Monday, 30 September 2013

Deposing Richard II

30 September 1399, England’s last Plantagenet monarch Richard II was finally deposed with the acceptance of his abdication by parliament and Henry of Bolingbroke as the the first king of the House of Lancaster.
“Was this face the face / That every day under his household roof / Did keep ten thousand men? Was this the face / That like the sun did make beholders wink? Is this the face which fac'd so many follies / That was at last out-fac'd by Bolingbroke? / A brittle glory shineth in this face; / As brittle as the glory is the face” (William Shakespeare, “King Richard II”)

The handover of the crown from Richard to Henry,
illustration from Froissart’s Chronicle (late 15th century)

The untimely death of his son Edward of Woodstock, later known as the Black Prince, left King Edward III of England in quite a dilemma in regards to his succession in 1376. He was 65 years old and had ruled his domains for almost 50 years and probably heard Joe Black sneaking around already on the premises of Woodstock Palace, his favourite lodgings. There was the Black Prince’s younger brother, the bustling John of Gaunt, and his son, Richard of Bordeaux, both with a legitimate claim to succeed Edward III as the next King of England. Edward finally decided on Richard, probably heavily influenced by the prince’s mother, the charming and equally bustling Joan of Kent. A year later, Edward III died, the boy Richard became King Richard II at the age of 10 and the foundations were laid for the coming Wars of the Roses that broke out two generations later.

Contemporary depiction of Richard II as king

However, the king’s uncle John of Gaunt seemed to have taken his getting set back in succession like a man and became first Richard II’s regent and later his most important counsellor and right hand during the ups and downs of his rule. And despite a major peasant revolt, a completely scattershot way of conducting the Hundred Years’ War on the continent and invading Ireland for good measure on top of it, England had seen far worse kings than Richard II, even though he was a ruthless powermonger who went back on his word on a regular basis. Nevertheless, he introduced English as court language, promoted the arts and held court in a civilised manner that was not seen again until the days of the Tudors. However, after the death of John of Gaunt and the ostracism of his son Henry of Bolingbroke to get at the immense fortune his uncle had amassed under a rather ridiculous pretext, things went downhill for the childless king during a time known as “Richard’s Tyranny”.

Richard taken into custody, again from Froissart's chronicle

While Richard II was away campaigning in Ireland again, Bolingbroke landed with a small army in Ravenspur in Yorkshire in June 1399, initially to reclaim his patrimony. But most of the important families sided with Henry and what was planned to be an inheritance dispute became a full-fledged rebellion within weeks. On 19 August Richard II surrendered at Flint Castle in North East Wales to Bolingbroke and abdicated informally. Unfortunately, Bolingbroke was actually not closest to inheriting the throne. That would have been Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, another grandson of Edward III. He was by-passed though with a juristic dodge, much to the dismay of his descendants, the future House of York. Bolingbroke was crowned on 13 October. The formal agreement of parliament on 30 September was given after the un-king read aloud and signing his deed of abdication 
in the Tower, describing himself as “insufficient” and “useless”  and transferring his body politic, his kingship, to Henry IV. Richard II remained in prison and, being still a threat to Henry IV’s rule, probably starved to death in 1400, since even his body natural was not to be harmed. But might even have been alive until 1419, although his cousin Henry V, to atone for his father’s coup d’etat, had his – or someone else’s - remains buried in Westminster Abbey in 1413.

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Sunday, 29 September 2013

The Magus Gaumata

29 September 522 BCE, 2.535 years ago in Pasargadae, 80 miles north of Shiraz, the magus Gaumata, masquerading as the deceased King Cambyses II’s brother Bardya, is killed by Darius the Great, the future king-of-kings of the Persian Empire.

“These then having come together, being seven in number, gave pledges of faith to one another and deliberated together; and when it came to Dareios to declare his opinion, he spoke to them as follows: "I thought that I alone knew this, namely that it was the Magian who was reigning as king and that Smerdis the son of Cyrus had brought his life to an end; and for this very reason I am come with earnest purpose to contrive death for the Magian.“ (Herodotus, “The History of Herodotus”)

Darius’ Behistun Inscription, the king of kings, the largest figure in the frieze, shown with Gaumata under his boot, receiving the blessing of the higher divinity of the Zoroastrian religion, Ahura Mazda, floating over the scene. 

Within a couple of years, Cambyses father Cyrus the Great had conquered various Near and Middle Eastern kingdoms and created a superpower 
almost out of thin air that spanned the lands from the Bosphorus to the borders of India. The next scion of the Achaemenids, his son Cambyses, just had conquered Egypt when news of a revolt in Persia reached him while he was on his return march to Persia. And then an infected wound killed the king-of-kings somewhere in Syria. Cambyses had a bit of a reputation, as a drunkard and choleric and that he had secretly killed his younger brother after he dreamed that Bardya, called Smerdis by Herodotus, would usurp his throne. While away campaigning afterwards, Gaumata, a magus, a high priest of the Zoroastrian state-religion who allegedly resembled Bardya, seized the chance and posed as the younger son of Cyrus the Great and rebelled.

A winged sphinx from Darius' palace in Susa

Darius was a member of the House of the Achaemenids and thus a relative of Cambyses, but just held the rank of a “lance-bearer”, probably an officer in the king’s lifeguards and why Cambyses men followed him remains a bit of a mystery, but they did and Darius force-marched them on the excellent Royal Roads into the heart of the empire towards Cyrus old capital Pasargadae, an auspicious place, since the old king-of-kings was buried there as well. Meanwhile, the magus Gaumata was in a bit of trouble anyway. According to the father of history, Herodotus, Gaumata had his ears cut off by Cyrus and Bardya’s father-in-law, one Otanes, who apparently smelled a rat, asked his daughter to feel for the king’s ears and when she reported he had none, the case was clear.

Darius' Immortals, his life-guard, from the Susa frieze,
now at the Louvre in Paris 

Upon his arrival in Pasargadae, Otanes and six other nobles joined Darius and they brought Gaumata to bay and killed him. Darius was crowned king-of-kings afterwards, quenched the rebellions of nine other “liar-kings”, married Parmys, the daughter of Bardya and thus closed the gap to the old ruling line of the House of the Achaemenids. Darius ruled the Persian Empire for 36 years, secured and expanded its borders and mounted an administration for his vast empire that was second to none in the world. The only major drawback was his defeat by the Athenians at Marathon in 490 BCE. And if the story of his ascension, eternalised in the monumental Behistun Inscription in Kermanshah was largely a fabrication, which is rather possible, he was a king of storytellers as well.

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Saturday, 28 September 2013

The “last courtier" - Prosper Mérimée

28 September 1803, 210 years ago, the author, historian and civil servant Prosper Mérimée was born in Paris.
“Not to take Goethe into account, for he is reasonably claimed by the century that produced him, I look only on Giacomo Leopardi, Prosper Merimee, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walter Savage Landor the author of Imaginary Conversations, as worthy to be called masters of prose.“ (Friedrich Nietzsche)

De Champmartin’s (1797 – 1883) portrait of Prosper Mérimée

It was rather spiteful of Victor Hugo to call Mérimée the “last courtier”, not only for his dandyesque mannerisms, but for his allegedly superficial acquaintance with a tale, telling a story with a few subtle brushstrokes instead of rolling it out on a gigantic canvas like he, Hugo, did. In fact, Mérimée probably was the creator of the short story and novella in French literature. Taking full advantage of his well-educated French Norman family’s background, his interest in history and the suchness of the conditio humaine’s psychological aspects in a time when the 18th century’s scepticism had been relieved by the Romantic Revolution in all art forms, Mérimée took full advantage of prevalent tastes of the literary audience and had enjoyed a huge success with his first novella, “Mateo Falcone”, a tale of Corsican family honour that ends in tears, of course.

Combining his sombre taste with a fascination for the supernatural an a weird sense of humour, Mérimée published his own set of Illyrian tales and ballads of revenge and treachery and blood and vampires, allegedly a translation by one Joseph L’Estrange of the works of the local poet “Hyacinthe Maglanowich”, a hoax in the manner of MacPherson’s faked Scottish “Ossian” epics and equally believed to be genuine. Eastern European, especially Russian as well as Spanish influences continued to inspire him to publish more tall tales as well as to introduce Pushkin and Lermontov to France. But relating the tale of the ruffian Don José Zempranito and his ill-fated love affair with a beautiful if volatile cigar factory worker he heard in Spain made his literary fame everlasting – the story was published in 1845 as “Carmen” and inspired Bizet to compose one of the world’s best-known operas.

Prosper Mérimée's own watercolour of Carmen (1845)

In the days when the Romantic Age more and more gave way to Realism, a tendency that is clearly visible in his own texts, Mérimée was close with most of the other renowned French authors, Stendhal and he both shared a lifelong friendship, he followed his historical interests with George Sand and discovered the wonderful 15th century series of tapestries known as “The Lady and the Unicorn” in the Limousin” in his role of being inspector-general of historical monuments and made significant contributions to save the historical Cité de Carcassone and when he was elected to the  Académie française in 1844, his literary career actually was past his best already. He continued to act as a courtier indeed in the vicinity of Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie for the last twenty years of his life.

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Friday, 27 September 2013

“There must be no smiling with Cruikshank"

27 September 1792, the caricaturist and book illustrator George Cruikshank was born in London.
“There must be no smiling with Cruikshank. A man who does not laugh outright is a dullard, and has no heart; even the old dandy of sixty must have laughed at his own wondrous grotesque image, as they say Louis Philippe did, who saw all the caricatures that were made of himself. And there are some of Cruikshank's designs which have the blessed faculty of creating laughter as often as you see them.“ (William Makepeace Thackeray)

Mocking the Dandy: “Monstrosities of 1818“

It is hard to find a satirist who was able to anatomise the grievances of his life and times with a deadly pen like William Hogarth did during the first half of the 18th – hard, but not impossible. George Cruikshank, a hundred years later, was celebrated in his day already as the modern Hogarth as if he was born to it. In fact he was. As the son of the caricaturist Isaac Cruikshank, George probably learned to abstract grim reality into an overdrawn grotesque before he was out of his diapers. And since Cruikshank’s grandfather was an etcher as well, George took up the trade and allegedly surpassed them all. In fact, his firsts caricatures went around when he was 14 and tackled the topic of Nelson’s funeral in January 1806. A couple of years later, when social conditions in England went from bad to worse for many, his caricatures became something to be reckoned with on a political level.

Harassing Prinny: "Merry Making on the Regent's Birth Day 1812"

Cruikshank already had made a name for himself during the war with his caricatures of Napoleon and his slow decline when he turned his attention to domestic politics. Cruikshank was, like many other satirists, a man of very strict morals and the contrast of the passion for grandeur of the Regency era’s haute-volée, including Prinny’s himself, to millions who lost their means of existence, quite obviously made him sick and he drew and etched for all it was worth, depicting the Peterloo Massacre as well as Prinny’s excesses with caustic wit and great skill and sometimes even major slips, like an ugly, racist caricature of an abolitionist meeting. Allegedly, the court tried to bribe him with 100 pounds to cease at least poking fun at his Royal Majesty on a continuous basis, but in contrast to another famous caricaturist, James Gilray, he didn’t take the money and just carried on being veritable and unbearable until 1820, when a personal interview with Prinny, who just had become King Georg IV, ended Cruikshank’s lèse majesté.

One of Cruikshank's illustrations for Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist"

By the late 1830s Cruikshank teamed up with another great moralist, Charles Dickens, and illustrated “Boz”, “Mufdog Papers” and “Oliver Twist” and continued with Grimm’s Fairytales, “Don Quixote” and Walter Scott’s “Waverley”. His father Isaac had drunk himself to an early grave and during the midst of his life, Cruikshank quitted drink, joined the temperance movement and fell out with Dickens who did not quite share his views on spirituous beverages. Cruikshank himself became more and more quaint and self-opinionated, up to the point that he wrote a letter to the “Times”, shortly after Dickens’ death in 1870, claiming that the idea for the plot of “Oliver Twist” was actually his. Getting more and more ill, the quality of his artistic output suffered with him and he made his last etching three years before his death in 1878, when his veracity bordering on being Puritanism was finally exhausted.

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Thursday, 26 September 2013

"For all the mutilated blocks of art” - The Destruction of Athens' Acropolis in 1687

26 September 1687, During the siege of Turkish-occupied Athens, a shell from a Venetian mortar hit the powder magazine in the Parthenon on the Acropolis. The following explosion almost destroyed the ancient temple of Athena.

“Let Aberdeen and Elgin still pursue / The shade of fame through regions of virtù / Waste useless thousands on their Phidian freaks, / Misshapen monuments and maim’d antiques; / And make their grand saloons a general mart / For all the mutilated blocks of art” (Lord Byron)

Edward Dodwell’s "View of the Parthenon from the Propylea" from his “Views in Greece”, 1821, a year before the Greeks captured their future capital from The Ottomans for good.

Built from the rather ill-gotten funds that Pericles’ Delian League corporation yielded mid-5th century BCE, Athens’ new acropolis and its centrepiece, the Parthenon, was part of the massive redevelopment the city underwent after the widespread destruction it suffered during the Persian occupation in 480 BCE. The construction was supervised by the famous sculptor and architect Phidias himself who made the new Acropolis with the use all available resources during an astonishingly short building period into a beacon of Western civilisation and an emblem of Hellenic culture. The temple remained the most important shrine of Athena throughout the following 1,000 years of antiquity and a place of pilgrimage for Roman culturati until, in 392 CE, Emperor Theodosius banned all religions except Christianity in the empire and the Parthenon became a church consecrated to the Virgin Mary, stripped of many valuables that were brought to Constantinople over the next couple of hundred years of Byzantine rule until the Ottomans captured Athens in 1456. Then, a minaret was added to the Parthenon and the temple of Athena became a mosque.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema: "Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends" (1868)

The Parthenon was still largely intact by the end of the 17th century and Turkish as well as Western European travellers stood awed by its marvels, when Athens, once again, was caught in the crossfire of the Venetian struggle with the Ottoman Turks for dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Morean War (1684 – 1699). The Venetian siege of Athens under the command of the later Doge Francesco Morosini began on 21 September 1687. The Turks had evacuated the city and fortified the Acropolis. The small Temple of Athena Nike was torn down to make room for an artillery emplacement and the Parthenon became the powder magazine for the Turkish artillery. Morosini immediately ordered the bombardment of the Turkish positions and five days later, in the evening of September 26th, what was described by him as a lucky shot hit the temple and blew up the magazine. The roof and most of the inner walls with their famous friezes collapsed and many columns on the northern and southern side were blown away. More than 200 of the Turkish defenders died and the falling debris ignited several fires in the city. Nonetheless, the Turkish garrison held for two more days and did not surrender until the news of the relief army from Thebes reached them. They were allowed to withdraw to Smyrna.

Pierre Peytier’s (1793–1864) 1830s rendition of The Ottoman mosque built in the ruins of the Parthenon after 1715

The Parthenon lay in ruins after a history of more than 2,000 years and when the Turks went, they noticed how interested the Westerners were in the old Greek remains that lay strewn across the architectonic cadavers on the hill. Morosini already took quite a few to Venice and when the Turks recaptured Athens six months later, they rigged up a going concern of antiquities with the West. The infamous climax was reached in 1801, when the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin, had the remaining sculptures and friezes from the Parthenon removed and shipped back home to England, to be admired as the “Elgin Marbles” in the British Museum to this day.

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