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 Scott’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