Sunday, 31 January 2016

Sir Thomas Fairfax, Parliamentary commander during the English Civil War

Thomas Fairfax was one England’s most successful army generals, being active during the English Civil War of 1642-9, on the Parliamentary side.

He was born on 17th January 1612, at Denton, Yorkshire. He was the son of Ferdinando Fairfax, second Lord Fairfax of Cameron, and his wife Mary Sheffield, who died when Thomas was seven. Thomas went to St John’s College, Cambridge, and then trained to be a lawyer.

Between 1629 and 1632 he travelled in Europe, which was engulfed at the time by the Thirty Years War, and came to know Horace Vere, who was considered to be the greatest professional soldier of his day. In 1637 he married Vere’s daughter, Anne, and they subsequently had two daughters of their own.

He fought for King Charles I against the Scots in 1639-40, and was involved in the defeat at Newburn. In January 1641 he was knighted by Charles. However, on the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Fairfax sided with Parliament by presenting a petition to Charles on behalf of the landowners of Yorkshire. Charles refused to accept the petition.

As second-in-command to his father, Fairfax fought at the defeats of Wetherby and Tadcaster in late 1642, but in January 1643 he drove the royalists out of Leeds. However, he was on the losing side again in March when his forces were routed at Seacroft Moor. He determined to take Wakefield, believing it to be poorly defended, but found himself attacking a much greater force than his own. Despite the odds he was completely successful, and his many prisoners included the royalist general, Lord Goring.

He was soon forced to turn his attention to the defence of other Yorkshire towns, particularly Leeds and Bradford, and suffered a defeat at the battle of Adwalton Moor. The Fairfaxes were forced to retreat to Hull, with Sir Thomas being wounded. He then took his cavalry to join Cromwell and the Earl of Manchester in Lincolnshire, where he displayed great courage at Winceby, and retook the town of Gainsborough. His exploits were very effective in preventing the northern royalist forces from uniting with those in the south.

At the end of 1643 he was called upon to help relieve the siege of Nantwich, in Cheshire, which meant taking an army across the Pennines in the middle of Winter. He had a huge victory and managed to capture all the royalist colonels who were besieging the town.

In March 1644 he returned to Yorkshire, planning with his father to join forces with the Scots at Durham. However, the Fairfaxes were met by a royalist army at Selby, but Sir Thomas’s cavalry was largely responsible for its defeat.

Events led swiftly to York being occupied by a royalist army, and the Fairfaxes laid siege. The attempts by Prince Rupert to raise the siege led in turn to the battle of Marston Moor on 2nd July, which was the largest battle ever fought on English soil. Sir Thomas was only a bit-player in the battle, which was a hugely significant Parliamentary victory, but he showed great courage and suffered further wounds. He was wounded again at the siege of Helmsley in August.

While recovering from these wounds, Fairfax was the beneficiary of a vote in Parliament that was known as the “self-denying ordinance”, which aimed to bar members of either House of Parliament from military command. The three existing Parliamentary armies were amalgamated, and Fairfax was voted commander-in-chief of the new entity, which became known as the New Model Army.

Considerable wrangling followed between the two Houses, with the Lords seeking to amend Fairfax’s list of officers. Eventually the House of Commons was able to ensure that his list was accepted. Fairfax was also frustrated at first by having his strategy dictated by Parliament, but after it became clear that military operations could not be decided by a committee, he was given free rein to direct operations himself.

The greatest victory for the New Model Army was at the Battle of Naseby on 14th June 1645. Fairfax and Cromwell commanded an army that was considerably larger than that of the royalists. It was the quick thinking and battlefield genius of Fairfax that won the day, coupled with the iron discipline of the Army that came from implicit trust in their general.

Having defeated the King’s army, Fairfax then marched west and was equally victorious at Langport against the only other royalist army in the field, that of Lord Goring. The rest of the First Civil War consisted of nearly a year of besieging and taking a series of towns and cities, the most difficult being Bristol. The New Model Army under Fairfax never lost as much as a skirmish.

Despite his courageous and energetic antics on the battlefield, Sir Thomas did not enjoy good health, and he was often too ill to be involved with the political matters that arose when the fighting was over. There were occasions when his illnesses appeared to others to be “diplomatic” in nature, in that he was not around when difficult decisions needed to be made.

There was no doubt that he was a far better soldier than a politician, and during the period 1646-9 he often found himself at the whim of decisions made by others, although he made efforts to support his rank and file soldiers when their pay came under threat. At one stage he offered to resign as head of the army, but he was refused permission to do so.

The fresh outbreak of violence that is usually termed the Second Civil War gave Fairfax work that was more amenable to him, namely leading troops into battle. Despite being in great pain from gout, he led his men against the royalists at Maidstone and then pursued them to Colchester and besieged the town for 75 days. At the end of the siege, he ordered the execution of two of the royalist commanders, which was within his rights so to do, but may strike us today as a black mark against his character.

It is clear that Fairfax was very reluctant to agree that King Charles should be tried for treason. He had always taken the view that the point of the Civil War had been to persuade the King to rule in a less autocratic way and to acknowledge the rights of Parliament. He did not set out with the intention of creating a republic. However, there were many in the Army who took a different view, and Fairfax found himself in a minority of one amongst his senior officers. The order to confine the King to Carisbrooke Castle was therefore signed by Fairfax.

When the King’s trial began, and it became clear that its purpose was to condemn Charles to death, Fairfax refused to have anything to do with the proceedings, and his wife interjected on more than one occasion to state his opposition, even calling Oliver Cromwell “a rogue and a traitor”. Fairfax made many efforts to prevent the King’s execution, although he refused to use force to do so, on the grounds that others might suffer as a result of such action.

Despite his profound disagreement with the regicides, he agreed to remain as commander-in-chief of the Army under the Commonwealth, and even became a Member of Parliament himself, although he never attended the House of Commons. In his Army role, he suppressed several mutinies and was nominated to lead a force against the Scots. However, he refused to cross the Scottish border and fight against his former allies. He therefore resigned his command, ostensibly on health grounds, but in reality for reasons of conscience.

In retirement, he devoted himself to literary and religious pursuits, including sponsoring the poetry of Andrew Marvell and translating several religious works from Latin and French, and to managing his estate. He had been granted a considerable amount of property by Parliament in gratitude for his services, and much of this had been seized from the Duke of Buckingham. However, in September 1657, Fairfax’s daughter Mary married the very same person whose property had been given to Fairfax. Cromwell had Buckingham arrested, and this led to a furious row between the former comrades-in-arms. It was only after Cromwell’s death in 1658 that Parliament could be persuaded to have Buckingham released.

After Oliver Cromwell’s son Richard proved unable and unwilling to continue the Protectorate, Fairfax was instrumental in helping the Restoration of King Charles II to take place without bloodshed. He did this by raising an army in support of General Monck, who had feared that his call for Charles to return would be opposed by Parliament.

With the new King Charles on the throne, Fairfax was able to retire once more. He had some fear that he might be included on the list of the regicides who suffered a terrible fate at the Restoration, on the grounds that he could have used the Army to prevent Charles I’s execution, but his fears were groundless. His last years were marked by increasingly poor health, and he died on 12th November 1671, at the age of 59. 

Like many great military men, Fairfax was less effective when not on the battlefield. His great skill was not so much in strategy as in command on the field, where he led by example and never lacked in personal courage. Despite being a stern disciplinarian, he was well liked and trusted by the people under his command. He shares the dual distinctions of being the man who did as much as anyone to bring down King Charles I, and also to restore his son to the throne as King Charles II.

© John Welford

Friday, 29 January 2016

Ernst Röhm, rival to Adolf Hitler

Everyone knows the name of Adolf Hitler, but that of Ernst Röhm is far less familiar. However, had things worked out differently, the reverse might well have been the case.

Ernst Röhm was born in Munich (Bavaria) in 1887 (making him two years older than Hitler). Coming from an aristocratic and military background he joined the German army in 1906 and was seriously wounded by shrapnel shortly after World War I broke out. His facial injuries could only be repaired to the extent allowed by the standards of plastic surgery at that time, with the result that he remained severely scarred for the rest of his life. He returned to the front and was wounded on two further occasions, eventually being invalided to an office job.

Adolf Hitler, whose origins were more middle-class, was also a soldier during World War I, and, like Ernst Röhm, he suffered injuries at the western front, although his were not as serious as Röhm’s.

The outcome of the war horrified both men, who regarded the settlement imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, in Hitler’s words, as “the greatest villainy of the century”. They both saw a need to fight on and not let the German military spirit die. Hitler remained a member of the Reichswehr (the much reduced German army as permitted by the Versailles treaty) while Röhm became the commander-in-chief of the Munich Freikorps, a loosely structured organisation consisting of various groups, the members of which harboured a grudge against the new order and were particularly opposed to the growing menace of Bolshevism in southern Germany.

Both Hitler and Röhm became members of a political organisation called the German Workers Party (the Deutsche Arbeitspartei or DAP). Hitler had originally been sent as a spy to infiltrate the DAP, but he found its ethos to be much to his liking and, instead of disrupting the DAP, he joined it and left the army. He was soon to rise to the top of the DAP and transform it into the National Socialist German Workers Party, which the world would come to know as the Nazi Party.

The two men probably first met towards the end of 1919, and it soon became apparent to Hitler how useful Röhm could be to him. Röhm had all sorts of connections in the seedy underworld of paramilitary groups that had comprised the Freikorps, and he was able to get hold of weapons. Once armed, the Nazis could clearly become a force to be reckoned with.

Hitler and Röhm became close friends, as they shared a common world view and the same hatreds, namely of Jews, Marxists and weak German politicians.

Hitler’s skills were clearly in politicking and speech-making, whereas Röhm was a man of action who knew how to use violence to support the politics. He recruited a gang of thugs whom he dressed in brown shirts and gave the name “Sturmabteilung” (Stormtroopers), generally shortened to SA. These became Hitler’s enforcers who were adept at creating mayhem and beating up anyone who appeared to dissent from the ranting offered by the man on the platform, namely Adolf Hitler.

In 1923 the Nazis attempted to seize power in Bavaria but the “Beer Hall Putsch” failed and both Hitler and Röhm were arrested and sentenced to jail terms in Landsberg Prison (where Hitler used his time to write “Mein Kampf”). Both were released early, in 1924.

Hitler now decided on a change of tactics, which was to use the political process to gain power. This marked the first breach between Hitler and Röhm, as the latter was much keener on using force. Hitler was afraid of further arrests as a result of the SA’s violence and wanted to restrict it to being a recruiting agency for the Nazi Party. That did not suit Röhm at all, and in 1925 he quit Germany altogether and spent the next five years in South America as an advisor to the army of Bolivia.

Hitler’s strategy of pursuing a political route to power started to pay dividends in the late 1920s as increasing numbers of Nazis won seats in the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament). However, he was troubled by the fact that the SA, without Röhm’s leadership, was getting progressively out of hand. He now had another group to act as his bodyguard, the highly disciplined Schutzstaffel (SS) led by Heinrich Himmler, and he wanted the SA to perform a different role. Only Ernst Röhm would have the authority to drum them into shape, so Hitler invited Röhm to return to Germany, which he did in January 1931.

Hitler’s idea was that the SA could be used to exert less than gentle pressure on people to make them vote for the Nazis, but its image would have to change for this to happen. Röhm accepted this new role and began cleaning up the SA, groups of whom now went on church parades on Sundays rather than smashing up beer halls on Saturdays. The SA also increased hugely in size, growing from 88,000 to 260,000 members within the first year of Röhm’s return. By 1934 its size exceeded three million.

Röhm’s big mistake was to have a different point of view from that of Adolf Hitler. He insisted on what he called “The primacy of the soldier”, and did not want the SA to be under political control. This was completely counter to Adolf’s Hitler’s thinking.

However, Hitler was slow to realise that his action of recalling his old friend from Bolivia could have been a serious mistake on his own part. The SA was now a rapidly growing armed force, far more disciplined than before, and its members were loyal firstly to Ernst Röhm and only secondly to Adolf Hitler.

Röhm, for his part, was making enemies of other powerful members of the Nazi Party, particularly Heinrich Himmler of the SS, who had risen from nowhere during Röhm’s absence and now saw himself as being under threat. Himmler clearly despised Röhm, despite the latter’s aristocratic pedigree, because he regarded Röhm as the leader of a working-class rabble of bully-boys, unlike his own elite force of hand-picked SS guards who came from a different class of German society.

One tactic used by Himmler, with the assistance of Hermann Göring, was to smear Ernst Röhm’s character. There was little doubt that Röhm was a homosexual, as were other leading members of the SA. His behaviour was far from discreet, and rumours of gay orgies involving SA officers were rife. However, this did not bother Hitler at first, as he still regarded Röhm as a valuable ally whose private life was his own affair.

But Röhm went too far by boasting that his SA was the real force in Germany and that Hitler could not touch him. He was quoted as saying: “Hitler can’t walk over me as he might have done a year ago. I’ve seen to that. I have three million men, with every key position in the hands of my own people”.

Hitler was only persuaded to turn against his old friend when he was eventually convinced that Röhm was plotting to overthrow him. Himmler and Göring invented a story to the effect that Röhm’s SA was going to seize power in a coup, having been offered money by the French government. Fake dossiers were produced to provide “evidence” against the leaders of the SA, and Hitler believed what he was told.

Hitler’s revenge came on 30th June 1934. He had ordered the SA leaders to a meeting at a hotel in Bavaria, but early in the morning of the day on which it was supposed to take place he arrived at the hotel in person, accompanied by armed SS members, and burst into Röhm’s room, where he was still in bed, to accuse him of treachery.

The events of the next 24 hours have been given the name “The Night of the Long Knives”. Suspected SA plotters were rounded up and executed, possibly as many as 200 people. Hitler’s sentence on Ernst Röhm was that he be made to take his own life, possibly so that Hitler would be spared the personal guilt of having ordered the killing of his old comrade-in-arms. However, Röhm refused to play along with this ploy and, having been left alone in a room with a pistol for ten minutes without shooting himself, was shot by the three SS guards who had been sent by Hitler to carry out his orders.

The death of Ernst Röhm and his fellow SA leaders made it abundantly clear that there was only one Führer in Germany, and that was Adolf Hitler. With his one serious rival out of the way, albeit by foul means rather than fair, the Hitler dictatorship was firmly entrenched. On the other hand, there were few who mourned the passing of Ernst Röhm.

© John Welford

Anne, Duchess of Brittany

It is a mistake to think of the politics of the Middle Ages as being entirely dominated by men. There were a number of strong-minded women who proved themselves to be just as capable of defending their realms. One thinks of Queens Mary and Elizabeth in England, but before them, just over the Channel in what is now France, there was Anne, the Duchess of Brittany (1477-1514).

Brittany had been an independent duchy for centuries, but in 1488 King Charles VIII defeated Francis II, Duke of Brittany, in battle and demanded that Francis declare himself to be a vassal of the King of France. However, not long after signing the treaty that apparently ended the independence of Brittany, Francis died and was succeeded by his 11-year-old daughter, Anne.

Young as she was, Anne saw the possibility of regaining Brittany’s former status, which could be done by entering a strategic marriage with a powerful partner, the best candidate being the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I. A proxy marriage was therefore arranged in 1490.

However, before the marriage could be consummated Charles invaded Brittany and insisted that Anne marry him instead. This therefore made her Queen of France, of which Brittany was only a part.

Charles died from an accident seven years later, in 1498, but under the terms of the marriage treaty she was required to marry Charles’s successor if a son had not been born by the time of Charles’s death. Anne was therefore still Queen of France, although the king was now Louis XII, Charles’s cousin.

However, Anne saw an opportunity to strike a bargain, which was that her title of Duchess of Brittany be restored in exchange for marrying Louis. What was more, Louis agreed to the title of Duke Consort for himself, which meant that, within the borders of Brittany, Anne outranked him.

If only technically, Brittany once again had an existence that was independent of France.

However, this state of affairs did not last long, because Anne died in 1514 at the age of 36, worn out after having been pregnant 14 times during her life, seven of those pregnancies ending in stillbirths. Only two of her children survived to adulthood, both of them daughters. Anne had hoped that her daughter Claude would be able to continue as duchess of an independent Brittany, by marrying the future Holy Roman Emperor as she had hoped to do, but this arrangement was not acceptable to the French King and so Brittany was finally absorbed into France.

Anne always regarded herself as a Breton, and gave instructions that, at her death, her heart should be buried with her parents at Nantes, alongside the graves of all her predecessors as dukes and duchesses of Brittany.

© John Welford

Thursday, 28 January 2016

Joan of Arc gets her wish to lead a French army

On 6th March 1429 Joan of Arc finally achieved her ambition of being accepted as the person who would serve her king and lead him to victory.

The situation for Charles VII was desperate. Much of France was under the control of England and her Burgundian allies. The city of Orleans was under siege, and Rheims, in the cathedral of which French kings were traditionally crowned, was in English hands. Charles had taken refuge in the castle at Chinon, where he held court.

Joan, a peasant girl who claimed that she had had visions of saints who told her to lead an army against the enemies of France, had not found it easy to get anyone to believe her – perhaps not surprisingly.

Her first attempt had been in April 1428, when the captain of the garrison at Vaucouleurs had told 16-year-old Joan not to waste his time. However, when she returned the following year she impressed the captain with her sincerity and piety and he sent her with an escort of six armed men on an 11-day journey through occupied territory to Chinon.

She arrived on 4th March, telling the courtiers who received her that her God-given mission was to raise the siege of Orleans and conduct the king to Rheims for his coronation.

The king refused to see her for two days, but then – so the story goes – devised a cunning plan to test her sincerity. If her quest was indeed a “mission from God” she would have no problem in knowing who he was, even though they had never met before, or so he reckoned. He therefore disguised himself among his courtiers, but Joan had no trouble in picking him out immediately and bowing before him.

Whether or not one believes this tale, the rest is, as they say, history. Joan was able to fulfil both her promises within four months. The army she led to Orleans forced the English to lift the siege on 8th May and Charles was crowned at Rheims on 17th July.

© John Welford

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Martin Luther begins the Reformation, 1517

31st October 1517 was the day on which the Protestant Reformation began, as this was when a monk named Martin Luther nailed his “95 theses” to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, which is between Berlin and Leipzig, Germany.

Luther took exception to the method used by Pope Leo X to raise money for the completion of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, namely the sale of indulgences to release the souls of the departed from Purgatory. The Pope encouraged agents throughout Europe to sell these pieces of paper to naïve and gullible people, in the belief that this would ensure that their loved ones would get to Heaven, and that they would also do so when their own time came.

Luther was particularly incensed by the hard-sell methods used by Johann Tetzel, a German Dominican friar, who had been given the job by the Archbishop of Mainz.

The 95 theses complained about many failings of the Catholic Church, which had been a corrupt organization for a very long time. Indeed, Geoffrey’s Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written in the late 14th century, included side-swipes at a number of questionable practices that were current then and which had not been put right before Luther’s dramatic gesture in 1517.

Luther made sure that his complaints did not just stay on the church door at Wittenberg. Copies were sent to the Archbishop of Mainz and, thanks to the relatively recent invention of printing, they soon reached many parts of Europe. The hammer and nails used at Wittenberg threw off sparks that would light a powder keg under the whole rotten edifice of the medieval Catholic Church.

© John Welford

Charles Edward Stuart: "Bonnie Prince Charlie"

31st December 1720 was the date of birth of Charles Edward Stuart, known to history as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, a man who spent his entire life regretting that things had not turned out differently.

He was born in Rome, where his father, James Edward Stuart, was living in exile as a guest of the pope. James Edward was the son of the former King James II of England and VII of Scotland, who had been deposed by William of Orange in 1688.

When the throne became vacant in 1714 on the death of Queen Anne, James Edward had been offered it on condition that he renounced his Catholicism, which he refused to do. The Hanoverians, beginning with King George I, thus became the new royal dynasty, which has continued to the present day. James Edward attempted a half-hearted invasion of Britain in 1715 but gave up when the expected support did not materialise.

However, Charles Edward was made of sterner stuff and was determined to place his father on the British throne and expel the Hanoverians. He was fully aware that this would be difficult to do, which was why he spent some considerable time trying to persuade the government of France, Britain’s traditional enemy, to support his cause. In 1744 he nearly succeeded, but the intended invasion fleet was scattered by a storm and the threat was averted.

However, in 1745 he tried again. He was landed by a French ship on the island of Eriskay, in the outer Hebrides, with seven companions. His aim was to recruit a powerful army from the Scottish clans that would then march south into England, with the expectation that a renewed attempt at invasion would be made by the French from the south.

At first, things went well for the “Young Pretender”. Many clan chiefs rallied to the “Jacobite” cause, including some who were Protestant but who resented being ruled by foreigners in the shape of Hanoverians. The Jacobite army swept south out of the Highlands and had no difficulty in capturing the city of Edinburgh and defeating a government army at Prestonpans on 21st September.

They continued into England, capturing Carlisle after a siege. However, the further south they got the more worried Charles’s supporters became, as they were in territory that was entirely strange to them. They were also concerned by the lack of support being shown by the English communities that they passed through. This was a country that was largely happy with Protestant rule and had no great desire to see another Catholic king on the throne.

When the army reached the River Trent at Swarkestone, south of Derby, a council was held of the army leaders who, outvoting Charles, decided that this was a campaign that was doomed to failure, especially given reports that the king’s army was gathering strength and that the French invasion had not materialised.

It has been said that these reports were misleading and that Charles could have won if he had proceeded because the government was in panic and its army had been spread round the country because they did not know where the Jacobites were. However, the evidence does seem to indicate that the clan chiefs were correct all along and that Charles was doomed to defeat.

The Jacobite army therefore returned the way it had come, pursued by an English army under the command of the Duke of Cumberland, the second son of King George II. Final defeat came at the Battle of Culloden, near Inverness, at which 1,000 highlanders were killed and Charles Edward was forced to flee.

The story then turned to one of pursuit and escape, with Charles relying on the support of brave individuals such as Flora MacDonald who took him “over the sea to Skye” at great personal risk. When captured she spent a year in the Tower of London, on a charge of treason, but was eventually pardoned.

Charles made his way back to France. He spent the rest of his life wandering about Europe, settling eventually in Rome where he lived out his days as an embittered, drunken has-been (or, more accurately, a “never-was”). He continued to live a fantasy existence as “King Charles III” after his father died in 1766, expecting everyone around him to treat him like royalty. He married a woman who was 33 years younger than himself, but she had few illusions about him – she described him as “the most insupportable man who ever lived” who got drunk twice a day.

Charles Edward Stuart died in Rome, in the house in which he had been born, in January 1788 at the age of 67. Despite the romance of the “lad born to be king”, there is every reason to believe that a Jacobite victory would have been disastrous for Great Britain, and that the country had a fortunate escape in that “James III” and “Charles III” never came to the throne.

© John Welford

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

John Adams, 2nd President of the United States of America

30th October 1735 saw the birth (in Braintree, Massachusetts) of John Adams, who would become the first Vice-President and second President of the United States of America.

Adams played a significant part in the founding of the new country, not least by nominating George Washington for the post of Commander-in-Chief and Thomas Jefferson to draft the Declaration of Independence.

He had a long career in government, during which his overall policy was to do whatever he thought best for the country, whatever anyone else might think. For this reason he rejected all political parties and refused to support any particular faction.

He managed to annoy just about everyone who mattered at one time or another. As American ambassador to France he insisted on speaking his mind, despite the consequences, which prompted Benjamin Franklin to think that he must be mentally unbalanced.

He was a convinced Federalist, which set him against Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who were staunch advocates of “states’ rights”. On the other hand, Alexander Hamilton did not think that John Adams went far enough in his federalism!

Fortunately, Adams was able to reconcile himself with Jefferson after both had had their turn as President, and they coincidentally died on the same day, 4th July 1826.

© John Welford

The death of Grigory Rasputin, 1916

On 30th December 1916 the “mad monk” Grigory Rasputin was murdered in St Petersburg, thus depriving the Tsar and Tsarina of their last hope of finding a cure for their son Alexei, who suffered from haemophilia.

Grigory Yefimovich Novykh was born in 1872 in Siberia. He became attached to a religious sect that practised flagellation, but developed his own theories that included using sex to obtain a state of grace. Despite his unsavoury appearance – he had a long straggly beard and strong body odour that came from only washing on rare occasions – he managed to seduce dozens of women, possibly through the use of hypnosis. He gained a reputation as a mystic healer as well as a debaucher – the name Rasputin means “the debauched one”.

When Rasputin reached the imperial capital of St Petersburg in 1903 his name was mentioned at the royal palace and Tsarina Alexandra (a granddaughter of Queen Victoria) sent for him in desperation at being unable to find any treatment that helped young Alexei.

Whatever Rasputin did seemed to work, because Alexei’s condition, although not cured, was at least alleviated. The royal family then became dependent on Rasputin, whose future therefore seemed assured. He did not cease his previous practices and continued to hold drunken orgies and seduce high-born women to save their souls, safe in the knowledge that all stories of his misdeeds would not be believed should they reach the ears of the Tsar and Tsarina.

However, Rasputin was by no means universally popular. Things came to a head in August 1915 when Tsar Nicholas left Russia to take command of the army during World War I and Alexandra was left in charge. By this time she would make no decisions without taking Rasputin’s advice, which meant in effect that the mad monk was in virtual charge of the government and was appointing Cabinet ministers.

The opposition to Rasputin was headed by a hard-line conservative, the extremely wealthy Prince Felix Yusupov, who decided that there was only one solution to the problem, which was to engineer Rasputin’s death. He headed a small group of like-minded aristocrats (including a cousin of the Tsar) to plot and carry out the murder.

He invited Rasputin to join him for late-night drinks at his sumptuous palace, this being an invitation that he knew Rasputin would not turn down. When the monk arrived he was offered cakes, which he wolfed down with his usual lack of table manners. What Rasputin did not know was that the cakes were laced with enough cyanide to kill him several times over.

However, the poison had no effect on him at all. Yusupov then went for a less subtle approach and shot Rasputin in the back when he rose from the table. He fell to the ground but then got up again and charged out into the garden, where another plot member had stationed himself. He also had a revolver to hand and promptly shot Rasputin twice more.

Rasputin’s body was rolled up in a carpet and dropped through a hole in the ice in the nearby river. However, when the body was recovered three days later it was found that there was water in Rasputin’s lungs, thus proving that he had died as a result of drowning rather than poison or bullets.

Rasputin had predicted that, should any harm befall him, the royal family would not survive for more than two years. In this he was eerily correct, because on 16th July 1918 they were all murdered by Bolshevik revolutionaries.

Prince Yusupov’s story was somewhat happier, in that, following a period of house arrest, he was able to flee the country after the Tsar abdicated in February 1917. He and his wife (a niece of Tsar Nicholas) settled in France, although the huge family fortune eventually ran out. He died in Paris in 1967, at the age of 80.

© John Welford

Monday, 25 January 2016

The death of Sir Walter Raleigh

On 29th October 1618 Sir Walter Raleigh met his end on the executioner’s block, having been the favourite of one monarch but intensely disliked by her successor.

He had been a swashbuckling adventurer during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, making discoveries in the Americas, founding the colony of Virginia (named after the Virgin Queen) and being a constant thorn in the side of England’s arch-rival and enemy, Spain.

When in England he had been popular not only with the Queen but also with many of the ladies of the Court, one of whom was Elizabeth Throckmorton, one of Queen Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting. The couple married in secret, probably because she was pregnant by him, but this meant that they had acted contrary to the Queen’s wishes, as she would have had to sanction any such marriage of a close personal servant. The couple spent a short spell in the Tower of London for this misdemeanour.

However, that was not what sent Sir Walter to the block. When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and was succeeded by her distant cousin King James VI of Scotland, Raleigh was soon implicated (almost certainly falsely) in a plot to overthrow King James, who had him returned to the Tower, this time for a much longer period.

It was only in 1616 that Raleigh was freed, this being for the sole purpose of leading an expedition to South America in search of the fabled land of gold named El Dorado. One of the conditions of Raleigh’s release was that no Spanish possessions were to be attacked, since James was anxious to repair the damage caused to Anglo-Spanish relations during his predecessor’s reign.

However, Raleigh was taken ill during the voyage and had to send the expedition on without him. His deputy disobeyed Raleigh’s orders and sacked a Spanish-held town, and it was for this misdeed that the Spanish ambassador demanded that Raleigh be executed. King James was only too happy to oblige.

After the axe fell, Raleigh’s head was, somewhat bizarrely, placed in a red leather bag and given to his devoted wife, Lady Raleigh. Even more bizarrely, she treasured this relic of her husband for the rest of her life and proudly showed it to anyone who called at her house. Presumably the numbers who did so were not all that great!

© John Welford

The death of Cardinal Wolsey

On 29th November 1530 Cardinal Thomas Wolsey died at Leicester Abbey during a journey south that would almost certainly have ended with his execution at the Tower of London.

Thomas Wolsey is generally supposed to have been the son of an Ipswich butcher and cattle dealer, but there is always the possibility that this was a story put about by his enemies in an attempt to demean him as an upstart who had no right to the high office that he achieved.

When King Henry VIII succeeded his father in 1509, Thomas Wolsey was already in royal service, having been chaplain to Henry VII. He had been noted for his willingness to do just about any task that was asked of him and to get results through his dogged insistence on seeing things through.

He was therefore in just the right place to be advanced under Henry VIII, because the young king (aged only 17 at the time of his accession) was far less interested in the minutiae of government than his father had been. Someone like Thomas Wolsey was just what Henry needed to relieve him of the more boring aspects of being in charge of the country.

Wolsey therefore rose rapidly to become Henry’s chief minister and he also acquired important offices in the church, particularly Archbishop of York and Prince-Bishop of Durham. These offices brought him considerable wealth, which he used to build a magnificent palace for himself at Hampton Court. This latter was an unwise move in that it excited the envy of King Henry.

For twenty years Thomas Wosley (a Cardinal from 1515) was the real power in the land and also a dominating figure in foreign policy. His methods were often underhand and corrupt, but Henry was not too bothered about how a job was done as long as the result was what he wanted.

However, things started to unravel when Henry realised that his best chance of fathering a son would be with someone other than Queen Catherine. He set his mind towards marrying one of her maids-of-honour, named Anne Boleyn, and he needed a way of getting his marriage annulled. This would have to be done by a decree from the Pope and Wolsey was obviously the person to act as Henry’s representative in obtaining such a decree. Wolsey was also the Pope’s legate to England, so he had the ear of both parties in the dispute.

This was easier said than done, not least because Pope Clement VII had no wish to anger the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who was a nephew of Queen Catherine. No amount of persuasion on Wolsey’s part would make the Pope hurry his decision. Henry and Anne Boleyn now began to wonder if Wolsey’s loyalty to the Church was outweighing his loyalty to the king, so Henry started to think of a different means to the desired end.

The new solution, which involved breaking with the Church of Rome, would bypass the need for Thomas Wolsey to act on his behalf and there was also that rather attractive big house just up the Thames that Henry had his eye on. With Wolsey out of the way, two desirable objectives could be met.

Wolsey knew that things were stacked against him when Henry simply commandeered Hampton Court in 1529 and stripped Wolsey of all his government offices. He was, however, allowed to retain his archbishopric of York.

Wolsey was a sick man when, in 1530, he started out for York, which would have been the first time he had done so since his appointment in 1514. While in Yorkshire the news reached him that he had been arraigned for high treason, and he was under arrest when he arrived at Leicester Abbey.

Among his last words, he said: “Had I but served God as diligently as I have my king, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs”. He was aged 55 when he died.

© John Welford

Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie

29th January 1853 was the wedding day of Emperor Napoleon III of France and Princess Eugenie. It was hardly a love-match, but it fitted the bill as a dynastic marriage.

Prince Louis Napoleon was the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte. He had been elected to the office of President of the French Republic in 1848 but staged a coup d’etat in 1851 that abolished the republic and established a new Napoleonic empire. As Emperor he sought a suitable Empress to produce his heirs and to stand by his side on public occasions.

Eugenia Maria De Montijo De Guzman came from an aristocratic Spanish family that boasted a string of long-established titles. She was therefore highly suitable as a candidate for Empress, although the temperaments of the partners were somewhat different. She was a strict Catholic, aged 26, with a  highly-developed sense of morality, whereas Napoleon, aged 44, was a typical French aristocrat who had no intention of remaining faithful to his new bride.

The marriage was a civil ceremony followed by a church service the following day. Eugenie (the French form of her name by which she was subsequently known) insisted that the union would not be consummated until after it had been blessed by the Church.

It would appear that Eugenie tolerated the marriage for the sake of appearances, although she was repulsed by her overweight, sweaty husband who attracted women more by his family name than his prowess as a lover. She did, however, bear him a son who turned out to be their only child and was given the title of Prince Imperial.

The Second Empire only lasted until 1870 when the French were defeated in the Franco-Prussian War and the imperial family was exiled to Great Britain. Napoleon died there in 1873 and the Prince Imperial was killed in South Africa fighting for the British during the Zulu War of 1879.

Eugenie continued to live in England but also had a house in the south of France where she spent much of her time in retirement. She died in 1920 at the age of 94.

© John Welford

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Catherine de Medici: France’s answer to Queen Elizabeth I

28th October 1533 was the wedding day of the future King Henri II of France and Catherine de Medici, the great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent and a niece of Pope Clement VII. The young girl would become a major player in the history of France during the 16th century.

Catherine and Henri

As might have been expected, the union of Henri and Catherine was a typical royal “arranged marriage” that was designed to strengthen international ties and was in no way a love match. For one thing, the couple were both aged only 14 at the time.

Henri (who became king in 1547 on his 28th birthday) revealed his lack of affection for Catherine only a year after marrying her, by taking a mistress who was nearly 20 years his senior, this being Diane de Poitiers. Catherine was allowed into the king’s bed only for the purpose of conceiving children, which she was perfectly capable of doing, but Diane was clearly Henri’s preferred companion.

Indeed, Catherine gave birth to three future kings of France among a total of ten children, most of whom lived to adulthood. However, when she gave birth in 1556 to twin girls, one of whom was stillborn and the other lived for only a few weeks, she was advised to have no more children and Diane then had complete access to Henri’s favours.

Catherine becomes the power in the land

It was probably therefore to be expected that, when Henri died in 1559 after a jousting accident in which he had worn Diane’s ribbon on his lance rather than Catherine’s, the latter decided to assert her authority and give Diane her marching orders.

The new king was Henri and Catherine’s eldest son, Francis II, who only lived for 17 months before being succeeded by his brother who reigned for 14 years as Charles IX. Catherine had not acted as regent for Francis but she did for Charles, who was ten years old on his accession. She continued to have a dominant influence on the government of France for the rest of her life (she died in 1589), given that none of her sons (Henri III became king in 1574) demonstrated much talent for the job.

One of Catherine’s methods of keeping control was to establish a network of spies, much as her contemporary Queen Elizabeth I was doing in England. However, Catherine’s spies consisted of beautiful women (known as the “flying squadron”) who used their feminine wiles to extract secrets from friends and foes.

Catherine’s tarnished reputation

Catherine de Medici is most remembered for being the chief influence behind the religious wars that plagued France at that time, the most notorious event being the “Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day” in 1572 which was a concerted attack on French Protestants (the Huguenots). The slaughter was ordered by King Charles IX, but must have been sanctioned by Catherine. As many as 30,000 people may have died within a week as the killing spread across France.

Although Catherine de Medici was hardly the greatest import that the French royal family ever made, she is reputed to have introduced one notable feature that improved French manners and which has lasted to the present day, namely the table fork!

© John Welford

Queen Eleanor's special memorials

On 28th November 1290 Queen Eleanor of England died, after which her grieving husband, King Edward I, demonstrated his devotion to her in a remarkable and long-lasting way.

Edward and Eleanor

The marriage between Eleanor of Castile and Prince Edward had taken place in 1254 when she was aged 10 and Edward was 15, although it was common practice at the time for child marriages not to be consummated until the girl was of a suitable age. She was Queen of England at the age of 26 when Edward became king, and she would bear him 15 children although most of them did not reach adulthood.

The couple were clearly devoted to each other, with Eleanor accompanying Edward on Crusade and, according to tradition, sucking poison from a wound when Edward was assailed by a would-be assassin. Edward was hot-tempered and often brutal, but Eleanor appears to have been a calming influence on him.

The death of Eleanor

Her death, from a fever, occurred when the king and queen were visiting the East Midlands. Edward had gone ahead because Eleanor was recovering from childbirth and needed to travel more slowly. When news reached him that she was ill (at Harby in Nottinghamshire) he rushed back but was too late to see her before she died.

Eleanor’s body was taken to Lincoln and embalmed before being taken south to be buried in Westminster Abbey. Each night the cortege rested at a town or village along the route, there being twelve such places in all.

The Eleanor crosses

After the funeral, Edward declared that each of the stopping places of Eleanor’s body should be commemorated by the erection of a memorial which could become a place where prayers could be offered for her soul. The memorials, known as “Eleanor crosses” were carved and erected over a three year period.

Today, only three of the original crosses remain, these being at Geddington and Hardingstone (both in Northamptonshire), and Waltham Cross in Hertfordshire. Fragments of some of the other crosses are held in museums.

(The full list of original locations is: Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington (see picture), Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham (now Waltham Cross), Westcheap (now Cheapside), Charing (now Charing Cross))

The best known Eleanor cross, because of its location, is Charing Cross near London’s Trafalgar Square. However, this is an ornate Victorian replica, the original having been destroyed during the English Civil War in 1647 due to its supposed idolatrous nature.

© John Welford

The death of Charlemagne, 814

28th January 814 was the day on which a great European emperor died. He is generally known to history as Charlemagne, which points to his importance as King of the Franks and thus the father of the French nation, but he was actually more German than French.

The empire controlled by Charlemagne stretched across the whole of present-day France, Belgium and the Netherlands, nearly all of Germany and Austria, and parts of Italy, Hungary and Spain. The dynasty that he established, named Carolingian, ruled until 987.

Charlemagne died from influenza at the age of 71 and was buried in the cathedral that he had built in his capital city of Aachen, which the French prefer to call Aix-la-Chapelle.

Charlemagne even managed to become a saint in the eyes of some believers. However, he was canonised in 1165 by Pope Paschal III, who was an anti-pope established by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Charlemagne is therefore not included on the list of saints approved by the Catholic or Orthodox Churches.

© John Welford

Louis and Auguste Lumière, inventors of cinematography

On 28th December 1895 the Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste, demonstrated the first true motion picture, via a system which they called the cinématographe.

The brothers were born in Besançon, eastern France (Louis in 1862 and Auguste in 1864) but grew up in Lyon. They showed an early interest in still photography and Louis saw a career opportunity in the production of photographic plates. He persuaded his father Antoine to finance the venture, which was producing 15 million plates a year within ten years of the factory opening.

It was Antoine who first directed his sons’ interest towards motion pictures. After he saw a demonstration in Paris of Thomas Edison’s “Kinetoscope” he went home to Lyon and suggested to the brothers that they develop a means of projecting moving images on to a screen instead of the “peepshow” system that Edison had patented.

The Lumières came up with something that was to form the basis of cinematography for many years to come. They appreciated that the human brain could interpret the viewing of fifteen frames a second as motion, so they gave themselves a modicum of insurance by introducing a system that recorded and played at sixteen frames a second, which is the standard still used to the present day. By contrast, Edison’s system ran at 46 frames a second, which meant that vastly more film was needed to record sequences that ran for the same length of time.

The patrons of the Café de la Paix, near the Paris Opera, were treated to two short films, one showing a train apparently charging out of the screen at them and the other being somewhat less dramatic and bearing the title “Workers leaving the Lumière factory”. However, the brothers were to go on to make more than 1000 films over the next four years and thus give birth to a new industry and a new form of entertainment.

© John Welford

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen to two kings

27th March 1204 was the day of which Eleanor of Aquitaine died, at the advanced age, for the time, of 82.

She was a very remarkable woman, not least for being married to two kings and being the mother of two more. She was born in Bordeaux, south-west France, in 1122 and became Duchess of Aquitaine at the age of 15. This made her immensely wealthy and highly suitable as the bride of King Louis VII of France, whom she married only three months after becoming a duchess.

Although she bore Louis two daughters, she could not produce a son, and Louis duly divorced her in 1152. It was not long before she was engaged to Henry of Anjou, who was nine years her junior, and she therefore became queen consort of England when Henry became king as Henry II in 1154.

Although she could produce no heirs for the French king, this was not the case in England. She had five sons and three daughters, two of her sons, Richard and John, ascending the throne after Henry’s death.

Henry and Eleanor were estranged in later life when Eleanor took the side of three of her sons in their revolt against Henry. Eleanor was imprisoned in 1173 and not released until after Henry’s death in 1189.

Richard (“The Lionheart”) spent much of his 10-year reign overseas, firstly on crusade and then as a prisoner in Austria. During this time Eleanor acted as regent and was therefore in virtual charge of the country alongside her youngest son John, who succeeded Richard as king in 1199.

Eleanor remained active into old age. When aged 78 she journeyed to Spain to escort her granddaughter Blanche to France where she was to marry the future King Louis VIII. Two years later Eleanor found herself under siege in a castle in her home territory of Aquitaine.

When she died Eleanor was buried  in Fontevraud Abbey, Anjou, alongside her husband Henry and son Richard.

© John Welford

Friday, 22 January 2016

Charles Darwin's voyage on HMS Beagle

On 27th December 1831 HMS Beagle, a naval sloop that that had been converted to a brig by the addition of an extra mast, set sail from Plymouth, its five-year mission being not so much to explore new worlds as to conduct a survey of the coasts of South America for navigational purposes.

The young commander, Lieutenant Robert Fitzroy, was keen to take with him a companion who would be his equal in terms of intellectual ability and with whom he could therefore hold intelligent conversations about the discoveries that they might make. Enquiries were made and a young naturalist from Cambridge University was found who jumped at the chance to see the world at first hand instead of just reading about it in books.

This was 22-year-old Charles Darwin, who had become interested in the natural world when studying at Cambridge. He was also interested in geology, and this was initially his main interest during the Beagle voyage. Whenever the ship docked, which it often did for quite lengthy periods, Darwin would go ashore to collect samples of rocks and fossils, which would form the raw material for the three books on geology that he would write on his eventual return to England.

However, his focus changed completely when the ship reached the Galapagos Islands on the west coast of South America. Here, Darwin was fascinated by the animals and birds that he found there and he was struck by the fact that there were marked differences between the flora and fauna of individual islands.

However, it was not until he had returned to England and started to study his collected specimens in detail that the significance of these differences started him thinking about the reasons why they might have occurred. Why, for example, should the finches on one island have stronger bills than those on another island? Could the fact that the nuts growing on trees on the first island were tougher to open than those on the other island have anything to do with it? If so, how did this situation come to be as it was?

Darwin’s thought processes took a long time to mature into a general theory, and it was even longer before he was ready to publish what would be one of the most earth-shattering scientific works ever to get into print, namely “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection”, which only appeared in 1859, some 38 years after the Beagle set sail.

Darwin’s observations were the proof he needed for the belief that species evolved over time to fit the environment in which they found themselves. He was well aware that this did not fit with the commonly accepted view, based on the Book of Genesis, that all species were created, in their final form, by God on one of the days of Creation. By extension, this would also imply that Man was the product of evolution, although Darwin did go not this far in his original publication.

Because we now have tools at our disposal that Darwin did not have, in particular the knowledge of how genes and DNA are passed on and sometimes distorted from generation to generation, his theory is nothing like as shocking to modern readers as it was to Victorian England. Fortunately it is only a few religious nutcases, who prefer to believe ancient myths rather than the revelations of science, who now refuse to accept the truth of Darwin’s work, which had its genesis in the voyage that began in 1831.

© John Welford

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Balboa, the first European to see the Pacific Ocean

26th September 1513 was the day on which a European first set eyes on the Pacific Ocean, as far as is known. This was Vasco Núñez de Balboa (c.1475 – 1519), one of the Spanish “conquistadors”, although the 19th century poet John Keats, in his “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, mistakenly attributed the feat to “stout Cortez”.

Balboa’s quest

Balboa had arrived at Darien on the isthmus of Panama in the hope of making money to clear his debts. He became the military commander of the small Spanish community there and was soon making trips inland in search of gold and slaves.

The reputation of the conquistadors in historical terms is not a good one, as they were responsible for many acts of murder and cultural vandalism in imposing their will on local populations. Balboa was probably one of the more enlightened of them, although he cannot be left off the hook entirely in this respect. He was not above using strong-arm tactics when it suited him, and once had 40 natives torn to pieces by dogs because they opposed him.

In 1513 Balboa heard that there were vast reserves of gold further inland, and he was determined to find them. It was neither the first nor the last time that a journey of exploration would be inspired by a story of treasure and riches to be found in a distant place. Usually the treasure turns out to be mythical, but sometimes a discovery of a different kind is made, as in Balboa’s case.

Balboa set off on 1st September at the head of 190 Spaniards and many more Indian guides and porters. The journey was extremely difficult, as they had to hack their way through thick jungle. For days on end they could not even see the sky through the forest canopy.

A peak in Darien

After 25 days they emerged in sight of a mountain (Keats’s “peak in Darien”). Balboa climbed the mountain alone and saw from the top the distant Pacific Ocean. He then invited the others to join him at the top. The expedition had crossed the narrow isthmus that connects North and South America and they could now see that there was another ocean that might, for all they knew, be even greater than the one the conquistadors has sailed across to reach the Americas from Spain.

Being a Spanish conqueror, Balboa’s first instinct was to carve the name of King Ferdinand on a tree, thus claiming the mountain for Spain. He reached the coast four days later and proceeded to wave his sword and claim the ocean for Spain as well.

Unfortunately for Balboa, his achievements caused jealousy in others. Six years later he was accused by the colony’s leader of treason, on a trumped-up charge, and he was beheaded in the main square of Darien. It was an ignominious end for one of the world’s most notable explorers.

© John Welford

Napoleon Bonaparte's escape from Elba

On 26th February 1815 Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from his exile on the island of Elba and began his “100 days” revival that would end with final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.

After a series of defeats, Napoleon had been forced to abdicate on 6th April 1814. The allies sent him to Elba, a small island in the Mediterranean between Corsica and northern Italy. He was allowed to retain the title of Emperor, but his empire now constituted a mere 75 square miles of hills and coastal bays. He could have lived in retirement in some degree of luxury, having been granted a stipend of two million francs a year, but he had other ideas.

He was worried by the rumours he heard that some of his enemies were planning to send him much further afield. Another concern was that he was separated from his wife, Marie-Louise, who he believed was being kept from him by the new rulers in France. However, what he did not know was that Marie-Louise was heartily glad to have parted company with him and was happily involved in a liaison with an Austrian count.

So, on the evening of 26th February, Napoleon gave his captors the slip and, accompanied by some 800 loyal soldiers, left the island in a fleet of sailing boats that landed on the coast of France near Cannes on 1st March.

Gathering supporters as he went, Napoleon marched towards Paris. The recently restored King Louis XVIII fled, and Napoleon was once again the Emperor of France.

After his defeat at Waterloo on 18th June 1815 the allies did not make the same mistake again. This time Napoleon was sent somewhere far less luxurious and much more escape-proof, namely the South Atlantic island of St Helena, where he died in May 1821.

© John Welford

Tsarina Elizabeth of Russia

Pre-Revolutionary Russia was ruled by a long series of Tsars who were often intriguing characters who did remarkable things. During the 18th century a surprisingly high proportion of them were women. One of these was Tsarina Elizabeth, who seized the throne on 25th November 1741 and ruled for 20 years.

Elizabeth of Russia

Elizabeth was a daughter of Peter the Great, who died in 1725 when Elizabeth was 16. The crown passed to Peter’s wife Catherine and then to his grandson (by his first wife) who ruled as Peter II. Another female ruler was Tsarina Anna, Peter the Great’s niece, and when she died in 1740 her nominated successor was her grandnephew Ivan, who was only one year old.

Elizabeth was now 32 years old and was witnessing the crown slipping down the generations and out of her reach. She took action by persuading a regiment of the Russian guards to march to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg and arrest the Tsar and his parents. It was a bloodless coup that proved to be popular with just about everyone, thus leaving Elizabeth as the undisputed ruler of Russia.

At first sight, Elizabeth might not have seemed suited to such an important role. She was lazy, vain and licentious, taking any lover she wanted including footmen and coachmen. She was also highly religious, so was able to console herself that she could be absolved of sin by attending mass every day. The morality of such a line may be questionable, but you can get away with quite a lot when you are the absolute monarch of a huge country.

However, she also seemed to have inherited Peter the Great’s talent for government and made some wise choices of people to govern on her behalf when she was otherwise engaged in bed or in church. To be fair, her endeavours also included the rebuilding of the Winter Palace, at vast expense, to produce the edifice that can be seen today.

She proved to be an enlightened ruler in that she abolished the death penalty, but less so in that a favourite punishment for people who offended her was that their tongue should be cut out.

Elizabeth never married and so had no direct heir. She selected her nephew Peter to succeed her, but was well aware that Ivan, the young prince she had usurped, was still alive and had a far better claim to the throne. She therefore gave orders that, should an attempt be made to free Ivan from the prison where he had languished for almost the whole of his life, that life would be forfeit - thus breaking her rule about the death penalty, it would seem.

When Elizabeth died in 1762 Peter did indeed become Tsar, as Peter III, but he only lasted for six months before he was overthrown and died in mysterious circumstances. The way was now clear for another redoubtable woman to take the throne, namely Catherine the Great who, incidentally, manage to complete Elizabeth’s threat by having Ivan executed.

© John Welford

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Al Capone, aka Scarface

25th January 1947 was the day on which Al Capone died at the age of 48, from a stroke complicated by pneumonia and syphilis.

He started his criminal career in New York, where an encounter with the brother of a woman he had insulted led to the facial injury that earned him the nickname of Scarface, but at the age of 20 he moved to Chicago where he soon became the leading mobster in the city, with earnings coming from gambling, prostitution and fixing horse races, although the era of Prohibition was what really propelled him to the top.

It is believed that Capone’s industrial-scale activities involving the manufacture and sale of illegal alcohol earned him around $100 million a year, and he took every step he could to protect that income by eliminating his rivals.

The most notorious event in his catalogue of crime occurred on 14th February 1929 (St Valentine’s Day) when four members of his gang turned up at a Chicago garage that was the headquarters of a rival bootlegger named Bugs Moran. Fortunately for Moran he was across the street when Capone’s men arrived, but six of Moran’s men, plus a garage attendant who had the misfortune to be there at the time, were not so lucky as they were lined up against a wall and shot dead.

Capone’s ability to intimidate and bribe his way to wherever he wanted meant that pinning any sort of criminal charge against him was virtually impossible until somebody pointed out that he had never filed an income tax return. The master criminal of Chicago therefore went to jail for tax evasion.

Capone spent more than eight years in jail, firstly at Atlanta where he bought special privileges for himself, but then at the much tougher fortress prison of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay.

He was a broken man when he was finally released in 1939 and was able to retire to his estate in Florida. The effect of syphilis and his time in jail was to bring on mid-life dementia, which meant that he was no threat to anyone during his final years.

© John Welford