did important politicians of the era including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe.

The project made sense.  Many viewed these French refugees as fellow republicans, oppressed by a monarchy.  What better way to consolidate hold on western territories while at the same time building a domestic wine-making industry.  Furthermore, the work would prevent these people from forming yet another hotbed, of Napoleonic military insurrection.

m-5392In January 1817, the Society for the Vine and Olive selected a site near the Tombigbee and Black Warrior Rivers in west-central Alabama, on former Choctaw lands.  On March 3, 1817, Congress passed an act “disposing of a tract of land to embrace four townships, on favorable terms to the emigrants, to enable them successfully to introduce the cultivation of the vine and olive.”

The act granted 92,000 acres, specifying a 14-year grace period in which to dedicate a ‘reasonable’ portion of the land to cultivation at a deferred cost of $2.00 per acre.

Thus began one of the more romanticized chapters in Alabama folklore.  The noble heroes of the Napoleonic wars, carving a new world of French language and culture from the wild frontier.

The reality wasn’t quite so romantic.  Grape vines and olive saplings were ordered from Europe but many of the plants, died en route.  The grape varieties selected were a poor match for the hot and humid climate of the region, the olive trees, a dismal failure.  Congressional stipulations were relaxed over time and farmlands converted, to cotton.

m-5391General Charles Lallemand, who joined the French army in 1791, replaced Lefebvre-Desnouettes as President of the Colonial Society. A man better suited to the life of an adventurer than that of the plow, Lallemand was more interested in the wars of Latin American independence, than grapes and olives.  By the fall of 1817, Lallemand and 69 loyalists had concocted a plan to sell the land they hadn’t yet paid for, to raise funds for the invasion of Texas.

In the end, only 150 of 347 original grantees ever came to Alabama. Some died, many fled.  Most were unwilling to trade comfortable lives in Philadelphia and New Orleans, for the hardship of life on the frontier. By the planting season of 1818, there were only 69 settlers in the colony.

583b24b42a4c7_115727bLittle is left of the Vine and Olive Colony but the French Emperor lives on, in western Alabama.  Marengo County commemorates Napoleon’s June 14, 1800 victory over Austrian forces at the Battle of Marengo.  The county seat, also known as Marengo, was later renamed Linden.  Shortened from the Napoleonic victory over Bavarian forces led by Archduke John of Austria, at the 1800 battle of Hohenlinden.

 

Hat tip Rafe Blaufarb of Florida State University, for a great write-up of this subject. http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org

 

 

March 1, 1420 Reformation

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing the document to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it may never have happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church at this time. This was an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate. 

Hans Luder sent his son Martin to a series of Latin schools beginning in 1497.  There the boy learned the so-called “trivium”: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. He entered the University of Erfurt in 1501 at the age of 19, receiving his master’s degree in 1505. The elder Luder (“Luther”) intended that his son become a lawyer. Years later, the younger Luther described his Latin school education as time spent in purgatory, his University a “beerhouse” and a “whorehouse”.

Martin Luther was not cut out for that world.

He entered Law School in 1505 and dropped out almost immediately. His father was furious over what he saw as a wasted education. Martin entered an Augustinian cloister that July, saying “This day you see me, and then, not ever again.”

download - 2020-03-01T075128.41316th century Church doctrine taught that the Saints built a surplus of good works over a lifetime, sort of a moral bank account.  Like “carbon credits” today, positive acts of faith and charity could expiate sin. Monetary contributions to the church could, so it was believed, “buy” the benefits of the saint’s good works, for the sinner.

As he studied the bible, Luther came to believe that the church had lost sight of the central truths of Christianity. The Grace of God wasn’t traded as a medium of exchange, he believed, but rather through faith in Jesus Christ, as the Messiah. “This one and firm rock”, he wrote, “which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness”.

Papal “commissioner for indulgences” Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg in 1516, selling expiation to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome.  A saying attributed to the Dominican friar, went “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Martin Luther wrote to Archbishop Albrecht on October 31, 1517, objecting to this sale of indulgences. He enclosed a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, a document which came to be known as his “95 Theses”.

cc-1509034747-1xk2ppowve-snap-imageA popular story has Martin Luther nailing the document to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it may never have happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church at this time. This was an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate.

Be that as it may.  Luther’s ideas would rock the Christian world.

What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages. Archbishop Albrecht forwarded Luther’s note to Pope Leo X, who responded slowly and “with great care as is proper”.

Three theologians drafted heresy cases against Luther. In 1520, the papal bull (edict) “Exsurge Domine” commanded Luther to recant under pain of excommunication.

download - 2020-03-01T073858.558Luther stood on dangerous ground. Jan Hus had been burned at the stake for such heresy, back in 1415. On this day in 1420, Pope Martinus I called for a crusade against the followers of the Czech priest, the “Hussieten”.

The Italian reformer Girolamo Savonarola confessed under torture to any number of inventions and then recanted, and confessed again. Savonarola was ritually stripped of his Dominican garments and hanged in 1498, while fire was ignited from below to consume his body.  Henry VIII’s famous break with the church over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon was still years in the future in 1521, the year Henry was named “Fidei Defensor” (“Defender of the Faith”). Nine years later, French theologian Jean Calvin would be forced to flee a deadly outbreak of violence against Protestant Christians. Jan Matthias, Bernhard Rothmann and Bernhard Knipperdolling would be tortured to death with white-hot pliers in the Münster marketplace in 1535, their corpses placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church.

The bones of the three were later removed but those three cages remain there, to this day.lambert-cages-700x438The papal bull had the effect of hardening Luther’s positions. He publicly burned it, on December 10. Twenty-four days later, Luther was excommunicated. A general assembly of the secular authorities of the Holy Roman Empire summoned Luther to appear before them in April, in the upper-Rhine city of Worms. The “Edict of Worms” of May 25, 1521, declared Luther an outlaw, stating “We want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic”. Anyone killing Luther was permitted to do so without legal consequence.

Luther went into hiding at Wartburg Castle. In 1516, Erasmus had expressed the wish that the holy text should be available in every language, “so that even Scots and Irishmen might read it”. It was there that Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German, laying the foundation for other vernacular translations and, for the first time, making the bible accessible to the common man.

Radical sects took Luther’s teaching far beyond his intent.  Luther found himself in the odd position of defending the faith against more radical reformers. The Zwickau Prophets rejected holy scripture in favor of direct revelations from the holy spirit. The Anabaptists took the “equality of man” in radical egalitarian directions, sounding more like the principles Karl Marx would write about, in 1848.

Martin Luther’s reformations plunged Europe into a series of wars. The Peasant’s War of 1524-25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict prior to the 1789 French Revolution. The established church would respond with counter-reformation, but the idea that Christian faith was more than the exclusive province of a special, segregated order of men, was here to stay.

On October 31, 1999, 482 years to the day from Martin Luther’s letter to Archbishop Albrecht, leaders of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches signed the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”, ending the half-millennium old doctrinal dispute, once and for all.

January 18, 532 Nika Riot

Modern sport has seen its share of fan passion rising to violence, but the worst “futbol hooligan” pales into docility, compared with the crowd come to watch the chariot races. Imagine the worst fan violence of the modern era combined with aspects of street gangs and political organizations, each faction holding positions on the issues of the day and attempting to sway public policy by shouting slogans, between races.  

Chariots go back to the earliest days of the Roman Republic, coming down from the ancient Greeks by way of the Etruscan empire. The mythical abduction of the Sabine women was carried out, while the Sabine men watched a chariot race. While Romans never used them as weapons of war, chariots were used in triumphal processions, pulled by teams of horses, tigers or dogs, even ostriches.

What the Greeks regarded as an opportunity for talented amateurs to rise within their chosen sport, the Romans saw as entertainment. A class of professional drivers rose to meet the demand.

roman-chariot-raceLook up the Highest Paid Athlete of All Time and you’ll be rewarded with the knowledge that Michael Jordan amassed career earnings of $1.85 Billion, according to Forbes Magazine.  Steve Forbes and Michael Jordan alike may be surprised to know.  Spanish driver Gaius Appuleius Diocles amassed an astonishing 35,863,120 sesterces, equivalent to $15 Billion, today.  Not bad for a man whose name suggests he probably began as a slave, freed by a guy named Gaius Appuleius.

The Hippodrome of the Byzantine era (from the Greek Hippos: Horse and Dromos: Path, or Way) was already the center of sport and social activity in 324.  That was the year Emperor Constantine moved the seat of the Roman Empire east to Byzantium, calling the place, Nova Roma. New Rome.  The name failed to catch on and the city came to be known as Constantinople.

f285a884c132221b7abbb5958de2452dThe age of Constantine saw enormous expansion of the city which bore his name, including enlargement of the Hippodrome to an impressive 1,476-feet long by 427-feet wide with a seating capacity of 100,000.  By way of comparison, the Empire State Building is 1,454-feet from sidewalk to the very tip of the spire.  Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, home of Super Bowl LIII, has a rated capacity of 71,000 spectators.

There were four teams or “factions” (factiones), distinguished by the color of their uniform: Red, Blue, Green and White, and echoed by the colors worn by their fans.  Twelve chariots would enter each race, three from each faction. Golden-tipped dolphins were tipped over, to count the laps. Each race ran seven.f9fb0a187c6e429d1e9b2c84e723043bA raised median called a spina ran down the center, adorned with stone statuary and obelisks. Ganging up to drive opposing handlers into the stone median or the stands, whipping opponents and even hauling them out of their chariots was not only permitted, but encouraged.

It was the racetrack, or circus and the sport of chariot racing, that truly put the Fanatic in Fans. There are tales of poisoned horses and drivers. Lead tablets and amulets inscribed with curses, spiked through with nails and thrown from the stands. One such curse read:

I call upon you, oh demon, whoever you are, to ask that from this hour, from this day, from this moment, you torture and kill the horses of the green and white factions and that you kill and crush completely the drivers Calrice, Felix, Primulus, and Romanus, and that you leave not a breath in their bodies.

Racing chariots were as light as possible and extremely flimsy, to increase speed. With no suspension, even a bump could throw a driver into the path of oncoming teams. Clogs were built into lattice floors, to hold the driver’s feet. Teams of two (biga), three (triga) and four (quadriga) horses were common, but teams as large as six were not unheard of.

Though rare, ten-horse teams were known to take the field.

While Greek drivers held the reins in their hands, Roman charioteers wrapped them around the waist. Unsurprisingly, any driver thrown out would be dragged to death or trampled, unless able to cut himself free.

Crashes were frequent and spectacular, often killing or maiming driver and horse alike. Such wrecks were called naufragia, a Latin word translating as ”shipwreck”.  As many as forty chariots crashed in one catastrophic pile-up, near Delphi.ba90ba114005e082444846ca7ff751f7Modern sport has seen its share of fan passion rising to violence, but the worst “futbol hooligan” pales into docility, compared with the crowd come to watch the chariot races. Imagine the worst fan violence of the modern era combined with aspects of street gangs and political organizations, each faction holding positions on the issues of the day and attempting to sway public policy by shouting slogans, between races.

Distinctions between politics and sport, all but disappeared.  Emperor Vitellius, a fan of the Blue faction, had citizens put to death in the year 69 for talking trash about his team. Ten years later, one fan threw himself on the funeral pyre of his favorite driver.

In 531, fans of the Blues and Greens were arrested for murder, following riots which broke out during a chariot race. The killers were sentenced to death and most were executed but two, escaped. On January 10, 532, the two men one Blue and one Green had taken refuge in a church, surrounded by an angry mob.

Emperor Justinian, a supporter of the Blues, was beset with problems. The war in the east was not going well with the Persians and at home, rampant corruption and public fury over confiscatory tax policy.  Now this.  Justinian resorted to that time honored technique to pacify the turbulent masses.  Bread and Circuses.  He announced a chariot race.

Bad idea.

It was a tense and angry crowd that arrived at the Hippodrome on January 13.  By race #22 chants of “Blue” and “Green” were changed to angry shouts, directed at the Emperor.  “Nίκα! Nίκα! Nίκα! (“Nika” translating as “Win!” “Victory!” or “Conquer!”).

Fury boiled over and anarchy turned to Riot.  The Royal Palace was laid siege over the next five days and the city, laid waste.  Even the magnificent Hagia Sofia, the foremost church in Constantinople, was destroyed.

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Now a mosque in Istanbul, the beautiful Hagia Sofia was destroyed during the Nika riots of 532 and later rebuilt, by Emperor Justinian.

Rioters proclaimed the Senator Flavius Hypatius as their new Emperor and demanded the dismissal of key advisers.  Soon Justinian himself prepared to flee for his life.  He surely would have done so if not for his wife, the formidable Empress Theodora.

“Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss”, she declared. “Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress.  Who is born into the light of day must sooner or later die; and how could an Emperor ever allow himself to be a fugitive.”

The avenue of escape lay open to the Emperor but Theodora’s words, cut deep.  Not to be deterred, the Empress closed the door on escape.  “Royalty is a fine burial shroud” she said.  “The Royal color Purple makes a fine winding sheet.”

Dwzr7yJUUAEA9MYWith spine thus restored, Justinian formulated a plan.  The popular eunuch Narses was sent with a bag of gold, into the lion’s den.  Small and slight of build, unarmed but for those coins, Narses entered the Hippodrome and went directly to the Blue section.  On this day in 562 Hypatius was in the very act of coronation when the eunuch spoke.  Narses reminded the Blues that Hypatius was a Green while Justinian himself, supported their team.

Gold was distributed among the Blues and the trap was sprung.  As Blue team supporters streamed out of the Hippodrome, Imperial troops led by the Generals Belisarius and Mundus fell upon the crowd, killing some 30,000 Blue and Green alike.jerusalem-distrThus ends one of the great “backfires” in political history.  Senator Hypatius was put to the sword and those who had supported the pretender, sent into exile.  Justinian I would rule another 33 years, rebuilding Constantinople, muzzling the Senatorial Class which had caused him such grief and reconquering lost territories, in Italy.

Wealthy estates were confiscated outright and races were suspended for a period of five years.  None were left to stand against this Emperor for a long and fruitful reign.

January 2, 1819 Time Me, Gentlemen

Florence Nightingale explains in her Notes on Nursing, “there are many physical operations where ceteris paribus (all else being the same) the danger is in a direct ratio to the time the operation lasts; and ceteris paribus the operator’s success will be in direct ratio to his quickness”.

With the invention of gunpowder in the year 142, the Chinese of the Eastern Han Dynasty had a handy if somewhat noisy way, to scare off evil spirits.

The first millennium of the common era was a time of ever improved and more efficient ways for humans to slaughter one another, from the gunpowder slow match of 919 to the fire bombs and gunpowder propelled fire arrows of the Southern Tang, of 975.

The Wuwei Bronze Cannon of 1227 may be the first such weapon in all history.  By 1453, the terrifying bombard of the Ottoman Turks were capable of hurling stone balls up to 24.8-inches in diameter, more than enough to shatter the formerly impregnable Theodosian Walls of Constantinople.

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Ottoman siege cannon, 1453

For a thousand years, gunpowder weapons large and small businesses and a inflicted massive injury to the human frame, resulting in damage beyond even the skills of the modern surgeon.  Often the only answer was amputation, seemingly by the bushel basket.

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General Dan Sickles leg, destroyed by a 12-pound ball at Gettysburg, 1863

The carnage of the gunpowder era experienced something of a golden age in the 19th century.  Projectiles traveled at a bone-shatteringly slow pace compared with the high velocity weapons of today while innovations such as percussion caps, shrapnel shells and breech loading weapons geometrically increased the rate of fire.

It’s been said the most common objects removed from the bodies of front-line soldiers, were the shattered bones and teeth of the next man in line.

This was a time before anesthesia, when the speed of the surgeon’s knife spelled the difference in the pain experienced by the patient, to say nothing of the poor unfortunates’ chance of survival.  Florence Nightingale explains in her Notes on Nursing:  “there are many physical operations where ceteris paribus” (everything else being the same) “the danger is in a direct ratio to the time the operation lasts; and ceteris paribus the operator’s success will be in direct ratio to his quickness“.

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Robert Liston’s surgical instruments

First came the burly assistants, to hold down the writhing victim


.  In skilled hands the surgeon’s knife could cut all-round in a single stroke, through skin and muscle and sinew clear down to the bone before the saw completed the work of separation.  Screams of agony rent the air as veins, flesh and arteries were cauterized with red-hot irons, vitriol (sulfuric acid) or boiling hot tar.  Should the victim survive the experience the wound would then be sewn shut.  God help the poor soul if there was any infection left after all that.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 –’71, one surgeon amputated 200 shattered limbs in one 24-hour period, a nearly unbelievable average of one every seven minutes.  Perfectly healthy fingers were occasionally severed in the gore and confusion.

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A 19th-century surgical illustration detailing amputation at the thigh. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. H/T Military-History.org

This was the world of the “Fastest Knife on West End”, a Scottish-born physician who, on this day in 1819, had just embarked on the first year of a medical career which would last until his death, in 1847.

Robert Liston, always the showman, would stride into the operating theater and call out, “Time me Gentlemen.  Time me”.  English surgeon and author Richard Gordon, an expert on Robert Liston, describes what that looked like:

“He was six foot two, and operated in a bottle-green coat with wellington boots. He sprung across the blood-stained boards upon his swooning, sweating, strapped-down patient like a duelist, calling, ‘Time me gentlemen, time me!’ to students craning with pocket watches from the iron-railinged galleries. Everyone swore that the first flash of his knife was followed so swiftly by the rasp of saw on bone that sight and sound seemed simultaneous. To free both hands, he would clasp the bloody knife between his teeth”. 

16944174-0-image-a-45_1565084128752Liston once amputated a leg in 2½ minutes from incision to suture but accidentally severed the poor bastard’s testicles, in the process.

On another occasion, he amputated a leg in 2½ minutes while severing the fingers of one assistant and piercing the coat of an observer.  The spectator was so terrified at the blood and so certain that his own vital organs had been pierced, he died right then and there from heart failure.

Both patient and assistant later died from hospital gangrene, a common problem in the days before Joseph Lister.  To the best of my knowledge, Robert Liston remains the only surgeon in history to achieve 300% mortality, on a single procedure.

October 7, 1571 Lepanto

Cross and Crescent met on this day in 1571, near a place called Lepanto. It’s been called “the Battle that saved the Christian West”. The Ottoman empire had not lost a major naval battle, since the 14th century.

Following the Islamic Conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire  massively expanded under the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, “Selim the Grim”.  1516 – ’17 alone saw an expansion of some seventy per cent of Ottoman landmass, with the conquest of large swaths of the Arabian peninsula, historic Syria, the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt.

Selim’s son and successor would become the tenth and longest-ruling Ottoman Sultan in 1520, until his death in 1566. He was “Süleiman the Magnificent”, in Turkish the “Law Giver”, a man who, at his peak, would rule over some fifteen to twenty million subjects, at a time when the entire world population numbered fewer than a half-billion.

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Suleiman I, “The Magnificent”

By 1522, Süleiman had managed to expand his rule to Serbia, placing the Ottoman Empire in direct conflict with the Habsburg monarchy, early predecessor to what we remember from WW1, as the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The Catholic states of Europe were plunged into a morass of their own at this time, wracked by the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, and by a series of wars for hegemony over the formerly-independent city-states of the Italian peninsula.

Italy_1494_AD.pngThe “Italian wars” of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries pitted no fewer than eight separate Christian alliances against one another, between forces of the Valois and Habsburg monarchies, the Holy Roman Empire and various Italian republics. In time, republican Venice was alone in retaining her independence, aside from minor city-states such as Lucca and San Marino.

Venice attempted to check Ottoman expansion into the eastern Mediterranean until 1540 when, exhausted and despairing of support, signed a humiliating capitulation with Suleiman I.

This, the second of three conflicts between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, left the republic without her former buffer territories in Greece and the Serbo-Croatian territories of Dalmatia.

Hurrem Sultan, better known as “Roxelana”, was probably kidnapped from the Polish principality of Ruthenia, and sold into the slave markets of Istanbul, given by the Valide Sultan (legal mother of the Sultan and chief consort to Selim I), to her son Süleiman.

Roxelana-Wife-Of-SuleimanRoxelana is unique in all Ottoman history, rising from Harem slave and Sultan’s concubine, to Süleiman’s legal wife and “Queen of the Ottoman Empire.” It was she who began a 130-year period of female influence over the male line known as the “Sultanate of Women” when, though born to slavery, the wives and mothers of the Sultan wielded extraordinary political power over  affairs of the Ottoman Empire.

She was instrumental in driving the unlikely ascension of her son Selim II to the Sultanate, following the death of his brother Mehmed from smallpox, and the murders of his half-brother Mustafa and brother Bayezid, in coordination between himself and his father.

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The Walls of Famagusta

Surrounded as it was by Ottoman territory, the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus had long been “in the wolf’s mouth”, as one contemporary historian described it.

The island had long been a major overseas possession of the Venetian republic. The Turkish invasion force of 350-400 ships arrived on July 1, 1570, carrying somewhere between 80,000 to 150,000 men. First capturing the coastal cities of Paphos, Limassol and Larnaca, the Ottoman force moved inland to lay siege to Nicosia, the largest city on the island. The siege would last forty days, resulting in the death of some 20,000 residents and the looting of every church, public building and palace.

By Mid-September, the Ottoman cavalry arrived outside the last Venetian stronghold on Cyprus, the east coast port city of Famagusta.

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Marcantonio Bragadin

At this point, Venetian defenders numbered fewer than 9,000 men with 90 guns, pitted against an invading force swelled by this time to over 250,000 with some 1,500 cannon.

The heroic defense of Famagusta would hold out for eleven months, led by the Venetian lawyer and military commander, Marcantonio Bragadin. By the following August, five major assaults had cost the lives of some 52,000 invaders, including the first-born son of the Turkish commander, Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha. Bragadin’s command was reduced to 900 sick, starving and injured defenders who, like local civilians, were begging him to surrender.

According to the customs of the time, negotiation before a city’s defenses were successfully breached allowed for terms of surrender, whereas the lives and property of a city taken by storm, were forfeit.

Terms of safe passage were agreed upon by the survivors yet, on presentation of the city, Bragadin was seized by Lala Mustafa Pasha, his ears and nose cut off, and thrown into a cell.

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1570-1576 Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. Researchers speculate that Bragadin’s flaying provided the inspiration for this painting.

A massacre followed in which every Christian left alive in the city, was murdered. Bragadin himself was later removed from his cell, his untreated wounds raging with infection.  He was skinned alive in the public square and his hide stuffed with straw, reinvested with full military insignia and sent with the heads of his officers to Istanbul, as a gift to Sultan Selim II.

Pope Pius had tried since 1566, to put together a “Holy League” to oppose the Ottoman invasion. In the end, Marcantonio Bragadin was betrayed, put to death in the most hideous manner, imaginable. Yet, the heroic defense against impossible odds of September 17, 1570 to August 5, 1571 gave a coalition of Christian maritime states time to assemble naval forces, in numbers sufficient to defend the Mediterranean coast.

The Crescent met the Cross on this day in 1571 near a place called Lepanto, in what’s been called “the Battle that saved the Christian West”.  The European side was outnumbered, with 212 ships and as many as 40,000 soldiers and oarsmen, to a Muslim force numbering 278 vessels and as many as 50,000 soldiers and oarsmen.

The Ottoman empire had not lost a major naval battle, since the 14th century.

What the Holy League lacked in numbers however, was made up in equipment, and experience. The Christians possessed some 1,815 guns, to fewer than half that number on the Ottoman side.

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Ten thousand would be lost to the Christian side, compared with four times that number, for the adversary.  The Ottoman fleet was crushed, losing 200 ships burned, sunk or captured, compared with 17 for the Europeans.

While the European victory at Lepanto put a halt to Muslim expansion into the western Mediterranean, zero lost territory was regained while the Sultan solidified his control, over the east. The Ottoman fleet was rebuilt within six months, including some of the largest capital ships, then in existence.

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Ottoman Empire, Expansion. H/T Britannica.com

Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokullu, Chief Minister to Sultan Selim II went so far as to taunt the Venetian emissary Marcantonio Barbaro, that the Christian triumph at Lepanto amounted to little:  “You come to see how we bear our misfortune. But I would have you know the difference between your loss and ours. In wresting Cyprus from you, we deprived you of an arm; in defeating our fleet, you have only shaved our beard. An arm when cut off cannot grow again; but a shorn beard will grow all the better for the razor”.

October 5, 1789 The Women’s March

Encouraged and egged on by revolutionary agitators, these market women and not a few men, plundered the city’s armories for weapons and marched on the the Hôtel de Ville (the City Hall of Paris) carrying kitchen blades, farm implements and anything else which would serve, as a weapon.  The mob swelled to as many as 10,000, before turning to the royal palace at Versailles, some thirteen miles away. 

We hear a lot this pre-election season, about “Left” and “Right”. “Liberal” and “Conservative”.

The terms have been with us a long time, originating in the early days of the French Revolution. In those days, National Assembly members supportive of the Monarchy sat on the President’s right. Those favoring the Revolution, on the left. The right side of the seating arrangement began to thin out and disappeared altogether during the “Reign of Terror”, but re-formed with the restoration of the Monarchy, in 1814-1815. By that time it wasn’t just the “Party of Order” on the right and the “Party of Movement” on the left. Now the terms began to describe nuances in political philosophy, as well.

Imagine you are there, from the beginning. The year is 1789. Your politics are middle of the road, maybe a little to the left. Now imagine that, in the space of two years, your nation’s politics have shifted so radically that you find yourself on the “reactionary right”, subject to execution by your government.

And your personal convictions have never changed.

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Cartoon of the period depicting the “3rd Estate” (Commoners) carrying the 1st (Clergy) and 2nd (Nobility) on his back

In medieval France, major constituent parts of French society broke into “Three Estates” being the Clergy (1st), the Nobility (2nd) and a 3rd Estate encompassing common women and men.

French society of the late 18th century found itself at a crossroads of tectonic events, any one of which carried with it the potential for societal upheaval.

Culturally, the “Age of Enlightenment” brought with it an elevation of “Reason” at the expense of tradition, and a diminution of the Monarchy and the Catholic Church.

Politically, the “Commons” had evolved into a caste of its own, with its own goals and a desire for parity, with the 1st and 2nd Estates.

Economically, the French state carried massive debt at this time, a condition made worse by French support of the American Revolution of a decade earlier.  The Nobility refused to accede to the tax demands of King Louis XVI.

The situation was precarious for the King that May, when Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General.   Having reached an impasse, the Commoners reconstituted themselves into a “National Assembly” that  June, demanding a personal audience with the King, for the purpose of drawing up a Constitution.

The National Assembly converged on the Estates General on June 20, only to find the door locked. What followed was hysterical, duplicitous or both, as the King and the Royal Family were in formal mourning at this time, following the death of the Dauphin; the heir apparent to the french throne.  Traditionally, political matters were held at such times, until the King came out of mourning.

It was yet another custom, about to be thrown out the window.

Finding the chamber locked and under guard, all 577 members of the National Assembly converged on an indoor tennis court. All but one put their names to a solemn oath, the “Tennis Court Oath”, swearing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established”.

image-placeholder-title.jpgThe oath itself was a revolutionary act.  Unlike the English Parliament, the Estates-General were little more than an advisory body, whose authority was not required for Royal taxation or legislative initiatives.  The oath taken that day asserted that political authority came from the people and their representatives, not from the monarchy. The National Assembly had declared itself supreme in the exercise of state power, making it increasingly difficult for the monarchy to operate based on “Divine Right of Kings”.

Riots followed as Leftist and reformist factions coalesced from anarchy to a coherent movement against the monarchy and the French Right.

Paris was “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” in July, when French revolutionaries converged on that age-old and hated symbol of the monarchy:  the Bastille. The fortress was guarded at this time by 82 “invalides”, veteran soldiers no longer fit for service in the field, and 32 Swiss grenadiers under the command of Governor Bernard-René de Launay, son of the previous governor.

The attackers – vainqueurs de la Bastille – numbered 954. Negotiations dragged on until the crowd lost patience, crowding into the outer courtyard and cutting the chain that held the drawbridge. Firing broke out as the bridge slammed down, crushing one unlucky vainqueur, while a nearby force of Royal Army troops did nothing to intervene. 98 attackers and one defender died in the fighting. The mob murdered another 7, after their surrender.

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On this day in 1789, hundreds of French women ransacked the markets of Paris, angry over the scarcity and the high price, of bread.  Encouraged and egged on by revolutionary agitators, these market women and not a few men, plundered the city’s armories for weapons and marched on the Hôtel de Ville (the City Hall of Paris) carrying kitchen blades, farm implements and anything else which would serve as a weapon.  The mob swelled to as many as 10,000, before turning to the royal palace at Versailles, some thirteen miles distant.

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The women’s march, hailed and encouraged by onlookers, making its way toward the Palace at Versailles

Arriving soaking wet from a driving rain, the angry mob converged on Versailles demanding political reforms and a constitutional monarchy.  The confrontation was ugly, violent.  Marie Antoinette herself narrowly escaped destruction, fleeing down a secret passage to the King’s chambers.

The King himself agreed to address the crowd,  from his balcony. “My friends,” he began, “I will go to Paris with my wife and my children.”  It was a fatal error.

The insurrection at Paris raced across all of France as the “Great Fear” spread across the countryside. The absolute monarchy which had ruled for centuries was over within three years.  Louis himself lost his head to the guillotine in January, 1793. 16,594 went to the guillotine under “the Reign of Terror”, led by the “Committee of Safety” under the direction of Parisian lawyer Maximilian Robespierre. Among them was Queen Marie Antoinette herself, who never did say “let them eat cake”.  The Queen’s last words on mounting the scaffold were pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it.   She had accidentally stepped on her executioner’s toes.

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Execution of Louis XVI

As many as 40,000 were summarily executed or died in prison awaiting trial before the hysteria died down. Robespierre himself lost his head in 1794.

The Napoleonic Wars which followed resulted in a Corsican artillery corporal-turned Emperor, fighting (and winning), more battles than Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great, combined.

The saddest part of the whole sad story, may be the son of Louis and Antoinette, Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy.  The boy was King Louis XVII in name only, thrown into a stone prison cell at the age of 8.  He would die there, miserable, sick and alone, at the age of 10.   

The whole exercise, seems pointless. The Bourbon Dynasty was back in power, within twenty years.

September 1, 911 The Royal “We”

Without exhuming a whole lot of bodies, there’s no knowing who the illegitimate child was along those five-hundred years of “Royalty”. Nineteen links in the chain. Suspicion centers on John of Gaunt (1340 – 1399), the alleged son of Edward III, but whose Real father may have been a Flemish butcher.

A story comes down from the Royal Residence of Queen Victoria, of the hapless attendant who told a spicy story one night, at dinner.  You could have watched the icicles grow, as the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland intoned: “We are not amused“.

VictoriaThe story may be little more than a tale told “out of school”, no better than “a guy told me at the pub” concerning a Queen whose name wasn’t ‘Victoria’ at all but Alexandrina Victoria, after her godfather Tsar Alexander I.

Despite the ‘pluralis majestatis’, the ‘Royal We’,  Vicky herself is said to have been an enjoyable companion if not exactly a zany funster.  At least in private.

The “Grandmother of Europe” never was given to public displays of mirth.  The Queen’s lighter side would forever remain, Victoria’s secret.  Yet for the rest of us, the lives of the Royals of history may seem very amusing, indeed.

Roman Emperor Caligula, so-called for the tiny soldier’s boots, the Caligae (“Little Boots“), the boy liked to wear on campaign with his father, famously appointed his horse Incitatus, Consul of Rome.  At least he planned to do as much.   Elagabalus ranked his Imperial cabinet according to the size of his officer’s ummm, never mind.  Charles VI, “the Beloved and the Mad”, King of France from 1380 to 1422, would sit motionless for hours on-end, thinking himself made of glass.

Russian Emperor Peter III was married to the formidable Catherine the Great, though all that greatness seems not to have rubbed off on ol’ Pete.  Given as he was to playing with toy soldiers in bed, it’s uncertain whether the Royal Marriage was ever consummated. A mean drunk and a child in a man’s body, one story contends that Peter held a full court martial followed by a hanging on a tiny gallows of his own construction, for the rat who chewed off the head of one of his precious toy soldiers.

There are those who contend the infamous Jack the Ripper, was a member of the Royal family.

The warlike men who sailed their longboats out of the north tormented the coastal United Kingdom and northwestern Europe, since their first appearance at Lindisfarne Monastery in 793.

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Lindisfarne Castle

These “Norsemen”, attacked Paris in early 911. By July, the “Normans” were holding the nearby town of Chartres under siege. Normans had burned the place to the ground back in 858 and would probably have done so again, but for their defeat at the battle of Chartres, on July 20.

Even in defeat, these men of the North presented a formidable threat. The Frankish King approached them with a solution.

King Charles III, known as “Charles the Simple” after his plain, straightforward ways, proposed to give the Normans the region from the English Channel to the river Seine. It would be the Duchy of Normandy, some of the finest farmlands in northwest Europe, and it would be theirs in exchange for an oath of personal loyalty, to Charles himself.

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Rollo “The Walker”

The deal made sense for the King, since he had already bankrupted his treasury, paying these people tribute. And what better way to deal with future Viking raids down the coast, than to make them the Vikings’ own problem?

So it was that the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte was concluded on this day in 911, when the Viking Chieftain Rollo pledged feudal allegiance to the King of Western Francia.

Rollo was called “The Walker”, because the man was so huge that no horse could carry him. He must have been some scary character with a two-handed battle axe.

At some point in the proceedings, the Viking chieftain was expected to stoop down and kiss the king’s foot, in token of obeisance. Rollo recognized the symbolic importance of the gesture, but wasn’t about to submit to such degradation, himself.

Rollo motioned to one of his lieutenants, a man almost as enormous as himself, to kiss the foot of the King.  The man shrugged, reached down and lifted King Charles off the ground by his ankle. He kissed the foot, and then tossed the King of the Franks aside.  Like a sack of potatoes.

Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte

In that moment, the personal dignity of the King of France, ceased to exist. The Duchy of Normandy, was born.

Richard III reigned as King of England from 1483 until his death on August 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field. After the battle, the last Plantagenet King was thrown in some anonymous hole in the ground, and forgotten.

For five centuries, Richard’s body was believed to have been thrown into the River soar. In 2012, Richard’s remains were discovered under a parking lot, once occupied by Greyfriars Priory Church.

Mitochondrial DNA, that passed from mother to child, demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that the body was that of King Richard III, the last King of the House of York.

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Mitochondrial DNA

But, there was a problem.

The Y-chromosome haplotypes, those passed through the male line, didn’t match up with the living descendants of the King.

The conclusion was inescapable. Somewhere along the Royal line, the chain of paternal DNA was broken. The proverbial “Mailman” had, er, inserted himself, into the family tree.

If true, that de-legitimizes John’s son Henry IV and everyone descended from him, down to the ruling house of Windsor.

Had such a break taken place in more modern times, the paternity of only a few minor Dukes, would be affected.  Professor Kevin Schurer of the University of Leicester, warned: “The first thing we need to get out of the way is that we are not indicating that Her Majesty should not be on the throne. There are 19 links where the chain could have been broken so it is statistically more probable that it happened at a time where it didn’t matter. However, there are parts of the chain which, if broken, could hypothetically affect royalty.”

Without exhuming a whole lot of bodies, there is no knowing who the illegitimate child was along those five-hundred years of “Royalty”. Nineteen links in the chain. Suspicion centers on John of Gaunt (1340 – 1399), the alleged son of Edward III, but whose Real father may have been a Flemish butcher.

I’m not a betting man but, if I were, my money’s on all those old guys, staying in the ground