October 9, 768 The Holy Roman Empire

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked of “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, called 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. It 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.

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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 had reached out to the Frankish Kingdom, for assistance.

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 now remained of the Roman Empire, was 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 from that day, to this.

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 the 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.

HRE 1500

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.

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked of “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 that “little corporal” directly resulted in the rise of German nationalism, clearing the way to a united German state in 1870, a polity which would go on humble the French state, in two world wars.

August 21, 1911 That Smile

Artistic types are fond of talking about the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa, the “Gioconda smile”, and what it may mean. Perhaps it’s nothing more than the sad smile of a mother who lost a daughter in 1499 before giving birth to a son, in 1502.

Something like 7.8 billion people lived on this planet in 2020, roughly 7 percent of all those, who have ever lived. In all that humanity precious few have ever been known in all times and all places, by a single name. Napoleon. Michelangelo. Ghandi. Leonardo.

Funny how many of them, are Italian Renaissance guys.

The Italian polymath Leonardo, the illegitimate son of a teenage orphan named Caterina, painted his most famous work (Italian Monna Lisa) in stages, between 1503, and 1506. Evidence suggests he was adding finishing touches, as late as 1517.

Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci. (Credit: DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images)

Mona Lisa was painted in oil on a panel of poplar wood, measuring thirty inches by twenty-one. It’s a very small object to hold the Guinness World Record for highest insurance valuation: US $100 million in 1962, equivalent to $870 million, in 2021.

The model is believed to be Lisa Gherardini, an Italian noblewoman otherwise little known, to history. She was married in her teens to Francesco del Giocondo, a much older merchant of cloth and silk who lived an ordinary middle-class life in which she bore him, five children.

Artistic types are fond of talking about that “enigmatic smile” of the Mona Lisa, the “Gioconda smile”, and what it may mean. Perhaps it’s nothing more than the sad smile of a mother who lost a daughter in 1499 before giving birth to a son, in 1502.

Leonardo could stare at a portrait for hours on end before adding a single brush stroke, and walking away. It may explain why Mona Lisa remains “Non-Finito”. Not finished. This in turn may explain why the artist never gave the portrait to the Giocondo family. He was never paid.

In the last years of his life Leonardo suffered some sort of paralysis, on his right side. While that didn’t impede the left-handed artist’s sketching, to stand for long periods and hold a painter’s palette, proved increasingly difficult.

It is believed Leonardo willed the portrait to his favorite apprentice Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, better known as Salaì, but the artist died, in France. So it is the most famous painting in the world, “La Jaconde”, remains in French hands from that day, to this.

Sort of.

When the French Revolution abolished the Royal Family, Mona Lisa made her way to the Louvre. She lived for a time in Napoleon’s bedroom in the Tuileries Palace. During the Franco Prussian war of 1879-’81 she was moved to the arsenal at Brest, for safekeeping.

On August 21, 1911, Mona Lisa disappeared from the Louvre.

Sunday August 20 was a big social night, in Paris. Come Monday morning half the city, was hung over. Three Italian handymen were not hung over though they may have been, tired. The three hid out when the museum closed and spent the night, in an art supply closet.

ITALY – CIRCA 2002: Theft of the Mona Lisa. Illustrator Achille Beltrame (1871-1945), from La Domenica del Corriere, 3rd-10th September 1911. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

With the Louvre still closed the trio lifted 200 pounds of painting, frame and protective glass from the wall. Then it was off to the Quai d’Orsay station to catch the 7:47 train, out of town.

Dorothy and Tom Hoobler wrote about the heist in a book, called The Crimes of Paris. According to these two it was 28 hours before anyone noticed, those four bare hooks.

The man who noticed was himself an artist, painting a portrait of the gallery itself. Even then there was no cause for alarm. The museum had a project at that time, to photograph every painting in the gallery. The cameras of the day didn’t photograph well indoors, so it was that each work was brought to the roof, to be photographed.

A fussy little man, the artist “just couldn’t work”, without that portrait in place. He persuaded a guard to find out when Mona Lisa was coming back down, from the roof.

Oops.

Masterpiece of Renaissance Italian art though she might be the Mona Lisa was barely known, outside of art circles. Now that all changed. The New York Times’ headline all but screamed from the front page, “60 Detectives Seek Stolen ‘Mona Lisa,’ French Public Indignant.”

Literally overnight, Mona Lisa became the most famous painting, on the planet.

The French art world was convinced at this time that evil American millionaires, were buying up French art. Never mind Mona Lisa was an Italian piece, but I digress…

American tycoon and art collector John Pierpont Morgan was suspected in the theft as was the Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso. The international tinderbox which brought a world to war in 1914 awaited only the right matchstick, in 1911. Maybe the Kaiser did it.

Meanwhile the three Italians who really DID steal Mona Lisa, two brothers, Vincenzo and Michele Lancelotti and the ringleader, Vincenzo Perugia (who just happened to be the guy who built that protective glass case in the first place), didn’t know what to do.

They thought they could sell the thing, maybe even repatriate the portrait, to Italy. Now Mona Lisa was too hot, to hawk.

Twenty-eight months came and went with Mona Lisa, in a trunk. Finally, Perugia approached an art dealer, in Florence.

They said they’d get back to him but it wasn’t a half hour, before the police were at his door. Perugia claimed to be an Italian Patriot, just trying to bring Mona Lisa home. Where she belonged.

He was sentenced to eight months, for the theft.

Somewhere around this time, an Archduke was assassinated, in Sarajevo. World War 1 began just a few days, after Perugia‘s trial.

History has a way of swallowing some events whole. As if they had never happened. Like the early Monday morning in 1911 when that most famous of smiles, just disappeared.

August 17, 1661 Party Like it’s 1661

Back when newspapers printed the news, Hearst columnist Ambrose Bierce (my favorite curmudgeon) was surely looking at New York corruption when he labeled politics “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.

Having once been rolled by two officers of the “law” in a certain neighbor to our south (it was a very polite mugging), government graft is near and dear to my heart. History is replete with official avarice on levels great and small, far more than a couple meagerly compensated cops, looking for a “gratuity”.

New York’s own Boss Tweed elevated graft to heights previously unknown in American politics, to where construction of a single courthouse cost taxpayers more than the entire Alaska purchase. Nearly twice as much.

Tammany Hall’s kickbacks were so lavish a single carpenter billed the city $360,751, for a month’s work. One plasterer billed $133,187 for two days’ work.

Back when newspapers printed the news, Hearst columnist Ambrose Bierce (my favorite curmudgeon) was surely looking at New York corruption when he labeled politics “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage“.

Rodrigo de Borja served as Pope Alexander VI, at a time when the job of Bishop of Rome was not always that of a pious man. Rodrigo bribed his way to the top and used the papacy to benefit family and friends making the name Borja synonymous, with licentiousness and greed. A man utterly devoid of morals the man sold his beautiful and fair-haired daughter Lucrezia no fewer than three times, to cement alliances. He openly fathered seven children by two married mistresses appointing one of their brothers Cardinal, who then went on to be known as “Cardinal of the Skirts”. Alexander’s October 30, 1501 “Banquet of Chestnuts” was an all-night feast and orgy featuring no fewer than fifty prostitutes Italian officialdom remains happy to sweep under the rug, to this day.

When the Florentine friar Girolamo Savonarola chided Alexander for his behavior the Pope is said to have laughed, out loud.

And yet, these are all as amateurs compared with French finance minister Nicolas Fouquet, a man who made King Louis XIV, the “Sun King” himself, blush.

Europe’s longest reigning monarch once commented “l’état, c’est moi”. I Am the state. Such arrogance is hard to understand for the political descendants of the generation, who threw King George’s tea over the side. It wasn’t at all difficult for the hoi polloi of Louis’ France who were expected to pay up, and shut up. Such was the world of Nicolas Fouquet, marquis de Belle-Île, vicomte de Melun et Vaux and Louis’ minister, of finance.

In 1651 Fouquet married his not inconsiderable wealth to that of Marie de Castille, herself the daughter of a wealthy Spanish family. The interminable wars of the age and the greed of courtiers frequently caused the new minister to borrow, against his own credit. Public and private accounts soon became so intertwined as to become indistinguishable from one another. Fouqet came to wield even greater wealth than his own chief benefactor Cardinal Mazarin, chief minister to Kings Louis XIII and XIV.

The minister completed construction in 1661 of the Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, his own personal palace of Versailles before there was, a palace of Versailles. That’s him and his modest little three room bungalow, at the top of this page. The man even used three of the same artists for the Château’s lavish appointments, as Louis himself would later use for that most famous, of royal shanties.

Worried that he might have gone a little too far, Fouquet bought himself and fortified a place off the west coast of France, a modest little island some 5 by 15 miles across called Belle-Île-en-Mer. You know, just in case of…disgrace.

But none of it stopped the party of parties, a celebration for the ages held on August 17, 1661, at Fouquet’s petit Château .

There were 6,ooo guests including the Sun King himself. Gifts were given to party goers, a diamond brooch for the ladies and a thoroughbred horse, for the gents. A performance was presented specifically written for the occasion by none other than the playwright, Molière.

A spectacular fireworks display lit the skies above lavish gardens and splendid paths. Fouquet’s little soirée was supposed to impress the King but instead turned him into, a party pooper. Apparently, such “unashamed and audacious luxury,” is what it takes to embarrass, a Sun King. Louis ordered his finance minister, arrested.

The trial stretched on for three years. The judges found the defendant guilty and ordered banishment but, Louis would have none of that. For the first and last time in French history a King overruled the verdict and ordered, imprisonment for life. The Mrs. was exiled and Fouquet’s crib snatched up, by the state.

EVENING OF AUGUST 17, 1661, ARRIVAL OF LOUIS XIV ACCOMPANIED BY THE COURT, hat tip Daniel Druet, sculptor

Fouquet spent the rest of his life in prison and died in his cell at Pignerol on March 23, 1680. His remains weren’t removed for another year. Just in case…I guess.

In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson stated, “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” Since that time the American taxpayer has plunked down $22 Trillion on Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Even with Social Security and Medicare excluded that’s still three times the cost of every military war from the Revolution to the unfolding collapse of Afghanistan, combined.

Rates of poverty as measured by the United States Census Bureau remain basically, unchanged.

So hey, never you mind a conga line of public “servants” leaving offices of trust wealthier, than when they went in. You don’t need to worry about who’s paying the kid $500,000 for those finger paintings either, or government debt your grandbabies’ grandbabies will never pay back. Just pull out the credit card & have a party. Like it’s 1661.

July 14, 1790 It’s Bastille Day

Today the French nation celebrates its own independence. A day to remember the storming of the Bastille and the Fête de la Fédération held a year later, to the day.


In medieval France, the constituent parts of French society comprised the “Three Estates”:  the Clergy, the Nobility and the Commons.

In the late 18th century, all France was in a state of economic chaos. The Nobility refused the tax demands of King Louis XVI. The Commoners reconstituted themselves into a “National Assembly” in June 1789, demanding an 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 either hysterical or duplicitous, because the King and his family were still mourning the death of the Dauphin; the heir apparent.  It was customary at that time to hold political matters, until the King came out of mourning.

Tennis Court Oath
Tennis Court Oath

Be that as it may, the entire National Assembly, all 577 members, converged on an indoor tennis court. All but one put their names to a solemn vow, “The Tennis Court Oath”, swearing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established”.

The oath itself was a revolutionary act, asserting that political authority came from the people through their representatives, and not from the monarchy. The National Assembly had declared themselves 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 the left and reformist factions moved from anarchy to a coherent movement against the monarchy and the French right.

Built in 1309, the fortress and medieval prison of the Bastille had long been a focal point of the insurrection, representing royal authority in the center of the city. Donatien Alphonse François, better known as the Marquis de Sade, was one of the few remaining prisoners in the Bastille by this time. He was transferred to an insane asylum after attempting to incite a crowd outside his window, yelling: “They are massacring the prisoners; you must come and free them.”

Prise_de_la_Bastille

Paris was “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” when French revolutionaries converged on the Bastille on the morning of July 14, 1789. The fortress was guarded 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, the son of the previous governor and a man literally born, in the Bastille.

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 holding 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.

The mob who stormed the Bastille to free the prisoners found only seven: four counterfeiters, two mentally ill and a man sent by his own family for acts of perversion now, lost to history.

Fun fact: Little remains of the Bastille, only a few stones on the Boulevard Henri IV, in Paris. Back in 1790, the Marquis de Lafayette sent the key to the Bastille “across the pond” to his close personal friend, George Washington. Today that key may be found at the home of the first American President – Mount Vernon.

A year later many considered to the Revolution, to be over. All France it seemed gathered on July 14, 1790 to celebrate, the Fête de la Fédération. A new Republic was born. The Marquis de Lafayette led the President of the National Assemblies and all the deputies in an oath of fealty to a constitution, as yet unwritten:

We swear to be forever faithful to the Nation, to the Law and to the King, to uphold with all our might the Constitution as decided by the National Assembly and accepted by the King, and to remain united with all French people by the indissoluble bonds of brotherhood.

Oath of Loyalty to a Constitution, never meant to be. July 14, 1790

“Citizen King” Louis XVI proclaimed his own loyalty to the would-be liberal constitutional monarchy. Queen Marie Antoinette then rose and presented the 5-year-old Dauphin, the future King of France Louis XVII saying “This is my son, who, like me, joins in the same sentiments.”

It was a bright and shining future, never meant to be.

The successful insurrection at Paris had infected all of France as a “Great Fear” spread across the countryside. The absolute monarchy which had ruled for centuries was over, in three years. Louis himself lost his head to the guillotine, in 1793. 16,594 went to the guillotine during a period of national self-immolation known as the “Reign of Terror”, led by the “Committee of Safety” under the direction of Parisian lawyer Maximilian Robespierre.

Among the slain was Queen Marie Antoinette who never did say “let them eat cake”.  The woman’s last words on accidentally stepping on her executioner’s toes were pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it.

Exécution_de_Marie_Antoinette_le_16_octobre_1793
Execution of Marie Antoinette

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 this whole sorry story may be that of the son of Louis and Antoinette. He was Louis-Charles, the pre-adolescent Duke of Normandy. The boy was King Louis XVII in name only, thrown into a stone prison at the age of 8. He would die in that cell two years later, miserable, sick, tormented and alone.  It all seems so pointless. The Bourbon Dynasty was back in power, within two decades.

June 10, 1944 Village of the Damned

French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour“. The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-seven years ago today. 

It was D+4 following the invasion of Normandy, when the 2nd Panzer Division of the Waffen SS passed through the Limousin region, in west-central France.  “Das Reich” carried orders to help stop the Allied advance, when SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann received word that SS officer Helmut Kämpfe was being held by French Resistance fighters in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.

Diekmann’s battalion sealed off nearby Oradour-sur-Glane, seemingly oblivious to their own confusion between two different villages.

Everyone in the town was ordered to assemble in the village square, for examination of identity papers. The entire population was there plus another half-dozen unfortunates, caught riding bicycles in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

The women and children of Oradour-sur-Glane were locked in a church while German soldiers looted the town. The men were taken to a half-dozen barns and sheds where machine guns were already set up.

SS soldiers aimed for the legs when they opened fire, intending to inflict as much pain as possible. Five escaped in the confusion before Nazis lit the barn on fire. 190 men were burned alive.

Soldiers then lit an incendiary device in the church and gunned down 247 women and 205 children, as they fled for their lives.

47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche escaped out a back window, followed by a young woman and child.  All three were shot.  Rouffanche alone escaped alive, crawling to some bushes where she managed to hide, until the next morning.

Oradour-sur-Glane-Hardware

642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane, aged one week to 90 years, were shot to death, burned alive or some combination of the two, in just a few hours.  The village was then razed to the ground.

Raymond J. Murphy, a 20-year-old American B-17 navigator shot down over France and hidden by the French Resistance, reported seeing a baby. The child had been crucified.

After the war, a new village was built on a nearby site.  French President Charles de Gaulle ordered that the old village remain as it stood,  a monument for all time to criminally insane governing ideologies, and the malign influence of collectivist thinking.

Generals Erwin Rommel and Walter Gleiniger, German commander in Limoges, protested the senseless act of brutality.  Even the SS Regimental commander agreed and began an investigation, but it didn’t matter.  Diekmann and most of the men who had carried out the massacre were themselves dead within the next few days, killed in combat.

The ghost village at the old Oradour-sur-Glane stands mute witness to this day, to the savagery committed by black-clad Schutzstaffel units in countless places like the French towns of Tulle, Ascq, Maillé, Robert-Espagne, and Clermont-en-Argonne; the Polish villages of Michniów, Wanaty and Krasowo-Częstki and the city of Warsaw; the Soviet village of Kortelisy; the Lithuanian village of Pirčiupiai; the Czechoslovakian villages of Ležáky and Lidice; the Greek towns of Kalavryta and Distomo; the Dutch town of Putten; the Yugoslavian towns of Kragujevac and Kraljevo and the village of Dražgoše, in what is now Slovenia; the Norwegian village of Telavåg; the Italian villages of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto.

And on.  And on.  And on.

Oradour-sur-Glane.jpg 2

The story was featured on the 1974 British television series “The World at War” narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, who intones these words for the first and final episodes of the program: 

“Down this road, on a summer day in 1944. . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years. . . was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road . . . and they were driven. . . into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then. . . they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War”.

Sir Laurence Olivier

French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour“. The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-seven years ago today. 

It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

March 16, 1914 The Cailloux Affair

Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen, of the apocalypse.


We heard a lot this past election, 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 this 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.

100 years later, differences between the French left and right of the period, would be recognizable to American political observers of today.

Joseph Caillaux
Joseph Cailloux

Joseph Cailloux (rhymes with “bayou”) was a left wing politician, appointed prime minister of France in 1911. The man was indiscreet in his love life, even for a French politician. Back in 1907, Cailloux paraded about with a succession of mistresses, finally carrying on with one Henriette Raynouard, while both were married to someone else. They were both divorced by 1911 and that October, Henriette Raynouard became the second, Mrs Cailloux.

The right considered Cailloux to be far too accommodating with Germany, with whom many believed war to be all but inevitable. While serving under the administration of President Raymond Poincare in 1913, Cailloux became a vocal opponent of a bill to increase the length of mandatory military service from two years to three, intended to offset the French population disadvantage between France’s 40 million and Germany’s 70 million.

Gaston Calmette
Gaston Calmette

Gaston Calmette, editor of the leading Conservative newspaper Le Figaro, threatened to publicize love letters between the former Prime Minister and his second wife, written while both were still married for the first time.

Henriette Cailloux was not amused.

On March 16, 1914, Madame Cailloux took a taxi to the offices of Le Figaro. After being shown into Calmette’s office, the pair spoke only briefly, before Henriette withdrew the Browning .32 automatic, and fired six rounds at the editor. Two missed, but four were more than enough to do the job. Gaston Calmette was dead within six hours.

Henriette_Caillaux
Henriette Cailloux

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next great European war would start with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. No one realized it at the time, but Bismarck got his damn fool thing on June 28, 1914, when a Serbian Nationalist assassinated the heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

The July Crisis was a series of diplomatic mis-steps, culminating in the ultimatum from Austria-Hungary to the Kingdom of Serbia. Vienna, with tacit support from Berlin, made plans to punish Serbia for her role in the assassination, even as Russia mobilized armies in support of her Slavic ally.

Meanwhile, England and France looked the other way.  In Great Britain, officialdom was focused on yet another home rule crisis concerning Ireland, while all of France was distracted by the “Trial of the Century”.

affairecaillaux_thumb

Think of the OJ trial, only in this case the killer was a former First Lady. This one had everything: Left vs. Right, the fall of the powerful, and all the salacious details anyone could ask for. Most of France was riveted by the Caillaux affair in July 1914, ignorant of the European crisis barreling down on them like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Madame Caillaux’s trial for the murder of Gaston Calmette began on July 20.

She was acquitted on July 28, the jury ruling the murder to be a “crime passionnel”.  A crime of passion. That same day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia.

In the days that followed, the Czar would begin the mobilization of men and machines which would place Imperial Russia on a war footing. Imperial Germany invaded Belgium, in pursuit of the one-two punch strategy by which military planners sought first to defeat France, before turning to face the “Russian Steamroller”. England declared war in support of a 75-year old commitment to protect Belgian neutrality, a treaty obligation German diplomats dismissed as a “scrap of paper”.

Eleven million military service members and seven million civilians who were there in July 1914, wouldn’t be alive to see November 11, 1918.

March 12, 1790 A Momentary Lapse of Reason

In recent months we have learned from our “elites”, that math is racist. That men participating in women’s sports is perfectly reasonable, that men can give birth. Dumbo and Peter Pan have been canceled. Dr. Seuss is driven from polite society.

The news this morning spoke of an “elite” private school in New York, and the 12-page memorandum sent home to Moms and Dads. Turns out the Grace Church School doesn’t like the terms, “Mom” and “Dad”. Kids aren’t allowed to use them anymore. Even at home.

Leaving a reasonable person to wonder, what exactly renders these people, “elite”? And why would such a thing warrant any response at all, save for a one-finger salute?

In recent months we have learned from such “elites”, that math is racist. That men participating in women’s sports is perfectly reasonable, that men can give birth. Dumbo and Peter Pan have been canceled. Dr. Seuss is driven from polite society.

Scores of millions of women and men of all persuasions and all political stripes quietly shake their heads in hopes that this too, shall pass. And not for the first time. In 1688, no fewer than 19 counties in England and Wales mobilized to defend against armed and rampaging bands of non-existent Irishmen. In 1954, widespread observation of previously unnoticed pits and dings in windshields caused residents of Washington state to believe there was an epidemic of windshield pitting, attributed to everything from sand flea eggs, to nuclear testing.

History abounds with episodes of mass hysteria. The Dancing plague of 1518. The Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 and the granddaddy of them all la Grande Peur, the Great Fear sweeping across 1789 France culminating in the French Revolution, the Napoleonic wars and an estimated 3.1 million dead Frenchmen.

All that to return back to the status quo, in 1815.

Imagine you were there, from the beginning. August 1789. Your personal politics are middle of the road, maybe a little to the left but in all respects, “Moderate”. Now imagine your nation’s politics have shifted so radically in the space of two short years, you find yourself on the “reactionary right”. You are hounded, subject to persecution, even execution, at the hands of your own government. And your personal convictions haven’t changed.

In early modern France, society broke into “three estates”: the Clergy (1st), the Nobility (2nd) and a 3rd Estate encompassing common women and men. The estates-general was a legislative body comprising three assemblies representing each of the three estates.

French society found itself at a crossroads in the late 18th century. Politically, the “commons” had become a caste of its own with a desire for parity, with the 1st and 2nd Estates. Culturally, the “Age of Enlightenment” brought with it an elevation of “Reason” at the expense of tradition and with it, a diminution of the Monarchy and the Church.

Economically, the French state carried massive debt at this time, a condition made worse by French support of the American Revolution a decade earlier. (Did we really just blow another two Trillion on a “Covid relief” package, with 7% actually going to Covid relief?)

The straw to break the camel’s back came in the form of successive crop failures. Across Europe, peasants tilled the lands of the manor houses of minor Lords who themselves owed fealty, to the higher nobility. The system had been around since Roman times. In 1789 France, successive crop failures spawned rumors of an aristocratic plot to wipe out the working classes. Peasants rose up to take action, against the seigneurs.

The fiscal and agricultural crises of 1789 pushed the nation over the edge. The “tennis court oath” that May asserted the autonomy of the third estate, a direct affront to the hereditary rights of Kings. The beast was unleashed. The mob stormed the Bastille that July leading to bread riots in the streets and a march on the King’s residence, at Versailles.

In three short months, King Louis XVI was stripped of executive authority.

On this day in 1790, the national Assembly decreed the sale of church-owned lands by municipalities, an affront to church authority unimaginable, in earlier ages.

King Louis XVI of France

King Louis XVI fled with his family in June 1791 only to be captured, returned to Paris and placed under guard. Even then the first French constitution approved that September, reflected the voices of moderation. While sharply limiting monarchical power the King still kept his head, still GOT to be King while enjoying veto power and the authority to appoint ministers.

Radical elements were inflamed, led by the likes of Maximilien de Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and Georges Danton. The King must be put on trial. Louis XVI was deposed in August 1792 and thrown in prison, followed by an orgy of violence against suspected “counter-revolutionaries”.

Once absolute monarch of France, “Citizen Louis Capet” was executed by guillotine in January 1793 in front of a crowd of 100,000. Bloodthirsty sans culottes rejoiced, wrote The London Times, while “honest citizens… could not suppress their heartfelt grief and mourned in private”. Queen Marie-Antoinette followed her husband to the guillotine, nine months later. The son of the royal couple, Louis-Charles, was thrown into a stone prison cell at the age of 8. The boy was dead at ten. The physician who performed his autopsy expressed shock and dismay at the scars, covering his little body.

The Jacobins, the most radically leftist in a kaleidoscopic mélange of competing factions, were now in power. These people went so far as to abolish history itself, creating a new calendar with themselves at the beginning. Year one. Just like that proclaimed by Pol Pot in April, 1975.

“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”.

Historical caricature of the reign of terror

The revolution turned on itself and ate its own young in 1793-’94, a period described as the “reign of terror”. Victims by the tens of thousands walked their final steps to the guillotine, while equal numbers stood to face firing squads.

Robespierre, once the thought leader behind this whole mess, came to be seen as an enemy of the Revolution. Knowing all too well what would happen next Robespierre shot himself in the face, to prevent his own arrest. The suicide attempt succeeded only in destroying the man’s lower jaw, and several teeth. That visage, once the face of Revolution itself and now wrapped in blood soaked bandages, was separated from the rest of him the following day.

Fun fact: Joseph-Ignace Guillotin had nothing to do with the contraption, that bears his name. He didn’t even approve of capital punishment. As a physician, the torture inflicted by breaking on the wheel, burning at the stake, death by boiling and dismemberment was repugnant. To be hacked at by axe or sword was hardly any better. If capital punishment was to be carried out at all he believed, the quick, impersonal and painless death afforded by a decapitation machine might just be the first step toward abolishing the death penalty, altogether.

It was Tobias Schmidt who actually invented the thing. The association with the guillotine so embarrassed the doctor’s family they changed their name. One J.M.V. Guillotin, an unrelated physician practicing in Lyons, met his end on the guillotine, giving rise to the myth that the inventor was killed by his own machine. Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin died at home of natural causes, in 1814.

Robespierre was barely in the ground when a certain Corsican corporal was thrown in prison, a suspected supporter of Robespierre. Napoleon Buonaparte would earn a place with the regime in October 1796, 13 Vendémiaire according to the new calendar, by putting down a royalist revolt in the streets.

The Napoleonic era had begun, fifteen years of violence pitting no fewer than 7 international coalitions, against the French war machine. French historian Hippolyte Taine has claimed the Revolution and Napoleonic wars took the lives of 3.1 million Frenchmen, alone. Precise numbers are impossible to determine.

Mark Twain once said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Following a year-long government lockdown and four years of the most divisive politics in American history – even Civil War soldiers from the north and south agreed about 80% of the time – we find ourselves in a period of national hysteria. The capital is surrounded by armed troops, and razor wire. Social media billionaires with funny haircuts and weird beards arrogate to themselves who gets to say what, and when. 1st Amendment be damned.

The wealthiest man on the planet shuts down whole social media channels while #2 rains down cash on racists, claiming to root the racists out of math.

Or maybe men really can give birth and math really is, racist. Who knows, maybe everything will turn out right, after all. Now that we’ve unsexed Mr. Potato Head.

February 17, 1915 American Volunteers in WW1

“When men who have no obligation to fight, who could not possibly be criticized if they did not fight, yet nevertheless decide, upon their own individual initiative, to risk their lives in defense of a cause that they hold to be dear, then we are in the presence of true heroism” – General Henri Gouraud

German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck once said the next European war would begin with “some damn fool thing in the Balkans”. Bismarck got his damn fool thing in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. We all know the story. The diplomatic visit of an heir presumptive. The open car. The wrong turn. The assassin.

There followed a series of diplomatic stumbles, military mobilizations and counter-mobilizations called the “July Crisis of 1914″. By August, there was no turning back. There would be no “Phony War” this time, no “Sitzkreig”, as wags were wont to call the early days of World War 2. The coming storm crashed across the continent like a clap of thunder.

Britain went to war with a professional army of 750,000 men, small by European standards. 8 million men were conscripted or recruited over the next four years, nearly half coming from outside the UK. They came from all over the British empire and beyond. Over 300 Americans volunteered with the Royal Flying Corps in WW1 as did Jamaican William Robinson Clarke, the first black pilot to fly for Britain, but no power so enjoyed the support of foreign volunteers, as France.

Foreign mercenary soldiers have a long history with the French military. Philip VI led 15,000 Italian soldiers against Edward III, in 1346. Napoleon had 60,000 Swiss Guard under contract of the Schweizergarten, in Vienna. King Louis Philippe formed the French Foreign Legion on March 9, 1831.

“American volunteers in the French Foreign Legion cross the Place de L’Opera Paris on August 25, 1914, headed for Rouen” H/T americansatwarinforeignforces.com

The United States was still neutral in the beginning, over two years away from joining the fray. The influx of American volunteers, began almost immediately. They came to join the French Foreign Legion, to drive for the ambulance corps and, later, to fly.

Interestingly, the central powers made limited use of foreign conscripts or recruits. There was the occasional foreign colonial in German units, soldiers of Chinese or African descent. Several Americans volunteered to fly for the Imperial German Flying Corps. Though nominally allied with czarist Russia, longstanding animosities led some Fins to volunteer with the Imperial German army. Irish Republicans took opportunity to attempt an independent Irish Republic and Germany was happy to assist but it was der Löwe von Afrika (Lion of Africa) General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck who famously led 11,000 to 12,000 African Askari troops in the only successful invasion into a part of the British empire of all of WW1.

With only a handful of generations come and gone between our time and that of the Great War, WW1 holds a prominent place in modern conceptions of “recent” history. Similarly, the WW1 generation held the Revolution in close regard, the events of the last century and one-half foundational to their own time. Americans were keenly aware in 1914 of the pivotal role played by France, in American independence. Kiffin and Paul Rockwell are but two examples of Americans who left comfortable lives to serve “over there” as a debt of gratitude, to the likes of the Count of Rochambeau and the Marquis de Lafayette.

General John “Black Jack” Pershing famously quipped on arriving on French soil, “Lafayette, we are here”.

The French Foreign Legion operated two regiments at this time comprised of six battalions of 1,000 men each and headquartered in north Africa. The need for manpower was acute. Two-thirds were of German or Austrian background and therefore of suspect loyalty.

Thousands of Americans volunteered for WW1 service in the Legion, notables among their number including composer and songwriter Cole porter, Eugene Jacques Bullard, who would go on to become the first black American fighter pilot in history, William Wellman, director of the 1927 film Wings and winner of the Best Picture award at the first Academy Awards ceremony and poet Alan Seeger (left), author of “I have a rendezvous with death” and uncle of the folk artist and social activist, Pete Seeger.

William Moll served his five years with the Foreign Legion and returned home to Chicago. He became filthy rich and died, in 1937. Imagine the reading of that will. All those eager relatives and the man left every dime of it, to the French Foreign Legion.

Some Foreign Legion units experienced close to 100% casualties.

Alan Seeger met his rendezvous with death at the Somme, in 1916. Fellow Legion soldier Rif Baer described his last moments: “His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend.” Even then, lying mortally wounded in no man’s land Seeger cheered on his passing comrades as the life ebbed out of him.

Not legally “Americans” at this time but members of their own sovereign nations, no fewer than 4,000 Indians enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, in 1914. Some 15,000 native Americans from many tribal affiliations enlisted with the American Expeditionary Force where members of the Choctaw, Cherokee and Cree nations learned to talk in code, early forerunners of the famous Navajo code talkers, of WW2.

The Battle of the Frontiers, a series of clashes between August 7 and September 6, 1914 brought no fewer than 2.7 million combatants together producing casualties on both sides, of some 664,000. The motor inventory of entire nations public and private, seemed inadequate to transport the cataract of wounded to places of medical care.

Members of expatriate American business community and embassy employees rushed in to assist in early association with the American Hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine, in Paris.

US Ambassador Myron Herrick and his wife Carolyn (“Kitty”) were instrumental in the early stages of the war as were wealthy donors such as the Vanderbilts, in early association with the American Hospital, founded four years earlier. As German armies crashed through Belgium and raced to capture Paris, the government fled for Bordeaux. Herrick stayed defiantly in Paris. “Paris belongs not only to France,” he said, “it belongs to the world!”

Three distinct ambulance corps would evolve over time involving no fewer than 3,500 American volunteers. Notable among ther number include the authors Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Dashiell Hammett who all but invented the hard-boiled crime novel.

Edward “Eddie” Mandell Stone lived in France when the war broke out and enlisted, with Foreign Legion, 2nd Regiment, Battalion C.

A member of a machine-gun section, Eddie (right) was mortally wounded on February 17, 1915 and taken to the Military Hospital at Romilly. He died of his wounds on February 27 becoming the first American combatant to die, in the ‘War to end all wars”.

After 1915, American pilots volunteered for multiple “Escadrille” – flight squadrons of the French Air Service, the Aéronautique Militaire.

The March 7, 1918 Harvard Alumni Bulletin would give Norman Prince full credit for persuading the French government to form all-American flying squadrons. He wouldn’t live to see the article in print.

Sergeant Norman Prince caught a landing wheel on a telegraph wire after a bombing run on October 12, 1916, sustaining massive injuries when his plane flipped over and crashed. He was promoted to sous (2nd) lieutenant on his death bed and awarded the Legion of Honor. He died three days later, at the age of 29.

Gervais Raoul Victor Lufbery (left) flew for both the Aéronautique Militaire and for the US Army Air Service and is sometimes listed as an Ace, in both. All but 1 of Lufbery’s 17 victories came as a French pilot. Raoul Lufbery was thrown from his aircraft and killed on May 19, 1918.

William Thaw II of Pittsburgh was the first pilot to fly up New York’s East River under all four bridges, the first American engaged in aerial combat in the war.

Authorized on March 21, 1916 as the Escadrille Américaine (Escadrille N.124), American pilots wore French uniforms and flew French aircraft.   Germany expressed dismay over the very existence of such a unit, complaining that the neutral United States appeared to be aligning with France.

Escadrille N.124 changed its name in December 1916, adopting that of a French hero of the American Revolution.  Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.

Five French officers commanded a core of 38 American volunteers in the beginning, supported by all-French mechanics and ground crew.  Rounding out the Escadrille were two unit mascots, the African lions Whiskey and Soda.

William Thaw with unit mascot mascots, Whiskey and Soda. ca 1916

The Lafayette Escadrille is often confused with the much larger Lafayette Flying Corps, and the movie “Flyboys” adds to the confusion.  The Flying Corps was different from the Escadrille, the former coming about as the result of widespread interest in the exploits of the latter.  American volunteers were assigned individually or in groups of two or three to fly in various French Aviation units, but, prior to US entry into the war.  The Lafayette Escadrille was the only one to serve as a single organization.

All told, 267 American volunteers applied to serve in the Lafayette Flying Corps, credited with downing 199 German planes at the cost of 19 wounded, 15 captured, 11 dead of illness or accident, and 51 killed in action.

William Graves Sharp took office in December 1914 and served as Ambassador the remainder of the war, but never seemed to get out from under the shadow of his predecessor, Myron Herrick. Ambassador Herrick returned to Paris in 1921 and remained, until 1929. Herrick greeted Richard Lindberg in 1927 and stood throughout the long funeral ceremonies, for Ferdinand Foch.

It is there the ambassador was believed to have contracted the illness, that would take his life. Now forgotten in his home country, Myron Herrick is well remembered in his adopted nation of France.

Today you can walk through the gardens of Paris’ Place des États-Unis, down the slope from Bartholdi’s sculpture where Lafayette forever shakes hands, with Washington. Up from the monument for American Volunteers in the Great War is the bust of Myron Herrick.

The once governor of Ohio and forgotten diplomat who refused to be moved when everyone around him, ran.

November 27, 1942. Vanquished, but Unbeaten

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers.  This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it. Even if they had to destroy it, by their own hands.

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940, with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries of Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. By the end of May, German Panzers had hurled the shattered remnants of the allied armies into the sea, at a place called Dunkirk.

The speed and ferocity of the German Blitzkrieg left the French people in shock in the wake of their June surrender.  All those years their government had told them, that the strength of the French army combined with the Maginot line, was more than enough to counter German aggression.

France had fallen in six weeks.

Vichy-France

Germany installed a Nazi-approved French government in the south of the country, headed by WW1 hero Henri Pétain. Though mostly toothless, the self-described “French state” in Vichy was left relatively free to run its own affairs, compared with the Nazi occupied regions to the west and north.

That changed in November 1942, with the joint British/American invasion of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. At the time, the north African provinces were nominally under the control of the Vichy regime. Hitler gave orders for the immediate occupation of all of France.

Scuttled, 2

With the armistice of June 1940, much of the French naval fleet was confined to the Mediterranean port of Toulon. Confined but not disarmed, and the French fleet possessed some of the most advanced naval technologies of the age, enough to shift the balance of military power in the Mediterranean.

While many considered the Vichy government to be a puppet state, the officers and men of the French fleet had no love for their German occupiers. This was a French fleet and would remain so if they could help it. Even if they had to destroy it, by their own hands.

Scuttled, 1

In November 1942, the Nazi government came to take control of that fleet. The motorized 7th Panzer column of German tanks, armored cars and armored personnel carriers descended on Toulon with an SS motorcycle battalion, taking over port defenses to either side of the harbor. German officers entered fleet headquarters and arrested French officers, but not before word of what was happening reached French Admiral Jean de Laborde, aboard the flagship Strasbourg.

The order went out across the base at Toulon. Prepare to scuttle the fleet, and resist the advance of German troops. By any means necessary.

The German column approached the main gate to the harbor facility in the small hours of November 27, demanding access.  ‘Of course,’ smiled the French guard. ‘Do you have your access paperwork?’

Toulon, französisches Kriegsschiff

Under orders to take the harbor without bloodshed, the Nazi commander was dismayed. Was he being denied access by this, his defeated adversary?  Minutes seemed like hours in the tense wrangling which followed.  Germans gesticulated and argued with French guards, who stalled and prevaricated at the closed gate.

The Germans produced documentation, only to be thanked, asked to wait, and left standing at the gate.

Meanwhile, thousands of French seamen worked in grim silence throughout the early morning hours, preparing to scuttle their own fleet.  Valves and watertight doors were opened, incendiary and demolition charges were prepared and placed.

27_toulon

Finally, the Panzer column could be stalled no more. German tanks rumbled through the main gate at 5:25am, even as the order to scuttle passed throughout the fleet. Dull explosions sounded across the harbor, as fighting broke out between the German column, and French sailors pouring out of their ships in the early dawn light. Lead German tanks broke for the Strasbourg, even now pouring greasy, black smoke from her superstructure, as she settled to the bottom.

The Germans could only look on, helpless, as a dying fleet escaped their grasp. In the end, 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 6 sloops, 12 submarines, 9 patrol boats, 19 auxiliary ships, 28 tugs, 4 cranes and a school ship, were destroyed. 39 smaller vessels of negligible military value fell into German hands along with twelve fleet vessels, all of them damaged.

The fires would burn, for weeks. The harbor at Toulon would remain fouled and polluted, for years.

The French Navy lost 12 men killed and 26 wounded that day. 78 years ago, today. The loss to the Nazi war effort, is incalculable. How many lives may have been lost, had Nazi Germany come into possession of all that naval power. But for the obstinate bravery of a vanquished, but still unbeaten foe.

October 16, 1793 Let them eat Cake

At first the people liked their new Queen-to-be, but the Royal Court was another story. A shark tank of grasping ambition, this crowd had promoted several Saxon Princesses for the match and called the Dauphine “The Austrian Woman”. She would come to be called far worse.

Political alliances came and went throughout 18th century Europe, with treaties often sealed by arranged marriages. One such alliance took place in 1770. Francis I, Holy Roman Emperor and Queen Maria Theresa, the formidable Sovereign of Hungary and Bohemia, married their little girl to Louis-Auguste, the son of Louis XV, King of France. Her name was Maria Antonia. She was twelve years old.

The happy couple had yet to meet when the marriage was carried out by proxy, the bride remaining in Vienna with the groom near-800 miles away, in Paris. She was now the Dauphine, Marie Antoinette, pre-teen wife of the 14-year-old Dauphin, future King of France.

Marie_Antoinette_girl

There 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.  Ohhhhh, no. This was the bizarre spectacle of courtiers crowding into the bedchambers, peering down at the frightened couple to be sure the marriage was consummated.

Unsurprisingly, it was not. In time, that failure would do damage to both their reputations.

At first the people liked their new Dauphine, but the Royal Court was another story. A shark tank of grasping ambition, this crowd had promoted several Saxon Princesses for the match and called the French Queen-to-be “The Austrian Woman”.  She would come to be called far worse.

The stories you read about 18th century Court intrigue make you wonder how anyone lived like that. Antoinette was naïve of the vicious circles into which she was cast. 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 or their unsavory relations, with their father. She literally couldn’t win. The sisters bellyached about 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 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_Ducreux

Louis-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 supposedly bizarre sexual romps.

The French government was staggered by debt at this time, 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, the Queen Consort 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 had taken root 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. That October, the King and Queen were placed under house arrest in the Tuileries Palace. They attempted to flee the escalating violence the following June, 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-history

Unrest 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 years old.

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

Antoinette was taken from her cell on October 14 and 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 out 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 years

On October 16, 1793, Marie-Antoinette’s hair was cut off. She was paraded through Paris in an ox cart, taken to the Place de la Révolution, and decapitated. On mounting the scaffold, she accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot.  The last words of the most hated woman in Paris, 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 “Les Confessions”, the autobiography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, attributed to a “Grande Princesse” whom the book declines to name. Considering the lifetime of cheap and mean-spirited gossip to which the woman was subjected, it’s easy to believe this was just more of the same.