Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis and the Trocadero

31 August 1823, French soldiers belonging to the Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis carried the fortifications of Fort Trocadero off Cadiz at bayonet point, virtually ending the Trienio Liberal in Spain.

“The soldiers of the Empire setting out on a fresh campaign, but aged, saddened, after eight years of repose, and under the white cockade; the tricolored standard waved abroad by a heroic handful of Frenchmen, as the white standard had been thirty years earlier at Coblentz; monks mingled with our troops; the spirit of liberty and of novelty brought to its senses by bayonets; principles slaughtered by cannonades; France undoing by her arms that which she had done by her mind.” (Victor Hugo, “Les Misérables“)

Contemporary illustration of the battle

When Napoleon decided in 1808 that his own kin would rule Spain from now on, the preliminary last Bourbon king of Spain was exiled to France and the Peninsular War broke loose, the Junta Suprema Central, in the king’s absence, agreed on a remarkably liberal constitution while fighting the Napoleonic usurpers. The so-called “Constitution of Cádiz” was squashed immediately after the end of the war in Spain, when the Bourbon Ferdinand VII was reinstated and promptly returned to his antediluvial ways. What followed was the Sexenio Absolutista, the six years of absolutistic rule when nearly everything blew right into Ferdinand’s face, from continuous unrest to a constant economic depression and every single Spanish colony in the Americas fighting for its independence. The reintroduction of the old bloody ways of the Inquisition didn’t seem to help very much either, except that even the most backward of his Most Catholic Majesty’s European allies became a bit alienated.

Returned to antediluvial ways and alienated even his most conservative allies:
Ferdinand VII (Portrait by José de Madrazo, 1821)

When a battalion of the next underpaid, underfed and poorly quartered expeditionary force en route to South America mutinied and the unrest in Galicia became a full fledged rebellion that forced Ferdinand to accept the Constitution of Cadiz in 1820, the alienated allies thought better of it, and while Spain begun to celebrate the “trienio liberal”, the three liberal years, the conservative powers of Europe gathered their troops in the North. Proclaiming that his Most Catholic Majesty was at the very least in mental captivity of revolutionaries, the “Holy Alliance” of Russia, Austria, Prussia and France voted to free the king and especially the absolutistic Bourbon Louis XVIII, reigning since 1815, mobilised most of his army to aid his bedraggled cousin.

Another contemporary illustration of the action 

Under the command of his brother, Charles, the Duke of Angoulême, five army corps gathered along the Pyrenees as the “Hundred Thousand Sons of Saint Louis“, the French patron saint, and invaded Spain in April 1823, taking San Sebastian and Madrid without much effort, especially since the local commander decided to take French leave, while the rest of the rebels concentrated their forces in the South. Their stronghold, the island fortress of Trocadero, was taken by a surprise amphibious attack in the early morning of 31 August 1823 in fierce hand-to-hand fighting, costing the lives of 400 French and 600 Spanish soldiers. Ferdinand VII was transferred to the French army afterwards, giving his word not to retaliate against the rebels. During the next seven years of his reign, 30.000 people were executed and 20.000 imprisoned. When Paris expanded her city limits to the Bois de Boulogne, the gallant action was commemorated with the Place du Trocadéro, while the U.S. decided to align their foreign policy along the lines of the Monroe Doctrine to stem the Holy Alliance’s influence in the affairs of the former Spanish colonies in the New World.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Mother of Frankenstein - Mary Shelley and the Modern Prometheus

30 August 1797, the author Mary Shelley, still best known, unjustly, for being the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and her novel “Frankenstein”, was born in London.

“The last man! Yes I may well describe that solitary being's feelings, feeling myself as the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me.” (Mary Shelley)

 Reginald Easton’s miniature of Mary Shelley (1857), based on her death-mask.

If modern fantastic and speculative literature has a tangible point of origin, it is probably that night in the “year without summer”, 1816, at the Villa Diodati on the shore of Lake Geneva, when Lord Byron encouraged the Shelleys and his factotum Dr Polidori to write a ghost story. And while the two geniuses present, Byron and Shelley, somehow preferred laudanum to spinning a good yarn, Polidori wrote the primal father of all Vampire fiction and Mary Shelley came up with her epoch making Gothic science fiction tale of “Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus”.

Villa Diodati, in the dramatic lighting of the year without summer and Byron lounging quite picturesquely in the foreground

Her role that night remained significant for the receptional history of her life and works, even though her books, those she wrote and those she edited and published, sold quite a lot better than the controversial writings of her husband, who died in 1821. Having lived a life that resembles a tragic novel all in itself, being the daughter of the philosopher and advocate of women’s rights, Mary Wollstonecraft, who died just 11 days after her birth, and the political philosopher William Godwin, growing up in a household full of radicals and an uncaring stepmother, eloping to the continent with a famous Romantic poet, returning pregnant to be disowned by her father, living penniless in England with her poet, relocating to Italy to meet with other poets, losing three of her four children and finally her husband in an accident and returning back home to be a famous author on her own and dying of a brain tumour at the age of 54.

Theodor von Holst's frontispiece of the 1831 edition of "Frankenstein"

It took more than a hundred years to dissolve the impression that she was a mere appendix and her husband’s literary executor with a single own success under the heavy influence of Byron and Shelley. The publication of her letters and rediscovery of her other works, among them such gems as “The Last Man” (1826) and “Lodore” (1833), finally brought her out of the role of a dead man’s homemaker to which she had been domesticated in literary history and into the limelight as being the Romantic writer and poet full of her own controversial ideas and talent as one of the foremost writers of the Romantic Age – and a trailblazer of fantastic (science) fiction.

And more on:

Thursday, 29 August 2013

“Több is veszett Mohácsnál" - The Battle of Mohács in 1526

29 August 1526, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent decisively defeated an Eastern European army und King Louis II of Hungary at Mohács, 130 miles south of Budapest, the coup de grâce for the medieval Kingdom of Hungary.

“Több is veszett Mohácsnál" - More was lost at Mohács (well-known saying in Hungary)

The Hungarian Romantic painter Bertalan Székely’s (1835 – 1910) imagination of the “Discovery of the Body of King Louis the Second” (1860).

King Louis II of Hungary was in quite a pinch. Mighty Matthias Corvinus had died in 1490 and he was succeeded by the nobility’s puppet Vladislaus II, aptly named King Dobže, "very well", for the monarch’s habit of rubber-stamping almost every whim his nobles might come up with. Usually at the expense of the common people. Naturally, a major peasant revolt followed, wearing Hungary down to the bone, just a couple of years before Louis succeeded King Dobže. And there was an expansionistic neighbour, the Ottoman Empire, having Europe's arguably most modern army at its disposal. When Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent allied his empire with the French, actually Louis’ ancestors, against the growing influence of their mutual enemy, House Habsburg, and the Sultan capturing the key fortresses to Hungary’s southern approaches, Nándorfehérvár, (present-day Belgrade) and Szabács in 1521, young Louis was really in hot water.

(after Titian) "Portrait of King Louis II" (around 1526)

Nonetheless, Louis decided to go to war against the Ottomans, summoned his allies and gathered his army. Unfortunately, some of the allies like the Habsburgs had their hands full fighting in Burgundy and France. Or they had already concluded a separate peace with the Turks, like Poland, or were more or less their vassals, like the Prince of Transylvania. Louis marched to the southeast anyway, with an army half the size of Suleiman’s, mainly consisting of drafted peasants who hated his and the nobility’s guts and were secretly helping the Turks to advance – or did not care who their master was – and his heavy armoured nobles who tried to fight as knights like their ancestors did. When the two armies finally met at Mohács, the selfsame nobility was lured into a premature charge, ending up in the crossfire of Turkish artillery, a trick the Hungarian warlord John Hunyádi had often used a hundred years before against the Ottomans. The nobles were shot to pieces, Suleiman’s excellent troops followed up and 
what was left was driven into the swamps and slaughtered. By the end of the day, Louis’ army was no more, who did not fell in battle was beheaded, the king himself drowned in a creek called Csele, his corpse was found two months later.


Contemporary Ottoman imagination of the Battle of Mohács

Most of Hungary and Croatia was occupied by the Ottomans immediately in the aftermath and the line of the Kings of Hungary ended on that day with the country losing its political independence for the next 400 years. The Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburgs followed up immediately, though, and their continuous conflict with the Ottomans along the shifting military border of the two empires turned the whole Balkan area into a crisis region for a very long time. No wonder that the Battle of Mohács as an archetype of a catastrophe left a deep impression and played an important role as a significant reminder and ideological gathering point for Hungarian patriotism at least since the 19th century.