Monday, 23 September 2019

Sir Walter Raleigh and the over-zealous servant

Sir Walter Raleigh (1552-1618) is widely credited for having introduced tobacco to England, having played a leading role in establishing colonies in North America that were particularly suitable for growing the crop, despite the fact that he never set foot on North American soil himself.

Whether Raleigh was directly responsible for bringing tobacco to England is open to doubt, but it is certainly true that he popularized pipe-smoking and was a keen smoker himself.

On one occasion this habit appears to have led to Raleigh having an unpleasant shock. It is not entirely clear where the incident took place, but one strong candidate is Raleigh’s Dorset Home of Sherborne Castle.

One of Sir Walter’s man-servants – so it is said – saw smoke arising from behind a bush. Knowing that Sir Walter was there, he deduced that something terrible had happened and that his master must be on fire. He therefore poured of jug of ale over the bush to quench the flames. This certainly did the trick as far as extinguishing the fire was concerned, but was the servant “fired” for soaking Sir Walter in ale?

Your guess is as good as mine!
© John Welford

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

Franklin Pierce: 14th President of the United States

Franklin Pierce, who served as the 14th President of the United States from 1853 to 1857, is generally regarded as one of the worst Presidents in United States history, his activities playing a part in the build-up to the Civil War. 

Pierce, born in 1804, was a lawyer from New Hampshire who had served in Army during the Mexican-American War, reaching the rank of Brigadier General. He had also been a Representative and Senator, resigning from the Senate in 1842. 

He was encouraged to stand as the Democratic nominee for the Presidency as a compromise between Northern and Southern interests. This was because he was a pro-slavery northerner who supported the 1850 Missouri Compromise that maintained the balance between slave and free states. Party unity was preserved by his nomination but he kept very quiet during the Presidential campaign, which meant that very few voters really knew that he stood for.

Pierce’s Presidency got off to bad start when his only surviving son was killed in a railway accident after Pierce had been elected but had not yet taken office. He consequently suffered from periods of depression during his Presidential term and tended to be a do-nothing President who did little to change the course of events.

The actions he did take were not all that wise or sensible. One was to allow the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act according to which new territories were able to decide the slave question for themselves, which was seen by abolitionists as forcing slavery onto new states.

In Kansas, pro- and anti-slavery factions flooded in from other states and resorted to violence in their efforts to influence the vote. The violence took the form of towns being raided and buildings set on fire, which led to the territory gaining the nickname of “Bleeding Kansas”.

There was also violence on the floor of the Senate, where one senator hit another with a cane and nearly killed him.

Franklin Pierce was seen as weak in his response to these events, and his pro-slavery attitude seemed to be confirmed when he proposed the incorporation of Cuba into the United States as a slave state.

Pierce lost the support of his party and was unable to contest the 1856 election. 

In later life, Franklin Pierce continued to comment on political matters and was horrified by the prospect of Civil War. He became an alcoholic and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1869 at the age of 64.
© John Welford

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Duke Ernst and his unwanted daughter-in-law

Duke Ernst of Bavaria-Munich was very worried about his son and heir, Albert. He wanted to make sure that Albert would make a good marriage, which meant, back in 1435, that his wife had to belong to another ducal or royal family with whom Bavaria-Munich sought an alliance. That was just the way that things were done.

However, Duke Ernst was hearing alarming tales about Albert’s close friendship with Agnes Bernauer, who most certainly did not belong to foreign royalty or aristocracy. She was the daughter of a baker, and she worked at a bathhouse in Munich. Her job was to carry jugs of hot water to the male clients of the establishment who spent time soaking in large wooden tubs. Did she provide any “extra services”? Maybe!

Duke Ernst was told that Albert was one of the bathhouse clients, and that he had struck up a friendship with Agnes. The reports became even more alarming when they suggested that the friendship had become particularly close. Could he actually have married the girl in a secret ceremony?

As it happened, Albert had indeed married Agnes, but Duke Ernst did not know this. Even so, he reckoned that something had to be done whether this was true or not. He therefore contrived a plot to get rid of Agnes.

This took the form of a tournament at which Albert would be able to show off his manly skills as a fighter and horseman, which were considerable. With his mind and body fully engaged on jousting and wrestling, he was in no position to look after Agnes, who mysteriously “disappeared” during the festivities.

Agnes was put on trial for witchcraft, found guilty, and drowned in the River Danube.

Duke Ernst did at least feel a pang of remorse for his action and paid for a fine church to be built over Agnes’s tomb. Albert fled Bavaria and thought about raising an army to challenge his father, but eventually made peace with his family.

In the end, Albert did make the sort of marriage that met with his father’s approval, marrying a rich and respectable princess from a powerful north German state.
© John Welford

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Roald Amundsen: the first man to reach the South Pole

Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) was a Norwegian explorer who led the first expedition to reach the South Pole, which he did in December 1911. History tells far fewer stories about him than it does about Robert Falcon Scott, who reached the pole a month later to find a Norwegian flag stuck in the ice, and who perished on the return journey.

The problem with Amundsen’s expedition, from the point of view of romance and history, is that there were not many problems.

Amundsen did not make many of the mistakes that Scott made. For example, he did not use heavy woolen clothing but lightweight furred skins. He also relied on dog teams for hauling sledges and not ponies, as Scott did.

The venture was carefully planned, with supply depots established at strategic points along the route. One factor that led to disaster for Scott’s party was that the supply depots were wrongly placed, which was not a mistake that Amundsen made.

Amundsen’s expedition did have one setback, with the first group that tried to reach the Pole being forced to turn back, but the second party, including Amundsen himself, reached its objective and returned safely to base camp.

Amundsen announced his success when he reached Hobart (capital of Tasmania) in March 1912. Some people in the UK were not willing to credit him with having beaten Scott to the Pole, preferring to wait for Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, to return to the UK with the triumphant explorers aboard. Of course, this did not happen. The full horror of Scot’s failure was not discovered until November.

Roald Amundsen later carried out expeditions in the Arctic, including flying to the North Pole by flying boat. He disappeared in 1928 when on a rescue mission in the Arctic. His flying boat is believed to have crashed into the sea, with his remains, and those of the other crew members, never being found.
© John Welford

Monday, 8 July 2019

Frederick Barbarossa: his death and boiling

On 10th June 1190 Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor (i.e. the ruler of German-speaking Europe) died in a river in Turkey. The circumstances of his death have never been established with certainty.

Barbarossa had responded to calls from Rome for another Crusade to conquer Jerusalem and save the “holy places” for Christianity. Saladin, the leader of the Muslim armies, had recaptured the city three years previously, and Christendom felt obliged to put things right, as they saw it.

Frederick I (Barbarossa was a nickname meaning “red beard”) was born in 1122 and became King of Germany in 1152 and Holy Roman Emperor in 1155. As a young man he had distinguished himself on the Second Crusade of 1147-49, and the call to arms in 1188 for a Third Crusade had a ready response from a man who, although now in his late sixties, presumably saw this as just one more campaign after a lifetime of military adventures.

Barbarossa headed an army of probably around 15,000 men, which marched overland towards Turkey. The Crusade was also joined in 1189 by the new English King, Richard I, who took the sea route.

On 18th May 1190 Barbarossa defeated the Turks at Iconium and the route towards Jerusalem was wide open. However, things went terribly wrong when Barbarossa reached Silifke in southern Turkey.

There are various accounts of what actually happened in the River Saleph (known as the Goksu River today). One story is that Barbarossa took a dip in the river at the end of a hot day. Another is that his horse slipped as he was crossing the river and threw him into the water. Did he drown after hitting his head on a rock? Did he suffer a heart attack as a result of shock from plunging into very cold water? We shall never know for certain.

What is known is that the army proceeded on its journey, led by Barbarossa’s son, also named Frederick, but with little enthusiasm for the task. Many soldiers deserted and turned for home, while others fell victim to disease.

Barbarossa`s body was given an unusual, not to say revolting, treatment. At Antioch it was boiled so that all the flesh fell off the bones. The flesh was buried in the Cathedral of St Peter, with the idea that the bones would find their final resting place in Jerusalem when the Crusade reached its goal and defeated Saladin.

However, this did not happen, so the bones were buried at Tyre instead.
© John Welford

Thursday, 23 May 2019

The poor health of King Henry VIII

It is well known that King Henry VIII had no luck in trying to father a male heir until he married the third of his six wives, with Prince Edward being born to Jane Seymour in 1537, 28 years after Henry had come to the throne in 1509.

Henry was quite ready to place the blame for his misfortune on his first two wives, divorcing Catherine of Aragon after 24 years of marriage and having Anne Boleyn executed after being married to her for three years. However, it is entirely possible that it was his own health condition that was the cause of the problem all along.

Kell blood

It has been suggested (by researchers Catrina Banks Whitley and Kyra Kramer) that Henry had what is known as Kell blood, caused by a genetic abnormality. When a Kell-positive man fathers a child, so they assert, the mother’s antibodies will attack the foetus during pregnancy, leading to stillbirth or miscarriage.

This does not happen on every occasion, which is why three of the ten pregnancies of Henry’s first three wives led to the birth of live children, namely Mary, Elizabeth and Edward. However, the other seven pregnancies failed.

McLeod Syndrome

There is another condition that is known to be suffered by Kell-positive individuals, and only by them, namely McLeod Syndrome. The symptoms are both physical and mental, the latter including paranoia, depression and socially inappropriate conduct. The disease usually becomes apparent only after the victim has reached their 30s or 40s.

This pattern seems to fit Henry VIII quite well. As a young man he was very much an outgoing and fun-loving person who was greatly admired. However, things went downhill after he reached his 40s, which was when he divorced Catherine of Argon, executed Anne Boleyn and created the Church of England by rejecting the authority of the Pope.

The deterioration in Henry’s character led to him becoming a suspicious and ruthless tyrant with a quick temper. This is perfectly consistent with a diagnosis of McLeod Syndrome.

A fascinating "what if"

It should surprise no-one that this analysis is not accepted universally, with some objectors questioning the assertion - mentioned above – that a father’s Kell blood would affect a foetus. Apart from that, the theory might seem to have much to recommend it.

However, if the theory is correct, it could be the fact that an inherited gene had huge consequences for the later history of England.

If Henry had been able to father a healthy male heir with Catherine of Aragon, early in his reign, not only would his marital life have been very different – Catherine died in 1536, so he might well have remarried, but who to? – but there would have been no need to break with Rome or dissolve the monasteries.

The later history of England would therefore have been very different. Princess Elizabeth (the daughter of Anne Boleyn) would never have been born and so there not have been an “Elizabethan Age”, with all that that entailed.

History is full of “what ifs” – that posed by King Henry VIII’s health is just one of many!
© John Welford

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Dagmar, a Danish princess who became a remarkable Tsarina

One problem with being born as a royal princess in past centuries was that you rarely had much choice as to who your life partner would turn out to be. In the case of Princess Dagmar of Denmark, she did not even get the royal prince that had originally been chosen for her, but his far less desirable younger brother.
Dagmar was born in 1847 as the second daughter of Prince Christian, who became King of Denmark in 1863. Christian had made an excellent match for his eldest daughter Alexandra, who in 1861 became engaged to the British heir to the throne, Prince Edward, and in 1864 he landed another prestigious prize by offering Dagmar as the prospective bride of the Russian Tsarevitch, Nicholas, and their engagement was duly announced. 
However, this did not last long due to the death of Nicholas from meningitis in April the following year. He was only 21.
On his deathbed, Nicholas expressed a wish that Dagmar should marry Alexander, his younger brother who was then aged 19. Dagmar therefore acquired a second prospective husband, whom she duly married on 9th November 1866, shortly before her 19th birthday.
The couple might have expected to enjoy a much longer period as crown prince and princess than they did, given that Alexander’s father, then reigning as Tsar Alexander II, was in excellent health and not yet 50 years old at the time of the younger Alexander’s and Dagmar’s wedding. However, tragedy intervened in 1881 when the Tsar was assassinated by bombs that were thrown into his carriage as he drove through the streets.
The crown prince was now Tsar Alexander III, and Dagmar, who had taken the names Maria Feodorovna on her marriage, was now the Tsarina. By this time she had had six of her seven children, although one had died in infancy. Her eldest son would become the last Tsar of Russia as Nicholas II.
With her husband Alexander as the nation’s ruler, the atmosphere of social and political life in Russia underwent a marked change. His father’s assassination had not been the first attempt on his life, and the new Tsar was determined to avoid becoming the next victim of the revolutionary mood that was building in the country. He therefore did everything he could to suppress all opposition to his autocratic rule, and to use whatever methods were needed to this end.
This attitude to politics suited his temperament, which was nothing like that of his somewhat mild-mannered father. He was a large, unwieldy man with gruff manners and a fierce temper. The Tsar’s word was law. The story is told that he was consulted about the route that a section of the proposed Trans-Siberian Railway should take. He took a ruler and drew a line on the map in front of him. However, his fingers projected over the top of the ruler and the line was straight with two small bumps on it. These were translated into two completely unnecessary diversions to nowhere that the railway was thus forced to take.
Physically, Alexander dwarfed his wife Maria, who was a small woman with delicate features. As a couple, the Tsar and Tsarina were completely mismatched. Maria had gone out of her way to understand the Russian people, not only learning their language but engaging in charitable and social events and becoming very popular as a result. Alexander had nothing but contempt for ordinary Russians, all of whom he regarded as potential assassins.
Alexander therefore spent much of his time listening to reports from his secret police about plots and threats, and passing judgment on the fate of people who were arrested as suspected terrorists. His worries were no means always baseless. One plot that failed involved a group of students who were hanged in 1887, one among their number being Alexander Ulyanov, whose younger brother would prove to be a far more successful revolutionary in later years, having assumed the nom de guerre of Lenin.
So what qualifies the former Princess Dagmar for the title of “great woman”? Perhaps nothing, but if one story is true – and it may well not be – there is certainly an element of greatness about her.
As mentioned before, Alexander gave much thought to the fate of potential suspects. His officials would produce lists of these and ask for decisions on what should happen to them. Occasionally, it might be thought that a relatively minor offence did not deserve the sanction of exile to the wilds of Siberia, where prisoners were often worked to death in terrible conditions. A piece of paper bearing the suspect’s name, with a recommendation for a pardon, would therefore land on Alexander’s desk to await his comment and signature.
The Tsarina took very little interest in politics, and she knew better than to challenge her husband in such matters. Nonetheless, she knew well what exile to Siberia meant, and she could relate to the heartbreak that such a fate would mean to the family of the person involved if the victim simply disappeared, never to be seen again.
On one occasion she walked into Alexander’s office to ask him a question, but he was not there. However, in his out-tray of signed papers she spotted a command concerning a prisoner for whom a pardon had been sought. Under the name of the man Alexander had written “Pardon impossible” on one line, and underneath “to send to Siberia”. Quick as a flash, Maria grabbed a pen and simply inserted a comma on the sheet, which now read:
“Pardon, impossible to send to Siberia”.
This is one of those stories that one wishes was true, even if it isn’t!
Alexander died of natural causes in 1894 at the age of 49, leaving the throne to his son Nicholas, who was eventually unable to prevent the end of the Romanov Dynasty. When this happened and the Bolsheviks took over, Maria left Russia, eventually ending her days back in Denmark and resuming her old name of Dagmar. She died in 1928 at the age of 80.
There is an interesting parallel between Dagmar’s story and that of a much earlier royal bride in another country. Catherine of Aragon was a foreign princess who was due to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales, who unfortunately died at a young age before the marriage had been consummated. Catherine was then passed on to Arthur’s younger brother, who became King Henry VIII. It might also be thought that there were some similarities, both physical and temperamental, between Henry and Alexander, both of whom were absolute monarchs who would demand obedience and accept no opposition.
Was Dagmar a great woman? She was certainly a woman of compassion who may just possibly have saved a life thanks to a piece of quick thinking and the stroke of a pen.
© John Welford