Friday, 23 October 2020

King Louis IX of France


King Louis IX was the only king of France to be declared a saint, a status that he earned through his excessive piety and participation in two crusades.

He was born in 1214 and inherited the throne at the age of 12. His mother, Blanche of Castile, acted as his Regent until Louis was 20. France was largely prosperous and at peace during his reign of 43 years.

Louis was highly religious, hearing mass twice a day and surrounding himself with priests who chanted the hours even when he was on horseback. His piety did not stop him from being a courageous knight, undaunted by adversity and a good companion. He was in many respects the ideal king of the Middle Ages.

He took good care of the poor and needy, building hospitals and ordering that 100 beggars be given food and alms from the Royal provisions every day.

In August 1248 Louis set sail on his first crusade, heading for Egypt together with his wife and 35,000 soldiers. Things did not go well. His brother was killed and the army was struck by a plague. Louis almost died from dysentery and was captured by the Saracens. He was not able to return to France for another four years.

In July 1270 Louis embarked on another crusade, this time heading for Tunis, landing near the ruins of ancient Carthage. After some easy victories the army was again ravaged by plague, and this time Louis was himself a victim. As he lay dying he instructed his son and heir, who reigned as King Philip III, to take special care of the poor.

He died on 25th August 1270 at the age of 56. His body was returned to Paris in a long funeral procession that was lined by mourners wherever it passed through. From the moment of his burial in the Abbey of St Denis he was thought of as a saint, with people praying at his tomb for miracles. He was officially canonised by Pope Boniface VIII in 1297, which was only 27 years after his death.

© John Welford


Monday, 21 September 2020

Ernst Wollweber: saboteur for Communism


Ernst Wollweber was born in 1898, the son of a miner in Hamburg, Germany. He joined the German Navy in 1917 and was inspired by what was happening at the time in Russia, namely the Bolshevik Revolution. He was one of the instigators of the German naval mutiny of November 1918, hauling up the red flag on the cruiser ‘Heligoland’ at the entrance to the Kiel Canal, this being the signal for the revolt.

He had hoped that post-war Germany would turn to Communism but was disappointed in this when the Weimar Republic was formed in 1919. His response was to lead another shipboard mutiny and take his vessel to Murmansk as a present for Soviet Russia. He was rewarded by Vladimir Lenin by being appointed chairman of the International Seamen’s Union. In this capacity he sailed round the world, acting as an emissary of Communism in China, Japan, Italy and the United States.

The German Communist Party was destroyed by Adolf Hitler when he came to power in 1933, but Wollweber saw an opportunity to cause havoc for the Nazi regime. He based himself in the Danish capital Copenhagen, from where ships left loaded with supplies for the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. His agents were able to insert pieces of TNT explosive into the supplies of coal that fuelled the ships’ engines, with devastating results.

Sabotage now became Wollweber’s weapon of choice. In 1940 he was able to destroy the ‘Marion’, a German troopship heading for Norway. A shattering explosion sank the ship and badly burned corpses, 4000 of them, floated ashore for weeks afterwards.

When the Nazis invaded Denmark in April 1940, Wollweber escaped to Sweden, where he had already organised a sabotage ring. He was promptly arrested, but his agent had recruited two young waitresses whom nobody suspected of nefarious activity. They were responsible for a massive explosion at a freight yard in July 1941 which destroyed truckloads of German shells.

The Germans demanded that neutral Sweden should hand Wollweber over to them, but he stayed in jail until the end of the war in 1945. He was then allowed to travel to Moscow, where he was treated as a Soviet hero. He returned to Germany and organised a spy ring in what became Communist East Germany.

He continued to work as a saboteur, causing explosions on British and American ships. He was almost certainly responsible for a fire on board the British liner ‘Queen Elizabeth’ in 1953, which was the year in which he was appointed Minister of State Security in East Germany.

He did not always see eye-to-eye with the East German regime. In 1961, Walter Ulbricht, Secretary of the East German Communist Party, ordered Wollweber’s arrest. However, when Wollweber contacted Moscow a telegram arrived in Berlin that read “Let Wollweber alone, he is a friend of mine”. It was signed Krushchev.

Ernst Wollweber died a natural death in 1962.

© John Welford

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Manco Capac: legendary founder of the Incas


Manco Capac, who died in or around the year 1107, is generally described as the first emperor of the Inca people who occupied much of the western side of South America until their conquest by the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century.

The stories told about Manco Capac often sound as though they belong to mythology, but he was a real person, even though various legends have attached to him.

It is said that Manco and his three brothers and four sisters originally lived in a cave in the valley of the Vilcamayu river. They moved to the region of Lake Titicaca and brought civilisation to the tribes that lived there. One of Manco’s sisters taught the women how to weave wool threads into cloth and Manco taught the men how to farm. Manco encouraged them to worship the Sun instead of performing human sacrifices and he outlawed incestuous marriages between brothers and sisters.

There is some evidence that two tribes, the Inca and the Allcovisa, did indeed settle together near Lake Titicaca in the late 11th century and that there was a certain amount of cultural exchange between them.

However, there is no truth in the legend that Manco founded the city of Cuzco, because this is known to have been settled during the 900s and the Inca did not arrive there until the 1200s.

When Manco died he was succeeded by his son Sinchi Roca, and it was he who led the Inca into the Cuzco Valley which would in due course become the centre of the Inca Empire.

© John Welford

Friday, 18 September 2020

The body of King James IV


King James IV of Scotland was killed at the Battle of Flodden Field on 9th September 1513, following his unwise invasion of England while King Henry VIII was out of the country. The battle was a massacre and there was some doubt as to which body was that of the Scottish king.

There then arose a problem, due to the fact that James had died having broken a Treaty of Eternal Peace with England. This treaty had been brokered by Pope Alexander VI, who had decreed that anyone who violated it would suffer excommunication. This meant that James’s body could not be given a Christian burial. It was therefore taken to Berwick, embalmed, sealed in lead, and then transported to Richmond Palace near London.

When King Henry returned to England from France he suggested that the body be buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, but the Pope would have none of it and so it was taken instead to the monastery at Sheen in Surrey where it was left.

Following further problems with the Papacy, King Henry proceeded to declare himself head of the Church of England and dissolved the monasteries, that at Sheen suffering this fate in 1538. King James’s body was moved to an old lumber room and forgotten about.

There are various accounts of what happened next. One is that nothing happened until the early years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, in the 1560s, when a glazier working on the building, which was then falling into considerable disrepair, reported that he could smell embalming spices. A delegation arrived to inspect the source of the smell coming from a lead box and left again, taking no action. The glazier then decided to open the box, cut off James’s head and take it home with him. Not surprisingly, his family was less than impressed with this bizarre trophy so he took it to St Michael’s church in the City of London where it was reburied and may well still be there.

However, a second story relates that the whole body is still at Sheen, buried in an unmarked grave. Evidence for this is entirely lacking.

A third option is much more entertaining but probably the least likely of those on offer. This is that James did not die at Flodden at all. Instead, he was rescued by the Queen of Elfland and has been living with the elves ever since. One day, so it is hoped by those who believe this nonsense, he will return in triumph to continue his reign.

© John Welford

Thursday, 17 September 2020

The death of King Henry IV at "Jerusalem"


King Henry IV of England died on 20th March 1413 at the age of 45. His health had been poor ever since he had seized the throne from King Richard II in 1399. He suffered regular blackouts and had serious skin problems, which some contemporaries thought might be leprosy, but some sort of kidney disease is probably closer to the mark.

Henry himself thought that his condition was a form of divine punishment, not only for causing the death of his predecessor (Richard died at Pontefract Castle in 1400, possibly having been murdered) but for executing the Archbishop of York after the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. He became depressed and slept badly. On top of his health problems, he was on continual bad terms with his son Hal, the future King Henry V.

Henry thought the best way of improving his health would be to obtain a divine pardon, and the best way of doing that would be to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. That was why he was in Westminster Abbey on 20th March 1413, praying at the tomb of Edward the Confessor, prior to setting forth on his journey.

Edward had consecrated the abbey church of St Peter in 1065, not long before his death the following year. He was buried in the Abbey and later kings venerated his memory. He was canonised as a saint in 1161 and his cult was promoted by King Edward III as an alternative to that of Thomas Becket at Canterbury. That was why the abbey was rebuilt from 1245 to become the tallest of all Gothic churches and a fit setting for all future coronations down to the present day.

While King Henry was praying, another fit seized him, one that was to prove fatal. He was carried to a room that had been added to the abbot’s lodgings in the late 14th century. The monks of the Abbey had become accustomed to naming such rooms after holy sites, which is why the room where Henry died was known as the Jerusalem Chamber. When Henry briefly and partially recovered his senses he asked where he was and was told “Jerusalem”. Given that this was where he intended to go, Henry died happy.

Henry was not buried at Westminster but at Canterbury. His Queen, Joan of Navarre, had a splendid tomb built for him next to the shrine of St Thomas.

© John Welford

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

King Edward the Confessor


Edward the Confessor was the only English king to become a saint. This was entirely due to his personal behaviour and had nothing to do with his abilities as a monarch, which were far from what the country needed at the time.

Born in 1004, he was the son of King Ethelred II, who is known to history as Ethelred the Unready. Edward was 13 years old when his father died, at which time the throne of England was being disputed between Anglo-Saxons and invading Danes. Queen Emma fled to her native Normandy, taking Edward with her.

However, the new king, Canute the Dane, thought that a good way to make himself acceptable to his new English subjects would be to marry Ethelred’s widow, which is what he did. Emma later gave birth to another son, named Hardecanute.

Canute also had an illegitimate son named Harold and it was he who became king on Canute’s death. This was because Hardecanute was far more interested in looking after Denmark than England. However, when Harold died in 1040 Hardecanute became King of England and he invited his half-brother Edward to return from exile and assume the position of heir to the throne. Edward therefore became King when Hardecanute died in 1042.

Edward had very little interest in the monarchy, much preferring to spend his time in religious devotion. He was known to spend several hours every day praying and was even reputed to perform miracles of healing. He grew a long white beard and therefore looked more like an Old Testament prophet than a king of England.

The real power in the land was the Godwin family, who ruled the roost and whose word was law. Edward married a Godwin daughter but this was a marriage in name only, with no children issuing from it. There have been various theories as to why this was – Edward might have been impotent or homosexual, and it is even possible that he had taken a monkly vow of chastity.

At any event, when Edward died in 1066 after a reign of 24 years he left no heir other than his brother-in-law Harold Godwin. The resulting conflict over the succession between Harold and Edward’s French cousin William of Normandy soon resulted in the Norman conquest and the end of Anglo-Saxon England.

© John Welford

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Isabella of Angoulême, Queen of England


Isabella was born around 1187 at Angoulême in south-west France, the only daughter of the Count of Angoulême. She was about 12 or 13 years old when she was spotted by King John of England, who had only just come to the throne and was already married. He fell madly in love with her and divorced his first wife so that he could marry Isabella, which he did in the year 1200.

They were to have five children, but the marriage could hardly be described as a happy one, due mainly to John’s spiteful and jealous character. Once, when he thought that Isabella was having an affair, he arranged for the man to be hanged and for his corpse to be suspended over Isabella’s bed.

When King John died in 1216, the new king, who reigned as Henry III, was only nine years old. Isabella was keen to secure Henry’s title and lost no time in having Henry crowned, and this was done in Gloucester Cathedral. There was no actual crown to hand, so Isabella used one of her own gold collars as a substitute.

Isabella had no desire to stay in England so she returned to Angoulême and married her real childhood sweetheart. This was a much happier marriage than her first, and she bore her new husband six sons and five daughters.

Isabella was later accused of conspiring to poison the King of France, a charge that was almost certainly false. She sought sanctuary at Fauntevrault Abbey, where she lived in hiding for the last two years of her life, dying in 1246.

Years later, her son King Henry III visited the Abbey and was shocked to find that his mother had been buried in the open cemetery. He ordered that her remains be reburied inside the Abbey, where a suitably respectful effigy was later supplied.

© John Welford