Tuesday, 14 March 2017

History: The End of Tsarism

On this day, March 15th, one hundred years ago, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated. This followed several weeks in which the capital, Petrograd, had slid towards anarchy. The war was not going well, and food supplies to the city had broken down, leading to shortages and severe price inflation. This in turn had led to strikes and demonstrations, which had soon turned violent. Most alarming of all, sections of the Petrograd garrison refused to supress the rioters, but instead joined the crowds on the streets. Police stations were attacked, and armed police who fired on rioters from the rooftops were lynched. Meanwhile the Tsar was away at the Front, and did not realise the seriousness of the situation until it was far too late. His only action was to suspend the Duma, the Russian Parliament, which at this stage was dominated by conservatives and moderate liberals, with hardly any left-wing representation. But the Duma refused to disperse. There were demands that the Tsar should go. Finally Nicholas, finding that he was supported by nobody, not even his generals, tamely surrendered and abdicated.
   Nicholas offered the crown to his brother, Grand Duke Michael; but Michael, feeling his accession would lack legitimacy unless he was recognised by the Duma, rejected the crown. After four centuries, Tsarism ceased to exist.

Into the gap left by the end of Tsarism stepped two different bodies. The Duma proclaimed the “Provisional Government”, headed by a liberal nobleman, Prince Lvov, with a radical lawyer, Alexander Kerensky, as its dominant personality. The second body was the “Soviet (that is, council) of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies”, which arose spontaneously in the city, and to which increasingly the masses looked for leadership. For the moment, the Soviet was dominated by moderate Socialists who were prepared to co-operate with the Provisional Government.
   There was general rejoicing, both in Russia and amongst her allies, as the Provisional Government freed all political prisoners, ended press censorship and announced future elections for a Constituent Assembly. The main reason this amity and optimism did not last was that the decision was also taken to keep Russia in the war. Over the next few months the army disintegrated and German forces advanced further into Russia. The food supply to Petrograd became even worse as anarchy spread through the Russian countryside. Violence in the streets increased. The path was set for the Bolshevik seizure of power in the autumn.
   The Bolshevik Party had played no part in the February Revolution. Lenin was in Switzerland (and was caught entirely by surprise by the fall of the Tsar), Trotsky was in New York and Stalin in exile in a remote part of Siberia. They now all returned to Petrograd and worked to seize control of events.   

These events are known as the “February Revolution”. In fact most of them took place in March under our calendar, but at the time Russia still followed the antiquated “Julian” calendar, thirteen days behind the West. Historians deal with this problem by indicating that the dates they cite are “Old Style” (O.S.) or “New Style” (N.S.) The date of March 15th, given above, is N.S. 

An American cartoon of the fall of the Tsar. Note the whip Nicholas is holding. It is labelled "German Influence", reflecting a widespread belief that Nicholas's German-born Empress, Alexandria, was pro-German, and their friend Rasputin might have been a German agent.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Unexpected Kings

There are several well-known monarchs whom I'm calling "unexpected kings"; the reason being that they had elder brothers. Only the death of the sibling suddenly elevated them to the status of heir to the throne.

Richard I of England, the great crusading warrior nicknamed Richard the Lion-Heart, was only the second son of Henry II. Until Richard was 26 the heir was his elder brother Henry, who was given the title of "The Young King". Henry, Richard and their younger brothers Geoffrey and John all rose in concerted rebellion against their father; but then young Henry died childless in 1183, leaving Richard to succeed to the throne in 1189.
   Richard himself was childless when he was killed in battle in 1199. The next brother, Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany, was already dead, and by modern rules the heir to the throne should have been Geoffrey's 12-year-old son, Arthur; but rules of strict hereditary did not yet apply, and rather than run the risks involved in having a child as king, John, the youngest of the four brothers, was given the crown. Arthur was taken prisoner, and John apparently had him murdered in 1203. John is remembered as one of England's worst Kings, but would he have become King if Richard had lived a few years longer, until Arthur became an adult?

We might consider the case of Edward II (reigned 1307-27), another spectacularly incompetent King. He he was only a few months old when his elder brother Alfonzo died from unknown causes in1284. Very few English people realize that they might have had a King Alfonzo!

A much more famous case is that of Henry VIII. He was born in 1491; five years after his brother, Prince Arthur. At the age of just 15 Arthur was given a diplomatically-important marriage to the equally young Katherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the King and Queen of Spain. Arthur died a few months later, and when Henry VIII succeeded to the throne in 1509 he decided to marry Katherine himself. This had enormous consequences for the history of England, because marriage to a deceased brother's widow appeared to be forbidden in the Bible (the book of Leviticus). Henry therefore had to seek permission of the Pope for his wedding to take place. This was duly given, but when after 20 years Katherine had failed to give him a son and heir, Henry became convinced that his marriage was cursed, and sought to end it (tecnhically by annulment, not divorce). Unfortunately at this point European politics intervened, for in 1527 Rome fell to the forces of the Emperor Charles V, and the Pope (Clement VII) was a virtual prisoner of the Emperor. As it happened, Katherine was the Emperor's aunt, and there was no way Charles would permit this tremendous insult to his family; so the only solution Henry could find to his dilemma was to separate the English church from Rome and end the marriage by his own authority. 

English Kings had been murdered or killed in battle, but the unfortunate Charles I was the only one ever to be sentenced to death and executed. But until he was 12 years old he had an elder brother, the popular Henry, Prince of Wales, who died at the age of 17. Would the English civil war have happened if Henry had become King instead of Charles?

More recently, as a young man George V was not expected to become King, because the eldest son of the future King Edward VII was the Duke of Clarence, Prince Albert Victor, commonly known as Prince Eddy. He was a dissolute young man; he was rumoured to be a regular visitor to a discreet homosexual brothel staffed by working-class teenage rent-boys, and has even been suspected of being Jack the Ripper! It was thought that the only hope was to find him a strong-minded and sensible wife, and a German princess, Mary of Teck, was selected for the job. But in 1892, before the marriage could take place, and doubtless to everyone's secret relief, Prince Eddy died of pneumonia at the age of 28, leaving his brother George as heir. It was tactfully discovered that Mary's affections were transferred to George, and the pair were duly married the next year. As King (1910-36) George V faced several serious crises, but always behaved with the strictest constitutional propiety, and the monarchy survived and prospered. Quite possibly Prince Eddy might have done far worse.

King Louis VII of France (reigned 1137-80) was originally intended for the Church, and it would have been better if he could have stayed there. Unfortunately for France, his elder brother Philip had died as a teenager in 1131. Louis was noted for his piety, but as a warrior was an extremely inept crusader, and his main achievement as King was to divorce his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. She then ran off with the future Henry II of England, taking her vast holdings in south-western France into the English orbit. Louis was one of the worst of the French mediaeval kings, but fortunately for his country his son by his third wife, Philip II, "Augustus", was easily the best, and recovered the ground that his father had lost. 

Francis I of France (reigned 1515-47), a dazzling prince of the Renaissance, had trained his eldest son, Francis the Dauphin, to succeed him, but the young man died at the age of 19 in 1536, and the succession went to the younger son, who became Henry III. Henry had no more than average ability, and was killed in a tournament in 1559. His three sons succeeded him in turns as King. All were disatrous failures, as France was engulfed in a violent civil conflict known as the "Wars of religion". None succeeded in producing an heir, and the bourbon dynasty came to an end in 1589.

When the Russian Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by a terrorist bomb in 1881 and succeeded by his son, Alexander III, it was commented that the assassins (a small anarchist-populist group knwn as "People's Will") had murdered an intelligent liberal Tsar in order to replace him with a stupid reactionary one. But until Alexander III was 20 he would not have expected to become Tsar, because it was only in 1865 that his elder brother Nicholas died unmarried. Alexander III himself died young, at the age of 49, and was succeeded by his ill-prepared son Nicholas II. Nicholas as a child had witnessed his grandfather's murder: one can only guess at the traumatic effect it must have had on him. 

There has been quite a fad in recent years of "virtual" or "alternative" history, asking whether things would have developed differently if there had been some accidental change - in the examples above; what if the elder brothers had lived? This leads to a more general debate: how much do individuals really matter in history?

Sunday, 26 February 2017


Cracow is an old city. It was the seat of a bishopric from around 1000 AD, and although it suffered in the Mongol invasion of 1241 (about which more later) it remained the capital of Poland until 1609. When the kingdom of Poland was obliterated in the partitions of the late 18th century, the city escaped the fate of being incorporated into the Russian empire, which was suffered by most of the country: instead it spent the 19th century as part of the less oppressive Austrian empire. In the second world war it was the seat of one of the most unpleasant of the Nazi leaders, Hand Frank, who headed the so-called "General Government" of occupied Poland. In recent years the city's most famous resident has been Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who was Archbishop there from 1963 to 1978, before becoming Pope as John Paul II.
Cracow, along with Prague, has the distinction of being one of the very few major cities in central Europe to escape major damage in the Second World War, and in consequence has a wealth of splendid old buildings. I am describing just a few of them.

  The Old Quarter of the city is enclosed within what were once the fortifications, but are now a strip of parks called the Planty. In the centre is the market area, the Rynek Glowry, where we find the Cloth Hall. This dates form the 16th century, and is now full of stalls catering for the tourist trade.

The square contains the tower of the old Town Hall,
also St. Adalbert's church, the oldest in Cracow,
 and a statue of the Polish writer Adam Mickiewicz.

     Many fine buildings line the square 

The church of St. Mary is at the north-east corner.

The story goes that when in 1241 the great Mongol army (which had swept across Russia, destroying Moscow and Kiev) approached Cracow, a bugler on the tower started to blow a warning, but was killed by an arrow through his throat before he finished his call. A truncated bugle call is still sounded from the church in his memory.

I found this splendid character busking outside the church..

There are many fine churches in the centre of Cracow. This is the baroque church of Saints Peter and Paul.

South of the Old Quarter is Wawel Hill; the site of the cathedral and the royal castle.

The cathedral is dedicated to St. Stanislas, an early Bishop of Cracow, who was murdered in 1079.

In the cathedral you can see the magnificent tombs of the 16th century Kings of Poland.
and a spectacular altar dedicated to St. Stanislas himself

This is the courtyard of the Royal Castle

In a cave below the hill there lurks a fiery dragon!

Kazimierz lies to the east of Wawel Hill. It was founded as a separate town by King Kazimierz the Great in 1335. The Jewish population of Cracow was moved here in the late 15th century. The area contains several synagogues, including one named after Rabbi Moses Remu'h
The cemetery next to the synagogue was largely destroyed in the Second World War, and a wall has been constructed from fragments of the old tombstones

Kazimierz was made famous in the film "Schindler's List". Some of the old streets and courtyards are still there.

Schindler's factory is commemorated only by a small plaque, which is not easy to find, but there is a large memorial to Cracow's murdered Jews outside the town.

If you go on a package-holiday visit to Cracow, you will probably find that a day trip to Auschwitz will be included; but it will be stressed that this is voluntary, since of course many people would find it distressing. Auschwitz is an hour or so's drive from Cracow. I have written about it elsewhere on this blog. 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Anne Bronte

Having watched the recent television play about the Bronte family, I decided to read "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall", by Anne Bronte.
   Anne was the youngest and least-known of the three Bronte sisters. She died of tuberculosis at the age of just 28, but during her tragically short life she wrote two novels; completing this, her second, shortly before her death in 1849. At the time it was considered rather shocking.
   The story is set back in the flamboyant, amoral age of George IV, twenty years before the time it was written. The "tenant" of the title is a mysterious and reclusive lady, apparently a widow, who has rented a tumbledown house in desolate moorland. It turns out she has run away from her abusive husband, and is concealing her identity for fear that he should take away their infant son, whom she has brought with her. Most of the book is her account of an unhappy marriage.
   Her husband, Mr Huntingdon, is nothing like those other memorable Bronte men, Heathcliff and Mr Rochester. Instead he is portrayed as essentially a very weak character; unable to resist the temptations of alcohol and gambling, responding with childish petulance to any setbacks, and forever criticizing his wife and shouting at the servants. Easily bored with country life, he disappears to London for weeks at a time (presumably for a dissipated life of booze, cards and women, though Anne does not tell us), or invites his dissolute friends to stay at his house, despite his wife's disapproval of them. At the same time, we can understand why he gets irritated with her, because she is very "preachy" at times: I'm not sure whether Anne intended to give this impression.
   The structure of the novel is a bit clumsy (at a crucial point of the story three important male characters all have surnames beginning with "H", which is confusing!) and the ending is too sentimental, but even so it's an impressive achievement for such a young writer. One has to wonder, though, how on earth the Bronte sisters - maidenly daughters of the parsonage - ever conceived of such remarkable male characters!

Saturday, 4 February 2017


TRUMPERY: Showy and worthless stuff, rubbish, ritual fooling. (French: Tromper; to deceive)
       (Chambers' Dictionary definition)

Friday, 27 January 2017

The Man in the Iron Mask and the Lerins Islands

The Lerins islands are a group of small islets in the Mediterranean, close to the south coast of France. There is a fortress with a fine view across the sea to Cannes. 

The famous "Man in the iron mask" was imprisoned here in the later 17th century. After a while, his guards were so fed up with having to live in this environment that they demanded to be transferred to Paris!

The prisoner did not in reality wear an iron mask, but a velvet one. Exactly who he was, and why he was imprisoned, remains a mystery. He was arrested in 1669, when he was aged about 30, by order of the Minister of War, the Marquis de Louvois, and held first of all at Pignerol (now in Piedmont), a top-security prison for major political offenders, and then at other prisons until his eventual death in the Bastille in 1703. There it was later reported that two musketeers were always on duty in his cell, to shoot him immediately if he ever removed his mask or attempted to speak about anything other than his immediate personal needs. When he died, he was buried the very next day (under the name of "Marchioly"), his clothes and furniture were burnt and the walls of his cell whitewashed. Clearly even more than thirty years after his arrest, he was considered a danger to state security. But why?

   On the arrest warrant his name was given as Eustache Dauger, a name that means nothing to historians. This only deepens the mystery, because it was stressed that he was "only a valet". At Pignerol he was allowed to act as a servant to a genuinely important detainee, the disgraced former Superintendant of Finances Nicholas Fouquet, who was imprisoned there from his fall in 1661 until his death in 1680. But if Dauger was no more than a servant, why were these extreme measures taken to conceal his identity and prevent him speaking? Presumably there was a danger someone might recognise him for who he really was, or at least be struck by his strong resemblence to someone famous and important. Alternatively, why was he not quietly killed, to save all this trouble?  

   Inevitably there have been sensational theories about his identity. The most famous stems from the great French novelist Alexandre Dumas, who suggested (in a follow-up historical novel to "The Three Musketeers") that he was the elder twin brother of Louis XIV, and should by rights have succeeded as King. A completely opposite theory is that he was Louis XIV's biological father (Louis XIII having been estranged from his wife for some time before her unexpected pregnancy) and had been attempting to blackmail the French government with this revelation. If the mysterious prisoner did in fact strongly resemble Louis XIV, it would certainly explain the mask, and the possibility that he was a close relative would explain the King's reluctance to have him killed. But we shall probably never know the truth behind the legend.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Harlech Castle

Harlech is one of four mighty castles (along with Beaumaris, Conwy and Caernarfon, all of which I have described in previous entries) built by Edward I in the late 13th century to secure his conquest of Wales. Like the others, Harlech was designed by his master architect and engineer, James of St. George, and cost the equivalent of many millions of pounds in today's money, but unlike the others it was built very quickly; in just seven years, between 1283 and 1290.
   This photograph, taken from a postcard, shows the immensely strong position chosen by Master James. It stands on an outcrop of rock, with the sea to the west (the direction from which this was taken). There is a moat and a low outer wall, with the only entry being from the east, where the modern town is situated.

The castle is in the form of an inner courtyard, or bailey, almost square in shape, with four massive round towers at the corners. Within the bailey were placed the great hall and other buildings.
The dominant feature of the castle is the massive gatehouse on the eastern wall. Its walls are up to 12 feet thick, and the entrance is guarded by twin cylindrical towers, between which would be several different gates and portcullises. Their impact on the visitor is impressive even today 

The gatehouse is entered by staircases from the bailey.

This is the view down on the western side. When the castle was built, these precipitous steps led down to the sea, and there would have been boats at the bottom, so in emergencies the castle could have been supplied by water. The sea has retreated since then and is now on the far side of the railway line.

The Northern wall provides a view all the way up the coast to the Lleyn peninsula, showing once again the strategic value of the site.

Harlech's defences were soon tested by the Welsh prince Madog ap Llewellyn in 1294, and proved their worth when a garrison of just 37 men successfully repelled the assault. But then over the next century the magnificent fortress was allowed to decay, and is described in cotemporary sources as "weak and ruinous". At the start of the 15th century it was besieged by Owain Glyndwr, and although he was not able to take it by storm, he eventually starved the garrison into surrender. Owain then made Harlech his headquarters in his campaign to free Wales from English rule. However, in 1409 King Henry IV sent a strong force which was able to retake Harlech. Owain managed to evade capture, but the days of his power were gone.

The stirring partiotic song, "Men of Harlech", which serves as virtually an alternative Welsh national anthem, was first published in 1830, but was probably much older. Various English translations have appeared since then, and can be heard on youtube.