Saturday, 29 June 2013

"Trumpety-trump / Trump, trump, trump” - The “Elephant Hunt of Murten”

29 June 1866, in Murten (Morat, Canton of Fribourg), an Indian elephant brought there by the American travelling menagerie “Bell & Myers” killed his keeper, broke out of his confinement and ran amok in the little Swiss village, ending in the “Elephant Hunt of Murten”
“Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk / And said goodbye to the circus / Off she went with a trumpety-trump /Trump, trump, trump” (Ralph Butler / Peter Hart / The Toy Dolls: ” Nellie the Elephant)

The picture above was allegedly taken on the spot at Murten when the animal was killed, even though there are no entry wounds of a 6-pounder ball visible. However, this is probably one (if not the) first photographs taken of an elephant.

A circus elephant's life in 19th century travelling menageries was by no means appropriate for the species and from time to time, the mistreated animals went berserk. The Elephant of Murten accompanied the circus for 14 years and was cared for by the same keeper, a Mr Moffat, who was responsible for the show’s two pachyderms. The day before, the animals were marvelled at by the locals during market day, where they spattered the audience with water from the village fountain. The bull elephant was obviously in musht though, a periodic condition marked by the rise of reproductive hormones and accompanied by highly aggressive behaviour.

Thus, on the next morning, the bull elephant just snapped, trampled the unsuspecting Moffat to death and ran out of the municipal carriage house where they were accommodated and out into the streets of Murten, smashing everything in his way. Murten was all atwitter, children on their way to school were interned in the school house, the local council and other village dignitaries met in haste and decided to get the berserk jumbo killed. The villagers managed to drive the elephant into a close, barricaded the entrance and, since elephant guns are not that common in Swiss villages, sent for the army. A field artillery platoon arrived from Fribourg with a 6-pounder gun, the crew brought their piece into position, aimed, fired and killed the Elephant of Murten with one ball of round shot. 

A contemporary imagination of the events in Murten (Morat)

The dead animal was subsequently butchered, the meat sold on the next market day to the villagers, the remains were taxidermied and exhibited at Murten, but the costs for the curiosity went out of hand quickly and the stuffed elephant as well as its skeleton were given to the Natural History Museum of Bern. The taxidermied elephant somehow disappeared in 1940, the skeleton is still there and can be admired daily between 09.00 – 17.00.

Friday, 28 June 2013

"Per aspera ad astra!" - "That was not verified at Fehrbellin.“

28 June 1675, during the Scanian War, Frederick William, the “Great Elector” of Brandenburg, and Field Marshal Georg von Derfflinger defeated an allegedly invincible Swedish army under Field Marshal von Wrangel at Fehrbellin, 40 miles north of Berlin.

“ELECTOR: What did you say? Look, what a crop mown for our glory here - That flag is of the Swedish Guards, is't not? ... Ah, indeed! And from the time of Gustaf Adolf too. How runs the inscription? ... DÖRFLING (Derfllinger) "Per aspera ad astra!" ELECTOR. That was not verified at Fehrbellin.“ (Heinrich von Kleist “The Prince of Homburg”)

 A mural at the Zeughaus (arsenal) in Berlin (today Berlin’s German Historical Museum) by the history painter Peter Jansen, glorifying the “Grand Elector” and the battle that was celebrated as purpose- and meaningful for Prussia’s glory during the 19th century’s rise of nationalism. (picture found on

Early in 1675, Swedish troops pushed from their Pomeranian possessions on the southern shores of the Baltic into Brandenburg-Prussia to relief the pressure on their French allies fighting along the Rhine from Amsterdam down to Strasbourg against the Protestant Dutch, the Austrians and the rest of the principalities of the Holy Roman Empire. Prince-Elector Frederick William and his army were busy in High Germany in Lower Franconia and General Wrangel’s famous Swedish troops began to occupy the Mark (Margraviate) Brandenburg, allegedly wreaking worse havoc on the civilian population than the mercenary armies of the Thirty Years’ War did fifty years before. During the Thirty Years’ War and the conflicts following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the Swedish troops had indeed acquired a reputation of being almost invincible, Sweden was a major power in the 17th century and the invasion of a rather insignificant principality between the rivers Elbe and Oder seemed like a rather gruesome walkover for Wrangel and his troops. In fact, Swedish power was crumbling already, the state was bankrupt and the army deployed abroad lacked the discipline and fighting spirit they had under Gustavus Adolphus.

Der Große Kurfürst (Grand Elector) on a contemporary portrait, 
captured by Matthias Czwiczek in 1642

With half his principality occupied and the Swedes at the gates of Berlin, Elector Frederick William force-marched his 20.000 men north from the Main at Marktbreit over 350 miles into the Mark in three weeks, his Field Marshal defeating the Swedes at Rathenow on 23 June and Nauen four days later when the completely surprised Wrangel realised he had a full-scale counter offensive on his hands and had better gather his scattered troops and find some kind of defensive position. He chose to retreat back to the Oder. Leaving his musketeers a day’s march behind, Frederick William pursued Wrangel’s retreating column with 6.000 horse and horse artillery and Wrangel decided to block the advance with 7.000 foot and 4.000 horse at Fehrbellin.

Dismar Degen's imagination of the "Schlacht bei Fehrbellin" from 1740

Making excellent use of what he had at his disposal, Frederick William managed to drive the Swedes over the small river Rhin in a hard-fought engagement, the orderly Swedish retreat became a rout and Wrangel had to write off 4.000 of his men as dead or deserted and his reputation of invincibility went down the drain while Brandenburg-Prussia’s began to rise from a non-entity to one of the most successful and feared military organisations in Europe. The elector’s victory at Fehrbellin was indeed viewed as a turning point in history by contemporaries as well as posterity.

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Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Charles Algernon Parsons’ turbine-powered PR stunt: The "Turbinia" at the Spithead Navy Review in 1897

26 June 1897, during the Naval Review at Spithead in celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Charles Algernon Parsons’ experimental vessel “Turbinia” sneaked unannounced into a race of the Royal Navy’s fastest destroyers, easily outran them, thereby breaking all speed records for ships and setting the standards for the propulsion of ships to this day.

“Opinions are to the vast apparatus of social existence what oil is to machines: one does not go up to a turbine and pour machine oil over it; one applies a little to hidden spindles and joints that one has to know.” (Walter Benjamin)

A contemporary engraving after a photograph, showing “Turbinia” beginning her race with various warships in the background.

Charles Algernon Parsons already had become a talking point when he caused the first recorded fatal accident involving a self-constructed horseless carriage and his cousin Mary, before he began to study engineering in earnest, graduated with first-class honours and set forth to revolutionise the world of propulsion. Working first on rocket-powered torpedoes for W.G. Armstrong and a couple of years later for the British engineering firm as head of electrical equipment development on the development of a turbine engine to drive an electrical generator. As an alternative method of propulsion to the standard 19th century steam engine, Parsons’ steam turbine was about to change the world – even though naval authorities would hear nothing about it at first, every bit as they tried to ignore steam power and armour half a century before.

"Turbinia" making 35 knots or about 40 mph

Parsons decided to pull a PR stunt to promote his invention that would indeed open the eyes of the world. The Naval Review at Spithead was not only a show to celebrate the might of Britannia’s navy ruling the waves but had international naval notables present as well. Parsons had equipped a perfectly streamlined yacht with his new steam turbines, calling her in a pang of an engineer’s linguistic innovativeness “Turbinia” and lined her up among the civilian vessels on the Thames watching the parade of state-of-the-art warships passing by. When the destroyers were about to start their announced race, Parsons hoisted a red ensign aboard of “Turbinia”, left the civilians’ cordon of ships, leaving the Navy’s patrol vessels simply flat behind.

Turbine-powered HMS "Dreadnought" at sea in 1906

A really fast destroyer could reach a top speed of 27 knots (31 mph / 50 kph) in 1896, “Turbinia” flew down the Thames at 34 knots (40 mph / 63 kph), leaving nothing to be desired in terms of speed and while the yacht was greeted with a barrage of catcalls from the audience when she started her race, everyone, including the Admiralty, was speechless when she finished. The first capital ships powered by steam turbines were RMS “Lusitania” (1906) and RMS “Mauretania” (1907), both winning the Blue Riband for their crossing of the Atlantic at record speed, several times in a row. The navy started to successfully experiment with turbines in 1899 with the destroyers HMS “Cobra” and “Viper”. HMS “Dreadnought” was the first battleship equipped with turbines. When she was commissioned in 1906, “Dreadnought” was the world’s most modern and fastest battleship, everything that was built before was classified as pre-Dreadnought.

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Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Death of Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore, Comte d'Artagnan in Battle

25 June 1673, 340 years ago during the French siege of Maastricht, the 62 years old captain of the Musketeers of the Guard, Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore, Comte d'Artagnan, died in battle.

“My son, be worthy of your noble name, worthily borne by your ancestors for over five hundred years. Remember it’s by courage, and courage alone, that a nobleman makes his way nowadays. Don’t be afraid of opportunities, and seek out adventures. My son, all I have to give you is fifteen ecus, my horse, and the advice you’ve just heard. Make the most of these gifts, and have a long, happy life.” (Alexandre Dumas, “The Three Musketeers”)

Jean Alaux (1785 - 1864): Musketeers in the storming of Valenciennes, March 17, 1677

The man whose name became a byword for “musketeer”, “daredevilry involving bladed weapons” and Van Dyke beards was born around 1610 at the family castle of Castlemore near Lupiac, halfway between Bayonne and Toulouse in Gascony. His father probably was a Gentleman at Arms of King Henry IV and died in his service during one of the many assassination attempts on lo nòstre bon rei Enric. If the House of de Batz-Castelmore really was impoverished nobility as Dumas narrates in his novel is improbable. His mother’s side, de d’Artagnans, a side branch of the Dukes of Armagnac, certainly wasn’t.

Mousquetaires du Roi -19th century imagination

Young Charles used his mother’s name to gain acceptance in Paris society, and by influence of a friend of the family, the Comte de Troisville (fictionalised as Monsieur de Tréville by Dumas), found reception in the Compagnie des Essarts des Gardes Françaises and saw action in Roussillon and Flanders during the early 1640s. D’Artagnan joined the Musketeers of the Guard in 1644 and was noticed by Cardinal Mazarin who used him as courier and bodyguard of his godson King Louis XIV, who seemed to came to trust the musketeer captain since he was entrusted with various secret missions, the best known being the arrest of Superintendent of Finances Fouquet who tried to scheme himself into the role of Mazarin at Louis’ court. When Fouquet’s death sentence was changed into lifelong imprisonment, d’Artagnan was charged with guarding him, probably because of his alleged incorruptibility.

Maurice Leloir (1851-1940): The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (illustration of the Appleton edition)

In 1667 d’Artagnan was promoted captaine-lieutenant in the newly formed “grey musketeers”, the first company of the Musketeers of the Guard, and created count for his services to the crown. During the Franco-Dutch War(1672 – 78), d’Artagnan took part in the siege of Maastricht and, leading his company to take a bastion in the Dutch defense works, was hit by a musket ball in the throat and died. 27 years later his life was fictionalised by the novelist Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras in the style of memoirs, the source for Dumas’ three d’Artagnan Romances (“The Three Musketeers“, “Twenty Years After“ and “The Vicomte de Bragelonne“ (“The Man in the Iron Mask”))

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Sunday, 23 June 2013

"The whole world is coming battling here." - even the faint-hearted in the Crusade of 1101

23 June 1101, during the so-called “Crusade of the Faint-Hearted”, French and Bavarians captured the Turkish city of Ancyra (Ankara) with Byzantine support.

“Kristen juden und die heiden / jehent daz dis ir erbe sî / got müesse ez ze rehte scheiden / dur die sîne namen drî / al diu werlt diu strîtet her“ (Christians, Jews and Heathens claim this to be their heritage. God has to assign it in the right way, for His three names. The whole world is coming battling here. Walter von der Vogelweide, “Palästinalied”, around 1220)

A late 12th century imagination of Crusaders assaulting a Muslim-held city from a contemporary chronicle.

“Crusade of the Faint-Hearted” or, less poetical, the “Crusade of 1101” was an afterthought of the First Crusade that ended with the capture of Jerusalem two years before. Met with scorn at home, some returnees of the First Crusade who had left the expedition before it reached the Holy City as well as men who somehow didn’t participate on its spoils and decided to give it another try gathered with the same type of people that made up the disastrous Peasant’s Crusade five years before and marched towards Constantinople late in 1100.

Gustave Doré's (1832 - 1883) imagination of
Godfrey of Bouillon meeting survivors of the Peasant's Crusade

Their approach in the Byzantine Empire and crossing into Asia Minor held by the Seljuk Turks saw the same chronic circumstances as the First Crusade itself, even though the results from three years before were quite well known in Christendom by then – Christian allies were plundered and slaughtered, continuous harassment by Seljuk light horse while en route claiming many victims, perpetual infighting between the so-called leaders and the Byzantines that accompanied the march, hunger, thirst and disease.

Gustave Doré's vivid depiction of crusaders perishing in the middle of nowhere

Deviating from the original course set for marching through Anatolia by insistence of the largest contingent of the hotchpotch army, Lombard commoners who wanted to free Bohemond, now Prince of Antioch and currently held captive by Danishmend Turks at Niksar in the north east – as far away from the Levant as you can possibly get – the Crusade ended up before the gates of Ancyra. They managed to capture the city after a brief siege and returned it to the Roman Emperor Alexios, having sworn the same oath as their predecessors to yield their conquests of originally Byzantine possessions. 
The Crusade then staggered further north-east and was finally worn down by the Seljuk Sultan Kilic Arslan and his Danishmend allies. The Crusade of 1101 thus forecasted the fate of the Second and Third Crusade that ended up the same way in the middle of Anatolian nowhere during the following 100 years.

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Friday, 21 June 2013

The Conquest of the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa

21 June 533, 1.480 years ago, Justinian’s general Belisarius embarked in Constantinople with 17.000 men to set forth on conquering the Vandal Kingdom in Northern Africa.
“In the seventh year of Justinian's reign, at about the spring equinox, the emperor commanded the general's ship to anchor off the point which is before the royal palace. Thither came also Epiphanius, the chief priest of the city, and after uttering an appropriate prayer, he put on the ships one of the soldiers who had lately been baptized and had taken the Christian name. And after this the general Belisarius and Antonina, his wife, set sail.“ (Procopius, “The Vandalic War”)

A portrait of Belisarius from the famous mosaic at St Vitale in Ravenna
(6th century)

With his hands free after concluding another “Eternal Peace” with the Sassanid Persians during the apparently endless wars between the two empires in the Middle East, Justinian, Emperor of the Romans, decided to begin his reconquest of the lost territories of the fallen Western Roman Empire.

In the beginning of the 6th century, most former Western Roman provinces now had Germanic rulers, Ostrogoths in Italy, Franks in Gaul, Visigoths in Southern France and Spain and a Vandal, King Gelimer, in Carthage, ruling over much of present-day Morocco, Algeria and parts of Mauretania. Gelimer’s ancestor Genseric had led his people from Spain (leaving the name of (V)Andalusia to the region) to Roman Africa 100 years before and established a powerful kingdom that put the fear of God into Western and Eastern Romans. Genseric’s Vandals ruled the waves of the Western Mediterranean with their ships and sacked Rome itself (hence the term Vandalism) in 455.

Karl Bryullov's (1799 - 1852) somewhat exalted imagination of Genseric's Vandals sacking Rome (1836)

In the early 530s, the Vandal rulers had established themselves comfortable enough to play their own little game of thrones. Gelimer just had deposed his cousin Hilderic who was considered Rome-friendly, giving Justinian enough of a pretext to invade, assigning one of his best generals, Belisarius, and a relatively small contingent of troops to the expedition. Lots of almost eponymous Byzantine domestic political and diplomatic infighting with semi-renegade Roman politicos and governors and Germanic princes accompanied the fleet en route until Belisarius’ landed his troops in Tunisia in August 533, bringing the Vandals to battle and defeating King Gelimer at Ad Decimum in September and Tricamarum in December, forcing his surrender in March 534. Northern Africa became a Roman Province again until the Muslims conquered it 100 years later and Gelimer was led through the streets of Constantinople in triumph, uttering his famous quote of from Ecclesiastes, 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity'.

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Sunday, 16 June 2013

“It was the day I made Jim a man” - Bloomsday

16 June is Bloomsday, celebrating the day depicted in James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses”, Thursday, 16 June 1904.
“It was the day I made Jim a man” (Nora Barnacle-Joyce)

Firstbloom: a quite illustrious crowd assembled in Sandymount in 1954  

Bloomsday is usually celebrated in Dublin by Joyce devotees dressing up in Edwardian clothing or dark suits and a high grade ha', visiting scenes from the novel and emulating the story line, i.e. starting the day either at No 7 Eccles Street or at the omphalos, the Martello Tower at Sandycove, reading the novel there and swimming at Forty Foot, eating a gorgonzola sandwich with a glass of burgundy at Davy Byrne’s, buy lemon soap (“We're a capital couple are Bloom and I. He brightens the earth. I polish the sky“) at Sweny’s in Lincoln Place, eat pork kidney for breakfast, etc.

Omphalos: The Martello Tower at Sandycove

, the first Bloomsday was celebrated on the 50th anniversary of the events in the novel by the Joyce groupies John Ryan, Anthony Cronin, Brian O’Nolan / Flann O’Brien, Patrick Kavangh and the dentist Tom Joyce, the master’s cousin (see picture below), even though James himself gave a “déjeuner Ulysses” on 16 June 1929 at a “Hotel Leopold” he had discovered near Paris, together with his editor Sylvia Bleach and other writers, Samuel Beckett among them. On their way home Joyce and Beckett stopped at every pub to drink more wine until their cabby decided he’d had it and left the two at the gentlemen’s facilities of an establishment and drove home. The two geniuses returned to Paris the day after.

Portrait of the artist in 1904

today is by no means observed in Dublin exclusively. A growing international fan community from Hungary, where Leopold Bloom’s fictional father was born, to the US with very special local customs or just a pub crawl in remembrance of the novel, Bloom and James Joyce. Some unfortunate, isolated souls are even forced to celebrate the day by singing the songs mentioned in the novel and get drunk on their own.

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Friday, 14 June 2013

The Death of one "worthy of being called masters of prose." Giacomo Leopardi

14 June 1837 the poet and essayist Giacomo Leopardi died in Naples from the cholera at the age of 38.
"In this century, four very strange and truly poetic persons attained a mastery of prose, for which this century is otherwise not made ... I see Giacomo Leopardi, Prosper Mérimee, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walter Savage Landor, the author of Imaginary Conversations, as worthy of being called masters of prose." (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Giacomo Leopardi on his deathbed – a contemporary painting by
Giuseppe Ciaranfi (1818 – 1902)

Giacomo Leopardi was attested with a “vita strozzata”, a strangled life, shaped by the ultra conservative conditions in the Papal States where he grew up, being on the rocks most of his short life and rather not the beau, small, sickly, hunchbacked,  driven by yearning with no fulfilment, few friends and less love.

Nonetheless, Leopardi was, along with Alessandro Manzoni one of the prime movers of the 19th century renewal of Italian as a literary language, immensely productive in his literary output of essays, poems and aphorisms. What he wrote was told with a melancholic undertone but full of fascination with life and enchanted sensitivities and his pessimism is rather a witty and often justified scepticism, at least with the hindsight of 200 years.

Giacomo Leopardi while being enchanted, witty, melancholic and still alive

Thus, Leopardi is not a true Romantic but created a supertemporal and very individual oeuvre: His “Zibaldone” can hold a candle to the best aphorists, his poems and Canti wouldn’t come amiss in a collection of poetry together with Byron, Pushkin and Heine and his “Pensieri”, his modified “Zibaldone”, his dry, academic and indeed quite pessimistic look back in anger on humanity and its vanities, gathered a few months before his death, were appreciated by the likes of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

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And his "Canti" in English translation on:

Thursday, 13 June 2013

"The school of the strategy of two heavens as one" - on the Death of the Swordmaster Miyamoto Musashi

13 June 1645, ronin, swordmaster, painter and author Miyamoto Musashi died at the age of 61 in a cave named Reigando on Kyushu.

“It is said the warrior's is the twofold Way of pen and sword, and he should have a taste for both Ways” (Miyamoto Musashi)

Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798 - 1861): Miyamoto Musashi plunging his sword into a giant whale

Best known today as author of Go Rin No Sho, the “Book of Five Rings”, a book on kenjutsu, swordmanship, he finished in Reigando during the last years of his live that is viewed today as a primer on Eastern philosophy and a certain type of management style.

Having, after his own account, fought his first duel to the death at the age of 13 and slew more than 60 warriors in single combat before he was 30, Musashi developed the combined fighting style with the Daisho pair of swords, the long katana and short wakizashi to perfection. Actual fighting with the two swords was not unheard of during the Muromachi period of Feudal Japan, but was not deemed as effective as the two-handed slashes with the katana and using the short sword only in confined spaces or as emergency weapon.

A contemporary image of Musashi wielding two bokken

Musashi founded a koryu, the Niten Ichi-ryū ("the school of the strategy of two heavens as one") that still exists today, teaching his style and complementing it with the Dokkodo "The Way of Walking Alone") a set of 21 rather ascetic precepts, deeply rooted in Buddhism.

When Musashi embarked on his “warrior pilgrimage” to perfect his fighting style, the creation of legends already had begun. Being technically a ronin, a masterless samurai, the pilgrim quickly became a thorn in the side of various local princes, threatening their authority by simply defeating everything they sent against him. After his death, men became various monsters and single combat was exaggerated into overcoming supernatural threats, a trend that exists today as well, in mangas, films and novels , making the superior swordsman, teacher and artist a fantasy hero of Robert E. Howard-like proportions.

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Monday, 10 June 2013

“When Emperor Redbeard with his band / Came marching through the Holy Land” - Frederick I's death during the Third Crusade

10 June 1190, 68 years old Emperor Frederick I, en route to Palestine during the Third Crusade, drowned in the River Saleph (Göksu) in Anatolia.
“When Emperor Redbeard with his band / Came marching through the Holy Land” (Ludwig Uhland, “Suabian Legend”)

The 20’ sandstone figure of the emperor by Emil Hundertrieser, part of the Kyffhäuser Monument (1896)

Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, the Red-Beard, took the cross during the Diet of Mainz in 1188 after the Near Eastern Outremer Principalities suffered disaster after disaster and Jerusalem fell to Saladin the year before. While Richard of England and Philip decided to reach the Holy Land by sea, Barbarossa decided to take the land route, like he did when he embarked on the Second Crusade with his Uncle Emperor Conrad 40 years before.

With 15.000 men, the greatest single contingent ever to go forth crusading, the emperor left Ratisbon in May 1189, reaching Constantinople in autumn, defeating the Turkish Sultan Kılıç Arslan II at the Battle of Iconium (Konya) in May 1190 and crossing the Taurus Mountains to the banks of the Saleph. If the old emperor drowned while trying to cross the river in full kit or suffered a stroke while taking a bath in it during a halt is still disputed. However, what was left of the Imperials after a year of marching and fighting through half of Europe and Asia Minor was completely shocked by his death and during continuous infighting of the remaining princes, the German contingent of the Third Crusade was almost completely wiped out before they reached Syria.

Death of the emperor Barbarossa during the Third Crusade, painting of Gustave Doré (1832-1883)    

Barbarossa’s remains were disposed of after the custom of the “Mos Teutonicus”, the flesh separated from the bones, the intestines buried in Tarsus, the flesh in Antioch and the bones probably in the Cathedral of Tyros – Frederick Barbarossa is one of the very few Medieval rulers who took the cross twice in his life and whose exact burial ground is unknown. 
The creation of legends began almost immediately after his death and reached their climax during the 19th century and Germany’s struggle for unity. The Brothers Grimm collected tales of the “king in the mountain” / “sleeping hero” variant, having Emperor Red-Beard sleep in the Kyffhäuser mountain on the southern edge of the Harz in Thuringia. He sits there, with his huge beard grown into the table and wakes every hundred years. As long as there are ravens circling the Kyffhäuser he knows his time has not come – the hour of the realm’s greatest need.

Frederick sends out the boy to see whether the ravens still fly.