My Brief Encounters was published by Chambers in 2007 with great expectations. Sales and Marketing were sure it would do well. Indeed Waterstones was sure it would do well and placed it on their 'We Recommend' list for 2008 -
'Edwin Moore's quirky collection of a hundred encounters between (mostly) important historical figures is a gem of a book. Where else could you get concise enlightening accounts of Henry VIII wrestling with Francis I, Geronimo surrendering to General Miles, Ernest Hemingway presenting Fidel Castro with a fishing trophy or (as seen on the books cover) a baby-faced Bill Clinton shaking hands with John F Kennedy. A marvellous 'little window on human history. ' - Dominic Kennerk, Waterstones's Product Planning and Promotions Co-ordinator (From the Waterstones's 'We Recommend' list for 2008)'
Some excellent reviews followed -
'Witty, light and packed with information -- The Sunday Herald
'In 1936, in the wake of winning a clutch of gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, the great athlete Jesse Owens was snubbed by an imperious leader, on racial grounds. Popular belief would have it that the leader was Hitler, who is said to have stormed off, furious to see a black man beating European athletes. In fact the man in question was President Roosevelt, who worried that paying attention to Owens' triumphs might be a vote loser. Although Owens and the German Chancellor never talked, Owens claimed that Hitler greeted him with an enthusiastic wave. Such near-misses, shakings of hands and ships-in-the-night meetings are the subject of Brief Encounters – Meetings between mostly remarkable people, a likeable new book by Edwin Moore (Chambers £7.99). Flicking through the index, you will find some expected encounters (Dante stares at Beatrice, Corday stabs Marat, The Beatles strum along to a Charlie Rich record round at Elvis's house), and the book's intriguing and memorable cover shows a baby-faced Bill Clinton manfully gripping the hand of JFK. But Moore has navigated past some of the more obvious collisions, collusions and confrontations of history (there is no Dr Livingstone, I presume) and much of the book's pleasure derives from lesser known incidents.
Inevitably, some of the accounts of earlier meetings are somewhat sketchy but Moore offers some piquant speculation, laced with humour (the book is tagged Reference / Humour, rather than History and this feels right, but the book, though wry and opinionated, never stoops to wackiness). I was intrigued to discover that, though Attila the Hun did die on his wedding night, it was not in drunken and lecherous debauchery, as his enemies maintained, but supposedly because he was generally a simple and clean-living man who had a few too many which brought on a particularly bad nosebleed.
Moore's book is full of such tales – it would be wrong of me to steal the tastiest morsels of his research and pepper this article with them, but look out for a subsidiary reason for the Gunpowder Plot (too many dour and powerful Scots in Parliament); a great meeting of great beards, as Castro wins the Hemingway prize for sea-fishing; Dali bringing a skeptical Freud round to the art of the surrealists; Buffalo Bill's wife claiming an aged Queen Victoria had propositioned him; Oscar Wilde getting a kiss from Walt Whitman, while Walter Scott was more taken with Burns's charismatic eyes. This is an enjoyable and vigorous rattle through some fascinating and believable yarns. My only quibble is that it's a little on the short side – let's have Volume 2 please Chambers! - Roddy Lumsden, www.Books from Scotland.com'
But alas no great sales followed - and no further exposure. Like all failed authors, I take refuge in happenstance. One of my other books - Lemmings Don’t Leap - sold well but the sales tapered off, so it too was remaindered. A few months after the book was remaindered, it was featured in the popular Channel 4 show, One Born Every Minute, in an episode in which a mother read and extract (about polar bears being black) to her daughter. Suddenly everyone was looking for it on Amazon and I sold my stock on Amazon as collectable signed copies. If all this had happened before it got remaindered - well who knows.
Anyhoo I am putting Brief Encounters online, here. Enjoy! If there is sufficient interest in an actual book I will prepare a Print on Demand. You can drop me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow me on Twitter, Edwin Moore@GlasgowAlbum. Oh and my Glasgow Album is definitely worth a look (has become quite popular) -
The book is still (January 2016) in print in South Korea in a very pretty illustrated edition. See these splendid pics -
The expanded edition would include such wonders as Rudolf Steiner advising Franz Kafka against eating eggs, Thomas Cromwell giving English sweeties to Pope Leo X, Elvis Presley buying April Ashley a drink, etc, etc
All great stuff, to go with the great stuff in the original. And so without further ado -
100 BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
When Kennedy met Clinton and Other Strange Meetings
There have been three broad rules for inclusion within this book: (a) the persons meeting should be well-known; (b) they should meet only once in glancing, ship-in-the-night fashion; (c) the meeting should have some real significance.
In practice, however, I have decided that (a) in a few entries, we can live with the name of one of the participants being not commonly known. for example, Billie Holiday is a well-kent name, though Abel Meerapol is not, but the meeting is too good not to have; (b) occasionally the participants are allowed to have met more than once, for example, Tom Cribb and Tom Molineaux fought twice, but it is their bloody 39-round encounter in 1810 that matters, and though the great atheist Robert Ingersoll served under Lew Wallace during the American Civil War, their later chance encounter on a train is too good to omit; (c) the meeting need not be of earth-shattering significance if it is sufficiently interesting; for example, the delightful encounter in 1900 between the American novelist Winston Churchill and the now better-known Winston S. Churchill.Also, it should be a given that we are sure that an encounter actually took place, but I am compelled to make one exception:the strange and fascinating LA-wasteland case of L Ron Hubbard and Aleister Crowley. What was allthatabout?The truth is, I spent too much time researching that alleged encounter to give it up and, to paraphrasethe great ex-Bonzo Neil Innes, I suffered to put that entry together and now it's your turn.
Some wonderful encounters didn't get in because, alas, we can say with some certainty that there was no meeting. In these web-reliant days, grizzled oldies will tell you young 'uns to check printed sources. Well, an article in the archive of a prominent Scottish newspaper will inform you that Oscar Wilde once gave Edwin Moore his coat because the man was cold, and being that Edwin Moore myself, I can say with certainty that Oscar Wilde never gave me his coat - and I am not yet into my 12th decade, either. And never mind newspapers: despite what a few biographers will tell you, Marlene Dietrich does not act with Garbo in Pabst's 1926 movieJoyless Street- Dietrich was home nursing her child - nor, despite the movieGordon of Khartoum.did the Mahdi and General Gordon ever meet (though, improbable as it seems, they corresponded, as one crabby Victorian gentleman to another). And despite Sir Walter Scott, Richard the Lionheart never did meet Saladin, though Saladin once sent him peaches and snow. However, Richard did meet Saladin's brother, and an intriguing meeting it was too. That meeting is in this book, along with 99 other meetings that offer little windows on human history.
The diligent reader will discover that cross referencing could have been more exhaustive. To have added all relevant cross references would have devoured too muchspace, but you can always play a variant of the Kevin Bacon game, and see how many odd links you can make between people: Nessie, for example (though admittedly not a person) links St Columba (died 597) and Aleister Crowley (died 1947), and James Boswell pops up everywhere among his contemporaries, whether having a fling with Rousseau's mistress in 1766, visiting Flora MacDonald in 1773, or interviewing the Mohawk chief Joseph Brant in 1776.
That space factor means that a lot of desirable but peripheral stuff has had to go: in one entry alone,1887:Queen Victoria meets Black Elk,out has gone Buffalo Bill's manager kicking off Glasgow Celtic's worst-ever home defeat (beaten 8-0 by the mighty Dumbarton), Annie Oakley observing that if her aim had been worse - while shooting the ash from a cigarette held in the hand of the future Kaiser Wilhelm - history might have been better; Queen Victoria tellling Annie she was 'a very, very clever little girl, and Sitting Bull calling herWatanya Cecilia, 'Miss Sure Shot'.
If you like that sort of thing, you will love this book: here you will find the creator of Biggles and Worrals interviewing Lawrence of Arabia for a mechanic's job; a puzzled Persian emperor wondering who these smug Spartans are; Wittgenstein shaking a poker in the presence of Karl Popper; Pocahontas being unimpressed by James I; Jackie Kennedy popping downstairs to meet Princess Diana; Lew Wallace pardoning Billy the Kid;and much more. As Donald Rumsfeld (who almost got in the book, and was pushed out by George Bush) would perhaps put it, this is stuff as it happened, and we are all interested in stuff.
Finally, thank you (once more) to my brilliant editor, Liam Rodger, without whose skill and many helpful suggestions this book would have been a horrendous struggle; Alice Goldie and Mike Munro, for their many helpful comments on the text; Maureen of Caledonia Books in Glasgow, for her generous help in finding books for me to scavenge upon; and Merlin Holland for his valuable comments on Oscar Wilde meeting Walt Whitman.
Headword List for First Edition
c. 540 BC:Cyrus the Greatmeets the Spartan Embassy
336 BC: Alexander meets Diogenes
327 BC:Alexander meets the naked philosophers
c. 264 BC:Ashoka possibly meetsNigrodha
52 BC: Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar
385: Maximus executes Priscillian
452:Pope Leo I persuadesAttila the Hun
c. 563:Columba preaches to Bridei, King of the Picts
1050:Macbeth meets Pope Leo IX
c. 1052:Edward the Confessor meets William the Bastard
1192:Richard the Lionheart meets Saladin's brother
1274:Dante meets Beatrice twice
1520:Henry VIII wrestles Francis I
1521: Martin Luther and Frederick the Wise see each other at the Diet of Worms
1529: Zwingli and Luther argue about Communion
1553: Calvin denounces Michael Servetus
1556: John Dee interrogates John Philpott
1593:Elizabeth I meets Grace O'Malley
1605: King James I interrogates Guy Fawkes
1617: Pocahontas is unimpressed by James I
1653: George Fox reduces Oliver Cromwell to tears
1671:Colonel Blood meets King Charles II
1675: Aurangzeb executesGuru Tegh Bahadur
1746:Bonnie Prince Charlie meets Lord Lovat
1746: Flora MacDonald helps Bonnie Prince Charlie escape
1773: Dr Johnson visits Flora MacDonald
1747:J S Bach meets Frederick the Great
1752:Casanova meets Madame de Pompadour
1764: Boswell meets Voltaire
1766:Erasmus Darwin entices Rousseau with a flower
1774: Edmund Burke is enraptured by Marie-Antoinette
1774: Joseph Priestley meets Antoine Lavoisier
1775: Robespierre makes a speech in the rain to Louis XVI
1776: Dr Johnson has dinner with John Wilkes
1777: the Marquis de Sade insultsCount Mirabeau
1777: Patrick Ferguson decides not to shoot George Washington
1781: Benjamin Franklin meets Catherine Dashkova
1792: Joseph Brant meets George Washington
1786: Walter Scott meets Robert Burns
1788: Olaudah Equiano presents a petition to Queen Charlotte
1793: Charlotte Corday assassinates Marat
1797: Napoleon invites Tom Paine to dinner
1805: Sir ArthurWellesley meets Nelson
1810:Tom Molineaux fights Tom Cribb
1812:Beethoven meets Goethe
1814:Harriette Wilson meets Lord Byron
1817:Benjamin Haydon hosts the 'Immortal Dinner'
1822: San Martin and Simon Bolivar meet behind closed doors
1827:Schubert visits Beethoven on his deathbed
1840 Sir Moses Montefiore meets SultanAbdlmecid
1842:Edgar Allan Poe meets Charles Dickens
1854: John Lang meets Lakshmibai
1855: James Barry is nasty to Florence Nightingale
1855: Mary Seacole gets a Bed for the Night from Florence Nightingale
1855:Robert Browning is unentranced by Daniel Dunglas Home
1856: Lola Montez tries to horsewhip Henry Seekamp
1860: Richard Burton meets Brigham Young
1863: John Wilkes Booth refuses to meet Abraham Lincoln
1864: Garibaldi plants a tree for the Tennysons
1876: Robert Ingersoll inspires Lew Wallace
1879: Lew Wallace promises to pardon Billy the Kid
1882:Oscar Wilde meets Walt Whitman
1886: Geronimo surrenders toGeneral Miles
1887:Queen Victoria meets Black Elk
1889: Nellie Bly Meets Jules Verne
1890: Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement share a room
1900:Winston Churchill meets Winston S. Churchill
1906: Mark Twain meets Maxim Gorky
1910: Arnold Bax meets Patrick Pearse
1914: Pancho Villa shares a photo opportunity with Emiliano Zapata
1914: Gavrilo Princip shoots the Archduke Ferdinand and his Duchess
1918: Fanny Kaplan shoots Lenin
1920: Bertrand Russell meets Lenin
1923: Thomas Hardy entertains the Prince of Wales
1927: the Einsteins visit the Freuds
1931: Gandhi meets Chaplin
1933: Giussepe Zangara shoots at President FranklinRoosevelt
1936:Adolf Hitler waves to Jesse Owens
1937: The Windsors meet Hitler
1938: Salvador Dali sketches Sigmund Freud
1939: Abel Meeropol sings 'Strange Fruit' to Billie Holliday
1946:Beryl Formby tells Daniel Malan to piss off
1946: Wittgenstein possibly waves a poker atPopper
1956 Eric Newby meets Wilfred Thesiger
1958: Luis Bunuel asks Alec Guinness to be his lead actor
1963: Bill Clinton meets President John F Kennedy
1965: Elvis Presley jams with the Beatles
1978: Alec Guinness has lunch with M
1985:Jackie Kennedy meets Princess Diana
1985: Kurt Waldheim punches John Simpson
2000: George W. Bush meets Sami Al-Arian
ANCIENT AND MEDIEVAL MEETINGS
c. 540 BC: Cyrus the Great doesn't know what to make of the Spartan Embassy
Around 540 BC, the Greek state of Sparta sent an embassy to the court of the Persian emperor, Cyrus the Great. This was a busy time for Cyrus, whose main thoughts were on expanding his empire. One aspect of this expansion was of particular concern to the Spartans, who had agreed an alliance with the powerful Greek colony on the Asian mainland, Lydia. King Croesus, who decided to attack Cyrus in 547 BC after receiving the gloriously ambiguous message from the Delphic oracle that if he attacked Cyrus, a great empire would be destroyed, ruled Lydia. He attacked, and Cyrus defeated Croesus and absorbed the Greek colony into the Persian empire (though now conquered, the Greek colonists would remain in Asia Minor for around another 2500 years, until the secular Turkish rule of Kemal Ataturk).
This Persian victory was not good news for the Spartans, who, instead of aiding the Lydians, had decided to occupy themselves by attacking an old enemy, the Greek state of Argos, which they duly subdued. The Spartans forced their new subjects to shave their heads as a mark of submission, and vowed themselves to let their own hair grow long. Long hair was considered woefully effeminate in Greek culture, but the Spartans didn't care - they had no need to prove their manhood to anyone (as their boyfriends would of course testify, homosexual acts as such being not necessarily effeminate).
The Spartan embassy was sent to Cyrus as a mark of both reproof and as a thinly veiled threat: mess again with Greeks and you might have to mess with us. The encounter is recorded much later (c. 430 BC) by the Greek historian Herodotus. Herodotus has not always been seen as unvaryingly reliable, but there is no reason to doubt his account of what happened at this clash of cultures. Cyrus seems to have been baffled by these very un-Greek like emissaries, clad in vermillion cloaks and wearing their hair long and oiled. He asked some Greeks at his court 'Who are the Spartans?, but was not much interested in the answer. The Spartans were clearly weird - as his courtiers would have confirmed - but, however warlike, not of great import to the conqueror of great cities such as Babylon.
The Spartans, for their part, were probably blissfully unaware on their voyage home that the great king had very likely already forgotten this eccentric embassy. For the Spartans, as for all Greeks, Asia was where Troy fell to the Spartan king Menelaus and his cast of heroes, as recorded by Homer in the Iliad, humanity's great epic poem of war. They were going home to their city from a land they had once subdued in blood and fire, home to a Sparta dominated by the tomb of Menelaus and his troublesome wife, Helen (in actual fact, the Homeric heroes and beauties were a different group of Greeks to the Spartans, who were late incomers into the region. but such awkward details rarely disrupt the flow of national or regional myths). The knowledge that Troy's destruction was little thought of or even known of in the land of Cyrus, was quite probably not one that could be comfortably absorbed into the Spartan consciousness.
What Happened Next
Western historians have tended to portray the Greeks as 'folks like us', good democratic westerners in embryo, in contrast to the Persians, who are the very prototype of an evil eastern empire, but this is a sloppy reinvention of the past. Cyrus was tolerant of his subject's customs and religions and established sound laws, whereas the Spartans regarded the ritualised killing of subject Greeks as a socially beneficent activity. While the Greeks in general may often seem quite like us (if we disregard the Taliban-like sexual apartheid), the Spartans were just different, and were regarded as such by their fellow Greeks. Moderns may feel more in tune with Sparta with regard to some aspects of relations between men and women - tales of the loose behaviour of Spartan women, who were educated, and exercised openly, were passed around in hushed tones among scandalised non-Spartans - but in truth Sparta was a deeply alien, violent culture.
As Tom Holland says in Persian Fire, (2005), the question, 'Who are the Spartans?', asked once in derision, could have been asked again later by many Persians, but in fear; perhaps most dramatically at Thermopylae in 480, where an astonished Persian scout watched the 300 Spartans comb each other's hair in calm disregard of what would soon be streaming up the pass towards them. The Persian invader, Xerxes, offered good terms for surrender of arms: the Spartan general Leonidas said in return: 'come and get them'.
Also standing with the Spartans in the pass were about 300 of their own serfs (helots), around 400 Thebans, and 700 Thespians. The Thespians can perhaps be seen as 'acting Spartans' (sorry) - the majority of them certainly fought and died as bravely, but it is those chilling Spartans whom everyone remembers: as Holland says: 'Shielded behind their mountain frontiers, self-sufficient, xenophobic and suspicious, the Spartans took but never gave, spied but never revealed'.
336 BC: Alexander meets Diogenes (who is not in the least impressed)
Not long before his death at the age of 32, Alexander the Great - after having conquered the known world - is said to have wept that there were no more worlds to conquer; the cynic philosopher Diogenes, in contrast, believed that nothing was of much importance, certainly not human vanity and ambition. The two men were contemporaries, so obviously it would have been interesting if men with two such contrasting world views had met, and the historian Plutarch indeed records just such a meeting. Meetings of this kind between 'great' men and philosophical individuals are said - mostly wishfully - to occur in all societies, but there is a consensus that Plutarch is here recording something that did actually happen.
Myths about Alexander sprang up during his lifetime, or were invented over the following centuries. The earliest source, for example, for Alexander's tears at running out of worlds to conquer is a late one, the 3rd century AD philosopher Aelian, and he seems to be misquoting a remark of Alexander's that was recorded by Plutarch: when he heard a philosopher say that there were an infinite number of universes, Alexander - perhaps shedding a tear as he spoke - remarked that 'There are so many worlds, and I have not yet conquered even one'.
Diogenes was described by Plato as 'Socrates gone mad', in that he took the scepticism associated with Socrates to extremes and willfully challenged authority and custom. but Diogenes and his admirers disagreed: they saw his position as entirely rational. Custom may dictate that it is not polite to eat in the marketplace, but the proscription is irrational: if you are hungry while in the marketplace. why should you not eat in the marketplace? Your appetites, even your sexual ones (as he is said to have publicly demonstrated in what was certainly a step too far for those in his presence), are no one's business but your own.
Alexander came to Corinth in 336 BC. Corinth was the centre of his recently assassinated father's Hellenic confederacy, and the young king (aged 20) had serious business to settle. He had to bind the fractious Hellenic world under his leadership and also prepare for a difficult campaign against the Persians. Yet he also wanted to meet the old cynic Diogenes, who was then about 70, living in a barrel, and quite possibly plagued by fetching young women as in the 1882 painting by John William Waterhouse (Waterhouse's painting also depicts a lamp, which Diogenes carried in order to fruitlessly look for an honest man, and a bunch of the onions he had for dinner).
The meeting fulfilled all expectations: Alexander asked Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him, and Diogenes asked him to stop blocking the sun's rays. Alexander's henchmen were reported to be outraged by this disrespect, then astonished when Alexander said if he were not Alexander, he would want to be Diogenes.
What Happened Next
Alexander defeated the Persians, and established an empire stretching from Greece to India, an empire obtained and ruled with the characteristic ruthlessness of a despot, tempered occasionally with assiduously publicized acts of generosity. The practical request given by Diogenes became Alexander's symbolic image - a young man whose exploits blotted out the sun. Diogenes died in Corinth in the same year as Alexander, 323 BC, indeed supposedly on the same day in June.
Alexander and Diogenes helped to colour in each other's iconic image. Different as they were, they were also very much alike in one thing, their perception of the world they inhabited as being a world stretching far beyond the world of Greek history and culture. Diogenes is claimed to have been quite possibly the first individual to truly think of himself - or at least to declare himself - as a citizen of the world, and Alexander is seen by some as establishing the first world empire, though Cyrus the Great (see c. 540 BC: Cyrus the Great doesn't know what to make of the Spartan Embassy) has a good claim to have been there first; certainly Alexander saw Cyrus as some sort of precursor, and is claimed to have ordered the restoration of Cyrus' tomb (a claim that remains archaeologically unproven).
Neither cynic nor conqueror had that irritating (only ancient, of course) Greek cast of mind which saw different peoples as necessarily barbarians, 'barbarian' meaning someone who literally talked rubbish, 'bar bar). Alexander seems to have thought of the people he conquered - or slaughtered - as being pretty much like his Greek subjects, and Diogenes thought of everyone as equally deluded, whether Greek or barbarian. See 327 BC: Alexander meets the naked philosophers
327 BC: Alexander meets the naked philosophers
In the summer of 327 BC, Alexander the Great led his army towards India. The army was bloated with booty from years of campaigning, most recently in Afghanistan, so bloated that before reaching the Khyber Pass Alexander destroyed his own loot and the loot of his friends - and ordered his men to do the same. The invasion had to be seen to have higher aims than just self-enrichment.
Like many large-scale butchers of humanity, Alexander took great care to burnish his public image (see 336 BC: Alexander meets Diogenes), and asserted that his empire was of great benefit to those who submitted to his rule. Carried along in his court were various tame philosophers who were expected to portray the course of conquest in a high-minded rhetorical frame. The philosophers included three big hitters: the renowned sceptic Pyrrho; Anaxarchus, who is supposed by some to have recommended that Alexander be worshipped as a god (Cicero says Anaxarchus subsequently annoyed a tyrant who had him pestled to death in a large mortar); and Onesicritus, a former pupil of Diogenes.
After a rebellion against Alexander by a local Indian prince, Plutarch records that he interrogated 10 wise men who had apparently encouraged the rebellion. These men were obviously regarded by the natives as holy and, disconcertingly, travelled about in the nude.
Alexander gave the strange men 10 questions to answer: getting one wrong question meant they all would die. The 10 questions and answers became famous and may belong originally to the realm of proverbial wisdom. Number 3 is one of the best known: 'what is the craftiest animal?'; the answer being 'the one that has not been found by man yet'. Alexander was impressed with the answer, rewarded the 10 men and gave them their freedom, and asked Onesicritus - as a follower of Greece's most eccentric sage, he must have seemed appropriate - to find out more (some sources say Alexander actually executed these annoying sages, but packing them off with gifts is more typical of what Alexander wanted people to think of him).
The name given by the Greeks to these wandering holy men was 'gymnosophist', from 'gymnos', naked, and 'sophist', knowledge, but establishing just who these 'gymnosophists' actually were turns out to be not an easy question to answer definitively. Though sometimes also referred to as 'Brahmans' by Greek contemporaries and later historians it now seems very likely that the gymnosophists were either Ajikvas or Jains: these and other long-established religious groups such as Buddhists had many sects, but were usually both ascetic and vegetarian, and believed that violence was counter-productive.
The Greeks were fascinated by the parallels between these holy men and their own traditions. Greeks too liked nudity if it was among young men, especially at athletic exercises or contests, and Onesicritus was able to tell the holy men that many Greeks back home held the same or similar beliefs: 200 years previously Pythgaoras had taught the transmigration of souls, and had been a vegetarian (indeed Onesicritus' own master Diogenes had been a vegetarian). Pythagoras and Indian wise men such as the Buddha had been contemporaries (and were also contemporaries of Zoroaster, Lao-Tzu and Confucius among others - it was a heady age), so naturally people theorised that ideas had moved from east to west or west to east, but possibly all were drawing on older beliefs and practices (see c. 260 BC: Ashoka meets Nigrodha).
What Happened Next
After an unprecedented mutiny from his men (possibly still sore at having had to destroy their loot) Alexander headed home in 325 BC, but didn't make it. He died of fever in Babylon in 323 BC. The philosophers returned home with confirmation of an ancient parallel world in which men thought much the same as men in civilised Greece. As Tristram Stuart says in The Bloodless Revolution (2006), the impact of Indian religious and philosophical traditions on the west was to deepen much later, and the traditions were highly influential on Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau. Vegetarianism, for example, could by the 17th century be seen as a way of life with a long philosophical tradition behind it.
The gymnosophist approach to clothes (seen as a bad thing) made a surprising comeback in the late 19th and early 20th century, with a growing interest in naturism in the west, an interest that grew despite the differences in climate between India and Europe. The movement inspired a lot of dippy (in every sense) movies showing happy, naked young Aryans throwing beachballs at each other, but actually seems to have began among Brits living in India, who in 1891 founded a group called 'the Fellowship for the Naked Trust'. The founder of the wiccan religion, Gerald Gardner, was a prominent member of the New Gymnosophist Society, and established a club in the 1920s especially for wiccan gymnosophists where they could perform their rituals 'sky-clad', a term borrowed from Indian ascetics. Such western interpretations of gymnosophy (for better or worse) laid the foundations for the hippy era of the 1960s.
c. 264 BC: Ashoka the Great is converted to pacifism by Nigrodha
Ashoka the Great, who was to be the last Mauryan emperor in India, succeeded to the throne c. 268 BC after a protracted and bloody dynastic struggle against rival claimants. The details of these conflicts cannot be verified, and may have been exaggerated subsequently by Buddhist writers seeking to emphasize the contrast between the pre-Buddhist Ashoka and the later convert, but it seems likely that there was much bloodshed; even if he did not kill precisely 99 of his 100 brothers, or personally behead 500 enemies, the Mauryan empire was undoubtedly a great prize of war, and fighting must have been bloody (the exploits of the converted Ashoka were also suspiciously immense: the scribes claimed he built 84,000 monasteries and 84.000 stupas)
The aftermath of the Battle of Kalinga - in which Ashoka either crushed a revolt or annexed a neighbour - undoubtedly affected him deeply. According to his own testimony, the war cost the lives of over 100,000 Kalinga men, women and children, and also 10,000 of his own men, and he had inscriptions carved into rocks and onto pillars erected throughout the Mauryan empire proclaiming his edicts (the significance of the pillars was only rediscovered in the 19th century), explaining that his remorse led to embrace of the practice of 'dhamma', the way of the Buddha, a way consisting of compassion to others, to all life.
The importance and unique nature of the edicts is undisputed: here a monarch addresses his people, tells them he has been a bad man, and now wishes to become moral, and to spread his influence through good works rather than evil acts, such as war. Capital punishment was abolished, prisoners were treated kindly, and laws were passed to protect animals. The empire would co-exist peacefully with its neighbours, and justice would be fair. The edicts are also the earliest recorded writings on Buddhism.
It has long been accepted by scholars that there are effectively two Ashokas, the Ashoka of history and the Ashoka of Buddhist scripture. Both are present in the edicts, but how and when Ashoka became a Buddhist remains unconfirmed. One commonly repeated story is that after the Battle of Kalinga he met the novice Buddhist monk Nigrodha, who converted him with a sermon on 'heedfulness', and although it does seem that there was no dramatic conversion - according to the edicts he had begun studying Buddhism years previously - it seems reasonable to suppose that a good teacher persuaded the emperor to finally embrace Buddhism and become as an edict says, a 'lay follower of Buddhism'. Both history and Buddhist scripture place the final embrace of religion after Kalinga, and though we do not have transcripts of their meeting, some sort of an encounter with a Buddhist scholar seems certain, and that scholar may well have been a bright novice called Nigrodha.
What Happened Next
Ashoka has been described by Richard Gombrich as 'the most important Buddhist layman in history', Buddhism was to all but die out in India, and only revived under the British in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was British scholars who returned to India knowledge of its greatest king (Ashoka was not finally confirmed as the author of the edicts until 1915), and the wheel of Dhamma carved on one of his great pillars now appears in the centre of the Indian flag. Thanks to Ashoka, Buddhism spread far and wide in the years of his reign (which ended about 239 BC). He sent missionaries to all the known world (even possibly to Britain), and the religion made a significant impact outside of India, most notably perhaps, in Sri Lanka Thailand and China. HG Wells wrote of Ashoka: 'In the history of the world there have been thousands of kings and emperors who called themselves 'their highnesses,' 'their majesties,' and 'their exalted majesties' and so on. They shone for a brief moment, and as quickly disappeared. But Ashoka shines and shines brightly like a bright star, even unto this day'.
52 BC: Vercingetorix the Gaul surrenders to Caesar
In 52 BC, as the Battle of Alesia loomed, Julius Caesar was 48 years old and, if he survived the battle, very much the coming man: an experienced soldier, a skilled debater and well-connected politician, he was sought after as an ally, and feared as an enemy. After being appointed Proconsular Governor of Transalpine Gaul in 58 BC what is now southern France, he had begun the Gallic Wars, a series of conflicts which led to the conquest of all Gaul lands; all of western Europe from the Rhine to the Atlantic was annexed to the Roman Empire (Caesar's own third-person account of the Gallic Wars, his Commentaries, is both the essential guide to the wars and a classic of Latin prose) .
Skillfully exploiting inter-tribal divisions, Caesar had managed to bring the Gauls into subjugation, and even had time to take two hard whacks at the Britons across the Channel in 55 and 56 BC. The 55 BC expedition was very nearly a disaster - Caesar had the luck that Napoleon regarded as the sine qua non of generalship - but added, as intended, great glory to the name of Caesar.
As Life of Brian memorably shows, Roman rule was never really appreciated by the subjugated, and especially not in Gaul. Better roads and all the other things 'the Romans did for us' never quite made up for the arrogant governors, the ever-present garrisons of trained killers, the bullying traders with senatorial connections, or the taxes. The Gaul uprisings began in 58 BC, with the final revolt in 52 BC being led by a young nobleman (he may have been only 17) called Vercingetorix. Vercingetorix managed to unite large numbers of Gauls, but a hard-pressed Caesar managed to defeat the rebels at the battle of Alesia. According to popular legend, Vercingetorix surrendered in a theatrical manner, riding into Caesar's camp to kneel at his feet in person. illustrations of the great Gaul laying down his sword in front of a suitably impressed Caesar still feature in French schoolbooks (in Asterix and the Chieftain's Shield, Vercingetorix throws his sword on Caesar's feet). Caesar's own account is, alas, altogether more restrained, as this Victorian translation of his account shows: 'Vercingetorix, having convened a council the following day, declares, “That he had undertaken that war, not on account of his own exigencies, but on account of the general freedom; and since he must yield to fortune, he offered himself to them for either purpose, whether they should wish to atone to the Romans by his death, or surrender him alive. Ambassadors are sent to Caesar on this subject. He orders their arms to be surrendered, and their chieftains delivered up. He seated himself at the head of the lines in front of the camp, the Gallic chieftains are brought before him. They surrender Vercingetorix, and lay down their arms'. The victory was a calamity for the Gauls: according to one estimate, a million died, a million became slaves, and the remaining five or so million became Roman subjects.
What Happened Next
Caesar does seem to have admired Vercingetorix as a leader of men, and he and other Romans most definitely admired the fighting qualities of the Gauls. Indeed, many Gauls had fought on Caesar's side, either for tribal reasons or simply because they wanted to pick a winner. The independent, martial qualities of the Gauls had been admired for centuries: the 3rd century Roman sculpture, 'the Dying Gaul', itself a copy of a Greek original. was one of the most copied sculptures in antiquity. Vercingetorix was taken to Rome, paraded in front of the mob, jailed, then executed in 46 BC, probably with a garrote, and possibly not to universal approval in the city. Caesar himself was assassinated two years later.
The more romantic version of the encounter was the one that prevailed, despite the brutal end of the story. In1865, Napoleon III had a huge statue (over 20 feet tall and still standing) of the great hero erected at the site of the Battle of Alesia. The statue shows Vercingetroix with a moustache, despite the fact that contemporary coins show his upper lip hairless. Napoleon III was well-whiskered, so the inference is that the sculptor wanted to identify his master with the ancient hero. This sort of thing still goes on: a statue of Mel Gibson dressed up in Braveheart garb, purporting to be a representation of William Wallace, was erected in Stirling in 1997 (and is now kept behind bars after being regularly vandalised).
Napoleon III did eventually die in exile like his hero - but in Chislehurst rather than Rome.
385: Maximus executes Priscillian for his beliefs
As a critic of the film Gladiator observed, Maximus seems a bit of an over the-top name even for a Roman emperor. Yet someone called Maximus was indeed a Roman emperor (if not the only one) of his day, and like the (fictional) Russell Crowe character, Magnus Maximus was a Spaniard who was popular with his troops. In 383, he was proclaimed emperor in Britain by his legions, defeated the western emperor Gratian in Paris, crossed the Alps, but eventually surrendered to Theodosius the 'Great' in 388, who promptly executed him (Theodosius was the last emperor to rule over both the western and eastern parts of the empire).
From our modern perspective, Maximus in himself seems a figure of little historical significance, being simply one of a series of military commanders who fought for control of the Roman empire in the 4th century. but he does have a remarkable claim to fame - or at least infamy - in that he was the first Christian ruler to execute a Christian for his beliefs. The Christian he executed was another Spaniard, an ascetic intellectual called Priscillian, described by his near-contemporary Sulpicius Severus, the biographer of St Martin of Tours, as 'a man of noble birth, of great riches, bold, restless, eloquent, learned through much reading, very ready at debate and discussion' (Catholic Encyclopedia translation).
Priscillan had many admirers and became Bishop of Avila, but also had many theological (and more clearly orthodox) enemies. Prompted by the persecution of his followers, Priscillian appealed to Maximus at Trier for imperial protection but ended up accused by a civil court of sorcery. St Martin of Tours was so shocked by the vehemence of the language used against Priscillian and the Priscillians, as his followers were now called, that he also appealed to Maximus, calling on him not to shed the blood of the accused. But after Martin left the city, and Priscillian was found guilty, he and several followers were beheaded on the direct orders of Maximus, who seems to have had it in for the unorthodox, possibly as a means of currying favour with the Church. Priscillan and the others were the first Christians ever to be executed by Christians.
The executions were quickly condemned by the Pope and by Bishop Ambrose of Milan; and when in 400, the Council of Toledo re-examined the case, they found little of substance against him, and several leading Priscillians, including two bishops, were reconciled to the Church.
What Happened Next
Maximus, despite his efforts for the Church, was soon forgotten after his execution in 388, though his descendants are quite interesting: one presumed great-grandson, Petronius Maximus, was very briefly emperor before being stoned to death in 455, and his daughter may have been married to the British king Vortigern, according to the Pillar of Eliseg in Denbighshire.
Priscillian was clearly a very gifted man. A definitive account of his beliefs has long been problematic: as with many subsequent 'heretics' we now know his beliefs primarily from his persecutors (Priscillian's earliest writings were, astonishingly. rediscovered in 1885). Despite the anxious efforts at reconciliation on the part of the Church in his day, it seems probable that at least some of his beliefs derive from distinctly heterodox Manichaean or Gnostic traditions (Gnostics saw the creation as a flawed, even evil work, rather than, as the orthodox required, the beneficent creation of a loving God). The most notable ex-Manichaean of the day was Augustine, but it seems there were many inside and out of the church who regarded themselves as orthodox but sympathised with the inspirational asceticism of men such as Priscillian (and women too: Priscillian's followers included many women, who were regarded as equals within the movement, a feature also of many Gnostic groups).
Priscillian continued to be venerated by many Christians in Spain, particularly in Galicia, a cause of great concern to Leo I (see 452: Pope Leo I persuades Attila the Hun). His body was brought back from Trier, and it has been suggested that the human remains discovered at Santiago de Compostela in the 8th century are in fact Priscillian's, and not those of St James. Gnosticism - in the form of Catharism - was to resurface centuries later in Provence, and was suppressed by the Church with great ferocity during the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-1255. But by then, the world had got used to the spectacle of Christians slaughtering Christians.
452: Pope Leo I persuades Attila the Hun not to attack Rome
The first Pope to receive the honorific 'Great', Leo I is described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as one of the most significant and important Popes in antiquity. Born in 400, by the time he became Pope Leo I in 440 he had already become renowned for his zeal in combating the many heterodox Christians who continued to aggravate the Church hierarchy by clinging to or even promulgating unapproved beliefs. Leo I was notable in particular for his campaigns against the followers of Pelagius (a very British heretic, Pelagius rejected original sin), and against Manicheans and Priscillians (see 385: Maximus executes Priscillian).
The 5th century was a time of great upheaval for the Roman Empire: Rome itself had been captured in 410 by Alaric, leader of the Visigoths. and territory was continuingly slipping from Roman control as the supposed barbarians moved in (the taking of Rome by Alaric used to be described as a 'sack', but in fact Alaric, who was an Arian Christian, and his army, behaved very moderately, especially compared to Roman armies). Despite all this turmoil of people and armies, Leo I was unstinting in his efforts to give dissident Christians a hard time. Earthly powers rose and fell, but what really mattered was making sure that it was one's own theological interpretation that survived.
In 452, however, Leo I had to face up to a very pressing temporal matter: Attila the Hun and his forces had been wreaking havoc in Northern Italy, razing at least one city to the ground. Attila was dubbed the 'Scourge of God' by the Romans, and was undoubtedly a fearsome opponent, though it seems possible that he was not quite the monster he has been portrayed as in European culture. A reliable description of the man by the Greek historian Priscus portrays a man of moderate tastes: 'In everything. . .he showed himself temperate; his cup was of wood, while to the guests were given goblets of gold and silver. His dress, too, was quite simple, affecting only to be clean. The sword he carried at his side, the latchets of his Scythian shoes, the bridle of his horse were not adorned, like those of the other Scythians, with gold or gems or anything costly'.
Leo I was part of an embassy sent, at the request of Rome's feeble emperor Valentinian III, to meet with Attila (whose empire was actually the largest in Europe). near Mantua, and plead for an end to the invasion. The Roman Catholic church has always given the Pope sole credit for Attila's surprising agreement to spare Rome (with the help of Saints Peter and Paul who Raphael depicts in a 1512 Vatican fresco as hovering menacingly above the meeting). There is no consensus among secular historians as to why Attila left. There is little doubt that Leo I was by far the most significant figure on the Roman side, yet it seems implausible that he could have had any really persuasive arguments to put forward to a man who had calmly watched as towns and cities were burned at his command. Alaric had died shortly after taking Rome, and it has been suggested that Attila feared some sort of curse coming upon him if he attacked Rome, but fear of more natural horrors such as plague, famine were likely more persuasive factors. More recently, it has been suggested that Rome's eastern emperor at Constantinople, Marcian, whom historians have tended to portray as being a largely aloof observer of the trouble in the west, may in fact at this time have posed more problems for Attila than has formerly seemed to be the case.
What Happened Next
For whatever reason, Attila withdrew and died the following year, dying after (says Priscus) a nosebleed caused by a wedding night drinking session (he was not much of a drinker, but something about the new wife seems to have caused him to over-indulge). A less unusual account of his death is that it was engineered by Marcian in some way. The Hun empire subsequently fell in discord and Attila became a figure of legend in medieval epics. Leo II carried on enthusiastically pursuing heretics until his death in 461. He is buried in the Vatican, whose power he did so much to consolidate and expand.
c. 563: Columba preaches to Bridei, King of the Picts (and tells Nessie to behave)
The traditional version of Christianity's introduction to Scotland has been that the religion was brought by Saint Ninian, a Cumbrian whose dates are unclear. He is believed to have begun his mission in the 390s. In fact, there must have been earlier Christians in Scotland, possibly serving on Hadrian's Wall - as in WH Auden's poem 'Roman Wall Blues' - 'Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish / There'd be no more kissing if he had his wish') - or trading with the Picts and other natives, but Ninian's seems to have been the first episcopally licensed mission north of the Wall (or possibly not, as one scholar has speculated that 'Ninian' may not have existed and be simply a careless scribe's spelling mistake for a later Irish saint, Finnian).
The Abbot Finnian of Clonard certainly existed, as did Columba, and the latter started what in publishing history is the first copyright war, after he illegally copied one of Finnian's prized psalters. This theft of what we now call 'intellectual property rights' led to the Battle of Cooldrevny in 561, in which 3000 warriors may have died. Overcome with remorse, Columba left Ireland to preach the gospel to the Picts, and landed on Iona in 563. Iona was a good strategic base for these missionaries, halfway between the territory of the Scots of Dalriadia (the Scots were of course invaders from Ireland) and the great Pictish lands to the east.
Possibly while on a journey to Inverness to meet the Pictish king Bridei, Columba's biographer Adamnan (writing 100 years after the event) says Columba and his men came across Picts burying a man by the river Ness, who had been killed by a monster in the river. Columba then sent one of his own (doubtless eager) men into the river as bait: the monster promptly attacked but as promptly fled when Columba ordered it to leave his follower alone. This account is of doubtful historical merit as (a) Nessie, who was presumably on her way into or out of Loch Ness, seems shy and peaceful, and has never attacked anyone else; (b) Adamnan records so many miracles performed by Columba - drawing water from a rock like Moses, multiplying fishes like Jesus, and even driving a demon out of a milk pail - that they all seem a trifle devalued.
Bridei's home was possibly a small fort on the site of the present Inverness Castle, or maybe on a ridge overlooking the Beauly Firth. Not much is known of him: he seems to have been monarch of both northern and southern Picts, and a note in the annals of Ulster credits him with having halted or delayed Scottish incursions. The Venerable Bede suggests (about 200 years later) that Bridei gifted Iona to Columba, who converted the king to Christianity. The gift of Iona is not mentioned by Adamnan, who suggests that Bridei was at first hostile to Columba, then friendly, after of course a miracle. Neither does Adamnan claim that Bridei was converted by Columba, which is perhaps surprising given the much more improbable things that are recorded in his biography. Bridei may well have been a Christian already.
What Happened Next
Columba died peacefully in Iona in 597. His legacy was huge. Iona became one of the most important missionary centres in Europe and is now a place of pilgrimage itself. Bridei died around 585, possibly while fighting fellow Picts. By the 10th century, the Pictish kingdoms had been absorbed by the Scots invaders and their strange language forgotten. By the time of the Scottish Wars of Independence, the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320 could boast of the genocide of the Picts. But by the 19th century, the Picts were fully absorbed back into the North British mainstream, as can be seen in a charming painting by William Hole (in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery) depicting Columba converting Bridei. As Lloyd Laing points out in his Celtic Britain (1979), the work is a mixture of elements which are very diverse in time and space: Bridei wears a 2nd-century armlet, an 8th-century brooch - and an 8th-century BC Italian helmet. One of Columba's team carries a 12th-century crozier, while a Pict holds a shield which could in his time be over 2000 years old; and as Laing says, 'all are set in a rocky scene taken straight from an 18th-century antiquary's druid scrapbook. Yet . . .there is nothing in this picture that jars on the eye'. Bridei and Columba have here entered the world of Celtic myth.
1050: Macbeth goes on a pilgrimage and meets Pope Leo IX
Thanks to Shakespeare's play of c. 1605, Macbeth is regarded as one of the great villains of history. Shakespeare took his Macbeth from Holinshed's Chronicles; Holinshed in turn took his information from Hector Boece's Scotorum Historiae (1527). Boece is a notoriously unreliable source and was writing in any case to bolster the claim of James I to the Scottish throne, while Shakespeare was obliged to flatter his descendant James VI, who became James I of England in 1603 (it was claimed that both Jamies were descended from Banquo, but Banquo may never have existed).
The character and reign of the real Macbeth was quite different, however. After defeating Duncan I in battle in 1040 (Duncan may well have been a young warrior rather than Shakespeare's saintly old buffer), Macbeth, king of Moray, became king of all Scotland. The 11th century was a tough time to be a Scottish monarch. Apart from incessant struggle against rival claimants to the throne, and with many minor powers all with quite literal axes to grind, the kingdom also lay open to attacks from the Orkney Vikings in the north (though Earl Thorfinn was an ally of Macbeth's, such alliances could dissolve with opportunity), and from the Northumbrian kingdom in the south. It may seem odd to think of Macbeth as a player on the European stage, never mind undertake a pilgrimage to Rome, but such was the case. Europe was undergoing dramatic shifts of power; the pathways of dynastic struggle ran across the Atlantic and North Sea as well as by land, and Scotland was by no mans a negligible state. Macbeth was the first, but not the last, Scottish monarch to take Norman knights into his service.
Pope Leo IX became Pope in 1049 and was also acquainted with Norman power, but with the receiving end of that power. Norman invaders were causing great strife in Southern Italy and Sicily, and the new Pope did what he could to alleviate the strife. It was also a tough time to be a Pope. Macbeth travelled to Rome in 1050, scattering money 'like seed' to the poor, it was said. There is no record of his conversation with Pope Leo IX; doubtless, as the 1913 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia delicately puts it, he 'may be thought to have exposed the needs of his soul to that tender father'. The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia is not known for its forthright criticism of the papacy, but even by its own standards, the description of Leo IX is highly reverential: in childhood he was 'saintly', and he had trouble reading from a book that turned out to be stolen.
The historical Leo IX excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople not long before he died, thus causing an un-healable rift between the Catholics and the Orthodox, and was much more like the powerful lord portrayed by Kingsley Amis in his fine story about Macbeth's meeting with the Holy Father, 'Affairs of Death'. As is the case with George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman novels, it is often to the fiction writers we turn for the best insights into historical figures, and Amis' version of the encounter is a compelling one. His Leo IX is a steely character, looking for gifts from his northern visitor. Macbeth is a sad man, haunted by guilt over the blood on his hands, but also keen to tell the Pope that now 'Scotland is safe and at peace. This has not been customary'. Indeed it was not customary, and Macbeth's rule was popular. Thanks to his deals, promises and threats, the realm lived free from war while he ruled (It is possible that Macbeth visited Rome twice, and Amis sets the meeting in 1053 rather than the documented date of 1050).
What Happened Next
Leo IX led an army against the Normans in 1053, was defeated. and died a broken (or at least very frustrated) man in 1054. Macbeth had a good innings for a medieval Scottish king, reigning for 17 years before being killed in battle in 1057 against Duncan's son, Malcolm III. In a development still not really understood, Macbeth's stepson Lulach took the throne. Lulach's father had been killed by Macbeth and it is possible he fought in alliance with Malcolm; in any case, Malcolm ambushed and killed him in 1058. Scottish history at this time begins to resemble a series of The Sopranos, with Macbeth's rule being looked back to as a time of peace and plenty. Macbeth may be one of the many Scottish (and Norwegian and Irish) kings buried on Iona.
See also 1052: Edward the Confessor meets William the Bastard
c. 1052: Edward the Confessor meets William the Bastard
Despite being King of England for 14 years (1052-1066), and becoming a saint in 1161, after which date he became known as Edward the Confessor, the early life of Edward remains aggravatingly obscure, shrouded in the myth-making which followed the Norman Conquest and his later canonisation. It seems clear, however, that his accession to the throne was popular, particularly as he was preceded by his unpopular high-taxing half-brother Harthacanute, described brusquely in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as having 'never accomplished anything kingly'. Edward, according to the Chronicle, was a highly popular successor with the people of London, who acclaimed him as king before Harthacanute was buried.
As was the case with Scotland, which also enjoyed unusual peace in the early 1050s, thanks to Macbeth (see 1050: Macbeth goes on a pilgrimage and meets Pope Leo IX), there were many eyes on the throne. The English throne also enjoyed a special prestige: in an era of fast-risen freebooters, men who were often barely a sword's length away from the family cowshed, the English crown shone as the symbol of a dynasty that reached back into the 6th century, almost to the twilight of the Roman Empire, a dynasty which included such heroes as Alfred the Great in its line. To follow as king in that ancient succession was to achieve glory indeed.
Around about 1052, Edward received a visit from William the Bastard, ruler of Normandy since 1045. We have no record of the meeting, which may have been in the previous year, and there has never been any independent confirmation of William's claim - a claim made much later, in 1066 after Edward's death - that Edward had named him his successor. Though the claim seems farfetched, it is certainly the case that Norman influence was growing in England under Edward's reign. Not long before William's visit, after a group of Normans were killed in a brawl at Dover, Edward, in an unsaintly gesture, had ordered Earl Godwin to punish the people of Dover. Godwin refused to attack his fellow Saxons and was exiled. Thus we do know that Edward could favour Normans, and Normans made good allies. Dangerous allies of course, but no more or less trustworthy than Saxon allies. It is often forgotten that there were already Norman settlers in England. including some clergy, and indeed Edward's own Norman nephew, the Earl of Hereford, who was to become better known under the wonderful name of Ralph the Timid after his knights failed to break a Saxon shield wall (Ralph built the first castles in England).
Edward died in a fog of claim and counter claim. Godwin's son Harold of Wessex claimed that Edward had nominated him on his deathbed, William got the Pope's approval for his story of the 1052 meeting. William also claimed that Harold - while a 'guest' of William's after being shipwrecked - had sworn to support the Norman's claim.
What Happened Next
Edward died in January 1066, William invaded on 28 September, just three days after Harold destroyed a large Norwegian army led by their giant king Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge (on being told that Harald came to conquer England, Harold promised him seven feet of soil, a promise he kept). This was to be the last Viking invasion of England. Harold advanced south, bringing his exhausted forces into battle at Hastings on 14 October. The fight was a close one but ended with Harold's death. William was crowned King of England on Christmas Day. The consequences of the Norman Conquest are much debated, but it seems perverse to see an event that brought so much destruction as anything but a catastrophe. Subsequent English rebellions were crushed with the utmost severity, During the 'Harrying of the North' in 1069-70, William's forces slaughtered everything they could from the Humber to the Tyne, and some historians estimate that over England as a whole, in the period 1066-1075, perhaps a fifth of the population died.
The Bayeux Tapestry (which was likely completed in the late 1070s, and is actually an embroidery rather than a tapestry), was probably commissioned by William's half-brother Bishop Odo. Formerly seen as a fairly uncomplicated piece of Norman propaganda, it is now seen as a much more complex work with hidden meanings. it was probably in fact made in England by English seamstresses, and the scene depicting a mother and her child fleeing a house being burned by Norman soldiers, is an odd scene for a work supposedly celebrating the Conquest. The Tapestry does not show Edward and William meeting: instead Harold is dispatched by Edward to tell William that he has been chosen by Edward as the next king of England: Harold is then depicted as a brave ally of William's - in one scene he pulls two Norman knights from quicksand - and in another scene he is shown making an oath over a saint's relics.
Whatever the oath may have been, the stories within the Bayeux Tapestry are clearly open to interpretation.
1192: Richard the Lionheart meets Saladin's brother
The First Crusade to 'free' the Holy Land was launched in 1095 by Pope Urban II. From the outset, the Crusade was seen as a way of achieving earthly as well as spiritual gain: someone, after all, would have to take over once the Holy Land had been cleansed of unbelievers and their Muslim rulers. Many of the sweeping statements that used to be made about the Crusades are now commonly disputed. It used to be said, for example, that Europe had a surplus of younger sons trained in war and the Crusades were a good way of using them up. This view no longer seems valid. The old view of a monolithic Islam has also largely been dispensed with. When the Crusaders invaded, they found a Muslim world that was torn apart by the great sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia, a world, indeed, with some leaders who initially seemed to have hoped that the Crusaders could be allies against fellow Muslims.
Since the 18th century, western historians, and novelists such as Sir Walter Scott, have portrayed the Crusades as a clash between brutal and largely uncultured barbarians from the west on the one hand, and an older, more tolerant Muslim civilisation on the other. This is still not a greatly contested view, certainly not between Protestant and secular historians. though perhaps it has led to an over-rosy view of some Muslim rulers, such as the great Kurd Saladin. Saladin's main opponent in legend (and at least partly in history) was of course Richard I of England, the so-called Lionheart. The two were opponents during the Third Crusade of 1189-1192, and never actually met despite their wonderfully flowery exchanges in Scott's novel The Talisman (Richard's wife Berengaria, forced to stay in her tent, sounds the only dissident note in the book: 'This superstitious observance of Oriental reverence to the fair sex called forth from Queen Berengaria some criticisms very unfavourable to Saladin and his country'.
Richard had arrived in the Holy Land trailing a reputation for brutality, and reinforced it by killing over 2700 Muslim hostages in 1191 after the capture of Acre. For some reason, however, Saladin took to Richard, as many people did. During one battle, he sent Richard two horses when his own was killed under him. He also once sent him sherbet when he was sick and offered him his personal physician. The two were also linked in a surprising way by the dreaded Shia Assassin sect: Assassins made at least two attempts on Saladin's life, and one of the Assassins who killed Conrad I of Jerusalem claimed Richard had paid for the murder (the case against Richard is unproven).
Richard then proposed - out of the blue - an aristocratic compromise solution to Saladin, that would bring about an end to the Crusades: a marriage between the families. Saladin's brother, Al-Adil, could marry Richard's sister Joanna. Joanna had been Queen of Sicily, and when her husband died, the new king, Tancred, imprisoned her. But when Joanna's scary brother turned up in Sicily in 1190, he released her. Al-Adil and Richard met, but while Joanna loved her brother. she had no intention of marrying a Muslim, nor did Al-Adil want a Christian wife. It is probable also that Al-Adil knew of the widely believed story attached to both Richard and Joanna, that their mother Eleanor of Aquitaine was, as a member of the Angevin dynasty, descended from the Devil and that occult powers ran in the family. Al-Adil was possibly not all that pious, but there was no chance of a wedding here. Marriage to a Christian descended from Satan was bad enough; the rumoured ability of a recent forebear to fly in and out of windows was very likely a dealbreaker.
An unenthusiastic Al-Adil reported back to his big brother, who mischievously kept Richard waiting for six weeks before replying that the marriage was a great idea and should take place immediately. Richard, facing outright rebellion from his beloved sister. then asked Saladin if his niece Eleanor, the 'Fair Maid of Brittany' would do, and Saladin decided he had had enough. Richard and Saladin would never be in-laws.
What Happened Next
Saladin died in 1193. Al-Adil skillfully brokered peace among Saladin's succession-squabbling nephews, and ended up ruling Egypt and Syria for many years. and also established good relations with the crusader kingdoms. Al-Adil has never really had due credit from posterity, either from Arab historians, who perhaps feel one Kurdish hero is enough, or from western historians,. who perhaps feel one Muslim hero is enough. Joanna married Raymond VI of Toulouse in 1196. The marriage was not a happy one, and Joanna, pregnant with a second child travelled to seek Richard's protection in 1199, but found him dead of a crossbow wound in Chalus. She (and the baby) died in childbirth at Rouen. Her surviving son became Raymond VII of Toulouse, who. like his father before him, was forced to take part in the merciless Albigensian Crusade against his Cathar subjects. The Albigensian Crusade in southern France was fought with greater ferocity than the crusades against the Muslims. The Cathars were accused of being devil-worshippers, appropriate subjects, it was said, for an Angevin descendant.
1274: Dante trembles when he sees Beatrice
The first meeting in 1274 was when he was nine and she was eight. This meeting is best described in his own words, as translated here by Rossetti, from Vita Nuova (c. 1293), literally 'New Love', a collection of short prose pieces and poems on courtly love: 'Nine times already since my birth had the heaven of light returned to the selfsame point almost, as concerns its own revolution, when first the glorious Lady of my mind was made manifest to mine eyes; even she who was called Beatrice. . .and I saw her almost at the end of my ninth year. Her dress, on that day, was of a most noble colour, a subdued and goodly crimson, girdled and adorned in such sort as best suited with her very tender age. At that moment, I say most truly that the spirit of life, which hath its dwelling in the secretest chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that the least pulses of my body shook therewith; and in trembling it said these words: 'Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi' [Here is a deity stronger than I; who, coming, shall rule over me].
The nine-year-old Dante sounds not quite like our own dear modern nine-year-olds perhaps, but it needs to be pointed out here that Dante is not so much recounting something autobiographical, as a modern would, but is instead exploring the nature of both earthly and divine love. They met again nine years later, and again it has to be Dante's description as translated by Rossetti: 'And passing through a street, she turned her eyes thither where I stood sorely abashed: and. . .saluted me with so virtuous a bearing that I seemed then and there to behold the very limits of blessedness. . . betaking me to the loneliness of mine own room, I fell to thinking of this most courteous lady, thinking of whom I was overtaken by a pleasant slumber, wherein a marvellous vision was presented to me: for there appeared to be in my room a mist of the colour of fire, within the which I discerned the figure of a lord of terrible aspect to such as should gaze upon him, but who seemed therewithal to rejoice inwardly that it was a marvel to see. Speaking he said many things, among the which I could understand but few; and of these, this: 'Ego dominus tuus' [I am your Lord] In his arms it seemed to me that a person was sleeping, covered only with a blood-coloured cloth; upon whom looking very attentively, I knew that it was the lady of the salutation who had deigned the day before to salute me. And he who held her held also in his hand a thing that was burning in flames; and he said to me, 'Vide cor tuum' ['behold thy heart'].
Suspicious commentators have noted that Dante seems to have liked things to happen in nines, and as Renaissance Florence was after all not that big a place, he should surely have seen his beloved Beatrice more than twice in nine years. But as every woman knows, men see what they want to see in women, and perhaps he was only recording the moments of vision.
It is the second meeting that appeals to modern sensibilities, and is perhaps most commonly imagined as depicted in that Pre-Raphaelite masterpiece Dante and Beatrice (1883), by Henry Holiday. It is a very fine painting, though Dante looks a bit older than the teenager he was (a digression may be permitted here: Kitty Lushington was the model for the maidservant in the painting, and Kitty was also to be the inspiration for one of Virginia Woolf's best-loved characters, Clarissa Dalloway - not a lot of people know this, but you can therefore see what the young Mrs Dalloway looked like in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, where the painting hangs). The encounter between Dante and Beatrice also features in a Florentine scene in the film Hannibal (2001), in which a sonnet from Vita Nuova is sung in a street performance of an opera supposedly based on the book.
What Happened Next
Dante married a woman called Gemma in 1285, by whom he had four children; Beatrice married a banker called Simone in 1287. Asked how he coped with life after her marriage, Dante replied 'Ladies, the end of my love was indeed the greeting of this lady. . .in that greeting lay my beatitude, for it was the end of all my desires.' Beatrice died in 1290, aged 24, but reappears, famously and wondrously, in Dante's masterwork, one of the greatest of all poems, the Divine Comedy (1308-1321), as Dante's guide into Paradise towards 'The Love which moves the sun and the other stars'.
RENAISSANCE AND BAROQUE ENCOUNTERS (16TH AND 17TH CENTURIES)
1520: Henry VIII wrestles Francis I
The image traditionally favoured by king and dictators is of a figure so large it complements or even competes with the sun (see 336 BC: Alexander meets Diogenes), an image evoked perfectly in A Man for All Seasons (1966), in which Robert Shaw's Henry VIII blocks out the sun when he appears to Paul Scofield's Thomas More. Henry has had a bad press from posterity's novelists and historians, largely because he deserves one. One of the few real intellectuals to inherit the English throne (or any throne) he was genuinely interested in science and all aspects of learning, and corresponded with the great humanist Erasmus while still a youth; and although he almost certainly did not compose 'Greensleeves', as used to be believed, he was an accomplished musician and composer.
But from an early age, this royal paragon was also fascinated with war, and with the age's ritualised substitute for war, tournaments (and was a very keen hunter). and fought a war with France 1512-14. Henry was 23 when the war began, and his kingdom was a member of the Holy League, an alliance against Francis I's France (Henry didn't get much out of the conflict, except for a resounding victory over the Scots at Flodden in 1513). By 1520, Henry's realm of England was a growing power in Europe, courted cautiously by the two main forces in Europe, the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V (the son of Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad), and Francis I, the latter being also a young man flexing his imperial muscles.
England's diplomacy during this period has come in for some recent revision. Cardinal Wolsey used to be seen as the dominant player on the English side, 'the King's ruler', it used to be said, but there now seems to be pretty much a consensus that Henry was happy to let Wolsey, who became a cardinal in 1515, take the public credit for English policy - for as long as the policy suited Henry. England had a population much smaller than France's, a national income a great deal lower than the Hapsburg's, yet Wolsey and the King somehow enabled England to, as several historians have said, punch well above its weight.
Peace was finally made with France, and the two young lions agreed to meet in June 1520 at what has come to be called the 'Field of the Cloth of Gold', near Calais (as pedants never tire of saying, strictly it should be called Field of Cloth of Gold). It was so called because of the large amount of gold cloth on display, on both costumes and tents. The event lasted a month. The proclaimed intention was to strengthen the bonds between England and France, who were neighbours and should be friends in a rapidly changing world. With the old certainties failing, and with the Ottomans encroaching on Christendom, why should old enemies not become friends? Two 12 foot paintings - now at Hampton Court - were made to record the meeting, one showing Henry embarking for France, the other (a much-pondered painting) showing details of the place and the events.
Everything about the meeting was designed - by Wolsey, who had become a papal legate in 1518 - not to cause offence to either side (Calais was English territory). An ad hoc 300-foot long palace was built, with 30-foot (mostly cloth) walls; fountains flowed with wine; dozens of priests tended to the gathering's spiritual needs where required; over 2000 sheep were eaten, the finest choristers sang; knights jousted; and Francis and Henry wrestled. The latter encounter was not planned, and Wolsey would certainly not have wanted it. It was a definite mistake: to have two burly young and ambitious kings wrestling in front of their watchful courts, indeed in front of beady eyes from every court in Europe, was to court misfortune. Francis succeeded in pinning Henry to the ground; Henry rose white-faced and all the fun was over.
What Happened Next
The Field of the Cloth of Gold represents what may well be proportionately the biggest outlay in diplomatic expenditure for the least result, effectively a silly and hugely expensive interlude. England and France were back at war within two years, after Wolsey arranged an alliance with Charles. Henry's soldiers raided France in 1522 and 1523, and he suggested to Charles that they carve up France between them, after Charles captured Francis. Charles was not interested. Pope Clement VII then persuaded Henry into an alliance - the League of Cognac - against Charles, but Henry's war chest was already running out at this point. England was an important player in European affairs, that was now clear, but not one wealthy enough to sustain a European war.
1521: Martin Luther and Frederick the Wise see each other at the Diet of Worms
The 1520s was a very busy decade for world history. The decade begins with such events as the first passage through the straits of Magellan and the Field of Cloth of Gold (see 1520: Henry VIII wrestles Francis I) and, in 1521, The Diet of Worms. The words ‘Diet of Worms’ have resulted in centuries of giggles among English speakers, as in Hamlet’s quip (Shakespeare loved a bad pun) ‘Your worm is your only emperor for diet’. The Diet was a general assembly of the ruling estates of the Holy Roman Empire, presided over by the Emperor Charles V (by this point in history, the empire was as Voltaire was to describe it, neither holy, nor roman nor really an empire).
The main purpose of the Diet was to rein in Martin Luther and the growing Protestant demand for church reformation. In 1520, Pope Leo X had issued a demand that Luther retract his theses attacking the selling of indulgences, and Luther was called before the assembly to retract the heretical errors in his displayed books. It was Luther’s good fortune (or perhaps providence) that there were other major issues facing the European powers at the time, and present also at the Diet was Luther’s temporal lord, the Elector of Saxony, Frederick III, ‘Frederick the Wise’. Frederick was the founder of the University of Wittenberg (Shakespeare makes Hamlet a student at this humanist institution), where Luther taught, and, though a quite traditional Catholic (he owned over 19,000 relics, including straw from Jesus’ manger) Frederick was becoming increasingly convinced of the need for some measure of reform. He had also obtained a guarantee that Luther would have safe passage to and from the assembly.
The two men did not actually speak to each other, but when Luther was called upon to speak it is inconceivable that they did not exchange looks. Frederick would later say that he found Luther ‘too bold’. And while Luther probably did not actually say ‘Here I stand. I can do no other’, his bravery and articulacy seemed plain enough to most observers, Luther told the assembly that if his work was not 'from God' then it would perish soon enough, without the Diet's aid. He clearly impressed Frederick despite his 'boldness'- if he had not, then that would have been Luther's last public appearance until brought to the stake.
What Happened Next
All concerned knew that the safe conduct for Luther was pretty worthless, and when Luther left the assembly he was abducted by a gang of armed men. When the artist Albrecht Durer (who was to remain a Catholic) heard the news he exclaimed that if Luther was dead, there would be no one to explain the gospel. But Luther was not dead. He had been abducted by Frederick’s men and spent a year in safety, disguised as a knight (Frederick never visited Luther, possibly fearing being told off for his beloved relic collection). The rest of the 1520s brought disorder on an unprecedented scale: peasant armies expecting the end of the world ravaged Germany, and in 1527 Rome was ecumenically sacked by Charles V’s army of Spanish Catholics and German Lutherans. Charles himself was horrified by the sack, but by then it was clear that the old Europe was breaking up in a manner unforeseen at the start of the 1520s. See also 1529: Zwingli and Luther argue about Communion.
1529: Zwingli and Luther argue about Communion
By 1529, the Protestant Reformation had major strongholds in both Germany and Switzerland, one of them being Zurich, where Zwingli was effectively both temporal and spiritual leader. Most reformers were content with being the power behind the throne (or civil power) but Zwingli was more content to be seen to be wielding the power: Zurich was to be a theocracy. Zwingli’s theology is now seen as fairly complex in detail, but for contemporaries, what really mattered was that he had come independently to the same conclusions about the state of the Church as Luther, and he quickly acquired a large following in Zurich, his influence spreading rapidly to several other Swiss cantons.
There was, however, a bitter difference between the two men over the nature of the Last Supper and the meaning of Holy Communion: Luther believed Christ was present during communion, whereas Zwingli saw communion as a memorial ceremony. Philip, Landgrave of Hesse - like many Protestant secular leaders - believed it would be a very good thing if the two great reformers could meet and settle their differences, thus establishing a united front of Protestant states against the Catholic menace.
Philip organised a meeting which was held at Marburg in 1529. The meeting was a disaster. Luther was never a trimmer (see 1521: Martin Luther and Frederick the Wise see each other at the Diet of Worms) and was in no mood to compromise his beliefs for the sake of an earthly alliance, especially one forcing him to embrace the views of a ‘fanatic’, as he called him, like Zwingli. For his part, Zwingli saw Luther as still essentially wedded to Catholic doctrine, a man unwilling to see where his arguments necessarily led. They didn't agree, and didn’t like each other (Luther later went so far as to call Zwingli a ‘devil’). There was to be no alliance of the disparate German and Swiss states.
What Happened Next
Marburg was a political, spiritual and intellectual failure, but led directly to the Augsburg Confession of 1530, which was presented to the Emperor Charles V. The Augsburg Confession - the primary Lutheran confession of faith - solved the Marburg problem by getting Luther to write the confession but not taking him to Augsburg (he was kept secure at Coburg castle). Charles V had many problems at this time: his own army of Spanish Catholics and German Lutherans had sacked Rome itself in an orgy of rape and murder in 1527, and the Ottomans were encroaching on the empire; the Turks had besieged Vienna just a few months previously. In 1531, matters were simplified a bit when Zwingli fell in battle against the Catholic cantons. The future of Protestantism in Switzerland was to lie with neither Zwingli nor Luther, but with Calvin (see 1553: Calvin denounces Michael Servetus).
1553: Calvin denounces Michael Servetus
The physician and philosopher Michael Servetus arrived in Geneva in 1553, a city dominated by the reformer John Calvin. There has been some debate as to whether or not Servetus and Calvin had met before: some accounts says they met briefly in Paris in either 1534 or 1536, other accounts say he was invited by Calvin to meet up so that Calvin could demonstrate the falsity of his beliefs but Servetus failed to show up. They certainly corresponded, but Calvin made plain that their views were incompatible.
Above all, Servetus held highly unorthodox views on the godhead and did not believe in the trinity as understood by both Catholics and Protestants. As Thomas Jefferson said, Servetus could not find in Euclid ‘ the proposition which has demonstrated that three are one, and one is three’. Servetus had been working as a physician in Lyon (and discovered the pulmonary circulation of blood). where he conformed outwardly to Catholic practice, but was denounced to the Inquisition and escaped - the Lyon authorities later settled for burning him in effigy instead,
In 1553, while on the run from the Inquisition, Servetus, for reasons that remain inexplicable. arrived in Geneva and went to hear Calvin preach. Possibly he felt that a face-to-face discussion with the fierce reformer would settle their differences. Calvin spotted Servetus in the congregation, which suggests they had met previously, but Geneva, like all godly places, was a city crawling with spies and informers and it is likely that a prominent intellectual dissident such as Servetus would have been identified within hours of stepping in to the city. Calvin certainly knew what the man looked like. Calvin then personally denounced Servetus and arranged for his arrest. Calvin had already said that if Servetus ever came to Geneva he would make sure the heretic died there.
Calvin is alleged to have visited Servetus in his cell on the day of his execution and to have ‘disputed’ theology with him. We know that Servetus was badly treated in the run-up to the stake, and was in terrible condition, so if this meeting did take place it will have been one of the most cruel and grotesque 'disputations' in history until the Stalinist era. Calvin is supposed to have asked the city magistrates for beheading rather burning, but was ‘overruled’. Green word was used for the burning, so that Servetus’ agony would be prolonged.
What Happened Next
The historian Edward Gibbon said ‘I am more deeply scandalised at the single execution of Servetus than at the hecatombs which have blazed in the autos-da-fé of Spain and Portugal". Servetus was burned for two main reasons: Calvin wanted to impress on his rivals in Geneva that he was a hard man with hard remedies, and he also wanted to show Catholics and Protestants everywhere that Calvinists would not flinch from burning heretics who did not believe in the Trinity. Gibbon believed that personal malice against Servetus was also a factor, and despite the best efforts of Calvin’s apologists, then and later, his reputation has never recovered from the burning of Servetus. Within weeks of the execution, Protestant intellectuals were expressing their horror at Calvin's act, and in 1554 a historically significant pamphlet was published in Basle arguing against the punishment of 'heretics'.
1556: John Dee interrogates John Philpott
The magician and scientist John Dee (1527-1609) has long been an object of fascination both to his contemporaries and to posterity. There have been several valiant attempts by scholars to establish Dee as a pivotal figure in the history of science, as an innovator in mathematics and astronomy in particular, and to consequently play down his rather sinister experiments in the occult; after all, even Isaac Newton (and it has been argued that Dee is in some small way a precursor of Newton) had his flaky side, wasting years of his life on what we now see as eccentric theological speculation. But it is Dee the alchemist and conjurer, the negotiator with angels and demons, who survives in popular tradition (as does the relationship between Dee and his assistant, the medium Edward Kelley, who persuaded Dee that an angel wanted them to share Dee's young wife).
Dee was described by Elizabeth I as 'my philosopher', but this philosopher had an earlier, much less well-known and rather horrible career in the dark art of interrogation, as one of Bishop Bonner's assistants during the reign of Elizabeth's predecessor, Mary I. The 'Marian Persecution' resulted in the execution of around 300 Protestants. Dee himself had gone into Bonner's custody in August 1555 as a suspected heretic, yet quickly, and mysteriously, emerged from detention to become one of Bonner's chaplains, in which capacity he helped interrogate the cleric John Philpott. Philpott was a clever man, a Latin poet and Hebraist, and while well known for being outspoken, was also popular; altogether an uncommon assortment of traits in any period.
While awaiting trial in November 1555 at the Bishop's palace at St Paul's, Philpott and other suspects were held in a windowless coalhouse; a tactic designed to remind them of their fate if they did not recant.
Philpott was taken to face Bonner and other senior clerics on 19 November. Dee was one of the interrogators. No official account of the questioning survives, but Philpott's own account was smuggled out and has been preserved. He clearly held his own against both Bonner and Dee, and when Dee left the room at one point, Philpott called after him: 'Master Dee, you are too young in divinity to teach men in the matters of my faith. Though you be learned in other things more than I, yet in divinity I have been longer practiced than you'. As Dee's biographer Benjamin Wolley points out, this is a fairly clear reference to Dee's reputation as a magician. That Dee's experiments in the occult were known to his masters became certain shortly, when Bonner, in response to a letter from Philpott being being found on another religious dissident, asked fellow bishops, with the clunking irony of the eternal oppressor, 'is this not an honest man to belie me, and to call my chaplain a great conjuror?'.
On 18 December Philpott was taken to the stake at Smithfield. He recited a few psalms, tipped the executioners. and seems to have died as calmly in the flames as any man possibly could.
What Happened Next
The period during which Philpott was martyred was one of great significance in British and Reformation history. His terrible death is one of many described in Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1563). It is fair to say that not all of the martyrs were universally attractive or admirable figures - though none deserved their fate - but there were also many, such as Philpott, who were good as well as principled men, willing to endure a truly awful death for what they believed in. Dee, in contrast, went on to become an influential establishment figure during the reign of Elizabeth, a reign that officially celebrated the memory of men such as Philpott. but allowed shadowy men such as Dee to prosper under a regime in which it was now the turn of Roman Catholics to be tortured and executed. The story of these two parallel lives was to become a common story in successive centuries: as revolutions came and went, martyrs would be created, while those who served the persecutors well would often find themselves - and their appalling skills - quietly welcomed by the guardians of the new regimes.
1593: Elizabeth I meets Grace O'Malley the Pirate
'To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature, contumely to God. . . the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice' said John Knox in 1558. He had of course, Mary, Queen of Scots in mind, but the polemic as badly timed as, in the following year, Protestant Elizabeth ascended the English throne.
Knox spoke for many men - then and now - but Elizabeth and Mary were by no mean the only strong women in positions of authority throughout Europe. Grace (or Grainne} O'Malley is described in the Dictionary of National Biography as a 'chieftain's wife and pirate'. It is of course the latter career designation that attracts the eye, but the wives of clan chiefs and lords were often more than capable of running the family business when the men were posted missing.
The O’Malley family base was in Mayo. By the time Elizabeth’s Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney (who created the Irish county system) visited her in 1577 she had already outlived one husband (an O’Flaherty) and was described by Sidney as a most famous femynyne sea captain’. Her second husband was a Burke, and Sidney sardonically noted who was the dominant force in the marriage: when they met, O’Malley ‘brought with her husband, for she was as well by sea as by land well more than Mrs Mate with him’.
Grace had a fleet of several galleys and several hundred men to sail them. Piracy was undoubtedly part of the O’Malley family income, but the family was hardly unique; similar families with similar bases had been raiding up and down the west coast of Britain. from as far north as Barra, for centuries. Much of the piratical activity would amount in daily practice to a tax on passing boats, but Grace was clearly not a woman to be trifled with.
Neither was Elizabeth to be trifled with, as the kings of Europe were learning. The two came together when O’Malley’s son (by her second husband). Theobald Burke was arrested under suspicion of rebellious activity. Grace (who had herself been jailed for two years not long before) went to London and pleaded her case with Elizabeth, as one abused woman to another. The meeting was a great success. Not only was Theobald’s release granted, Grace also pointed out that as a widow, under the ancient Irish laws she had no claim on her late husband’s land; she asked that Elizabeth grant her this maintenance under English common law, and Elizabeth agreed.
What Happened Next
Elizabeth's administrators in Ireland dragged their heels in carrying out their orders, so Grace made a quick return visit in 1595 to complain, after which it all went smoothly for her. Our knowledge of Grace is derived almost entirely from English historical records. Contemporary Irish historians had no interest in her, and many of the stories subsequently told about her in Ireland (and about the meeting with Elizabeth) are clearly much later fantasies. The DNB gives Grace’s dates as f. 1577-1597 and she may have outlived Elizabeth, who died in 1603. Theobald, whose pleasing nickname was ‘Tibbot of the Ships’, fought for Elizabeth against the Spanish at Kinsale in 1599, and became 1st Viscount Mayo in 1627.
1605: King James I interrogates Guy Fawkes
The intention of the conspirators behind the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was to blow up parliament and create a state of chaos in which Roman Catholics would be restored to power in England. If successful, the conspiracy would have resulted in perhaps the biggest man-made explosion in history to that date. The plot was exposed by the Roman Catholic Lord Monteagle, who was warned off going to parliament by a relative among the conspirators, who were all quickly arrested. Fawkes was arrested in the cellar beneath the House of Lords with a ton of gunpowder at his back.
He was taken to King James’ bedchamber at 1 o’clock in the morning where he calmly faced down the king and his ministers, saying plainly that he wanted to kill the king and destroy parliament. James asked Fawkes why he was so keen on killing him, and Fawkes replied that the king had been excommunicated by the Pope, and that dangerous diseases required ‘desperate remedies’. For good measure, Fawkes told the Scottish king and his courtiers that one of his aims had been to ‘blow the Scots back to Scotland’, a detail that was suppressed by the government at the time as it could only have encouraged sympathy for Fawkes among the English, many of whom regarded the Scots who accompanied James as a grim lot, extreme both in corruption and in their Protestantism. Fawkes’ one regret was that the scheme failed. Robert Cecil described Fawkes at the meeting thus: "He carrieth himself without any feare or perturbation ...; under all this action he is noe more dismayed, nay scarce any more troubled than if he was taken for a poor robbery upon the highway. . . he is ready to die, and rather wisheth 10,000 deaths, than willingly to accuse his master or any other’.
A thoroughly spooked James then granted permission for torture to be used on Fawkes, instructing the interrogators thus: ‘The gentler tortours are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad maiora tenditur [and thus by steps extended to greater ones], and so God speed your good work’.
What Happened Next
The torture Fawkes received on the rack was terrible - we have the signature of his first name ‘Guido’ after torture and the comparison with earlier examples of his writing are shocking. He was hung, and as the 1911 Britannica says, ‘the usual barbarities practiced upon him after he had been cut down from the gallows were inflicted on a body from which all life had already fled’. As for James, he confirmed his public reputation for cowardice by going into seclusion for a while.
It has been (cautiously) argued that the plot may be seen as a partial success in that it possibly prevented further anti-Catholic legislation, but in truth the Catholic-Protestant question was already becoming part of other questions relating to Britain’s governance, and the lasting effect of the plot was to delay Catholic emancipation until the 19th century.
1617: Pocahontas is unimpressed by James I
Hollywood does not always get history wrong - but when it is wrong it can be spectacularly wrong. An example of spectacularly wrong history is Disney’s Pocahontas (1995). The film caters both to new stereotypes by portraying the Indians as nature-friendly ecowarriors and to old stereotypes by portraying the English as utterly malignant (Captain John Smith here becomes an all-American blond surfer dude, one of the film’s many imbecilities).
The maddening thing about the Disney version is that the true story of Pocahontas is fascinating. ‘Pocahontas’ may be just a nickname meaning ‘spoiled child’ (her real name was Matoaka) and we know little of her early life. She was the daughter of a Powhatan chief, and it is now generally agreed that John Smith’s story of being saved from execution by Pocahontas in 1607 is not verifiable. The earliest written source for the incident is in a letter from Smith to Queen Anne in 1616 (‘she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine’). the year that Pocahontas and her husband, John Rolfe arrived in London (it is improbable that Pocahontas and Smith were ever lovers, and they most certainly never married each other).
The trip was a great social success. A Dutch artist engraved a portrait of Pocahontas, the inscription of which describes her as Matoaka, alias Rebecca (her Christian name), and as the daughter of a powerful prince. She was clearly regarded as a high personage by London society. She was received at Whitehall by Queen Anne, and the Bishop of London had the Rolfes to dinner at Lambeth Palace. Samuel Purchas noted that the Bishop 'entertained her with festival state and pomp beyond what I have seen in his great hospitalitie afforded to other ladies’.
She was introduced to King James at a Ben Jonson masque, at which she was observed to have a seat appropriate to her royal status. The Pocahontas party were taken aback to be told they had just been introduced to the king. Pocahontas was clearly surprised that such an unprepossessing individual could be King of England, an opinion, to be fair, that was shared by many of the English themselves. At least everyone seems to have been reasonably sober on this occasion; at another royal masque, three of Queen Anne’s ladies were too drunk to stand and another spilt custard on the king.
Tomocomo, a Powhatan priest accompanying Pocahontas, confirmed to John Smith that King James was not quite the thing with this splendidly peevish comment: ‘you gave Powhatan a white dog, which Powhatan fed as himself, but your King gave me nothing, and I am better than your white dog’.
What Happened Next
Pocahontas lamented to John Smith that she had been told he was dead: ‘your countrymen’ she added, ‘lie much’. She was not the last colonial subject to make this comment, but was possibly the first. In 1617 she and Rolfe headed for home, but she died on board the ship, and is buried in St George’s Church, Gravesend. Her last words were that ‘all must die’, and she was content that her ‘childe liveth’. Their descendants were known as the ‘red Rolfes’ (George Bush is not one of them as is often asserted, though he is related to her descendants).
1653: George Fox reduces Oliver Cromwell to tears
George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, was born in 1624, the son of a weaver. Apprenticed to a livestock dealer, he acquired, he tells us, a reputation for fair dealing: ‘A good deal went through my hands. . .People had generally a love to me for my innocency and honesty." In 1643, ‘at the command of God’ Fox ‘left my relations and broke off all familiarity or fellowship with old or young.’ There followed several years of wandering and seeking spiritual counsel (the advice received from one priest was to take up smoking).
Fox began to receive internal revelations from God, what he called ‘openings’, such as hearing a voice which said, ` There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.' “And when I heard it my heart did leap for joy."’As the 1911 Britannica says, ‘it would be here out of place to follow with any minuteness the details of his subsequent imprisonments’. He was imprisoned many times for expressing his views forcibly in the street or in church, but his force of character was such that even those who jailed him (including the Sheriff of Nottingham), were often sympathetic.
In 1652, several of Fox’s followers formed the nucleus of the so-called ‘Quaker’ movement in Preston and the movement grew rapidly. In 1653, Fox was arrested for the umpteenth time, but on this occasion was taken to meet the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell. The 1650s had become an age of many plots involving many groups and many charismatic leaders with agendas ranging from restoration of the monarchy to the abolition of private property. Fox was attracting large crowds wherever he went. Cromwell was possibly more curious than suspicious, and the meeting was quite an emotional one. Fox confirmed the peaceful nature of the movement, and asked Cromwell to listen to the voice of God: ‘As I was turning, he caught me by the hand, and with tears in his eyes said, "Come again to my house; for if thou and I were but an hour of a day together, we should be nearer one to the other"; adding that he wished me no more ill than he did to his own soul. I told him if he did he wronged his own soul; and admonished him to hearken to God's voice, that he might stand in his counsel, and obey it; and if he did so, that would keep him from hardness of heart; but if he did not hear God's voice, his heart would be hardened. He said it was true’.
What Happened Next
The possibility that Cromwell could have become a Quaker was never very likely. Though this was an age of dramatic conversions, there were no more tears on Cromwell’s part when they met again. in 1656, Fox seeking toleration for his persecuted Quakers, urged Cromwell not to think of the crown but to lay down his worldly power at the feet of the Lord. It was clearly another meeting of mutual liking, but not one of minds. They met again just before Cromwell died, in 1658 - Fox wrote that he looked like a ‘dead man’.
1671: Colonel Blood meets King Charles II
Colonel Thomas Blood, says the DNB with typical understatement, lived a life with ‘few parallels’. He was born around 1617, in Meath, say some sources, but he is also claimed by county Clare (several Clare Bloods. including the Colonel, have been Justices of the Peace; his uncle - or maybe father - was called Neptune Blood). Blood did military service in Ireland and England during the Civil War, although which side he fought on, and for how long, remains unclear. His ‘colonelcy’ may have been self-awarded. By 1651, he had a Lancashire wife (and six children) and lands in both countries. He spent most of the 1650s in Ireland, and was regarded as a good Protestant landowner and Cromwellian loyalist.
The Restoration of 1660 saw many of Cromwell’s supporters lose assets to triumphant Royalists, and by 1662 Blood was involved with other malcontents in a bodged plot to capture Dublin Castle. The plot was structured like an Ealing comedy (and would make a great movie). As George MacDonald Fraser says in The Pyrates (1983), ‘Not many adventurers, planning to seize Dublin Castle, would have tried to divert the guards by hurling loaves of bread at them, in the hope that while they scrambled for food, Blood and his associates could sally in and seize the fortress’.
Blood escaped to England, where he associated with fellow nonconformists and conspirators: his attachment to the Fifth Monarchy movement in particular - Fifth Monarchists believed Jesus was returning to rule mankind soon - was sincere, indeed one of the few certainties about the man's beliefs. In 1667, he rescued a friend being escorted to prison, killed several troopers, and then hid out for a few quiet years, practising as a physician in Kent .
In 1670, he abducted the Duke of Ormonde in St James’s Street, but Ormonde escaped. To quote Fraser again, ‘only a perverted artist, bent on the fairly straightforward task of assassinating the Duke of Ormonde, would have tried to do it by taking his victim on horseback to Tyburn with the intention of hanging him from the public gallows’ (Ormonde’s son publicly accused the Duke of Buckingham, a protector of nonconformists, of hiring Blood to kill his father)
The following year, Blood carried out one of the most audacious thefts in history: disguised as a clergyman, he was flukily caught leaving the Tower of London with the Crown Jewels (one of his accomplices was a noted Fifth Monarchy man). Blood was imprisoned - in the Tower - and refused to speak with anyone but the king. Charles II went to see him, and after the meeting, to general amazement, not only pardoned Blood but gave him a pension.
What Happened Next
Exactly what Blood said to Charles is unknown, which is why the preceding paragraph is so short, but it must have been persuasive. Certainly Blood was, by now, privy to many dark secrets of both state and dissident groups. In 1672, the government was to issue a 'declaration of indulgence' for nonconformists, who were everywhere and a great nuisance, especially with the Dutch war looming. Charles may have been the ‘merry monarch’, but he was equally certainly nobody’s fool and clearly decided a live Blood was of more use to him than a dead one, which Blood became in 1680, dying of natural causes aged 62. He was dug up again soon after burial, probably by someone checking he was really there, and really dead.
1675: Aurangzeb executes Guru Tegh Bahadur
Born in 1618, Aurangzeb ascended to the Mughal throne in 1658, with what has been described as ‘feigned reluctance’, after defeating his brothers in a succession struggle, he kept his father, the fifth Mughal, (Shah Jehan, who built the Taj Mahal) confined until he died in 1666.
Aurangzeb is a hero to many Sunni Muslims, who regard him as a strong ruler who was preceded and followed by weak ones. a man who did not seek much in the way of accommodation with his Hindu subjects, but instead encouraged conversion to Islam and had no qualms about destroying Hindu temples. He also didn't think much of Muslims who differed from the views he espoused, and when he captured Hyderabad in 1687 he stabled his horses in the Shia mosques.
Any encounter between Aurangzeb and Guru Tegh Bahadur. the ninth of Sikhism’s ten gurus, was never going to be a meeting of like-minded individuals. Tegh Bahadur received both religious and martial training in childhood. After several years of fighting the Mughals, In 1656 he chose the contemplative life and spent several years in retreat, and then in missionary work. News of Muslims converting to Sikhism as a result of Tegh Bhadur's influence infuriated Aurangzeb, who in 1675 had the Sikh guru brought to Delhi in chains.
The interrogation of Tegh Bahadur by Aurangzeb was brutal. He challenged the guru to perform a miracle to prove he was a prophet of God, and when Tegh Bahadur refused, saying that he was not a conjuror but a man of God, Aurangzeb told him that if he did not convert he would be tortured to death. Tegh Bahadur insisted in return that there could be no compulsion in religion - an Islamic precept - and defended the right of the individual to choose which religion to follow. Kept in an iron cage and starved, Tegh Bahadur was forced to watch as his friends were savagely tortured and killed, before he himself was publicly beheaded.
What Happened Next
Bahadur’s martyrdom is quite possibly unique, in that he died not just for Sikhism, but for the rights of others to practice their religion. It has long been recognised as a pivotal self-sacrifice in the history of humanity. The butchering of the ninth guru earned Aurangzeb the undying hatred of the Sikhs all across the North Indian plain, a costly hatred: Aurangzeb ruled for 46 years, but spent the last 26 years of his life constantly at war with Hindus and Sikhs, until his death in 1707. As Bamber Gascoigne says in The Great Moghuls (1971), the 16th-century Mughal ruler Akbar, who sought reconciliation between all religions (and became a vegetarian late in life) ‘disrupted the Muslim community by recognising that India was not a Muslim country. Aurangzeb disrupted India by behaving as if it were’.
ENLIGHTENMENT ENCOUNTERS (18TH CENTURY)
1746: Bonnie Prince Charlie gets advice from Lord Lovat after Culloden
The second Jacobite uprising began in 1745 when the Young Pretender Charles Edward Stuart - Bonnie Prince Charlie - landed in the Hebrides and began gathering support for his rebellion against George II. One of the great Highland lords that Charlie wanted to be sure was onside was Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat. Fraser, otherwise known as ‘the fox’, was - in a crowded field - possibly the most untrusted man in Scotland. He eventually became the 11th Lord Lovat in 1733 after decades of villainy, including kidnapping and forcing a (latter annulled) marriage on his cousin. He had converted to Catholicism before the first Jacobite Rising in 1715, in which he skillfully avoided taking sides until it was clear the Jacobites would lose, after which he helped himself to their lands.
In 1739, Lovat had promised his support to Charlie if the French would join in, but when French ships were spotted off the Firth of Forth, he instead took to his bed. After the Jacobite victory at Prestonpans, the old rogue mustered men at last for Charlie, telling loyalists it was all his son’s doing. Several reference sources still assert that Lovat was present when the Jacobites were finally beaten at Culloden, but this was not so. His own judgment on the battle cannot be improved upon: ‘none but a mad fool would have fought that day’.
Charlie and Lovat finally met as Charlie retreated, when Lovat took him in for a fast-food dinner and some fatherly advice, and with a straight face recommended the 'try again' example of Bruce and the spider to the Prince. Charlie's response is not recorded, but one was not needed; Lovat was just making one last attempt at diplomatic reconciliation in his usual duplicitous manner. Both men were well aware that the rising was a close-run thing, and both also knew full well that if Lovat had put his weight behind the campaign it might have succeeded. Long presented in popular mythology as an England-Scotland game, the ‘Forty-Five’ was a more complex affair: for many Scottish Protestants, the rising brought the threat of Catholic domination, while many English Tories still regarded the Hanoverians as usurpers. It was not to be, and the game was up for both the young prince and the old fox. Charlie fled and eventually escaped to France while Lovat, realising he could not scheme his way out of this one, also fled and was caught hiding in a tree trunk.
What Happened Next
The great artist William Hogarth - an old acquaintance of Lovat, who was as equally at home in London as in Inverness - drew a much-admired portrait of Lovat on his way to the Tower, a portrait which catches the charm and menace of the man. Found guilty by his peers, after a trial in which he conducted his defence with lordly panache, his closing words were ‘I wish you an eternal farewell. We shall not meet again in the same place; I am sure of that’. In 1747, the 80-year-old rebel became the last man to be publicly beheaded in Britain. He died well, quoting Horace’s ‘Dulce et Decorum’ ode, 'It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country'. His death was preceded by that of several spectators who were crushed when a stand collapsed. The no-longer Bonnie Prince Charlie died 41 years later aged 68. And in 1944, the 15th Lord Lovat (and his piper) led the British commandos ashore on D-day. See also 1746: Bonnie Prince Charlie meets Flora MacDonald
1746: Flora MacDonald helps Bonnie Prince Charlie escape
The tale of how Flora MacDonald helped rescue Bonnie Prince Charlie after the collapse of the Jacobite rising (see 1746:Bonnie Prince Charlie gets advice from Lord Lovat after Culloden) has often been told in books and movies, and is one of those rare stories in which little is gained by embellishment.
Charlie had found temporary refuge in South Uist, where Flora was visiting her brother. Flora opened the door one day to find one of her kinsmen standing there equipped with a prince and a plan: Charlie would be taken to safety disguised as Flora’s maid. Accounts of the meeting differ, but it seems clear that contrary to legend, Flora was not an enthusiastic Jacobite, and it also seems to have been Charlie's personal plea that swayed Flora. She agreed to help the Prince out of charity (and later told the Hanoverian Prince Frederick she would have helped him in just the same fashion). The two of them certainly hit it off. Charlie wanted to hide a pair of pistols in his petticoat and when Flora pointed out that this would cause problems if he was searched, he replied: ‘If we shall happen to meet with any that will go so narrowly to work in searching as what you mean, they will certainly discover me at any rate’.
Flora’s stepfather, a tough soldier called One-Eyed Hugh, was a militia captain in command of the Benbecula-South Uist crossing, and he let his stepdaughter and her odd new companion - ‘one Bettie Burke, an Irish girl, who, she tells me, is a good spinster’ - travel to Skye. Hugh was probably sympathetic to the Jacobites, and was certainly taking a risk here - he probably saw it as a calculated risk that could be made to pay off in the end. The Skye clan chiefs had shrewdly kept out of the rising, and in characteristic clan fashion the Skye MacLeods inflicted some of the worst atrocities of the rising’s aftermath on the Jacobite MacLeods of Raasay.
Charlie escaped in a French ship and Flora was taken prisoner, but treated well. As the DNB points out, the Gaelic oral traditions of the Highlands largely ignored Flora’s story. Intriguingly, Irish historians had similarly ignored a Celtic heroine of another stamp (see 1593: Elizabeth I meets Grace O'Malley the pirate), but from July 1747 - when Flora was released and given £1500 raised for her in London - her reputation as a heroine to just about everyone in England was secure.
What Happened Next
Flora married a kinsman, a farmer called Allan, commonly described as a personable chap, but not much of a businessman, who had a farm in Flodigarry on Skye. They had seven children between 1751 and 1766, and were visited by Johnson and Boswell in 1773; see 1773: Dr Johnson and Boswell stay with Flora MacDonald
1747: Frederick the Great shows J S Bach his piano
The meeting in Potsdam, in 1747, between the 62-year-old composer and organist, J S Bach, and the 35-year-old Frederick II of Prussia (known also as the ‘Great’), has not been seen as of much importance to biographers of Frederick the Great, and in at least one major biography is skated thinly over in a footnote. For James R Gaines (former editor of Time Magazine), however, the encounter was of great significance - Frederick, a representative of the new ‘Age of Reason’, meeting Bach, a representative of the dying ‘Age of Faith’. Indeed, Gaines wrote a book to explain the significance of the meeting as he saw it: Evening in the Palace of Reason (2005).
Whatever the epochal implications may be, the background to the meeting is clear enough. Frederick employed Bach’s son, Carl Bach, as a court musician. Carl was the future of music, the servant of an enlightened despot, a despot who believed in the distant, non-intervening god of deism rather than the loving, involved god of theism, and corresponded with - and was adored by - philosophes such as Voltaire. JS Bach was the past of music, a church organist who belonged firmly to a receding age which still believed in a loving deity who took an interest in humanity, and was adored in turn by His creation. It was Carl’s duty to write music that would appeal to his employer, and it was the father’s duty to write music that would appeal to his God. It does seem reasonable, therefore, to see the meeting as representing to some extent a conflict of cultures and belief systems.
On the strictly musical (as opposed to symbolic) level, Frederick will certainly have seen his servant’s father as a relic, but an interesting one, being a renowned master of the old art of counterpoint, and Frederick - a competent composer himself - wanted to test the old man’s skills by giving him a theme to improvise on. It is also fair to assume that like all musicians in all periods, Frederick will have also wanted to show the old-timer his new pianoforte. Frederick asked Bach to turn the theme into a six-part fugue. (The 20th-century composer Schoenberg saw this as a spiteful request on Frederick’s part, an almost impossible task designed to embarrass the old master of the unfashionable art of counterpoint.)
What Happened Next
The work produced by Bach (in a fortnight!) in response to Frederick’s test was the Musical Offering, a high point in western music, a work of great beauty and also one that contains many teasing intellectual riddles (one reviewer of Gaines' book thanked him for not calling it The Bach Code). Annoyingly, we don’t know what Frederick thought of the work. Probably not much, and he was off to war again soon anyway. Bach’s music slipped into obscurity, reviving dramatically when Mendelssohn conducted a performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829 (observing that it had been left to a Jew to restore the greatest piece of Christian music). From that point on, Bach has been seen as one of the greatest composers of all time, while Frederick is largely remembered as the creator of Germany (to be fair, he made some progressive changes, such as abolishing torture).
1752: Casanova meets Madame de Pompadour
Chapter VII of Casanova’s memoirs begins with the beguiling heading ‘My Blunders in the French language’, it being an eternal requirement of foreign wits visiting Paris (see, for example, the Sarah Jessica Parker character in an episode of Sex and the City), to show how inferior Parisians make even sophisticates feel.
Casanova - who had a knack of getting to know everybody who mattered - got himself invited to see an Italian opera at Fontainebleau, where he would be able to hobnob with the court, and found himself sitting under Madame de Pompadour’s box. Pompadour was a former courtesan and lover of Louis XV, so was one of the most influential people in France. Casanova was a womaniser, spy, a freemason and a magician, and was to be imprisoned for witchcraft in 1755 in Venice (he was not just a sycophant; Casanova really needed friends in high places).
One of the opera singers sang a bit shrilly, and Casanova snorted with laughter, as a Venetian would. One of Pompadour’s companions (dressed as a knight of the Order of the Holy Ghost), sardonically enquired of Casanova what country he came from, to which Casanova replied ‘Venice’. The knight then said he himself had laughed in Venice during operas, to which Casanova said no one would have objected. Perhaps this was not the wittiest of exchanges, but it amused Pompadour (maybe you had to be there) who asked Casanova if he was indeed from Venice ‘down there’: Casanova replied that Venice was ‘up’ in relation to Paris, and there followed much jolly banter in the courtly box as to whether Venice was up or down in relation to Paris. Casanova was right, the court agreed.
Casanova was careful not to laugh any more, but blew his nose ‘often’, attracting the attention again of the knight, who turned out to be Marshall Richelieu (grandnephew of the Cardinal). Richelieu suggested that a window might be open, and Casanova - by now struggling a bit in this epic contest of wit - mispronounced a French word in reply, and the court fell about laughing, in the traditional French response to mispronunciation. Casanova made a quick recovery with an off-colour crack about an actresses’ legs, which included (he honestly records) an unintentional but fitting pun, thus establishing him as a formidable wit. He became a popular figure about town, and. as he proudly said, his 'jeu de mots' became 'celebrated’. Such were the joys of the Ancien Regime.
What Happened Next
Casanova's encounter with Pompadour is irresistibly reminiscent of the Monty Python Oscar Wilde sketch. They bumped into each other later, in 1757, after Casanova returned to Paris having escaped from prison in Venice. Casanova records that the ‘fair marquise’ asked how his exile was and hoped that he would stay in France, indeed would help him stay. Casanova stammered his gratitude. Casanova at this time was busy with various madcap schemes, including inventing the state lottery, and eventually fled France in 1760 to escape his debtors. He may have written part of the libretto for Mozart’s Don Juan in 1787, and developed a taste for dressing up in women’s clothes (his great and only love, Henriette, was also very likely a spy and liked to dress up as a man).
1764: Boswell gets Voltaire out of bed
James Boswell is now best remembered for his remarkable biography of Dr Johnson, and for his licentious (and long suppressed) memoirs. In his own day, however, Boswell was one of Europe’s prime gossips and a serial visitor to famous personages.
A few months after his famous May 1763 encounter with Johnson, in which Boswell demonstrated his formidable talent for absorbing insult, the young Scot set off to tour Europe (for two and a half years) and in December 1764 visited first Rousseau and then Voltaire (he usually introduced himself to foreigners as ‘a Scot of ancient family’. Voltaire, at this point 68 years old and one of the acknowledged sages of Europe, was used to receiving visitors at his estate of Ferney; and he seems to have been both amused and exasperated by this curious (in all senses) visitor, who had made him get out of bed. Said Boswell: ‘He was not in spirits, nor I neither’.
They talked of Scotland, and agreed the Scots were not painters. Said the sage:’ to paint well it is necessary to have warm feet. It's hard to paint when your feet are cold.' They talked of Dr Johnson, and the imperturbable Boswell told Voltaire that he planned to visit the Hebrides with Dr Johnson: ‘ I mentioned our design to Voltaire. He looked at me, as if I had talked of going to the North Pole, and said, "You do not insist on my accompanying you?" ‘No, sir.’ ‘Then I am very willing you should go.’
As a devout Christian, Johnson loathed Voltaire’s deist views: Voltaire in return, says Boswell, had described Johnson, ‘affecting the English mode of expression’, as a ‘superstitious dog’. Boswell, anxious to reconcile the two great men (see also 1776: Dr Johnson has dinner with John Wilkes), passed on Johnson's observation that Frederick the Great's prose was ‘poor stuff. He writes just as you may suppose Voltaire's foot-boy to do’ (Frederick was better at music; see 1747: J S Bach meets Frederick the Great). Voltaire (who had issues with Frederick) was delighted with this comment and described Johnson as ‘an honest fellow!’ For all their differences, Johnson ’s novel Rasselas, and Voltaire’s novel Candide, are strikingly similar in their pessimism.
By this point, Boswell’s charm had obviously won over Voltaire, and he was invited to stay the night. The next day they had an emotional exchange over God and the afterlife: Voltaire saying: I’ suffer much. But I suffer with patience and resignation; not as a Christian - but as a man’.
What Happened Next
Discovering his mother’s death in a Paris newspaper, Boswell returned to Britain in 1766, bringing with him Rousseau’s mistress, Therese Le Vasseur, to reunite her with Rousseau, then living in England. Boswell and Therese had an ‘affair' on the trip home; consisting of 13 acts of sex, after which Theresa - records Boswell with a total lack of embarrassment - told him he was useless in bed and offered him lessons. Boswell dropped her off at David Hume’s, then the next day took her to Rousseau. Voltaire and Rousseau didn't care for each other in life but were united in death, both eventually being buried in the Pantheon (see also 1777: the Marquis de Sade insults Count Mirabeau; 1766: Erasmus Darwin entices Rousseau with a flower).
1766: Erasmus Darwin entices Rousseau with a flower
In 1762, the French government ordered the burning of Rousseau’s educational treatise Emile. The argument of Emile was that children could grow up without vice, if they were protected from the evils man had created. This was clearly seditious, and Rousseau fled to Berne, and when the Swiss banished him, he fled to England in 1766.
His English exile had been encouraged and facilitated by David Hume, who asked friends at court to get Rousseau a royal pension and also persuaded a friend to give him an empty mansion, Wooton Hall, to live in.
Despite this support, Rousseau was not the happiest of philosophers at the time, as he had begun to suspect that the English (led by the Scot Hume) were laughing at him. The paranoia led him to write to an astonished Hume saying’ You brought me to England, apparently to procure a refuge for me, and in reality to dishonour me’.
The physician/philosopher Erasmus Darwin desperately wanted to meet Rousseau, but realising that a formal introduction would be tricky, came up with a highly engaging ploy that worked. Knowing that Rousseau liked to sit in a terraced cave by the mansion, engaged in his now customary melancholy brooding, Darwin sauntered up to the cave one morning and began examining a flower in front of the cave. After a while, a curious Rousseau emerged from the darkness, and the two chatted amiably about botany, which was. like education, a shared obsession. Darwin was extremely interested in the sex life of plants, indeed wrote a poem about the subject, ‘The Love of the Plants’, and it is likely that he shared his thoughts on the subject with Rousseau.
The meeting was short, but Darwin had done what no other Brit at this time seems to have managed, and established a friendly relationship - continued through letters - with Rousseau. The correspondence has, sadly, been lost. Rousseau’s cultural influence is undisputed, but Darwin’s influence has only recently been acknowledged, particularly through his founding of the Lunar Society, which had an immense effect on British intellectual life and culture, from industrialisation to the abolition of slavery.
Inspired by Rousseau, Darwin built a small botanic garden (almost the only thing Rousseau liked about England were the gardens) that was praised by Anna Seward thus: ‘not only with trees of various growth did he adorn the borders of the fountain, the brook and the lakes, but with various classes of plants, uniting the Linnean science with the charm of landscape’
What Happened Next
Rousseau returned incognito to France the following year, married his mistress (see 1764: Boswell meets Voltaire) and continued to inspire and infuriate his contemporaries. Darwin continued networking, producing ideas and some terrible verse. He was of course the grandfather of Charles Darwin and a believer in evolution. He added E conchis omnia (‘Everything from shells’) to the family coat of arms, but was forced to remove it by the Church. Darwin’s propagation of the theory was not helped by his verse: ‘imperious man, who rules the bestial crowd. . . Arose from rudiments of form and sense, /An embryon point or microscopic ens!’ His grandson argued rather better - and in prose. . .
1773: Dr Johnson and Boswell stay with Flora MacDonald
Lauded throughout the English-speaking world as a heroine (see 1746: Flora MacDonald helps Bonnie Prince Charlie escape) Flora MacDonald found life as the wife of a not very competent farmer to be a struggle, particularly with seven children to bring up.
In 1773, Flora and her husband were visited by the great English writer Dr Johnson, who was on his tour of the Hebrides (for a Gallic, as opposed to Gaelic, view of this trip see: 1764: Boswell gets Voltaire out of bed). Being a staunch Tory with Jacobite sympathies, Johnson was predisposed to adore Flora, and indeed it was rumoured that in 1745-1746 Johnson had taken part in the Jacobite rising in some way (it is not likely that he did). Boswell and Johnson arrived at the Kingsburgh house of Allan and Flora, where Flora welcomed them: Boswell admired Allan (“a gallant highlander”) and was captivated by the 51-year-old Flora, as most men were: “here appeared the lady of the house, the celebrated Miss Flora MacDonald. She is a little woman, of a genteel appearance, and uncommonly mild and well bred. To see Dr Samuel Johnson, the great champion of the English Tories, salute Miss Flora MacDonald in the isle of Sky [sic], was a striking sight; for though somewhat congenial in their notions, it was very improbable they should meet here.” With great charm, she told Johnson (then in his mid-sixties) that she had heard that Boswell was travelling to Skye, and had “a young English buck with him”.
Johnson was accorded the honour of sleeping in the bed Prince Charlie had slept in the night he stayed at Kingsburgh in 1746. Boswell noted: “To see Dr Samuel Johnson lying in that bed, in the isle of Sky, in the house of Miss Flora MacDonald, struck me with such a group of ideas as it is not easy for words to describe, as they passed through the mind. He smiled and said, ‘I have had no ambitious thoughts in it’.”
What Happened Next
In 1774, Flora and Allan emigrated to North Carolina, and when the American Revolution broke out they raised Highlanders to fight for George III. Both Allan and Flora, like most Loyalists, suffered much hardship after the rebels won, and they returned to Skye, where Flora died in 1790, aged 68. Dr Johnson said of her that her name “will be mentioned in history, and if courage and fidelity be virtues, mentioned with honour.’
1774: Edmund Burke is enraptured by Marie-Antoinette
There has never have been a solid historical consensus as to whether the great Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke should be regarded as a radical or a conservative, and his own contemporaries often couldn’t decide either. Whatever his politics, he was certainly a romantic: his description, in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) of encountering the 19-year-old Marie-Antoinette in the glorious flesh demands to be quoted at length:
‘It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in,—glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour, and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour, and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom....’
Burke was clearly utterly smitten, and his contemporaries seized upon this extract to have a go at him; an admirer of Burke’s called it simple ‘foppery’ and Tom Paine. in his response to Burke’s reflections, Rights of Man (1791), noted with calm disdain that Burke ‘pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird’ (see also 1819: William Cobbett digs up Tom Paine ).
What Happened Next
Burke was writing before Marie-Antoinette’s execution in 1793, and she died bravely. Her husband had been guillotined in January, and she had suffered much in jail; even her 8-year-old son had been taken from her (he died in 1795) and she said that she had come to realise that suffering is what makes you what you are. She went to the scaffold in October, apologising for stepping on the executioner’s foot. And she never at any point in her life said ‘let them cake’ when told the poor had no bread. See also 1775: Robespierre makes a speech in the rain to Louis XVI.
1774: Joseph Priestley discusses dephlogisticated air with Antoine Lavoisier
Priestley was born in 1733 in Leeds into a strongly nonconformist family. By 20, he could read many languages, including Hebrew and Arabic, and in 1755 became a minister. Priestley had been brought up a Calvinist, but, like many nonconformists of his time gradually abandoned that stark doctrine. His studies in electricity (encouraged by Benjamin Franklin, who became a lifelong friend) led to him becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1766, and the publication of his History of Electricity in 1767.
Priestley gave up being a clergyman in 1773 - he decided he could serve God better through science - and went to work for the Earl of Shelbourne, who was happy to fund Priestley’s research in return for services as child’s tutor, librarian and ‘literary companion’, in which latter capacity he accompanied Shelbourne to France in 1774.
Priestley was now an established natural philosopher, and it was inevitable that he would meet up with Lavoisier, the great French chemist. Priestley (who became a ‘lunatic’ when he joined the Lunar Society - see 1766: Erasmus Darwin entices Rousseau with a flower) may not have been the first thinker to appreciate that the world was interconnected through animal and plant life, but his work on just how it was interconnected was new: ‘the injury which is continually done to the atmosphere by [animals is] in part at least, repaired by the vegetable creation’, and the meeting with Lavoisier in Paris was to be of great importance in establishing our knowledge of how all living things are linked through respiration. Our modern debate about ecology, about climate change, is founded upon the discussion between these two men.
The previous year, Lavoisier had begun experimenting on the calcination of tin and lead, and had discovered that air itself was responsible for the increase in weight of the metals. But what was it in air that caused this increase? Priestley told Lavoisier that he had produced a pure form of air, ‘ an air five or six times as good as common air’. He thought he had discovered what he called ‘dephlogisticated air’, phlogiston being a theoretical substance supposedly released during combustion. What he had actually discovered was oxygen.
What Happened Next
Lavoisier realised Priestley was on to something and in 1775 gave Priestley’s discovery the name ‘oxygen’. Lavoisier, like Priestley, was a friend of Franklin, and used his political influence and scientific knowledge (his work on gunpowder was crucial) to help the American Revolution. As farmer-general of taxes, he also developed French agriculture. Come the French Revolution, Marat (see 1793: Charlotte Corday assassinates Marat ) who disliked Lavoisier, ensured he ended up on the guillotine in 1794. The mathematician Lagrange pointed out that it took an instant to strike off a head that a ‘hundred years may not produce.’ Priestley stayed a believer in both Phlogiston and revolution for the rest of his life: his defence of the French Revolution, in reply to Burke (see 1774: Edmund Burke is enraptured by Marie-Antoinette) resulted in a Birmingham mob burning his house. He moved to Pennsylvania, where he died in 1804, confidently awaiting Christ’s Second Coming.
1775: Robespierre makes a speech in the rain to Louis XVI
In her great novel A Place of Greater Safety (1992), Hilary Mantel describes one of the most haunting scenes in the history of the 18th century: the schoolboy Robespierre standing in the rain waiting for the coach carrying Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette to arrive at the gates of the school, Louis-Le-Grand, in order to receive an address on behalf of the staff and pupils.
Robespierre had arrived at the school from provincial Arras thanks to a scholarship and the boy’s seriousness of purpose made a great impression on his teachers, one of them calling him ‘my Roman’. The ‘Roman’ was the obvious representative to make a speech to the king, but someone’s timing was out. For two hours, the boy waited and waited, getting wetter and wetter. The coach finally arrived and stopped beside the shivering boy who knelt and read out the speech of welcome to the king. What Louis said or even looked like at this moment is impossible to say, as although the coach door was open, the curtains were kept firmly closed. Louis received the speech in silence; and when it was over, the coach drove off (this does put Louis in a poor light, but he was a shy monarch).
There was to be no further encounter until the king’s trial, and Louis - warm and safe as he was behind his coach curtains - was to have no visual memory of the boy who was to grow into the man who was to send him and his loved ones to the scaffold in 1793. Robespierre argued at the trial of ‘citizen Louis Capet’ that the purpose of the trial was not to pass sentence on an individual but to protect the state. The ‘fatal truth’ was that Capet should die to protect the lives of thousands of virtuous French citizens: Louis had to die in order that the Revolution should live.
Robespierre was against capital punishment in principle. but the ‘incorruptible’ one was prepared to make the noble sacrifice of accepting purely temporary exemptions to that principle for the sake of the state. Robespierre did not attend the execution of the ex-monarch he once loyally addressed in the rain, but stayed home. As the coach carrying the ex-king passed his residence, Robespierre shooed a young girl in his house away from the window. closed the shutters and told the child that something was happening ‘which you should not see’.
What Happened Next
Thousands were to die during Robespierre’s Terror, until the wave of killing consumed the man himself. Those who escaped by fluke include the Marquis de Sade and Tom Paine (see 1777: the Marquis de Sade insults Count Mirabeau; 1819: William Cobbet digs up Tom Paine ). Then Napoleon happened, and then Louis’s Bourbon dynasty was restored, having, as Talleyrand said, forgotten nothing and learned nothing. See also 1774: Edmund Burke is enraptured by Marie-Antoinette.
1776: Dr Johnson has dinner with John Wilkes
Dr Johnson was one of the great moralists of 18th-century England: a staunch Tory, conservative in his religion and politics, and passionately opposed to slavery, one of his many reasons for disliking Americans. John Wilkes was one the leading radicals of the age, a Whig, and a notorious libertine to boot. The ever-inquisitive James Boswell was friends with them both: as he said: 'Two men more different could perhaps not be selected out of all mankind'. They had even attacked one another with real dislike in print, and he decided to orchestrate a meeting between the two by arranging that they should sit beside each other at a dinner party at a friend’s house.
Boswell sly prepared - ‘negotiated’ as he put it - Johnson for the encounter by telling him that their host might have radical friends present: ‘I should not be surprised to find Jack Wilkes there.’ Johnson said ‘And if Jack Wilkes SHOULD be there, what is that to ME, Sir? My dear friend, let us have no more of this. I am sorry to be angry with you; but really it is treating me strangely to talk to me as if I could not meet any company whatever, occasionally.’
At the friend’s house, Johnson was disconcerted to find himself surrounded by radicals and ‘patriots’ (‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’, as he once noted), but when they were called into dinner, Boswell says Wilkes 'placed himself next to Dr. Johnson, and behaved to him with so much attention and politeness, that he gained upon him insensibly. No man eat more heartily than Johnson, or loved better what was nice and delicate. Mr. Wilkes was very assiduous in helping him to some fine veal. ‘Pray give me leave, Sir:—It is better here—A little of the brown—Some fat, Sir—A little of the stuffing—Some gravy—Let me have the pleasure of giving you some butter—Allow me to recommend a squeeze of this orange;—or the lemon, perhaps, may have more zest.’—‘Sir, Sir, I am obliged to you, Sir,’ cried Johnson, bowing, and turning his head to him with a look for some time of ‘surly virtue,’ but, in a short while, of complacency'.
The two even discovered a mutual antipathy to Scots, England then - as at some other times - being run by unpopular Scots. Boswell records: JOHNSON (to Mr. Wilkes) ‘You must know, Sir, I lately took my friend Boswell and shewed him genuine civilised life in an English provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield, my native city, that he might see for once real civility: for you know he lives among savages in Scotland, and among rakes in London.’WILKES. ‘Except when he is with grave, sober, decent people like you and me.’ JOHNSON. (smiling,) ‘And we ashamed of him.’
What Happened Next
The roguish radical and his new Tory friend were to bump into each other again years later, again under Boswell’s eye, and again they got on. Boswell’s experiment in matching opposites had worked, as long as the experiment was not extended too long. Wilkes. for example, does not seem to have shared Johnson’s visceral disgust at slavery - Johnson once drank a toast to the next slave rebellion - and in an odd twist of fate the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, a passionate defender of slavery, was named after him. See also 1764: Boswell gets Voltaire out of bed; 1773: Dr Johnson visits Flora MacDonald
1777: Patrick Ferguson is told he decided not to shoot George Washington
The young British major (accompanied by three riflemen) scouting the American lines by the Brandywine creek, was a Scots Greys officer called Patrick Ferguson. Ferguson and his men were armed with the rifle he had invented, the world’s first breech-loading rifle.
Two horsemen appeared riding towards Ferguson’s hidden group, one a decoratively clad hussar, the other a senior American officer. Ferguson’s first thought was to shoot the two men, but feeling this was a ‘disgusting’ idea emerged from cover and called on the hussar, who was nearest, to dismount. The hussar and his companion instead rode for the safety of their lines. Ferguson and his men could each get off six accurately aimed rounds a minute and could certainly have killed both men, but instead Ferguson let the tempting figure of the senior officer go. He later said: ‘As I was with the distance, at which in the quickest firing, I could have lodged a half dozen balls in or about him before he was out of my reach, I had only to determine, but it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual who was acquitting himself coolly of his duty, and so I let him alone’.
Later, Ferguson was wounded during the Brandywine battle, and was told in hospital that the officer he had let live was George Washington. The story remained unconfirmed for a long time, thanks to the presence of the mysterious hussar. There were no hussars with the American forces, but it now seems that the ‘hussar’ was actually a Polish count called Pulaski (recruited in Paris by Benjamin Franklin), who was serving as Washington’s aide-de-camp. Washington had been out inspecting his lines, and he may well have been the man whom Ferguson declined to kill (Ferguson's rifle was described as a ‘barbarous’ weapon and was not adopted by the army).
Ferguson was a product of the Scottish Enlightenment: his family lived on Edinburgh’s High St, and knew everybody who mattered, from the philosopher David Hume to the painter Allan Ramsay, but his decision to spare Washington was based on a chivalric soldier's ethic; at Waterloo, Wellington declined a similar opportunity to shell Napoleon (this attitude died out).
What Happened Next
What if Ferguson had shot Washington? This is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of history. Many Americans still believe that the failure of the Revolution would have been a disaster for humanity. What seems more likely is that American slaves would have gained their freedom without a civil war, colonial expansion into Indian lands would have halted, and North America would be all Canada, which may possibly be boring but hardly a disaster for humanity. As for that gallant officer Ferguson, he was killed at the Battle of Kings Mountain in 1780; he was the only regular officer from either side present and was possibly the only non-American combatant. His body was stripped and urinated on by the Patriot militia before being passed to his orderly for cleansing and burial; they also mutilated and later killed some of the loyalist prisoners. Ferguson was buried beside his female servant and companion, ‘Virginia Sal’, described as a ‘buxom redhead’; Sal was killed while tending the wounded and is, alas, not mentioned on Ferguson's headstone. See also 1797: Napoleon invites Tom Paine to dinner.
1777: the Marquis de Sade insults Count Mirabeau
In 1777, the young Count Mirabeau was an ex-soldier with a reputation for indiscipline and intrigue who had run off with another man’s wife, and was imprisoned in Vincennes prison. In prison with him was another nobleman, one with a much worse reputation, the Marquis de Sade. De Sade was known to have (accidentally) poisoned prostitutes with the supposed aphrodisiac Spanish Fly (don’t try this at home), had engaged in just about every vice known to even French society, and was seen as a serious menace to the public.
The two men met and hated each other. De Sade, who seems to have fought with everyone in prison and tried to instigate a prison revolt, insulted Mirabeau in some way, and the two stayed apart. Vincennes was a tough prison even for aristocrats who could normally buy favours in jail. Normally the two quarrelsome aristos would have paid off a warder and settled their dispute with a duel, but in Vincennes all they could do was avoid each other, apart from the occasional glare.
In their separate cells, they wrote fiction to pass the time. The fiction, depending on personal viewpoint, falls into the category of either erotica or pornography. It is fair to say that the fictions of both were pretty scabrous, and it is quite possible that their proximity to, and extreme dislike of each other, may have been an initial spur leading to greater excess (it is implausible that each did not know what the other was writing about).
Over the next ten years or so, De Sade produced The 100 Days of Sodom, a heroic attempt at cataloguing every perversion known to man. Justine, Crimes of Passion and a philosophical treatise in praise of atheism, Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man. Mirabeau was released in 1780, and his own writing was a bit more moderate. The works include Erotica Biblion and Letters to Sophie, Sophie being his pet name for the woman he had run off with (the real Sophie, ungallantly dismissed by the 1911 Britannica as ‘rather common’, committed suicide).
What Happened Next
Mirabeau became one of France’s leading orators, and a leading (if also corrupt) moderate during the French Revolution. He was interred with great pomp in the Pantheon after his death in 1791, then dug up three years later and reinterred elsewhere when his duplicity became apparent. De Sade transferred to the Bastille in 1784, and from thence to Charenton Asylum just before the storming of the Bastille in July, 1789. Given his freedom by the French Revolution, he was appointed a judge and a member of the National Convention but was imprisoned again - for being moderate in his desire to punish - and missed the guillotine by a fluke. Napoleon called for his arrest in 1801, and he returned to Charenton, where he put on plays, dying there in 1814.
1781: Benjamin Franklin invites Catherine Dashkova to join the American Philosophical Society
She was 37 and from the Old World; he was 75 and from the New World. Catherine Dashkova was born a countess in Russia, had married (at 15) a prince, and at the age of 18 may have played a part in the coup which brought Catherine the Great to the throne in 1762. Franklin was one of the world’s leading statesmen: a diplomat, scientist, inventor, and author.
Yet they had more than in common than it seems. Catherine had been a sickly child and became a voracious reader. There is no doubt about her intelligence and breadth of knowledge, and as she did not quite get on with the Empress - she despised the talentless male favourites the empress liked to decorate her court with, and also seems to have been peeved at not being appointed colonel of the Imperial Guard - she went to Europe for a few years, became a friend of Enlightenment thinkers such as Diderot and Voltaire (and later sent her son to Edinburgh University). She had a degree in mathematics and also wrote plays. This was not of course on the same scale as the frighteningly multitalented genius Franklin, but was closer in intellectual achievement to Franklin than most men could aspire to, then or now.
Catrherine and Franklin met in Paris and took to each other straight away. While older men have of course been known to ‘take’ to younger women, Franklin’s later invitation to Catherine to join the American Philosophical Society in 1789 was not given lightly (it would be another 80 years before another women was invited). This was the only time they met, though they were to exchange a few affectionate letters and notes over the years, and Catherine reciprocated Franklin’s invitation later in 1789 by arranging for him to join the Russian Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg (she founded the Academy, and was its first president) : ‘I was greatly surprised, when reviewing the list of its members some days ago, I did not find your name in the number. I hastened therefore to acquire this honour for the academy. . . I shall always recollect with pride the advantage I had to be personally noticed by you’.
What Happened Next
Catherine returned to Russia in 1782, the year after meeting Franklin, to a temporarily warm welcome from the equally intellectually curious (if not intellectually equal) empress. Catherine the Great died in 1796, and the new emperor meanly imposed village exile on Dashkova so that she could ‘think about 1762’. After another coup, she was allowed back to Moscow, and died in 1810. Her Memoirs were published in London in 1840. The brief encounter between Catherine and Franklin was actually of lasting international importance. Catherine knew that Russia had to modernise, and she channelled the works of Franklin and other Enlightenment thinkers throughout the country’s institutions, thus having a deep influence on many practical aspects of Russian life, most significantly perhaps on the development of the Imperial Navy. Russia subsequently became an important ally of the new US state (Dashkov relations were still actively promoting US-Russia entente in the 1860s) and the lines of intellectual and political influence laid by Dashkova played an important part in the success of the Union during the Civil War, during which the Russian fleet acted - astonishing as it seems - as a de facto Pacific fleet for the Union, preserving its west flank from naval attack.
1786: Walter Scott is impressed by the eyes of Robert Burns
Burns was born and brought up on an Ayrshire farm. The family was not poor, but at 16, Burns was his father’s principal labourer. While working on the farm, he ‘listened to the birds, and frequently turned out of my path lest I should disturb their little songs or frighten them to another station’. As the 1911 DNB poetically puts it, ‘Auroral visions were gilding his horizon as he walked in glory, if not in joy, "behind his plough upon the mountain side”; but the swarm of his many-coloured fancies was again made grey by the atra cura [’dark care’] of unsuccessful toils’ (Burns has always attracted this kind of commentary; and there are few mountains in Ayrshire).
Burns was on the point of departing for Jamaica, there to work as a slave overseer in one of the horrendous Scottish slave plantations, when he achieved instant success in 1786 with the publication of his great ‘Kilmarnock’ edition of verse. Burns imagined his new popularity not reaching him in Jamaica thus: ‘twas a delicious idea that I would be called a clever fellow, even though it should never reach my ears a poor Negro-driver’. (Note that it is the ‘Negro-driver’ who is poor, not the Negro).
In Edinburgh, Burns was patronised (in every sense) by the aristocracy, notably the Earl of Glencairn, who introduced the brilliant young poet to his circle of friends. One shy young boy present at one of these gatherings was Walter Scott, then aged 15, who later remembered the scene thus: ‘I was a lad of fifteen when he came to Edinburgh, but had sense enough to be interested in his poetry, and would have given the world to know him. I saw him one day with several gentlemen of literary reputation. . . Of course we youngsters sat silent, looked, and listened.. .. I remember. .. his shedding tears over a print representing a soldier lying dead in the snow, his dog sitting in misery on one side, on the other his widow with a child in her arms. His person was robust, his manners rustic, not clownish.. .. His countenance was more massive than it looks in any of the portraits. There was a strong expression of shrewdness in his lineaments; the eye alone indicated the poetic character and temperament. It was large and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head. His conversation expressed perfect self-confidence, without the least intrusive forwardness. . .having twenty times the abilities of Allan Ramsay and of Fergusson he talked of them with too much humility as his models. He was much caressed in Edinburgh, but the efforts made for his relief were extremely trifling’.
What Happened Next
The success of his poems persuaded Burns to stay in Scotland. He later wrote a much-quoted poem on the horrors of slavery in 1792, ‘The Slave’s Lament’, which may not be a great poem but is certainly an effective piece of ant-slavery propaganda. Yet the blunt truth is that Burns was only a few years previously on the verge of becoming a slave boss, and he rarely touched on the subject of slavery at any other time (in comparison, Williiam Creech, the publisher of the Edinburgh edition of his poems, was an active anti-slavery campaigner; the horrors of the Scottish salve plantations were well-known in Scotland). Scott’s description of Burns makes it clear that he was highly sentimental, but we know that slavemasters could weep over verse and still flog slaves. The truth is that until the novelist James Robertson began writing about the subject - see Joseph Knight (2004) - the existence of the Scottish slave plantations had been largely undiscussed, indeed largely unknown in Scotland.
1788: Olaudah Equiano presents a petition to Queen Charlotte
Olaudah Equiano was a freed slave who had suffered much hardship in his early life, eventually buying his freedom in 1766, aged 21. He became involved in the anti-slavery movement in England and was appointed Commissary of Provisions and Stores (making him probably Britain’s first high-level black civil servant) for the ill-starred Sierra Leone project which the government set up in the hope of resettling freed Africans back in Africa. Equiano discovered wholesale corruption in the project, and despite the backing of the Navy Board, was sacked in 1787 (he was subsequently vindicated).
As Equiano tells us in his memoir, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789), in 1788 he presented a petition on Africa’s plight to Queen Charlotte which was ‘received most graciously by her Majesty’. Equiano’s memoir was in fact well subscribed before publication, and two of the subscribers were Charlotte’s sons, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York. Equiano was not an insignificant figure in 1788: he was popular, well-connected, sought after as an acquaintance, and recognised as a gentleman of culture and learning (qualities not always present among Georgian gentlemen).
The petition (reprinted in the memoir) is of great significance as previous anti-slavery petitions to the Royal family had not been so graciously received. Thanks to campaigners such as Wilberforce, Clarkson and Granville Sharp, the climate was changing: Equiano was an African who had been sold into slavery, but he was also clearly an English gentleman whose words could not be ignored: ‘I supplicate your Majesty's compassion for millions of my African countrymen, who groan under the lash of tyranny in the West Indies. . .by your Majesty's benevolent influence, a period may now be put to their misery; and they may be raised from the condition of brutes, to which they are at present degraded, to the rights and situation of freemen’.
What Happened Next
Equiano’s assertion that he was born in Africa, and taken across the Atlantic as a child has become a matter of some debate. It seems likely that he was born in South Carolina, but when contemporary pro-slavery interests tried to discredit Equiano, the tactic failed. If Equiano had conflated the experience of others with his own, then it was no big deal to the British people, who were inexorably turning against slavery. Equiano became a rich man, married and had two children. The black population of London was actually not that insignificant, and they didn't go away: like Equiano, they married white women and their descendants are often unaware of their African ancestry (in 1817, Jane Austen made no great issue of introducing a ‘half-mulatto’ heiress into her unfinished novel Sanditon). And in a final twist to the encounter between Equiano and Charlotte, Queen Charlotte herself is often said to be of African descent (as of course, going further back, we all are).
1792: Joseph Brant rejects a bribe from George Washington
The meeting between George Washington and the Mohawk chief James Brant, otherwise known as Thayendanegea (the name means ‘he who places two bets’) has caused much amusement to subsequent commentators. As has been gleefully noted, one was a well-travelled and sophisticated gentleman with high social connections, whose portrait was painted by George Romney, and the other was George Washington. And while they were both freemasons, Brant had been handed his apron by George III.
When Brant first visited London in 1776, he was interviewed by James Boswell (always watching for the man of the hour) for the London Magazine. Brant’s society friends were horrified to hear he was staying at an inn called The Swan With Two Necks, and tried to get him to move, but he was happy to remain at the Swan where he was treated with ‘much kindness’. Brant was by no means an oddity in London: many American Indians and blacks visited and often settled in England, where they found the white neighbours friendlier than the ones back home.
Brant returned to America and led the Mohawk warriors in the bloody war against the rebels. The fighting was brutal, and Brant’s Mohawks committed atrocities, though he himself seems innocent of war crimes. Atrocities were common during the war, and Brant, like many leaders on both sides, sought to prevent unnecessary killing. The Mohawk attacks were subsequently used by Americans to justify punitive expeditions against Indians, but in fact the patriot militia often slaughtered defenceless loyalists and their Indian allies (especially in the war's immediate aftermath).
After the rebel victory in 1783, Brant told the British secretary of state that when he 'joined the English in the beginning of the war, it was purely on account of my forefathers' engagements with the king. I always looked upon these engagements, or covenants between the king and the Indian nations, as a sacred thing: therefore, I was not to be frightened by the threats of the rebels at that time; I assure you I had no other view in it, and this was my real case from the beginning'.
In 1792, Brant was invited to meet Washington in Philadelphia: Washington hoped that Brant would use his good influence to broker peace with the Indian nations now fighting the Americans along the Ohio river. Washington offered Brant lands and a pension, which Brant immediately rejected as an obvious bribe. Brant was being given an impossible task, as he well knew. Few of the Indians were natural allies, the British were being duplicitous, and everyone knew that Washington was just buying time; the expansion into Indian lands that had been one of the stated aims of the Revolution would continue no matter what.
What Happened Next
Brant took ill and his mission was delayed. He did his best to work out a compromise agreement between the Indians and the Americans, but negotiations ended when the Indian alliance demanded the withdrawal of Americans to behind the Ohio river: war followed, and the Indians were heavily defeated at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. Brant, a devout Anglican, and a hero of Canada, died in 1807. See 1777: Patrick Ferguson is told he decided not to shoot George Washington; 1887: Queen Victoria tells Black Elk what would happen if the Lakota were her subjects
1793: Charlotte Corday assassinates Marat
Charlotte Corday was born into a minor aristocratic family and educated in a convent. Like many other young idealists, she became a supporter of the French Revolution in its early stages, seeing it as a benevolent process for social change. She belonged to the moderate Girondin faction of the Revolution, and would have agreed with Wordsworth’s friend Beaupuy, whom Wordsworth describes in The Prelude as pointing to a hungry girl, saying ‘Tis against that/ Which we are fighting.’
However, the ‘September Massacres’, an indiscriminate slaughter of royalists ordered by Danton in 1792, in which thousands of men, women and children were butchered, transformed the views of moderates such as Corday. To quote Wordsworth again: ‘I thought of those September massacres. . ./And felt and touched them, a substantial dread’. The Revolution had become monstrous.
Corday resolved to kill Jean-Paul Marat, one of the leading lights of the Terror. Like most advocates of terror, Marat liked compiling lists of his enemies, and Corday requested a meeting offering to inform on disaffected Girondins. Corday purchased a knife and wrote a justification for her plan to kill Marat, addressed to the people of France, for her action. On the evening of 13 July, Marat, as had become customary due to a bad skin condition, received Corday in his bathtub, and began writing down the names of the supposed traitors as she recited them. Then Corday brought out her knife and stabbed him in the chest. He called out, À moi, ma chère amie!’ - ‘Help me, my dear friend!’ - before dying. Jacques-Louis David’s painting of this moment, The Death of Marat, became, and remains one of the iconic depictions of revolutionary terror: the saint-like Marat hangs over the side of the bath with the list in his hand; he has died while working for the people, murdered by an enemy of the people. Corday is excluded from the painting. In a much later painting by a lesser talent, Paul Baudry, Corday is portrayed as a dignified, virginal tyrannicide, standing over the slumped, scabrous corpse of Marat.
What Happened Next
Corday’s trial was problematic for the regime: she was young, attractive, articulate, and many French people were cheering her (quietly). The Tribunal tried to solve the problem by ordering her defence counsel to enter a plea of insanity which reduced the proceedings to a farce. Corday defiantly declared she had killed not a man but a wild beast, and that she had killed him that others might live - a sharp and provocative jibe at the rhetoric of revolutionary martyrdom. Corday was guillotined and the executioner's assistant stunned the watching, and by now pretty hardened crowd, by slapping Corday’s detached head. Thousands more Girondins, and other moderates and royalists, were to die in further Jacobin purges. See also 1774: Edmund Burke is enraptured by Marie-Antoinette; 1774: Joseph Priestley meets Antoine Lavoisier
1797: Napoleon invites Tom Paine to dinner and asks him how to invade England
As Bart Simpson says, America recognises three just wars: the American Revolution, WWII and the Star Wars trilogy. The argument that the American Revolution was a ‘good war’ is more debatable than it once was (See 1777: Patrick Ferguson is told he decided not to shoot George Washington), but what is clear is that the English radical Tom Paine’s contribution to its success has been largely written out of American history.
The man Teddy Roosevelt was to call a ‘filthy little atheist’ was also the man whose pamphlet, The American Crisis, was ordered by George Washington to be read to his troops before the Battle of Trenton: ‘These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman’. With magnificent language such as this, Tom Paine inspired the American revolutionaries to continue their rebellion against the crown when all seemed lost.
Paine became a French citizen in 1792 and a member of the national convention, narrowly escaping the guillotine during the Terror. By 1797, Paine was a weary man, and somehow came to the conclusion that France should take war to England and ‘free’ the English people. Napoleon, fresh from his Italian campaign, called on Paine to invite him to dinner (there is no record of the dinner taking place) and sound him out on the practicalities of a cross-channel invasion. Napoleon introduced himself to Paine as a staunch republican and a defender of equality - indeed, he claimed that he slept with Paine’s The Rights of Man under his pillow (we know from another source that Napoleon also slept with the faux-celtic works of ‘Ossian’ under his pillow, but pillows were large in those days). He also said that he wanted a golden statue to be built of Paine in honour of his influence on the age, and invited him to suggest ways of invading England. Paine, one hopes not too much swayed by the offer of a golden statue, then wrote a couple of essays on how to organise the invasion, which was to include a thousand gunboats.
He wrote to Jefferson later, ‘the intention of the expedition was to give the people of England an opportunity of forming a government for themselves, and thereby bring peace’. As one of Paine’s early biographers pointed out, one of the suggested landing points for the expedition was in his home county of Norfolk. The Thetford-born Paine may have been indulging in 'a happy vision of standing once more in Thetford and proclaiming liberty throughout the land'
What Happened Next
As Admiral Jervis is supposed to have said. ‘I do not say, my Lords, that the French will not come. I say only they will not come by sea’. Napoleon invaded Egypt instead, and in September 1798, Paine, now exasperated by the Americans, published a plan in a French newspaper for the conquest of America. Paine returned to America in 1802, and was unsurprisingly booed in New York for his political and religious opinions (he had matrimonial issues also): even his friend Jefferson was cool. Paine died in 1809 and was buried in New Rochelle. In 1819, the English radical William Cobbett dug his bones up and took them back to England, prompting this vicious epigram from Byron:
In digging up your bones, Tom Paine,
Will. Cobbett has done well:
You visit him on earth again,
He'll visit you in hell.
Paine's bones subsequently disappeared, though the jawbone was said to be in Brighton in the 1930s. A gold-coloured statue of Paine (holding The Rights of Man upside down for some reason) was erected in Thetford in 1964.
REGENCY AND VICTORIAN ENCOUNTERS (19TH CENTURY)
1805: Sir Arthur Wellesley sees two sides of Nelson
The Duke of Wellington and Admiral Nelson feature in everyone’s list of famous Englishmen (though the Duke was born in Ireland), and they did once meet, while Wellington was still Sir Arthur Wellesley.
In 1834, in the presence of some friends who had been discussing the ‘egotism and vanity’ of Nelson, Wellington recollected their meeting in September, 1805, in a waiting room at the Colonial Office, 14 Downing St. Both men were waiting to see Lord Castlereagh. Secretary for War. Wellelsey had just come back from nine years hard campaigning in India, and Nelson had returned from giving the French fleet a hard time in the West Indies. Said Wellington: ‘Lord Nelson was, in different circumstances, two quite different men, as I myself can vouch, though I only saw him once in my life, and for, perhaps, an hour. It was soon after I returned from India. I went to the Colonial Office in Downing Street, and there I was shown into the little waiting-room on the right hand, where I found, also waiting to see the Secretary of State, a gentleman, whom, from his likeness to his pictures and the loss of an arm, I immediately recognized as Lord Nelson. He could not know who I was, but he entered at once into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation, for it was almost all on his side and all about himself, and in, really, a style so vain and so silly as to surprise and almost disgust me. I suppose something that I happened to say made him guess that I was somebody, and he went out of the room for a moment, I have no doubt to ask the office keeper who I was, for when he came back he was altogether a different man, both in manner and matter. All that I had thought a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked of the state of this country and the probabilities of affairs on the Continent with a good sense, and a knowledge of subjects both at home and abroad, that surprised me equally and more agreeably than the first part of our interview had done; in fact, he talked like an officer and a statesman. . . and certainly, for the last half or three-quarters of an hour, I don't know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more. Now, if the Secretary of State had been punctual, and admitted Lord Nelson in the first quarter of an hour, I should have had the same impression of a light and trivial character that other people have had; but luckily I saw enough to be satisfied that he was really a very superior man; but certainly a more sudden and complete metamorphosis I never saw’.
What Happened Next
Given that Wellington himself was described as a man for whom ‘no dose of flattery was too strong for him to swallow’, some contemporaries felt that his initial view of Nelson as a man with a high conceit of himself was a bit rich, but posterity has been kinder to Wellington - who is still seen as an unquestionably great man with minor faults - than to Nelson, a man over whose reputation hangs the shadow of what Wordsworth called the ‘great crime’ of the handing over of radicals in Naples in 1799 for torture and execution, a shadow which has lengthened over the years - see Barry Unsworth's novel Losing Nelson (1999).
1810: Tom Molineaux fights Tom Cribb
The circumstances under which the black American boxer Tom Molineaux came to England remain obscure, and indeed he remains a little-known figure in history. Having somehow won his freedom in America, he arrived in England in 1810, where he was taken under the wing of another black American boxer Bill Richmond, who owned a pub and boxing academy near Leicester Square. Richmond had been narrowly beaten by the great English boxer, Tom Cribb, and was quick to see Molineaux’s potential, arranging a prize fight with Cribb in December 1810. Curiously, Cribb was nicknamed the ‘Black Diamond’, an epithet that was often to be given subsequently to black sportsmen - Cribb got it because he used to be a coalman.
It is difficult now to appreciate just how very popular prize fights were in England (think Strictly Come Dancing and Manchester United v Liverpool combined) at the time and the fight was effectively for the world championship, the best bare-knuckle boxer in England being obviously the best boxer in the world. The English cheerfully adopted their favourite boxers as symbols of national patriotism in the struggle against Napoleon, including not just blacks such as Molineaux but other non-anglos such as the great Jewish boxer (and former champion) Daniel Mendoza also, as this popular ballad shows:
Mendoza, Gully, MOLINEAUX,
Each nature’s weapon wield,
Who each at Boney would stand true,
And never to him yield.
The two men faced each other in December, 1810, in a contest that lasted 33 brutal rounds. The best description of the fight is in George MacDonald Fraser’s 1997 novel Black Ajax, which pulls the contemporary accounts into one compelling narrative. At the end of each round, the boxer had to come up 'to scratch’, indicating readiness to continue, and after 28 rounds Cribb - sensationally - failed to come up, but was saved by completely bogus complaints from his seconds. Cribb was also helpless against the ropes on one occasion, when someone cut them. Molineaux should have won the fight, but was defeated after 33 hard-fought rounds of hard battering.
A justifiably aggrieved Molineaux obtained a rematch, but had his jaw fractured in the 9th round, and collapsed in the 11th, in front of a wildly partisan crowd desperate for the Englishman to win a clear victory.
What Happened Next
Molineaux’s fall from world-class boxer to freak show exhibit was a sad one, His formidable physique and skill wilted as he drank his way round series upon series of grim exhibition bouts, and he lost the support of the long-suffering Richmond. In 1819, in his mid-30s, the man who may have been the best heavyweight boxer ever died in Galway in the bandroom of the East Middlesex regiment, cared for by two of the regiment’s black soldiers. On a happier note, Richmond (whose nickname was ‘The Black Terror’), who should also be better known, became a much-respected figure about London (he was a fine cricketer and friend of Byron). and was a page, with Cribb, at the coronation of George IV in 1821. It was not an easy role; Cribb and Richmond had to watch out for George's wife, Caroline, a potential gatecrasher who was barred from the ceremony. Richmond died in 1829 after an evening spent with Cribb. (Several reference sources confidently state that Richmond was the American patriot Nathan Hale’s executioner in 1776 - when Richmond would have been 13.)
1812: Beethoven meets Goethe and snubs the Austrian Empress
The German poet and philosopher Goethe loved many women, and although the woman he finally married seemed to contemporaries to be a pretty face with a pretty vacant head, most of the woman he admired were clever as well as good-looking. It was through the child of one of those women that the giant of German letters met Beethoven, the giant of German music. The mutual friend was a young woman called Bettina Brentano, and it has been conjectured that she may in fact have been Goethe’s daughter: their relationship certainly seems to have been an intense but platonic one: she once fell asleep in his lap. Goethe never knew quite what to make of her (and neither did Napoleon, who definitely wasn't her dad).
In 1812, all three were present at the Teplitz Spa, and Bettina introduced the two. Love was in the air. Spas were sites of raised emotion (as lovers of Persuasion know). and it was while at the spa that Beethoven wrote his mysterious ‘Letter to the Immortal Beloved’, which was found in a drawer after his death in 1827. Bettina had earlier, in 1810, introduced Beethoven to her relation Antonie Brentano, who is considered by many to be one of the likeliest suspects for the 'Immortal Beloved’ .
In one of these scenes that are rather too good to be true (and although recorded by Bettina, some feel it is too good to be true), Beethoven and Goethe were strolling arm-in-arm when they encountered the Empress of Austria and a gaggle of Dukes coming in their direction. Beethoven - who had been holding forth on the superiority of men of genius to men of birth - told Goethe to keep his arm locked with his: ‘They must make room for us. not we for them’. But Goethe’s day job, after all, had been as a courtier, and he found this impossible to do.
Goethe took out his arm, took off his hat, and bowed to the Empress. Beethoven crossed his arms and kept walking, the Dukes parting before him like the Red Sea before Moses. After Goethe had bowed his way out, Beethoven told him he had waited for him because he honoured, indeed revered, Goethe for his mind, and told him off for bowing to talentless aristocrats. The scene has become emblematic of the emerging new age of Romantic genius trampling on outdated mores, and a splendid contemporary picture called The Incident in Teplitz depicts the scene in that light: Goethe bows reverentially, while Beethoven strides away with his head held high.
What Happened Next
Goethe wrote home that Beethoven was ‘turbulent’; Beethoven told his publisher that Goethe was too enamoured of courts. Years later, Beethoven wrote to Goethe, but the latter did not reply. Apart from genius, they had little in common. Bettina became quite radical in her politics, and befriended Karl Marx in 1842. A utopian commune established by Germans in Texas in 1847-8 was named 'Bettina' after her. The communists got on well with the Comanches - who found the commune useful for surgery, and also a handy dumping ground for unwanted captives - but the communists did not get on with each other. Several Bettinans became leading Texans. This has nothing to do with Beethoven and Goethe of course, but is fascinating. There were so many Germans about in Texas in the 1840s that some companies of Texas Rangers were comprised wholly of Germans, which is possibly even more irrelevant, but makes one long for westerns - featuring German Marxists - which were never made.
See also 1827:Schubert visits Beethoven on his deathbed.
1814: Harriette Wilson chats up Lord Byron
Harriette Wilson was a Regency courtesan and her Memoirs (1825) has one of the best opening lines ever: ’I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven’. Her first glimpse of Lord Byron, described by his ex-lover Lady Caroline Lamb as ‘mad, bad, and dangerous to know’, was at a masquerade. Harriette wandered into a ‘quiet room’ which was 'entirely deserted, save by one solitary individual. . . his bright penetrating eyes seemed earnestly fixed, I could not discover on what. “Surely he sees beyond this gay scene into some other world, which is hidden from the rest of mankind”, thought I, being impressed, for the first time in my life, with an idea that I was in the presence of a supernatural being. His attitude was graceful in the extreme. His whole countenance so bright, severe, and beautiful, that I should have been afraid to love him’.
Harriette watched the beautiful stranger for another ‘ten minutes’ (it was a quiet room) before asking him ‘I entreat you to gratify my curiosity. Who and what are you, who appear to me a being too bright and too severe to dwell among us?’
A startled Byron (who had previously turned down an invitation to meet Harriette) replied that he was merely a ‘very stupid masquerade-companion’ and tried to escape, but Harriette was not letting him off so easily, telling him ‘you must be Lord Byron, whom I have never seen’. ‘And you’. said Byron, ‘are Harriette Wilson’. They then had a pleasant time discussing beauty: ‘Your beauty is all intellectual’ she told him - and criticising Lady Caroline Lamb - ‘Is there any sort of comparison to be made between you and that mad woman?” he told her, and they parted with mutual admiration. BYRON: ‘Wherever I am, it will console me to know that I am remembered kindly by you’, HARRIETTE: ‘God bless you, dear Lord Byron.’
Walter Scott described Harriette as a ‘smart, saucy girl’, which is how most people think of her. What gets missed is that she was a fine writer with an eye for the ridiculous. The encounter with Byron reads very like a parody of romantic fiction, a clever send-up of the Byronic hero, a persona assiduously cultivated by Byron himself. She describes Byron as if he were a character in a fashionable novel, a character that was to become one of the great fictional stereotypes: the dark, moody stranger waiting for the love of a good woman. . .
What Happened Next
A small packet of Harriette's letters to Byron were found in the 20th century, one with this charming request: ‘ I hate to ask you for money. . . However, I only require a little present aid, and that I am sure you will not refuse me, as you once refused to make my acquaintance because you held me too cheap'. No letters from him to her survive. Byron left England for good in 1816, and died in Missolonghi in 1824, preparing to fight for Greek independence. Harriette died in rich obscurity around 1845. Her memoirs may have earned her in excess of £10,000. Some men paid to be kept out. The Duke of Wellington's reported response to Harriette's publisher, however, 'Publish and be damned', is apocryphal.
1815: Jane Austen visits the Prince Regent’s librarian
In late 1815, Jane Austen was nursing her brother Henry through a fever in his London house. Henry was also being attended by a royal physician who knew that the anonymous author of Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park was his patient’s sister. The physician delightedly informed Austen that the Prince Regent was a lover of her books and he had taken the liberty of telling him that Miss Austen was in London - and the Prince had asked his librarian, Mr Clarke, to ‘wait upon’ the author and ‘pay her every possible attention’. Mr Clarke accordingly invited Miss Austen to visit the Prince's library at Carlton House.
As it happened, Miss Austen’s views on the Regent were clear: she did not like him. and wondered at his wife Caroline 'calling herself "attached & affectionate" to a Man whom she must detest” The library was a different matter, however.
During the tour Clarke mentioned that if Miss Austen had another novel being published,. she ‘was at liberty’ to dedicate it to the prince. At that moment, Emma was about to be published, and after she got home, Austen wrote asking Clarke if it was now ‘incumbent’ on her to inscribe the work to the prince: ’I should be equally concerned to appear either presumptuous or ungrateful'. Clarke wrote back that it was certainly not ‘incumbent’ but he was happy to confirm permission: ’And I also, dear Madam, wished to be allowed to ask you to delineate in some future work the habits of life, and character, and enthusiasm of a clergyman, who should pass his time between the metropolis and the country, who should be something like Beattie's Minstrel - ‘Silent when glad . . .demurely sad'. Clarke seems not to have noticed that most clergymen in Jane Austen’s novels are suspect. Austen wrote back: ’I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a clergyman as you gave the sketch of in your note of Nov. 16th. But I assure you I am not.’
An unperturbed Clarke replied with yet another suggestion: ‘an historical romance illustrative of the august House of Cobourg would just now be very interesting,' Austen responded: ’I could not. . .write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life. . .I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other'.
What Happened Next
As the novelist Reginald Hill has pointed out, Emma is one of the great English detective stories, and this extends even to the dedication. Austen dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent, but in such a manner that many readers must have got the joke: her repeated use of the words ‘His Royal Highness’, as has been pointed out, may well have been designed to remind readers of Caroline’s use of the same words to address her husband. When the Regent was eventually crowned George IV in 1821, England’s best boxers were employed to keep Caroline at bay (see 1810: Tom Molineaux fights Tom Cribb) and the public sang: ‘Most gracious queen, we thee implore/ To go away and sin no more; /Or if that effort be too great, /To go away at any rate’.
1817: Benjamin Haydon hosts the 'Immortal Dinner'
Having moved into a new London studio in 1817, while working on his painting, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, the painter Benjamin Haydon decided to bring a group of his friends together for a party, with the painting functioning as a centrepiece. Present at the dinner were Wordsworth, Keats (their faces are on two of the figures in the painting, which now lives in an Ohio seminary), and Charles Lamb. Also present that evening was the surgeon John Ritchie, and the perhaps less stellar figures of Tom Monkhouse, who was Wordsworth’s wife’s cousin, and the deputy controller of stamps, a rather dull chap called John Kingston, who, says Haydon, ‘the moment he was introduced he let Wordsworth know who he officially was’, thus rather rudely informing Wordsworth that he was meeting his boss (for the first and only time), Wordsworth being the official distributor of stamps for Westmorland.
‘The Immortal Dinner’ is Haydon’s own description of the evening, and it is only fair to say that the judgment of posterity is not one of universal agreement that the party was that significant. never mind ‘immortal. But this was the first time Wordsworth and Keats met, and it seems to be the only time all the guests were present together - and deserves special note as one of the few recorded social occasions at which Wordsworth looked as if he were enjoying himself.
Records Haydon: ‘There was something interesting in seeing Wordsworth, sitting, and Keats and Lamb, and my picture of Christ's Entry towering up behind them, occasionally brightened by gleams of flame that sparkled from the fire, and hearing the voice of Wordsworth repeating Milton with an intonation like the funeral bell of St. Paul's and the music of Handel mingled, and then Lamb's wit came sparkling in between, and Keat's rich fancy of satyrs and fauns and white clouds, wound up the stream of conversation’.
Keats in fact was reciting part of ‘Endymion’ for the first time in company (Wordsworth had read it a few days earlier and praised it faintly). Lamb - whose sister Mary was in his care, having killed their mother years before in one of her periodic fits of madness - got a bit squiffy and attempted to examine the skull of John Kingston after the latter persisted in asking daft questions about genius. Lest there be any doubt as to the general propriety of the evening, however, Haydon makes clear: ‘All our fun was within bounds. Not a word passed that an apostle might not have listened to. It was a night worthy of the Elizabethan age. . .’ The essential guide to Haydon’s party is Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s The Immortal Dinner (2000).
What Happened Next
Joseph Ritchie, who was an anti-slavery campaigner, undertook an expedition to reach central Africa from the north the following year, and died in Murzuq in November 1819, less than two years after the party. At Keats’ request, Ritchie took with him a copy of 'Endymion' in order to leave it, for some mysterious poetical reason, in the Sahara. Haydon went bankrupt in 1823 and killed himself in the hot summer of 1846.
1822: San Martin and Simon Bolivar meet behind closed doors
Jose de San Martin was born in what is now eastern Argentina in 1788 and learned his military trade as a Spanish army officer 1808-1811 in the brutal war against Napoleon. Deciding his talents could be better used fighting Spanish oppression at home after Argentina had declared its independence, he returned to Buenos Aires in 1812, where he became commander of the army. Realising that Argentina would not be secure unless Spanish rule ended all over South America, he took an army across the Andes to liberate Chile (with Bernardo O’Higgins), founded the Chile navy (with Thomas Cochrane) and became the ‘Protector’ (first President) of Peru not long before meeting Bolivar.
The Venezuelan Simon Bolivar had also been a busy man to the north, becoming temporary dictator of Venezuela in 1813. Bolivar was a ruthless man with a vicious temper; unlike San Martin, Bolivar was a dictator by nature.
San Martin was the liberator of the south, Bolivar the liberator of the north. The meeting - a secret one behind closed doors - was held in Ecuador at a time when they had Spain's mighty armies for the taking, and the purpose of the meeting was to plan the final strategy for the inevitable victory. The course of the meeting is still debated, but from what we know of what was said, it is difficult to view the great revolutionary Bolivar in anything but a bad light. San Martin offered at first to share the leadership: when Bolivar refused - on the grounds that his forces were the strongest . San Martin offered to step down. This noble offer, alas. also seems to have offended Bolivar, who probably at this point just wanted San Martin to have never existed. San Martin, realising that Bolivar’s intransigence was implacable, decide to turn over command to Bolivar, left South America for good and returned to Europe, dying in France in 1850.
What Happened Next
Bolivar went on to defeat the Spanish. Northern Peru was renamed Bolivia in his honour, but the ideal of a federation of all Spanish-speaking Americans never came to fruition and was probably never achievable, as he recognised on his deathbed in 1830, saying that the sole benefit of his work had been achieving independence from Spain, but at the cost of all other forms of civilized life. Life had become a torment, laws just bits of paper, and the future of South America would be one of governance by petty tyrants. Bolivar’s unhappy prophecy was pretty much fulfilled. In the 1860s/ 1870s a Chile-Peru alliance went to war with Spain, and later with Bolivia, over bird shit, in the Guano Pacific war. Also in the 1860s, Paraguay fought one of the most disastrous wars in history, fighting Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay at the same time (50-70%of Paraguay’s population died). It is often suggested that much of the post-independence strife in Latin America could have been avoided if the meeting between San Martin and Bolivar had not been a failure.
1827: Schubert visits Beethoven on his deathbed
In March 1827 Beethoven had been deaf for 10 years, and was now dying. He was 56 and widely regarded as the greatest living composer, as well as a symbol of both German culture and the Romantic movement (see 1812: Beethoven meets Goethe and snubs the Austrian Empress). The young Austrian composer Franz Schubert was also living in Vienna, but was painfully shy of making contact with the great man. Indeed, Schubert said he had once seen him in a busy coffee house but was too overcome to go over to him (Schubert’s brother liked to claim that Beethoven and Schubert met several times, and there are other unverifiable, anecdotal accounts of them meeting before 1827).
Beethoven was dying because he had caught pneumonia, but he was dying anyway of liver failure, indeed multiple organ failure, and possibly also lead poisoning. He had been out in the country visiting his brother, who, it has been said, was responsible for sending the unwell composer back to Vienna in an open wagon (Beethoven was actually very ill when he had arrived at the estate, where his erratic behaviour caused great amusement to the yokels).
When Schubert finally visited Beethoven on 19 March, he was on his deathbed, and had only a few days to live. According to their mutual friend Anselm Huttenbrenner, Beethoven was asked which of the two he would like to see first: 'let Schubert come in first, he replied. Beethoven was interested in the music being produced by the talented young composer, and probably would have had much to say, but sadly Schubert visited at a point where he was unable to speak lucidly (a cigarette card company later issued cards on Schubert’s life - which can be found the web - one of which shows a sobbing Schubert exiting the deathbed scene).
Shortly after Schubert left, Beethoven’s voice returned and he spoke warmly of the Philharmonic Society of London, whose patronage had been of such importance to him. Earlier in 1827, he had written to the society explaining his financial problems and they sent him £100. George Bernard Shaw later referred to this gift as ‘the only creditable incident in English history’. The Philharmonic had commissioned the 9th symphony and wanted a 10th from him - practically his last words were ‘God bless them’.
What Happened Next
‘Who can do anything after Beethoven?’ asked Schubert. Schubert’s music does seem to change after this point, and biographers and musicologists agree that Beethoven’s death is pivotal in Schubert’s life and work - though he himself had less than a year to live. Schubert was one of the torch bearers at Beethoven's funeral, which became a huge public event; over 20,000 people turned up to see him interred. Schubert died of typhoid at the age of 31 in 1828. At his own request, he was buried beside Beethoven.
1840 Sir Moses Montefiore meets Sultan Abdülmecid to discuss the ‘Damascus Affair’
In February 1840, a Franciscan monk called Father Thomas and his servant went missing in Damascus and were never seen again. Their disappearance resulted in rioting by some Christians and Muslims who alleged that the missing men had been killed by Jews in order to use their blood for a ritual during Passover ritual. The alleged act of using human blood during a religious ritual is known as the 'blood libel', and has been most commonly used against Jews, though it has also been used by fanatics to smear groups ranging from Cathars and neopagans to a wide range of Christian and Muslim sects that have annoyed the orthodox.
The disappearance of the two men coincided with the recent arrival in Damascus of a new French consul, who used his considerable influence to persuade the Turkish governor to arrest and interrogate local Jews. The consul did have a legal right to intervene - France having special rights as the protector of Roman Catholics in the region - but he was also a particularly vicious anti-semite and the responsibility for much of what was to happen can be laid at the door of this horrible man. Suspects were questioned, and under torture a Jewish barber confessed to killing the two men. Two other Jews died under torture, and another converted to Islam to escape the terrible fate of his co-accused. Anti-Jewish riots occurred all over the Middle East: Jews were attacked, Jewish children were taken hostage, and synagogues were desecrated.
The 'Damascus Affair', as it began to be called, quickly attracted world-wide attention and condemnation. After a public meeting in London offered support to the beleaguered Jewish communities, Sir Moses Montefiore led a delegation to Alexandria in August to plead with Mehmet Ali, joint ruler (with the Ottoman Sultan) of Syria, for the freedom of the remaining accused, and for an end to be brought to the persecution. Montefiore had been appointed Sheriff of the city of London in 1837 and knighted by Victoria. Physically imposing at 6 foot 3, rich, intelligent, philanthropic, well-liked and well-connected, Montefiore seems to have been a difficult person to say 'no' to. The delegation obtained the (reluctantly granted) release of the prisoners, but it was not until Montefiore went on to meet with the precocious 17-year-old Ottoman ruler Sultan Abdülmecid in Constantinople, that the persecutions ceased. Apart from bringing to a close the disgraceful persecution of innocent subjects, Abdülmecid, at Montefiore's request, issued a highly significant edict attacking the blood libel itself: 'for the love we bear to our subjects, we cannot permit the Jewish nation, whose innocence for the crime alleged against them is evident, to be worried and tormented as a consequence of accusations which have not the least foundation in truth'.
What Happened Next
'Normal' sectarian strife in Syria carried on as usual - in 1860, eight Franciscan monks in Damascus. the entire church community, were murdered by Druze zealots (and beatified in 1921) - but the Sultan's edict against the blood libel held. Both of those remarkable men, Montefiore and Abdülmecid, have been largely forgotten, as have the circumstances of the Damascus Affair itself. Yet their encounter showed what could be achieved by rational, liberal and principled men prepared to stand up to murderous bigotry. The affair led, alas, to a dramatic increase in anti-semitism everywhere, most notably in France and Russia, and when that murderous forgery purporting to be a Jewish blueprint for world domination, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, appeared in the early 20th century in Russia, it found fertile ground in the new century.
The blood libel was to re-emerge with terrible force with the rise of Nazism in Germany, and is still propagated by some malignant clerics in the Middle East, most notably in Saudi Arabia, where the fable appeared as a factual description of Jewish ritual in a newspaper in 2002.
See The Damascus Affair: 'Ritual Murder', Politics, and the Jews in 1840 (1997), Jonathan Frankel
1842: Edgar Allan Poe asks Charles Dickens to help him get published
Dickens toured America in 1842, and Poe came to see him twice in his Philadelphia hotel room. The meetings are felt to be a tad disappointing by most commentators - they talked a lot about copyright, a topic of much concern to authors but apt to drive most people out of the room - and accounts often resort to describing what they wore (Poe dressed in a respectable suit, Dickens went in for raffish diamond clasps and a flashy dressing gown).
In fact, this was an interesting encounter. The affair had started warmly enough. When Poe requested a meeting, sending Dickens a collection of his stories as a gift, Dickens responded warmly: ‘My Dear Sir, I shall be very glad to see you whenever you will do me the favour to call.’ As well as discussing copyright, they discussed the possibility of Dickens finding a British publisher for Poe’s short stories (this is the delicate part where one would like a verbatim account). Dickens, whatever his actual feelings on the subject, promised to try.
Poe’s biographer Una Pope-Hennessy observes of the Poe and Dickens meetings that they were ‘sterile and closed coldly. Neither seems to have liked the other much’. Neither were in good form when they met, but Poe was not (at any time) the most convivial of men, and while Dickens was normally good company, promising to try to find someone a publisher is a task not likely to end in joy. Dickens was certainly peeved at the level of exploitation he was encountering - the Philadelphia hotel, for example, conned him into presiding over a reception for hundreds of guests - and Poe’s request may have seemed to be pitched on that level. In truth, however, he was profoundly depressed by America. He had come prepared to love America but was deeply shocked by the reality of American slavery. He wrote: ‘This is not the Republic I came to see. This is not the Republic of my imagination. I infinitely prefer a liberal Monarchy — even with its sickening accompaniments of Court Circulars . . .to such a Government as this’. His experiences were to be used in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843). Dickens did meet Americans he really liked, however: Longfellow became a lifelong friend.
What Happened Next
Not long after returning to England, Dickens wrote to Poe that he had delivered his stories to various publishers but they all ‘declined the venture.’ He added, diplomatically but unconvincingly, that Poe should not ‘suppose that I have ever thought of you but with a pleasant recollection’. Poe did derive inspiration from Dickens. At the urging of his children, Dickens had put the family pet raven, Grip, into Barnaby Rudge (1841) and Poe criticised Dickens in a review for not using the bird to good symbolic effect, which of course he himself was to do in his poem ‘The Raven’ (1845). Grip was stuffed when he died (he had two successors also called Grip) and now lives on the third floor of the Free Library of Philadelphia, a permanent memorial to both Poe and Dickens.
1854: John Lang speaks to Lakshmibai through a curtain
Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi, was a figure of some fascination to her Victorian contemporaries and indeed to posterity. Widow and ruler of the small north Indian kingdom of Jhansi, (her father was a Brahmin), she was described as the ‘Indian Boudicca': attractive, intelligent, articulate, a stateswoman, she became a symbol of resistance to the British during the Indian Mutiny and has become a national heroine for India.
The Sydney-born lawyer John Lang was perhaps a much less romantic figure, but is intriguing in his own right. Regarded as the first Australian-born novelist, he left his native land for good in 1840, settling in India and founding a newspaper, in which he published his novel Mazarine (1845).
Lakshmibai’s husband, heir to a proud tradition of Maratha rulers, had died in 1853, and their only child was also dead. They adopted a child; the Rajah formally acknowledged him as heir before he died. but the Governor-General annexed the state anyway. Lakshmibai decided to fight the British at their own game and hired John Lang in 1854 to fight her case in the courts. Lang’s enthralling account of their meeting was first published in Dickens' Household Words and then in Wanderings in India (1859).
Lang was delivered into Jhansi in an ‘enormous carriage’ escorted by a large escort of spear-bearing cavalry, and then led on a white elephant to the palace. In the palace, Lang sat in a room with a curtain at the end, and spoke briefly to the ‘pretty child’ who was to inherit Jhansi, and who - perhaps accidentally - opened the curtain to reveal the Rani expressing her grievances to Lang. He only saw her for a moment, but she clearly made an impression: the Rani was ‘rather stout, but not too stout. Her face must have been very handsome when she was younger [she was actually about 25 at the time], and even now had many charms - though, according to my idea of beauty, it was too round. The expression also was very good, and very intelligent. The eyes were particularly fine, and the nose very delicately shaped. She was not very fair, though she was far from black’.
The next 10 minutes passed with agreeable compliments from Lang to Lakshmibai - if the Governor-General could only see her, Lang felt ‘quite sure that he would at once give Jhansi back again to be ruled by its beautiful Queen’. The ‘beautiful Queen’ stuck to the matter at hand, and declined Lang’s suggestion that she take a British pension, saying in words that would resonate in Indian history: ‘Mera Jhansi nahin dengee’ (I will not give up my Jhansi).
What Happened Next
Lang argued her case in London, but to no avail, and when rebellion broke out in 1857 Jhansi became a centre of the revolt. Lakshmibai encouraged women as well as men to take up arms against the cow-killing imperialists, and fell in battle against the British at Gwalior in 1858. The wrapper of the first edition of Flashman in the Great Game (1975), has an appealing image (by Barbosa) of Lakshmibai on her swing - the swing was found in her battlefield tent after Gwalior, along with her books and pictures.
1855: James Barry is Nasty to Florence Nightingale
Mystery surrounded James Barry: as the Dictionary of National Biography says, she ‘was probably born Margaret’, and though commonly regarded (in public) as a male by her contemporaries, is now regarded as female by birth. She trained in medicine and became an experienced army surgeon and medical officer, eventually becoming a deputy inspector of hospitals, and like Mary Seacole (see 1855: Mary Seacole gets a Bed for the Night from Florence Nightingale ) was discouraged from travelling to the Crimea (on the grounds of being too senior, in Barry’s case).
Barry had influential friends, an influence possibly related to her shadowy paternity: paternal candidates include the Earl of Buchan and the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda; and when she put her case to the British commander Lord Raglan, he agreed she should be allowed to help. Barry was based on Corfu, and Raglan arranged for over 400 casualties to be sent to her for treatment. The recovery rates Barry achieved were high.
In 1855 Barry spent a few months leave (at her own expense) in Sevastopol where she met Florence Nightingale. Barry was described at this time as an ‘intolerable bore’ who expected colleagues ‘to listen to every quarrel he has had since coming into the service', and there were many such quarrels. Florence later recollected their encounter (Barry was annoyed with her about some trivial matter) with a fair degree of fume: ‘I never had such a blackguard rating in all my life – I who have had more than any woman – than from this Barry sitting on his horse, while I was crossing the Hospital Square with only my cap on in the sun. He kept me standing in the midst of quite a crowd of soldiers, Commissariat, servants, camp followers, etc., etc., every one of whom behaved like a gentleman during the scolding I received while he behaved like a brute . . After he was dead, I was told that (he) was a woman . . . I should say that (she) was the most hardened creature I ever met.
What Happened Next
Barry is now seen as transgendered: she was very likely a woman by biology, became a man by choice, and the choice benefitted both medical science and her future patients. Barry was a very fine doctor, though argumentative and uncommonly uncivil; indeed she had fought a duel in 1818 (in which she and her opponent were unharmed). She died in 1865, aged about 66. The Manchester Guardian obituary said - in a smug and distant tone that still survives in British obituary writing - ‘He died about a month ago, and upon his death was discovered to be a woman. The motives that occasioned, and the time when commenced this singular deception are both shrouded in mystery. But thus it stands as an indisputable fact, that a woman was for 40 years an officer in the British service, and fought one duel and sought many more, had pursued a legitimate medical education, and received a regular diploma, and had acquired almost a celebrity for skill as a surgical operator. It was a supreme deception’. Indeed it was.
1855: Robert Browning is unentranced by Daniel Dunglas Home
The Spiritualist movement began in mid-19th century America with the emergence of ‘mediums’ such as the Fox sisters who claimed to be in touch with a spiritual world inhabited by nonmaterial beings. By 1853, when the song ‘Spirit Rappings’ was published, the first of many ‘rap’ songs (‘Softly, softly, hear the rustle of the spirits’ airy wings’), mediums were appearing all America. One of them was a 22-year-old Scot whose family had emigrated to Connecticut, Daniel Dunglas Home (he believed his father was an illegitimate grandson of the Earl of Home). Home’s mother died in 1850 and his aunt threw him out of the family home because she couldn't bear the frequent raps which now accompanied his presence.
Mediumship became a viable career in those days, but Home, conscious of being a gentleman, did not charge for seances; instead, in a common solution, he received ‘gifts’. Home returned in 1855 to a Britain in which spiritualism was a growing belief system; he found sympathetic hosts to live with and regular seances to manage. Witnesses would also claim they saw Home float in and out of windows.
This brings us to what Andrew Lang, in Historical Mysteries (1904), called the ‘great Home-Browning problem’. Elizabeth Barrett Browning admired Home and took her husband, Robert Browning, to a seance (at the house of a Mr Rymer). Robert was not an admirer, and was not amused to receive what he called ‘a kind of soft and fleshy pat’ on his knee under the table (rumours about Home’s sexuality abounded). A wreath of clematis floated up from the table and landed on the head of Elizabeth, which possibly amused Robert even less.
A few days later, Home called on the Brownings, but as Lang says: ‘Mr. Browning declined to notice Home; there was a scene, and Mrs Browning (who was later a three-quarters believer in 'spirits') was distressed’ (Virginia Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, later wrote: ‘Mrs B. shrieks too much . . .I don't think it necessary to say anything of her “spiritisms” - damn it".
What Happened Next
Psychic research, according to Gladstone, was ‘the most important work being done in the world today’. Others disagreed. After Elizabeth died, Robert published in 1865 a scathing attack on Home, the poem ‘Mr Sludge, the Medium’:
Oh Lord! I little thought, sir, yesterday,
When your departed mother spoke those words
Of peace through me, and moved you, sir, so much,
You gave me—(very kind it was of you)
These shirt-studs—(better take them back again. . .
Home retaliated by alleging that Browning was jealous because the spirits had judged Elizabeth the better poet by awarding her the clematis wreath. Home was later befriended by a widow who gave him a huge sum of money, but then demanded it back when the spirits told her to. The case went to court, where Home complained ‘I was a mere toy to her, I felt my degradation more and more with every day that passed’; The widow said 'I once just put my lips to his forehead. . .But only once. You see, I am not so fond of kissing'. The judge, describing spiritualism as ‘mischievous nonsense’, found against Home, who moved in for a while with the future Earl of Dunraven, whose ‘loins’ he was said to shampoo. Home married twice, and converted twice, to Roman Catholicism (he was expelled from Rome for necromancy) and Greek Orthodoxy, and died in France in 1886.
1855: Mary Seacole gets a Bed for the Night from Florence Nightingale
When Mary Seacole was ‘rediscovered’ in he late 20th century, she was proclaimed as a heroine who had been written out of British history because she was black and working-class, and therefore inferior to the white middle-class Florence Nightingale (Mary features in this light in Rushdie's The Satanic Verses). The truth is more complex. Born Mary Grant in 1805 of Scottish-Creole parentage in Jamaica (her mother ran a boarding-house for British officers), in 1836 she married the merchant Edwin Horatio Hamilton Seacole, who may have been a godson of Nelson, or possibly son of Nelson and Emma (there is no proof of either assertion).
Mary had expertise in treating fevers, and when war broke out with Russia in 1853, she travelled to England and offered her services to the War Office. Her offer was rejected (because of her colour, she believed) so she travelled to the Crimea without official backing to set up a base near the front line. On her way she visited Florence Nightingale at Scutari. Contrary to some sources, Mary did not ask for a job, as she makes clear in her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands (1857).
Mary describes Florence thus: ‘A slight figure, in the nurses' dress; with a pale, gentle, and withal firm face, resting lightly in the palm of one white hand, while the other supports the elbow. . .Standing thus in repose, and yet keenly observant – the greatest sign of impatience at any time a slight, perhaps unwitting motion of the firmly planted right foot – was Florence Nightingale – that Englishwoman whose name shall never die, but sound like music on the lips of British men until the hour of doom’. Florence said ‘in her gentle but eminently practical and business-like way, "What do you want, Mrs. Seacole – anything that we can do for you? If it lies in my power, I shall be very happy." ‘ All Mary wanted was a bed, and one was found for her in the washerwoman’s quarters where she swapped ‘biographies’ with sick nurses and took off for the front in the morning.
Critics of Florence’s seemingly superior attitude to Mary forget Florence wanted to establish nursing as a profession, whereas Mary had a business to run as well as nurse, and was therefore muddying the waters in Florence’s eyes. Mary’s business cards described her Crimean base - the British Hotel - as a ‘mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers’. Unlike Florence, Mary charged for her services, admitted tourists and served alcohol (she used the profits to finance hospital and battlefield treatment, however, of Russian as well as British soldiers). Florence’s comments on Mary were mostly restrained and she praised her kindness. Privately, however, she suggested that the British Hotel was a ‘Bad House’, a euphemism for ‘brothel’ and she kept her nurses away.
What Happened Next
In his preface to Mary’s book, The Times correspondent W H Russell says ‘I have witnessed her devotion and her courage. . . I trust that England will not forget one who nursed her sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them, and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead’. England did not immediately forget. Mary went bankrupt in 1856, but The Times and Punch publicised the losses she sustained in her war work, and a Seacole Fund approved by Queen Victoria was established to ensure she was reimbursed for her losses. Victoria’s nephew Count Gleichen, whom she had treated in the Crimea, became a friend, and made a marble bust of her. Mary died of ‘apoplexy’ in 1881, and England gradually forgot her.
See also 1855: James Barry is nasty to Florence Nightingale
1856: Lola Montez tries to horsewhip Henry Seekamp
Quite a lot seems to be known about Lola Montez (1821-1861). She was a great beauty, as is evident from the many portraits of her to be found in reference works, and she inherited her looks from her Spanish father and her temper from her Irish mother. She was the mistress of kings; she once horsewhipped a newspaperman in the Californian gold fields and died in poverty in the nightmare slum of Hell's Kitchen, New York.
The preceding paragraph contains information gathered from several reputable reference sources. Part of it is true, much of it is false. The Sligo-born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert was indeed very pretty. as is evident from Joseph Stieler's decorous 1848 portrait (memorably described in Royal Flash by that great observer, Harry Flashman, as 'wearing a come-to-Jesus expression') Many of the other portraits of her displayed in reference works are in fact not of Eliza at all: the suspicion is that in the late 19th century any old portrait of a sultry Spanish-looking woman, preferably armed with a whip and a jaunty widebrimmed hat, would do to illustrate an article on Lola Montez, and as is the way of things, the pictures have become established as true likenesses over the years. She had no Spanish ancestry, her father being a British soldier and her mother an illegitimate member of the well-known and influential Irish Oliver family. She was indeed the mistress of a king - mad King Ludwig of I Bavaria - but did not die a terrible death.
Following a teenage elopement with one of her mother's male friends, Eliza adopted the designation 'Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer' in her early 20s, in which incarnation she . debuted on the London stage in 1843. The performance ended in disorder after that dreadful cad Lord Ranelagh denounced her from his box as an Irish impostor, not Spanish. Lola had a hissy fit, stamped on her bouquet, and a few weeks later turned up in Europe, where her 'tarantula dance' made her famous. She had an affair with Liszt and was part of George Sand's circle. She was also reputed to have developed an attachment to horsewhips at this time, and indeed is supposed to have horsewhipped a policeman who annoyed her.
She became Ludwig's mistress in Austria in 1846, and was promoted to Countess of Landsfeld in 1847. As often happened in Lola's life, her timing was bad: 1848 was to be the year of revolutions in Europe, and the subsequent forced abdication of Ludwig was probably inevitable, even without the public outrage at his liaison with Lola.
Lola moved to the US in 1851, where her dancing scandalised the righteous and delighted the others, particularly in the goldfields of California. She moved to Australia in 1855, where her 'spider dance' (this dance was the opening act in 1856 of the fine Theatre Royal in Castlemaine, Victoria), in which she raised her skirt in front in the audience - proved too daring for family audiences and indeed for some of the 'digger' audience of goldminers (Lola liked performing for goldminers). The diggers loved the eroticism but were not as equally taken with Lola's willingness to trade insults with them.
According to some accounts, while in Lola had horsewhipped at least one Californian newspaperman. This did not happen. She did, however, chase one of Australia's founding fathers of journalism down the street with a horsewhip, and if the horsewhip did not make contact, it was not for want of trying. Henry Seekamp, a major figure in both the history of Australian journalism and of its Labour movement, was editor of the Ballarat Times and a noted supporter of the diggers in their struggle for their right to vote and buy the land they worked on. A brave and intelligent man, with an equally brave and intelligent wife called Clara (who ran his paper and campaigns while he was jailed), Seekamp is unfortunately best-remembered outside of Australia for giving Lola a bad review, following which she chased him down the street with a horsewhip, thankfully without catching him. The still occasionally performed 'Lola Montes [sic] Polka', apparently commemorates this incident.
What Happened Next
Henry and Clara Seekamp, probably not prompted by the attempted horsewhipping, moved to Queensland, where Henry died in 1864, three years after the ever-wandering Lola's death from pneumonia in New York in 1861. Lola's career was described in the New York Times as 'wonderfully chequered' and stories began to be spread of a sad end in a squalid slum. In fact, she died well-cared for, but this was not good enough for the pious, who wanted to see a sinner brought low.
Lola is now commonly described as a precursor of the modern, independent woman, which may seem like just another fantasy view, with or without horsewhip, but in fact Lola, with minimum adjustment, is a character who would have fitted smoothly into 21st century western society. The most famous expression associated with her, 'Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets', which may have arisen during her Ludwig-mistress phrase, seems a fair summary of the modern woman as defined by the advertising world (and has been used for song titles and a 2007 movie).
1860: Richard Burton jokes about wives with Brigham Young
Captain Richard Burton has become the very model of the intrepid Victorian explorer. By 1860 (aged 39) he had served as a soldier in India, visited Mecca (disguised as a Pathan), searched (with Speke) for the source of the Nile, and discovered lake Tanganyika. His favourite disguise was as a half-Arab, half Persian, called ‘Mirza Abdullah’, a disguise not needed when he visited America in 1860. Burton, like many contemporaries, was fascinated by the Mormons (specifically their adoption of polygamy), and travelled to Salt Lake City to find out more. As an early biographer says ‘it was natural that, after seeing the Mecca of the Mohammedans, Burton should turn to the Mecca of the Mormons, for he was always attracted by the centres of the various faiths’.
The trip is described in The City of the Saints and across the Rocky Mountains to California (1862), a book in which Burton is at pains to emphasise that Mormons must not be judged by our standards. Burton went to the Tabernacle, at that point a simple brick building. After the service he was introduced to Brigham Young, the president of the Latter Day Saints, ‘a farmer-like man of 45’ who clearly knew his man: when Burton asked if he could become a Mormon (Burton collected religions), Young replied ‘I think you’ve done that sort of thing once before, Captain’.
They went for a stroll and exchanged pleasantries. Burton explained he was looking for a wife, but the Mormons had snapped them all up. Young showed Burton the house where his wives lived, and Burton made a joke about there being lots of water in Salt Lake City, but not ‘a drop to drink’. Young, ‘who loved a joke as dearly as he loved his seventeen wives burst out into hearty laughter’ (the true number of Young's wives remains uncertain, perhaps 27; the first one was called Mary Ann Angel). The joke was perhaps a bit daring, as Burton will have known of Young’s brisk views on adultery: ‘Suppose you found your brother in bed with your wife, and put a javelin through both of them, you would be justified’.
What Happened Next
Burton’s account of his visit is regarded as the first balanced account of life at Salt Lake City (a lady who had visited before him complained bitterly that some ‘rude men’ had walked over a bridge before her), and he asserted that, for him, polygamy made sense in that time and place. He also received at least one proposal of marriage, which he declined; the lady said she had refused Burton, which prompted a terrible joke from him: 'like Miss Baxter, she 'had refused a man before he'd axed her'. Back in England, he literally fell into the arms of isabel Arundell, who wrote: ‘He put his arm round my waist, and I put my head on his shoulder’, This was true love, as Burton looked awful, having suffered over 20 bad fever attacks that left his face a mess. When Burton died, Isabel buried him as a Catholic, to the dismay of his friends, and burned his erotic writings. to the dismay of erotomanes everywhere (she said she was acting under instruction from his spirit).
1863: John Wilkes Booth refuses to meet Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln enjoyed going to the theatre, and was a regular attendee at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, after he became president in 1860. He was particularly fond of Shakespeare, but also derived much pleasure from popular melodramas. On 9 November, 1863, he went to a performance of Charles Selby’s The Marble Heart. The play was described by one London critic as ‘a piece perilously elaborate in its development of sentiment and character, and ambitious in its aim as an Art-drama of the imaginative class’, and the lead role was performed by John Wilkes Booth, brother of the great Shakespearian actor Edwin Booth.
Born into a prominent acting family, he was named ‘John Wilkes’ because of a supposed family connection to the English radical (see 1776: Dr Johnson has dinner with John Wilkes), though he was much better looking than Wilkes, and had been billed as ‘the handsomest man in America’. He was a strong believer in the institution of slavery, and had been briefly arrested in 1862 for his outspoken views.
In the course of the play, records Mary Clay, a member of Lincoln’s party: ‘Twice Booth in uttering disagreeable threats in the play came very near and put his finger close to Mr. Lincoln's face; when he came a third time I was impressed by it, and said, ‘Mr. Lincoln, he looks as if he meant that for you.’ 'Well,’ he said, ‘he does look pretty sharp at me, doesn't he?”’ Intrigued, the unflappable Lincoln sent an invitation backstage to Booth, inviting him to meet up with the president after the show. Booth refused.
1863 was a busy year for Lincoln. The year began with his Emancipation Proclamation of 1 January, freeing all slaves in Confederate territory. And 10 days after Booth’s theatrical gestures, Lincoln gave his speech at Gettysburg, Contemporary reaction to the Gettysburg Address was mixed, but it was soon recognised as a rhetorical masterpiece: ‘Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’.
Lincoln, like Booth, was a great public speaker, but unlike Booth, when he wrote his own material he wrote it magnificently; and if there are any great speeches by Booth or anyone else in defence of slavery, they remain unrecorded by posterity, in the western world at least.
What Happened Next
If they had met backstage, would Booth still have found it possible to assassinate Lincoln (in the same theatre) in April 1865? The answer is probably yes. Booth was a good hater and just a year later was involved in a plot to kidnap the president, which could well have succeeded. He also, with his brothers Edwin and Junius, staged a performance of Julius Caesar to raise funds to erect a statue of Shakespeare (still there) in Central Park. And when Booth finally assassinated Lincoln, he is supposed to have said ‘Sic Semper Tyrannis’ (thus ever to tyrants), referring to Brutus’ words after stabbing Caesar. Booth escaped and was later killed by Union troops. Booth’s uncle, Algernon Booth, is the great-great-great-grandfather of Cherie Blair.
1864: Garibaldi plants a tree for the Tennysons
The Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi was one of the key revolutionary figures of the 19th century. A member of the Young Italy movement, he became the leading figure of the ‘Risorgimento’, the post-1815 ‘resurgence’ of Italian nationalism against foreign occupation.
Garibaldi’s mission became immensely popular in Britain, and the British government aided his Sicilian campaign in 1860. He visited England in March 1864 to express his gratitude to the British people. Garibaldi fever was everywhere in Britain: the Russian exile Alexander Herzen described it as ‘Carlyle’s hero-worship being performed before our eyes’ Two rare dissenters were Queen Victoria, who described the reception as ‘such follies’, and Karl Marx, who called the Garibaldi craze ‘a miserable spectacle of imbecility’.
Garibaldi was greeted with great enthusiasm by two packs of Garibaldi lovers: on the one hand, were the upper classes, led by various Dukes and Lords, who wanted him in their homes and at elaborate banquets, while the rival team was led by assorted progressives who wanted Garibaldi to speak at radical demonstrations.
Possibly in search of more neutral ground, Garibaldi went to the Isle of Wight to visit the poet laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson, who had written in praise of the great Italian hero. Tennyson was not disappointed when he met him: ‘a noble human being’. Lady Tennyson also admired him greatly: ‘A most striking figure in his picturesque white poncho lined with red, his embroidered red shirt and coloured tie over it. His face very noble, powerful, and sweet, his fore- head high and square. Altogether he looked one of the great men of our Elizabethan age. His manner was simple and kind’.
Garibaldi planted a Wellingtonia tree in the Tennyson’s garden (tree-planting had become one of his customs when visiting English people). Tennyson mentions the tree in his poem ‘To Ulysses’: ‘Or watch the waving pine which here/ The warrior of Caprera set, / A name that earth will not forget/Till earth has roll’d her latest year’, and records in a melancholy footnote characteristic of both men: ‘Garibaldi said to me, alluding to his barren island, “I wish I had your trees”’.
At the Tennysons, Garibaldi also met the great photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Cameron - entering into the theatricality of the occasion - went down on her knees to ask Garibaldi for permission to take his portrait. Lady Tennyson was worried that Garibaldi might have thought Cameron was begging for money, but Garibaldi, before whom whole villages of Italian women had kneeled, was well used to such tributes, and accepted the gesture with aplomb (Cameron got her sitting).
What Happened Next
A whole range of products were branded ‘Garibaldi’ in Britain, from Garibaldi blouses to the still-popular Garibaldi biscuits. The emotional outpouring that greeted Garibaldi, uniting all classes apart, of course, from the likes of Victoria and Marx, was unusual in Britain, one of the few comparable occasions being Princess Diana’s death in 1997. The man himself engaged in a few more campaigns before retiring to his treeless island of Caprera, where he cultivated his fields until his death in 1882.
1871: Wagner fails to get funding from Bismarck
It was to be expected that a meeting between the Iron Chancellor and the Lord of the Valkyries would be an epochal one, and so it has been represented in many early biographies of Wagner. Wagnerians tended to portray the meeting as one of great Aryan minds who were not just creators of German culture and nationhood, but as repulsors of non-German elements in the new Germany.
The significance of the encounter was mostly for Wagner. By 1871, the Ring Cycle was mostly complete, and that year Wagner was granted land by the Bayreuth town council in order to establish a regular Wagner festival in the town. Bismarck became Chancellor of the newly unified Germany in 1871, and became a ‘Serene Highness’ as well, so this was hardly a meeting of equals (Wagner had sent Bismarck an embarrassing poem in his praise).
Wagner returned from the meeting and described it to Cosima (his wife) who recorded in her diary that it had been a great success: Richard had been very impressed by the humility fo Bismarck, who observed to Wagner that all he had done in public life was obtain a few signatures and find the ; they discussed art and politics: ll was charm and sympathy; the meeting was ‘precious’ to a satisfied Wagner, who somehow refrained from asking for help with his great cultural project at Bayreuth.
The diary entry, whoever, is suspect, and has been amended at some later date - possibly by Wagner himself. Bismarck’s own account of the meeting is a good deal less warm than Wagner’s and the amendments may be to designed to conceal a less than joyful first account. Bismarck’s own account of the meeting is substantially the same in terns of the course of the meeting, but the tone is quite different: superior, even sarcastic. Bismarck write to a friend that Wagner seemed to expect a duet to be played out, but went away disappointed, without even asking for money for Bayreuth.
What Happened Next
Under the Nazis, this meeting was seen as a pivotal moment in the history of German culture, but Bismarck’s disdainful account must accurately reflect the substance of the meeting. As Wagner's biographer Hannu Salmi says, Bismarck had merely offhandedly ‘offered a series of compliments which he himself regarded as insignificant mannerisms’. Wagner later wrote to Bismarck twice, in 1873 and 1875, pointing out that Bismarck could aid the rebirth of the German spirit through the funding of Wagner’s operatic art. Bismarck did not reply.
1876: Robert Ingersoll inspires Lew Wallace
The crowded train heading towards the 1876 Indianapolis Republican Convention bore two renowned ex-soldiers: one of them was Robert Ingersoll, an evangelical atheist at least as famous in his day as Richard Dawkins is in ours, the other being Lew Wallace, the man who was to become governor of New Mexico two years later (see 1879: Lew Wallace promises to pardon Billy the Kid)
Ingersoll had served in the American Civil War under General Wallace as a colonel at the bloody battle of Shiloh, and later distinguished himself in mopping up Confederate guerilla bands, before being captured. Wallace describes their later chance encounter on the train in his preface to The First Christmas (1902): 'There was a knock on the door . . ., and someone called my name. Upon answer, the door opened, and I saw Colonel Robert G Ingersoll looking comfortable as might be considering the sultry weather. 'Was it you who called me Colonel?' 'Yes,' he said. 'Come in, I feel like talking.' I leaned against the cheek of the door, and said, 'Well, if you let me dictate the subject, I will come in.' 'Certainly, that's exactly what I want.' I took seat by him, and began: 'Is there a God?' Quick as a flash, he replied, 'I don't know: do you?' And then I - 'Is there a Devil?' And he -'I don't know: do you?' ‘Is there a Heaven?' 'I don't know, do you?' 'Is there a Hell?' 'I don't know, do you?' 'Is there a Hereafter?' 'I don't know, do you?' I finished, saying, 'There, Colonel, you have the texts. Now go.'
And go Ingersoll did. Ingersoll was one of the greatest orators of his day (an engraving depicts him in scary full flow at Walt Whitman's funeral), and here he was on his pet subject: the non-existence of God. Ingersoll spoke for two hours, only stopping when the train stopped. Says Wallace: ‘He surpassed himself, and that is saying a great deal’.
Up until that point, Wallace’s attitude to religion had been one of ‘absolute indifference’ but the weight of Ingersoll’s rhetoric drove him to study religion - and, as he puts it ‘with results-first, the book Ben Hur and second, a conviction amounting to absolute belief in God and the Divinity of Christ’.
What Happened Next
In between dealing with dozens of bad hats as new Mexico governor, Wallace wrote Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which came out in 1880 and remains in print, one of the world’s bestsellers. It was the first work of fiction to be blessed by a pope, and has been filmed four times (It is not the bestselling American book ever, as is often claimed: Gone With the Wind outsold it in the 1930s). Robert Ingersoll died true to his atheist principles, despite the claims of those who wish to claim him for agnosticism. His works are all available online at the splendid website www.infidels.org.
1879: Lew Wallace promises to pardon Billy the Kid
The Lincoln County Range War in New Mexico began in 1877 with the murder of an English rancher called John Tunstall. By the time it ended in 1881 around 20 men had been killed, some of them by Billy the Kid, who made the oft-quoted remarks that Tunstall ‘was the only man that ever treated me like I was a free-born and white’ and ‘I'll get every son-of-a-bitch who helped kill John if it's the last thing I do’ (Tunstall’s colt is displayed at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds).
This ‘war’ has always attracted a lot of interest, simply because it encapsulates much of the dark side of American capitalism (with added cowboys). On one side was the firm of Murphy and Dolan, known as the 'House', merchants with lucrative monopoly contracts; they supplied Indian reservations with beef. On the other was Tunstall, who ran a bank and merchant store with Alexander McSween: they had the backing of the cattle baron John Chisum (played by John Wayne as the incarnation of American individualism in the eponymous 1970 movie). Both sides used hired killers. This conflict may be the only American epic - fact or fiction - in which the Irish are baddies and the English are goodies.
Lincoln County was huge, about the size of Ireland. Killings by Apaches and other Indians were becoming rare (see 1886: Geronimo surrenders to General Miles), but murderous raids by white bandits were a real problem. Law enforcement was often corrupt, with law officers in the pay of bigger crooks. Two years into the conflict between the mercantile factions, the new Governor Lew Wallace drew up a list (which survives) of 36 men who should be arrested: Billy was 15th in a ranking headed by a merciless villain called John Selman. Wallace also declared an amnesty to be implemented if the person had not been indicted. Billy wrote to Wallace (this letter also survives) stating he was willing to surrender and also testify against selected murderers (Billy had signed a peace treaty with the 'House' killers). He acknowledged that he was not eligible for the pardon.
Wallace wrote in reply saying that Billy could trust him: ‘Come alone. Don’t tell anybody - not a living soul - where you are coming or the object’. They then had a meeting to sort out the requisite ploys and testimonies. Said Wallace: ‘I will let you go scot-free with a pardon in your pocket’. Billy agreed to a fake arrest - on the understanding that a pardon would be forthcoming - and was, accordingly, arrested and he testified in court. Alas, no pardon came for Billy and he ended up simply walking out of jail and riding out of town. Billy’s apologists say Wallace had no intention of pardoning him; others blame the district attorney; others say he just got bored. This was his first escape from the Lincoln County jail. In the second escape in 1881 (after writing three indignant letters to Wallace reminding him about the promised pardon) he killed two deputies, an incident accurately depicted in the elegiac Peckinpah movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973).
What Happened Next
Wallace had been a distinguished career soldier, and later became one of the bestselling novelists of the age (see 1876: Robert Ingersoll inspires Lew Wallace). One of the last documents Wallace signed as governor was Billy’s death warrant. Billy was eventually shot by a former associate, Sheriff Pat Garrett. As Wallace’s list (see above) would indicate, Billy was not originally the worst hired gun about, and certainly not the most famous, but his daring second escape caught the imagination of the public, and in 1882 Garrett published a biography of Billy (with an incredibly long title) which depicted him as the iconic western desperado. Garrett killed Billy, but helped make him a legend. Garrett himself was murdered in obscure circumstances in 1908.
1882: Oscar Wilde gets a kiss from Walt Whitman
That Oscar Wilde’s trip to America in 1882 was a success should not be a surprise. The aesthetic movement was cultural flavour of the moment; America loves big personalities, and Oscar was a huge personality.
His ship arrived in New York in January to a rapturous welcome probably not matched until the Beatles flew into New York in 1964. Reporters swarmed out in launches to meet Wilde’s ship before it landed. Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Patience, with its satirical portrait of the Wildean aesthete Bunthorne, had been very popular in new York the previous year (on one surreal occasion on the tour he addressed an audience of flower-waving Harvard students all dressed as Bunthorne). Oscar famously declared at New York Customs ‘I have nothing to declare except my genius’ and in an interview said ‘I am here to diffuse beauty, and I have no objection to saying that’.
A few weeks after arriving, Wilde went to visit Walt Whitman in Camden. He had described Whitman as one of his two favourite American poets (the other was Emerson; as has been pointed out, he possibly liked Poe better than either, but Poe was dead and so less useful for publicity purposes: Oscar was always a shrewd marketeer).
Wilde and Whitman gabbed away happily; Whitman was delighted to learn from Oscar that he and his friends had taken Leaves of Grass (Whitman’s great 1855 poetry volume) on walks in Oxford. They shared a bottle of home-made elderberry wine and discussed, as Whitman told the Philadelphia Press - the public being interested in poets in those far-distant days - Tennyson, Browning and Swinburne. They had ‘a jolly good time’ said Whitman, and Oscar was ‘frank and outspoken and manly’, without any affectation at all. For his part, Wilde later described Whitman as ‘the grandest man I have ever seen.’
Leaves of Grass was still a controversial book in 1882. It was banned in Boston, causing (of course) sales to leap. Oscar’s friend AJ Symons saw a gay subtext (as we now say) in Leaves of Grass, and when Wilde and Whitman parted, they exchanged a kiss which Oscar seems to have found quite exciting: he later wrote: ‘I have the kiss of Walt Whitman still on my lips’. Some have seen the kiss as a moment of awakening homosexual desire, but given that Oscar was 27 and Whitman 62, it seems probable that Oscar’s excitement was not really terribly sexual. Kisses between Victorian men - and between women for that matter - see 1889: Nellie Bly Meets Jules Verne and gets a kiss (from Mme. Verne) - were not necessarily seen as sexual.
What Happened Next
Oscar got on with his tour. Two days later, he visited the great novelist Henry James, but it was a much less happy meeting, When James said he missed London, Oscar (rather sniffily) said “You care for places? The world is my home’; an inappropriate comment to a man who was nothing if not cosmopolitan. A fuming James decided that Wilde was ‘a fatuous fool’ and ‘a tenth-rate cad’ (James was not a man to provoke into insult). In March, Oscar wrote to Whitman asking him to send a pamphlet for Swinburne, addressing him as ‘My dear dear Walt’.
1886: Geronimo surrenders to General Miles
The popular image of Apaches, alas, probably remains one of squat primitives. In fact, Apaches could be (a) huge, like the terrifying Mangas Colorado, (b) ridiculously handsome, like the tasty army scout Peaches. Apaches are now seen as victims: they were singled out by the Spanish for persecution, they only fought for their land, etc. While this is true, it has to be said that the memoirs of Apache life that we have - such as Jason Betzinez’s I Fought with Geronimo (1959) - portray a culture of remarkable violence. The various Apache bands were also riven by inter-clan feuding, and military expeditions always found Apache recruits eager to help attack rival bands.
Born c. 1829, Geronimo’s original name was Goyathlay, ‘The Yawner’: the name ‘Geronimo’ is said to derive from frightened Mexicans invoking St Jerome when he attacked (his first wife and children were killed by Mexicans). Apache agent John Clum described him in his prime as ‘erect as a mountain pine. . . his stern features, his keen piercing eye, and his proud and graceful posture combined to create in him the model of an Apache war-chief’. By 1886, Geronimo had fought for about 40 years: he and his band of 30-odd warriors were being pursued by a quarter of the American army, about 5000 soldiers. He sued for peace, and met General Crook under truce. Crook had a photographer with him, and the resultant photographs (google them) are the only known ones of Apaches dressed to kill.
The meeting did not end well. Geronimo ran off and peace negotiations stalled. He finally surrendered to Crook's replacement, General Miles, with whom Geronimo had a cautiously staged encounter. Miles, says Geronimo, ‘told me how we could be brothers to each other. We raised our hands to heaven and said that the treaty was not to be broken. We took an oath not to do any wrong to each other or to scheme against each other’. In truth, of course, neither trusted the other. Miles had brought Geronimo to heel with the new technology of heliograph signalling, and both were well aware this was the end game. Miles described Geronimo as having the 'clearest, sharpest, dark eye I think I have ever seen, unless it was that of General Sherman when he was at the prime of life. . . Every movement indicated power, energy and determination. In everything he did he had a purpose'. Said Miles to the old warrior: ‘I will take you under Government protection; I will build you a house. . . I will give you cattle, horses, mules, and farming implements. You will be furnished with men to work the farm, for you yourself will not have to work. . . If you agree to this treaty you shall see your family within five days.’ Geronimo’s response was blunt: ‘sounds like a story to me’.
What Happened Next
Geronimo was a dreadful whinger, always complaining, even when he was clearly in the wrong, but the subsequent treatment of his band was very poor: they were deported to Florida and eventually ended up in Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Geronimo became much in demand at fairs, where he sold his autograph, and rode with Quanah Parker and other Indian chiefs at Theodore Roosevelt's inauguration in 1905 (Roosevelt met the chiefs and gave them ‘wholesome advice’). Geronimo died in 1909 after a drunken fall. For collectors of intriguing names, he had a son called Robbie, a brother called Fatty, and a warrior called Fun (who shot himself).
1887: Queen Victoria tells Black Elk what would happen if the Lakota were her subjects
Buffalo Bill Cody first brought his Wild West Show to Britain in 1887, in Queen Victoria's Jubilee Year. The show was a huge success, featuring a cast of around 800 people, including Annie Oakley, Indians and Indian fighters, cowboys, and such exotic beasts as bison, elk and Texas longhorns. It was such a success that Cody returned in 1891-1892 (drawing £10,000 in revenue in Cardiff alone) and again in 1902 and 1904.
Remarkable things happened during Cody's tours: when the show toured Germany, Annie Oakley shot the ash from a cigarette in the hand of the future Kaiser Wilhelm, and observed later in life that if her aim had been worse, history might have been better (Victoria told Annie she was 'a very, very clever little girl; Sitting Bull called her 'Miss Sure Shot'). Some of the cast got lost along the way to romantic or drunken encounters in such desolate places as Paisley and Hull, and show members were constantly invited to take part in local events, some of which were highly memorable in their own right: Cody's manager, for example, was invited by Glasgow Celtic to kick off at the start of a Scottish Cup tie against Dumbarton, the game ending in what is still Celtic's worst-ever home defeat - by eight goals to nil.
The snootiest comment on the show's reception in Britain actually came from an American, the poet James Russell Lowell, who attributed its success to 'the dullness of the average English mind'. If so, it was a dullness shared by Queen Victoria, who was entranced by the Indians, in particular by the Lakota, who in turn revered her as 'Grandmother England'. Canada was the grandmother's country, a place of sanctuary patrolled by her soldiers who wore red coats so the Indians could see them and know they were safe from the US Cavalry. When Sitting Bull, who toured occasionally with the show in the US, took his people across the border in 1877 he showed a Mountie a medal given to an ancestor by the British for help in fighting the Americans. For the Lakota, the British were old friends.
In 1905, during vicious divorce proceedings, Cody's wife Lulu alleged that Victoria had made improper advances to Cody. Even in old age, Cody was a fine-looking man, but this remarkable allegation has to be unfounded; all observers are agreed that the man singled out by Victoria for his looks (as testified in her diary) was that handsome Lakota, Red Shirt, and as Black Elk notes in Black Elk Speaks (1932), the Lakota were much taken by her. After inviting the Lakota to Windsor, she told Black Elk (Cody was perhaps not present) that if the Lakota were her subjects, 'I would not let them take you around in a show like this'.
The 1891 tour included a ceremony in Manchester to honour special guests, the 19 surviving members of the Light Brigade. Also present at this ceremony, though their presence was not highlighted, were another 19 survivors, Lakota who had survived the previous year's massacre of their kin by the 7th Cavalry at Wounded Knee. The Lakota had been given into Cody's custody by the US government. One of those survivors was Black Elk. who at the age of 12 had ridden beside his cousin Crazy Horse at the Little Big Horn in 1876 in what the Lakota called the' Greasy Grass fight' against Custer. Black Elk wrote about Wounded Knee: 'I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud, and was buried in the blizzard. A people's dream died there. It was a beautiful dream . . . the nation's hoop is broken and scattered. There is no centre any longer, and the sacred tree is dead'.
What Happened Next
Victoria's beloved husband Prince Albert had died in 1862, and Victoria went into a very long period of mourning that eventually affected the popularity of the monarchy in Britain: even The Times, that imperious voice of the establishment, suggested that it might now be time for the country to consider becoming a republic. Plays and shows came by regal request to what Kipling called the 'Widow at Windsor', so when Victoria announced she would attend Cody's show at Earl's Court there was great excitement. Her decision to travel was possibly prompted by the thought of all those wild animals making a mess of Windsor Park, but whatever the reason she and her subjects thoroughly enjoyed themselves. The popularity of the monarchy soared and talk of a republic receded. As for Black Elk, he lived until 1950, a revered medicine man and an acknowledged spokesmen for all Native Americans. Black Elk Speaks is regarded by many as a founding text of New Ageism, but despite that doubtful endorsement, remains an enthralling, indeed inspirational, text.
1889: Nellie Bly Meets Jules Verne and gets a kiss (from Mme. Verne)
Elizabeth Jane Cochran was born in 1864 in Pennsylvania. Her father, a judge, died when Nellie was 4, leaving a financial mess behind him. At the age of 18, Nellie read a piece in the Pittsburgh Dispatch saying that women should keep to their proper ‘sphere’. She wrote a protest letter to the editor which so impressed him, he commissioned a second piece and hired her. She adopted the pseudonym ‘Nellie Bly’ (derived from a Stephen Foster song).
Nellie proved to be not just a good writer but a brave investigative reporter, and at one point was thrown out of Mexico by the government for exposing corruption. In 1887 she was recruited by Joseph Pulitzer for the New York World where she continued to push the limits of what was acceptable for women reporters by getting herself committed into a lunatic asylum to expose its horrors. And in November 1889, in a stunt inspired by Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (1872), she set off from New York to travel around the world within 80 days, and in France took a detour to meet Verne. They met at Amiens railway station, wth a translator (and Mme. Verne) in attendance.
Verne was amazed at how young Nellie was and asked about her route. She said: ‘My line of travel is from New York to London, then Calais, Brindisi, Port Said, Ismailia, Suez, Aden, Colombo, Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong, Yokohama, San Francisco, New York’ (Nellie was travelling light - two small cases, a reliable timepiece and some good flannel underwear).
Verne asked why not visit Bombay, as Phineas Fogg had done: ‘‘Because I am more anxious to save time than a young widow’, I answered. "You may save a young widower before you return”, replied the gallant (smiling) Verne.
Then, in a passage somewhat startling for the modern reader, Nellie records that Verne’s wife ‘put up her pretty face’ for a kiss. ‘I stifled a strong inclination to kiss her on the lips, they were so sweet and red and show her how we do it in America. My mischievousness often plays havoc with my dignity, but for once I was able to restrain myself, and kissed her softly after her own fashion’ (see also 1882: Oscar Wilde gets a kiss from Walt Whitman). Says Nellie: ‘I had traveled many miles out of my way for the privilege of meeting M. and Mme. Verne, and I felt that if I had gone around the world for that pleasure, I should not have considered the price too high’.
What Happened Next
Nellie actually did the trip in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes, a world record, and when she arrived back in New York she had become probably the most famous woman in the world. She was greeted with fireworks and brass bands, but not with the financial bonus she reasonably expected from her employer. Nellie’s experiences on her voyage had appeared daily in the World and were followed eagerly by much of the (lower-case) world as well as America. Nellie resigned in indignation, but returned to the World in 1893, and became a leading instrument of reform, exposing sweatshop oppression of women and the struggles of unmarried mothers. She died in 1922, mourned by thousands whose lives she had helped change for the better.
1890: Joseph Conrad and Roger Casement share a room
. . .for 10 days. which is a bit longer than our other brief encounters but they were very busy men and did not spend much time together - and some of the time Casement was away escorting ‘a large lot of ivory’. The Dublin-born Casement (his family were Protestant, but his mother secretly baptised him as a Roman Catholic at the age of three) began working for colonial enterprises in the Congo in 1884, beginning with the Belgian King Leopold’s International Association, and by 1890 was operating a trading station at the port of Matadi. The Polish-born Conrad became a British national in 1886, the year he gained his master’s certificate. By 1890 he was an experienced seaman, and had been shipwrecked in Sumatra. Conrad was tough - he also survived shooting himself in the chest aged 21, in a failed suicide attempt.
Conrad and Casement liked each other. Conrad wrote in his diary: ‘Made the acquaintance of Mr Roger Casement, which I should consider as a great pleasure under any circumstances and now it becomes a positive piece of luck. Thinks, speaks well, most intelligent and very sympathetic’ In the next few words, Conrad speaks of avoiding whites ‘as much as possible’, but this is no reflection on Casement: Conrad knew the dangers of false observation and later wrote to Casement cautioning him against accepting false tales of limb amputation as normal punishment among the ‘natives’). Casement described Conrad to a friend as ‘a charming man . . .subtle, kind and sympathetic’.
The year they met was also the year that Conrad served as mate on Congo steamer, a voyage that resulted years later in Heart of Darkness (1899) - and in the nightmare river trip in the Vietnam movie based on that novel, Apocalypse Now ( 1979).
What Happened Next
The two men later corresponded and briefly met once more, in 1903, when Casement had a ‘delightful day’ at Conrad’s home near Hythe. By then Conrad was one of Britain’s leading writers, while Casement was a career diplomat. Casement’s damning report into the horrors of Belgian administration in the Congo was published the following year in 1904 (Conrad had earlier, in the letter quoted above, advised Casement to reject any attempt at blaming atrocities on Congo customs) As quite a few Irish people of his class and caste did, Casement embraced the armed struggle of Irish Republicanism, and was executed by the British for treason in 1916. He had tried to recruit Irish POWs in Germany to fight the British; only a very few signed up, and a chastened Casement returned to Ireland, convinced the Rebellion would fail. He landed by German submarine, and was soon captured,
Conrad strongly disapproved of what he regarded as Casement’s treachery, but also wrote:’ I judged that he was a man, properly speaking, of no mind at all. I don't mean stupid. I mean that he was all emotion. . .A creature of sheer temperament - a truly tragic personality'. Casement’s so-called ‘Black Diaries’, in which he described in some detail his homosexual activities, were long dismissed as a forgery in Ireland but are now widely acknowledged to be genuine.
FROM ONE WORLD WAR TO ANOTHER (20TH CENTURY TO 1945)
1900: Winston Churchill and Winston S. Churchill discuss their names
In 1900, the 26-year-old Winston Churchill was an ex-soldier with a fine record of active service, a distinguished war reporter and had taken part in the last British cavalry charge at Omdurman (though a war correspondent, he rode with the Lancers) was the author of several books, had escaped from a Boer prison camp, and had been elected Tory MP for Oldham. Instead of going to the opening of Parliament, however, Churchill took himself off on a speaking tour. He needed money, and his agent promised that the tour would earn him over £10.000 in a month (not an improbable figure. he had already earned over £4000 that year speaking in England). He landed in America in December 1900.
His welcome was variable; he was drolly introduced by Mark Twain in New York thus: ‘Mr Churchill by his father is an Englishman, by his mother he is an American, no doubt a blend that makes a perfect man.' but he was heckled at many events by citizens outraged at Britain’s perceived oppression of the Boer (and the Irish).
Standing in the wings was another Winston Churchill: Winston Churchill the 29-year-old author of the current bestselling historical novel Richard Carvel (1899). The two men, alert to the possibility of book-trade confusion, had already corresponded, with British Winston writing to American Winston thus: ‘Mr Winston Churchill presents his compliments to Mr Winston Churchill and begs to draw his attention to a matter which concerns them both"). British Winston suggested that in future he would sign his books ‘Winston S Churchill thus happily settling the matter (British Winston’s grandson, however, an ex-Tory MP, has also published under the name of ‘Winston S. Churchill’)
They finally met in Boston, inevitably being introduced: ‘Mr Churchill, Mr Churchill’. They had dinner, and discussed American Winston’s new novel The Crisis (not to be confused with British Winston’s later history The World Crisis)
British Winston felt there was not enough warfare in The Crisis for a novel about the American Civil War: ‘put more fighting in it’, he said. A Boston Herald reporter asked British Winston how he was getting on with his namesake: ‘we have become very good friends’, he replied.
‘What Happened Next
British Winston asked his new friend: Why don’t you go into politics? I mean to be Prime Minister of Britain: it would be a great lark if you were President of the United States at the same time’. American Winston became a member of the New Hampshire legislature and even ran for governor, but his political career never took off. None of his novels are now in print. Churchill and Twain had an interesting encounter on the evening Twain introduced him to New York: both men were alpha talkers and great smokers, and retired to a room for some private conversation. When they emerged from the room, they were asked if they had a good time together: Churchill said ‘Yes’, Twain (possibly still joking) said ‘I have had a smoke’.
1906: Mark Twain meets Maxim Gorky and talk of making Russia free
When the two great writers Gorky and Twain met on 11 April 1906, they inspired a striking headline in The New York Times: GORKY AND TWAIN PLEAD FOR REVOLUTION. Gorky had been internally exiled in Russia for his political beliefs, and was now a prominent member of Lenin’s faction within the Social Democratic Party, on whose behalf he travelled to the US to raise funds.
What was called an ‘American auxiliary movement’ to bring about freedom in Russia was launched at a 5th Avenue dinner in honour of Gorky, at which Gorky himself and Twain were the principal speakers. Said Twain: Let us hope that fighting will be postponed or averted for a while, but if it must come I am most emphatically in sympathy with the movement now on foot in Russia to make that country free’. Responded Gorky: ‘Mark Twain. . . is a man of force. He has always impressed me as a blacksmith who stands at his anvil with the fire burning and strikes hard and hits the mark every time. I come to America expecting to find true and warm sympathisers among the American people. . . Now is the time for the revolution. Now is the time for the overthrow of Czardom. Now! Now! Now! But we need the sinews of war, the blood we will give ourselves. We need money, money, money. I come to you as a beggar that Russia may be free’.
New York’s rich and poor eagerly donated to the Bolshevik cause, but this unlikely idyll of Russo-American friendship quickly ran aground on the rock of American propriety. The New York Times asked Mrs Gorky if she had acted in her husband's plays. ‘Long ago’ she replied. ‘At present I am just my husband's wife, nothing else, and I don't wish to be before the public in any other capacity’. But the American public was shocked to discover that the Gorkys were not legally married. They were married by Russian custom, but that was not good enough for New York hotels. As Twain’s patrician friend William Dean Howells said (from a lofty height): ‘The next day Gorky was expelled from his hotel with the woman who was not his wife, but who, I am bound to say, did not look as if she were not, at least to me, who am, however, not versed in those aspects of human nature’. All talk of the Russian revolution evaporated in the heat of what was called the ‘domestic interest’ of the situation.
What Happened Next
A few days later came news of the San Francisco earthquake, and scandalised reports on the Gorkys ceased as the papers filled with news of the disaster. Gorky spent the next seven years in comfortable exile (mostly in a Capri villa of the sort later favoured by Gracie Fields) and took revenge on New York by writing a story entitled The City of the Yellow Devil. See also 1900: Winston Churchill and Winston S. Churchill discuss their names; 1920: Lenin disappoints Bertrand Russell
1910: Patrick Pearse thinks Arnold Bax is ‘one of us’
Dublin in 1910 was a culturally vibrant city: 12 years later, in Paris, the greatest novel of the 20th century, Joyce’s Ulysses would be published (see 1922: Proust, Joyce, Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Picasso share a night at the Majestic), and though none knew it in 1910, the setting for that novel was the Dublin of six years ago, on 16 June 1904.
Joyce’s earthy Dublin, however, had little in common with the popular world of Celtic myth - a cultural phenomenon deriving its common name from Yeats’ story collection, The Celtic Twilight (1893). Young romantics such as the English composer Arnold Bax were enraptured by all things ‘Celtic’. Bax was later to be described by one Russian critic as ‘the Celtic voice in English music’; in 1902, he toured Ireland with his brother and wrote fey prose and poetry of the sort indistinguishable from that produced by hundreds of other pale young men and women throughout Britain and Ireland (one of the best of those women poets, Fiona Macleod, was actually a man, William Sharp, who donned a nice frock to write Celtic poetry). Much of what we think of as ‘Celtic’ was actually invented during this period, even, indeed, the name ‘Fiona’, which was Sharp’s invention.
Bax wrote under the name of ‘Dermot O’Byrne’ (he later called his children Dermot and Maeve), and settled in Dublin, where one of his neighbours was the poet ‘AE’, George Russell. In the manner of the era, Russell hosted a salon in his house, where every Sunday, intellectuals could gather and chat. Many of the guests were prominent nationalists. One evening when Bax was present, he met Padraig Pearse. Bax was fascinated by Pearse, who had recently edited the Gaelic League’s newspaper, and had been doing sterling work for years in spreading Gaelic culture and education. Pearse and the young Englishman had a shared love of Ireland’s west country, and when Bax left Pearse told another guest: ‘I think your friend Arnold Bax may be one of us. I should like to see more of him’.
1910 was to be a crucial year for Pearse. By ’one of us’ Pearse meant someone for whom Gaelic culture was tied into Irish nationalism. For Pearse, as for many other nationalists of the time, Irish mythological heroes such as Cuchulainn were figures to inspire heroic acts, and religion also became an increasing influence: nationalists should regard Christ’s sacrifice and redemption as an example (Pearce would have loved Mel Gibson's blood-soaked movies). As Ruth Dudley Edwards said, Pearse's heroes 'died painful deaths’. Yeats said of him: ‘a dangerous man; he has the vertigo of self-sacrifice’.
What Happened Next
In 1913, Pearse became a co-founder of the Irish Volunteers, a paramilitary organisation founded in response to the anti-home rule Ulster Volunteers He died in the Easter Rising of 1916 and is still regarded by many in the way he wanted - as a revolutionary martyr. Bax later described Pearse as ‘leader of Ireland for a week’. Bax accepted (with mixed feelings) a knighthood in 1937 and became Master of the King’s Musick in 1942. One of his last works was a Coronation March for Elizabeth II.
1914: Gavrilo Princip shoots the Archduke Ferdinand and his Duchess
In one of Geoffrey Household's short stories, a man recollects how he inadvertently caused World War I by directing the assassin Gavrilo Princip to the exact spot where he is able to shoot Archduke Franz Ferdinand (and his Duchess Sophia) on that June day that changed the world forever. The actual assassination did indeed only happen through fortuitous (as it were) circumstances. Princip was an ill 19-year-old man with tuberculosis who was devoted to the cause of Serb nationalism. He belonged to ‘Young Bosnia’, a group of Serbs dedicated to the overthrow of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s rule in the Balkans, and received training in the dark arts of sabotage and killing by the Serb secret society popularly known as the ‘Black Hand’ (or more prosaically, ‘Union or Death’), who provided the ordnance for the deed.
Franz Ferdinand, in his capacity as inspector general of the imperial army. paid an official visit to Sarajevo, and arrived in Sarajevo railway station at 10 AM on 28 June. This is St Vitus’ Day, a day sacred to many Serbs: exactly 525 years previously, the Serbs had suffered a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the Ottomans at the battle of Kosovo. The symbolic importance of the day contributed to the resolve of a bunch of would-be assassins waiting for Ferdinand, consisting of Princip and five others. When Ferdinand’s motorcade passed, one of the gang threw a fizzing bomb that Ferdinand actually warded off with his arm, and which went under the car following before exploding. The injured were taken to hospital.
Ferdinand and his group arrive at Sarajevo Town hall and debated what to do next. Amazingly, Ferdinand - after trying to persuade his wife not go along - decided they should go back long the same route and visit the hospital where the wounded were being treated (there is a photograph of them entering the car for the return journey). On the way back - for reasons that are still unclear - Ferdinand’s chauffeur took a wrong turning and managed to stop just beside a surprised Princip who pulled out his automatic pistol - as fate would have it, Ferdinand’s bodyguard was on the other side of the car - and shot first Sophie and then Ferdinand, his two bullets severing arteries in both victims. Ferdinand called to Sophie, ‘Don’t die! Live for our children’, and said ‘It is nothing’ when asked if he was in pain. They died in minutes.
What Happened Next
At his trial, Princip denied wanting to shoot Sophie. Her killing was an ‘accident’. He was too young to execute, and was sentenced to 20 years in jail. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, which led to other treaties being called in, and so World War I began. Princip became a hero to many Serbs, and his pistol shots set off a war in which around 15 million people died before its end in November 1918. Princip died of his tuberculosis earlier that year, in April.
1914: Pancho Villa shares a photo opportunity with Emiliano Zapata
The decade-long Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 was bloody, with death toll estimates ranging from between one to two million. Several revolutionary leaders were assassinated, including the two everyone has heard of, Zapata and Villa.
Pancho Villa’s fearsome military abilities had taken him from banditry and cattle rustling to major revolutionary figure in a few short years.
The other great revolutionary player in Mexico, the ex-sharecropper Emiliano Zapata, was as committed to the revolution, but was less concerned with killing people than with setting up redistribution commissions, and had drafted a scheme for constitution land reform, the ‘Plan de Ayala’.
Villa may well have been the most media-savvy revolutionary of all time, and is certainly the first to have signed exclusive contracts with a movie company, and to have delayed a battle until the newsreel cameras got into position. Villa and Zapata’s forces were separated: Villa was based in the north whereas Zapata’s Liberation Army was fighting in the south, and the lands between the revolutionary-controlled territories were held by the Federales, under the control of unpredictable and often highly brutal generals.
The two men finally met on 4 December, on the outskirts of Mexico City, and agreed to an alliance prior to occupying the city. Villa, always alert to a good photo opportunity, posed with Zapata in a frequently reproduced photograph taken in the National Palace. Easily found on the web, and replete with overt and symbolic meaning, the photograph shows Villa sitting on the presidential throne - which Zapata modestly declined to sit on - beaming off-camera to his right while angled slightly towards to his left, where Zapata bends in towards Villa. Zapata has a sombrero on his knee (one of several splendid hats in the picture) and they are surrounded by a mixed bag of followers whose features range from Indian to Spanish, and who look like the mixed bag of cut-throats, intellectuals and excitement seekers they are, the base material of revolution (Villa’s psychopathic general Rodolfo Fierro, a truly nasty individual, is there also).
What Happened Next
Villa and Zapata formed a loose alliance - all Mexican revolutionary alliances in this period were loose - against the constitutionalist politician Carranza, whom they accused of seeking to become dictator (Carranza was elected president in 1915 and was assassinated in 1920). Villa - whose troops were not as disciplined as Zapata’s - was obliged to leave Mexico City early in 1915, eventually retiring (more or less) in 1920. He was assassinated in 1923. Zapata was assassinated in 1919, but in the early 21st century the Zapatista Army of National Liberation had established control of part of the Mexico state of Chiapas, and Zapata himself has become identified among some of his Mayan people as a divinity.
1918: Fanny Kaplan shoots Lenin
Much about Fanny Kaplan remains uncertain, even her first name. She may have been born Vera, and was also known as Dora. She may also have had some connection with the British secret service spy ‘Sydney Reilly; - the notorious ‘Ace of Spies’ - but the early 20th-century revolutionary waters she inhabited were full of currents of rumour, allegation and ad hoc alliances. Speculation apart, however, Fanny’s political background shows her to be a classic revolutionary of her time and place. Born in 1883 into a peasant family, she was Jewish at a time when there were severe restrictions on Jews in Russia, and when Jewish activists operated at every level of resistance.
Fanny joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party and was wounded in 1906 when transporting explosives in Kiev - the explosives were to be used to blow up a Tsarist official. She was deported to Siberia, where she languished in ill health for 11 years, only being released after the February Revolution of 1917, which established a Constituent Assembly. In October, the Bolsheviks seized power, and to the amazement of Russian progressives, the assembly that Russians had struggled and died for over the course of many decades of great sacrifice, was simply dissolved in January 1918 by Bolshevik diktat.
In August 1918, Fanny - who was undoubtedly aware of precedent (see 1793: Charlotte Corday assassinates Marat) - accosted Lenin in the street. She challenged him briefly about the Bolshevik tyranny, then shot him twice. Under interrogation, Fanny expressed no remorse and said that Lenin had betrayed the Revolution by dissolving the Constituent Assembly.
What Happened Next
In 1918, revolutionary sentiment and sympathy were still factors to be reckoned with among the new Bolshevik rulers, and Krupskaya - Lenin’s widow - denied with tears in her eyes that Fanny had been executed. In fact, she was shot in September and her body was ordered to be destroyed, ‘without trace’. The attempted assassination is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of history. A dead Lenin would almost certainly have meant the end of the Bolshevik’ grip on power, as the grip was Lenin’s iron grip. Lenin died in 1924, with one of Fanny’s bullets still in his neck. By this date, the Revolution’s power structures - most particularly Lenin’s Cheka, the organisation which dealt ruthlessly with perceived subversion, were firmly in place. At the time of Fanny's execution, the Red Army’s newspaper called for a war without mercy and for the shedding of ‘floods’ of bourgeois blood, and in the immediate aftermath of the execution, thousands more - many of them old socialists - were murdered during the Red Terror. During the Civil War period of 1918-1921, hundreds of thousands of ‘state enemies’ were to be summarily executed. And millions more were to die in the purges and famines of the 1920s and 1930s. See 1920: Lenin disappoints Bertrand Russell.
1920: Lenin disappoints Bertrand Russell
According to T S Eliot’s widow Valerie, her husband was once told by a London taxi driver: ‘Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him: “Well, Lord Russell, what's it all about?”, and, do you know, he couldn't tell me’. The anecdote, which is paid tribute to in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), illustrates how the philosopher became, for many, one of the few men who seemed to know everything.
In 1920, Russell travelled to Russia as part of a ‘fact-finding’ trade delegation. Russell was a leading pacifist and socialist, but he found little to praise in the communist experiment taking place in Russia. He met a ‘heartbroken’ Gorky (see 1906: Mark Twain meets Maxim Gorky and talk of making Russia free), who was backing the Bolsheviks because he feared what might replace them; he begged Russell to keep in mind while making his judgment, ‘always to emphasize what Russia has suffered’.
Russell also met Lenin. In his autobiography, Russell records that he found Lenin ‘disappointing’ and glimpsed an ‘impish cruelty’ in the man. Later, he was to go further and told Alistair Cooke that he believed that Lenin was the most evil man he ever met: ‘He had steady black eyes that never flickered. I hoped to make them flicker at one point by asking him why it was thought necessary to murder hundreds of thousands of kulaks. He quite calmly ignored the word “murder”. He smiled and said they were a nuisance that stood in the way of his agricultural plans’ (Six Men, 1977).
Many other socialists came to Soviet Russia from the 1920s to the early 1980s, prepared to see a workers’ paradise and often came away convinced they had found it. Russell described such views as a ‘tragic delusion’, and set out his comments in The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism (1921). It is typical of Russell’s intellectual honesty that he knew the book would be welcomed by his political opponents in Britain, and would cause offence to fellow socialists, but published it anyway. Lenin’s new Russia was not a paradise, but a new variety of hell. Said Russell: ‘the time I spent in Russia was one of increasing nightmare, Cruelty, poverty, suspicion, persecution, formed the very air we breathed. There was a hypocritical pretence of equality, and everybody was called 'tovarisch', but as Russell pointed out, ‘comrade’ meant one thing when addressed to a peasant, another when addressed to Lenin.
What Happened Next
Other British socialists visited Lenin, including H G Wells, who described Lenin as a man who laughed a lot, but whose laugh was ‘grim’. Russia was a despotic regime, concluded Wells. Trotsky described Wells as ‘condescending’ and (the inevitable insult) ‘bourgeois’, but Wells and Russell are still read, and the USSR has long gone. See 1918: Fanny Kaplan shoots Lenin.
1922: W E Johns enlists Aircraftman Ross
W E Johns was the creator of one of the most popular figures in children’s fiction: the pilot Biggles, hero of no fewer than 102 books (Biggles starts off in biplanes and ends up flying jets in the 1960s). Johns had fought at Gallipoli in 1915, aged 22. He transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, and while training wrote off three aircraft in three days, through no fault of his own (it has been suggested that Johns may have destroyed 10 British aircraft in training, which would have qualified him as a German ‘Ace’).
He became a bomber pilot in what was now the Royal Air Force in July 1918, and was shot down in September. His observer was killed and Johns, who somehow survived his goggles being shot to pieces, was wounded in the leg, and only narrowly escaped execution by firing squad. After the November Armistice, he returned to his family - who thought he was dead - on Christmas Day.
Johns became an RAF recruiting officer, and in 1923, in the Covent Garden office, interviewed a man called John Hume Ross who wanted to enlist as a mechanic. Johns quickly decided Ross was a ‘suspicious character’. He was in poor health, had no identification, no references, and was clearly trying to enlist under an assumed name; Johns rejected him. ‘Ross’, however, was actually one of the most famous men in the world: T E Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence was tired of his fame, and wanted to hide in the RAF. For many years, it was assumed that Lawrence had managed to fool everyone when enlisting, but in fact he had prepared his admission into the RAF by clearing it with Air Marshall Sir Hugh Trenchard, asking to enlist ‘in the ranks, of course. . . the newspapers used to run after me and I like being private’. Trenchard agreed, but wondered ‘whether it could be kept secret’.
When Lawrence arrived to sign up, he was supposed to be met by a chap called Dexter, who was to sign him up ‘no questions asked’. Unfortunately, he got Johns, whose rejection was quickly overruled: a message arrived, signed, says Johns, by ‘a very high authority, ordering his enlistment’. Thus Lawrence of Arabia became John Hume Ross, Aircraftman Second Class (A/C2) No. 352087.
What Happened Next
As Trenchard guessed, the newspapers found out. Lawrence was discharged, then re-enlisted in the tank corps, as T E Shaw. He lasted two years, then got back into the RAF after threatening to kill himself. At every stage he was helped by his many admirers, ranging from the socialist George Bernard Shaw to old imperialists such as John Buchan. Lawrence left the RAF in 1935, and was killed a few weeks later, in a motorcycle crash. Johns became a hugely successful novelist and has been bizarrely caricatured - by people who have never read the books - as a reactionary who trivializes war. In fact, Johns portrays aerial combat as a brutal business, and makes clear that everyone should be treated the same, regardless of creed or colour; Biggles speaks Hindi and despises racism. In 1940, Johns also created a heroine, Worrals of the WAAF, a female equivalent of Biggles who takes no sexist nonsense from men, and features in 11 novels.
1922: Proust, Joyce, Diaghilev, Stravinsky and Picasso share a night at the Majestic
In 1922, the English novelist Sydney Schiff (who wrote under the name of Stephen Hudson) had one of the best cultural ideas of his time: he and his wife would host a party to which would be invited the leading cultural modernists of the day. Richard Davenport-Hines, whose book A Night At the Majestic: Proust & the Great Modernist Dinner Party of 1922 (2006) is the definitive guide to the occasion, describes the Schiffs as ‘the first celebrity stalkers’, though Proust was the main target: Schiff rather scarily described him as the ‘only man I like and I don’t intend to like any other’.
Schiff was wealthy, cosmopolitan and well-connected: the party was arranged for the Majestic hotel, Paris, 18 May, 1922 (Schiff wanted the Ritz, but the Ritz banned music after midnight). Schiff seized the opportunity presented by the premiere that evening of Stravinsky’s ballet Le Renard, performed by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, in order to stage the gathering. Among those attending were the French novelist Marcel Proust, Irish writer James Joyce, Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev, Russian composer Igor Stravinsky and Spanish artist Pablo Picasso.
The Schiffs were anxious to see if their ‘lions’ would all appear. Diaghilev had made sure of his Ballets Russes colleagues Picasso and Stravinsky, but Joyce and Proust were notoriously unreliable and were not present for the dinner. Joyce arrived in time for the coffee, apologised to the Schiffs for being late and also for having no formal clothes. The Schiffs didn't care: Joyce’s novel Ulysses had been published two months earlier in Paris, and rumours about its greatness were abundant. He could have come in dungarees, for all the Schiffs cared, though they would have doubtless preferred him sober. Joyce was drunk.
An immaculately dressed Proust rolled in about 2.30 AM. He used to be known as ‘Proust of the Ritz’, but, if not quite a recluse now, his gadabout days were long gone. Proust and Stravinsky began to chat, at which point a princess, annoyed by rumours that one of Proust’s characters was based on her, flounced out of the room. Flustered, Proust asked Stravinsky if he liked Beethoven. ‘I detest Beethoven’ said an irritated Stravinsky, and at this point Joyce (who had lost consciousness) began to snore loudly.
Joyce (when he woke up) attached himself to his fellow writer for the rest of the evening, but as Proust’s biographer William Carter says, ‘the creators of Leopold Bloom and Charles Swann had little to say to each other’. Later, Joyce would tell a friend that he didn't rate Proust: ‘I have read some pages of his. I cannot see any special talent but I am a bad critic'. Joyce’s later versions of the encounter vary a lot; Proust never spoke of it. Picasso and Diaghilev - sadly but perhaps wisely - don't seem to have mingled much with others that evening.
What Happened Next
Schiff later tried to persuade Proust to sit for Picasso, but with no success. Proust had only six months to live, and the time was possibly shortened when at the end of the party Joyce - by now thoroughly blootered - jumped into a taxi with the Schiffs and Proust, and started smoking. Proust somehow managed to be allergic to both smoke and fresh air, and Joyce was not invited into Proust’s apartment. The party was over.
1923: Thomas Hardy entertains the Prince of Wales
Born in 1840, the young Thomas Hardy watched public executions in Dorchester, and lived to write verses about Einstein in the 1920s. In the course of his long life, however, a life filled with many remarkable encounters, probably the oddest happened in July 1923.
In 1923, Hardy was a bestselling novelist whom many ‘modern’ writers and critics also rated highly, and was something of a national institution. He corresponded with young guns such as Ezra Pound and was visited by Lawrence of Arabia (see 1922: W E Johns enlists Aircraftman Ross ). At 82, he began to study Einstein and noted, in June 1923, "Relativity. That things and events always were, are, and will be’. He already believed that necessity governed the universe, not chance. While Edward, Prince of Wales, was visiting the English West Country, says Hardy’s biographer Claire Tomalin, someone in Edward’s entourage, whether through necessity or chance remains unknown, came up with ‘the bright idea that the visit might be more entertaining’ if the Prince had lunch at Thomas Hardy’s house in Dorset.
This was never going to be a jolly encounter. Florence, Hardy’s wife, found the idea of entertaining the prince and his retinue fairly scary, but Hardy was blasé about the whole thing, suggesting to his sister Kate that she could hide in ‘the bedroom behind the jessamine - you would then see him come, and go: we could probably send you up a snack’. Edward said to Hardy: ‘My mother tells me you have written a book called Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I must try to read it some time'. This seems an appallingly rude thing to say, but Edward, like others of Victoria’s descendants, somehow failed to inherit her ability to be at ease with others (see 1887: Queen Victoria tells Black Elk what would happen if the Lakota were her subjects). Edward was not the first nor the last royal to be no gentleman. Also, he was not a reader: when given a copy of Wuthering Heights, he said ‘Who is this woman Brunt?’
Edward ascended with his valet to a bedroom and Florence looked out of a window in time to see a scrunched up waistcoat fly out of the bedroom They all had lunch together (Edward waistcoat-less) under the trees, and everything went quite well - as Tomalin says, someone had the good sense to lock up the Hardys’ bad-tempered terrier.
The encounter amused many contemporaries, and inspired a neat little Max Beerbohm poem in the Hardy style: ‘A Luncheon’: ‘. . . Yes, Sir, I’ve written several books. . .\ We are both of us aged by our strange brief nighness \But each of us lives to tell the tale. \Farewell, farewell, Your Royal Highness.’
What Happened Next
The next day, the Hardys motored over to visit the great apostle of birth control, Marie Stopes. Hardy died in 1928, mourned by a nation. Edward became Edward VIII but abdicated his throne in 1936 for love of Wallis Simpson; he then became the Duke of Windsor, and possibly also less of a Philistine, but sadly, there was no one left to pick his company for him except Wallis. See 1937: The Windsors meet Hitler and the Duke gives a Nazi salute
1927: the Einsteins visit the Freuds
By 1927 both Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud had become household names, the pinnacles of the powerful Jewish element in German-speaking culture: Freud, aged 70, was the world’s leading psychologist, Einstein (a sprightly 47), was the world’s leading physicist, indeed scientist. Albert and Elsa Einstein heard that the Vienna-based Sigmund and Martha Freud were also in Berlin to visit family at the end of 1926, and arranged a visit in the New Year.
The Einsteins stayed for two hours. Freud said afterwards to a friend that he and Einstein had a very pleasant chat together, though their fields of study were mutually incomprehensible: Einstein, said Freud, understood as much about psychology as he in turn understood about physics.
For Einstein, in fact, psychoanalysis just didn't make sense; he didn't see how it could be useful. Not long after the meeting, a friend suggested to Einstein that psychoanalysis might be useful for him, and Einstein responded with ‘regret’ that he would not be taking up the suggestion and he would like to remain in the ‘darkness’ of having never been psychoanalysed; Einstein’s own son, Eduard, was mentally ill, and he and Elsa seem never to have even considered the possibility of seeking advice from Freud. Einstein told a friend that he had no need for help from the ‘medical side’ for Eduard’s condition and judged it best to ‘let nature run its course’. Freud himself had a son, Oliver (named after Oliver Cromwell), whom he diagnosed as having ‘obsessional neurosis’.
What Happened Next
The two remained in contact after their 1927 meeting. Einstein was driven out of Berlin by the Nazis in 1929, and when, in 1932, the League of Nations asked Einstein to pick a partner with whom to reflect on a great issue of the day, Einstein choose the question ‘Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?’, and the partner he chose (as a correspondent) was Freud. Freud’s response surprised everyone by being quite cheering: we are aggressive so we hunger for war, but we also love, so we want peace - and peace would win out in the end, Einstein looked to international action and laws to solve the war problem. The discussion resulted in a book called Why War?, published in 1932 by the League of Nations. The Nazis came to power in 1933, and the book was publicly burned in the streets of Berlin. Freud was eventually driven out of Vienna following the Nazi annexation of Austria in 1938. See 1938: Salvador Dali sketches Sigmund Freud.
1931: Gandhi meets Chaplin in a Christian pacifist centre
In 1930, Mahatma Gandhi defied the might of the British Empire by publicly breaking the ‘salt law’, the British monopoly on the Indian salt trade. Gandhi was already a world figure, with millions of people sympathetic to his anti-colonial tactic of non-violent civil disobedience, but the salt protest electrified public opinion everywhere.
After a brief imprisonment, Gandhi was unconditionally released in March 1931 (over 100,000 followers had also been arrested), and the British government agreed a truce with Gandhi, who sailed to London to attend a conference on India's future.
Thousands flocked to see Gandhi, and every celebrity-hunter in the realm wanted to speak to him. Charlie Chaplin had come to London for the premier of his film City Lights, and at dinner with Winston Churchill, told him of his intention to visit Gandhi (who was completely unaware of Chaplin and had never seen a movie). An attendant lord snapped that Gandhi should have been kept in jail. Chaplin responded that if so, another Gandhi would rise to defend India (Churchill - who never liked Gandhi and argued with him at the conference - told Chaplin sarcastically that such views would make him a good Labour MP.
Chaplin’s attitude towards Gandhi was in fact complex. He thought Gandhi's magic worked better at a distance, and that it was a mistake to come to Britain in his iconic loincloth. Chaplin was invited to meet Gandhi, who was receiving visitors at a Christian pacifist centre in the East End, Kingsley Hall (Gandhi wanted to live ‘among the poor’; his spartan room at Kingsley Hall - home of the Gandhi Foundation - can still be viewed today). Chaplin told Gandhi that he was wholly in sympathy with him on Indian independence, but was confused by his ‘abhorrence of machinery’. Chaplin said that if machinery was used for the good of mankind, to make the working life more efficient and thus release leisure time in which people could improve their minds and ‘enjoy life’, then it must be a good thing.
Gandhi smiled and pointed out that machinery had made Indians dependent on the British; it was now the ‘patriotic duty’ of Indians to weave their own cloth, a solution obviously impracticable for Britons, but possible for Indians; the British climate necessitated industry and an ‘involved economy’. Independence would come through shedding ‘unnecessary things’; violence and oppression would inevitably self-destruct. Chaplin - like many others before him - realised that Gandhi was not just some sort of airy-fairy pontificator, but a shrewd and highly skilled negotiator. Chaplin stayed for prayers, and reflected on the ‘paradox’ of this religious yet ‘extremely realistic’ man’
What Happened Next
Gandhi met many other notables on his 1931 visit: several bishops, lords, his old adversary General Smuts, an east-end pearly king and queen, George Bernard Shaw (who told Gandhi ‘I am Mahatma Minor’), and the education reformer Maria Montessori. Chaplin’s satire on modern industrial processes, Modern Times (1936), is regarded by many as deriving from Gandhi’s influence, though Chaplin himself says his inspiration came from a Detroit assembly-line worker’s views on the dehumanising nature of the assembly line.
1933: Giussepe Zangara shoots at President Franklin Roosevelt
Assassins need luck (see 1914: Gavrilo Princip shoots the Archduke Ferdinand), and Giuseppe Zangara was simply very unlucky when he tried to assassinate the newly elected president Roosevelt. Zangara was an Italian immigrant, a bricklayer, and had become convinced that the US president was causing him internal pains, a perhaps not uncommon delusion at any time(Herbert Hoover had been his original intended victim).
When he discovered that Roosevelt was giving a speech in Miami, Zangara joined the crowd watching the end of the parade, and stood on a chair (Zangara was five feet tall) to get Roosevelt into the line of fire. Roosevelt was exhausted. The American public did not know that Roosevelt was a post-polio paraplegic, and it was only with great difficulty that he had managed to raise himself in the car to respond to the cheering crowd. Just after the car stopped, only yards away from the waiting Zangara, Roosevelt slumped back in his seat, saying to a newsreel cameraman: ‘I’m sorry, I just can’t do it’.
Zangara opened fire and managed to get off five or six shots at his now out-of-sight target, while struggling with members of the crowd who began tackling him. The whole episode lasted five seconds. Roosevelt was unhit, but five others were shot, including Mayor Cermak of Chicago. Cermak subsequently died of his wounds, and the fact that Cermak was a noted enemy of Al Capone led to wild speculation that he had been the real target all along. Zangara, despite being clearly mad, was sent to the electric chair. His last words were ‘Pusha da button’, and he is one of the few assassins (or wannabe assassins) to feature in a musical: Sondheim’s Assassins.
What Could Have Happened Next?
Perhaps the only certain answer to a ‘What if?’ question is Mao Zedong’s response to the question: ‘what if Khrushchev had been assassinated, not Kennedy?’ Mao said that whatever else may have happened, he was quite sure Aristotle Onassis would not have married Mrs Khrushchev. But while Kennedy’s vice-president - the Texan Lyndon B Johnson - proved, improbably, to be one of the great American reformers, it is hard to see Roosevelt’s vice-president – another Texan, John Garner - being a similar surprise. Roosevelt once asked Garner what he would do if the Cubans shot an American, and Garner responded ‘depends on the American’. This sounds witty, but Garner was probably not intending to be witty. More chillingly, when the great black contralto Marion Anderson sang at the White House in 1939 for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Garner is said to have refused to clap and sat with his hands by his side. If Zangara’s luck had been in, this man would have been US president. He was furious when Roosevelt ran for a third term in office, and ran unsuccessfully against him in the Democratic primary of 1940. Garner does become president in a 1999 Superman comic, Superman: War of the Worlds (after Roosevelt is killed by Martians). In this unappealing parallel universe, the British PM is Oswald Mosley.
1936: Adolf Hitler waves to Jesse Owens
The story of Jesse Owens is one of the most inspiring stories in American history. As part of the United States team competing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he braved the hostility of the Nazis to triumph with four gold medals. Hitler himself refused to shake hands with Owens, and stormed out of the stadium in disgust at the sight of a black man defeating the cream of the Aryan race.
Jesse Owens was indeed an inspiring figure and did indeed win four golds at the Berlin Olympics, but the rest of the preceding paragraph is not true. Not only is this myth not true, it has become practically an alternative reality to the extent that Owens eventually gave up trying to restore the true version of events; the mythical version was just too powerful, particularly in terms of American history. The myth is disproved by both the contemporary Nazi record, and by Owens’ own testimony. The photographs within the official German publications of the event, such as Olympia 1936, actually celebrate the multiracial harmony among the athletes. Asians, blacks and whites stand smiling side by side, and there is even a touching photograph of Jesse Owens and the great German athlete Luz Long lying on the grass together, the very model of warm friendship between races, and a photograph for which it would be difficult to find many equivalents in the US of 1936. It could easily pass for a 60s Coke advert.
Owens’ story that Long, in a remarkable gesture of sportsmanship, noticed that Owens technique was faulty, and advised him on how to avoid fouling his leaps in the long jump, has been doubted, but they obviously liked each other (and Hitler adored Long). Owens won the long jump, and the stadium photograph shows Owens saluting with his hand to his head while Long gives a Nazi salute a step below him. They walked off together, arm-in-arm (during WWII Long was badly wounded in Sicily in 1943, and died in a British hospital).
Admiration for Owens was widespread in Germany: the Berlin crowd gave him huge ovations, and Leni Riefenstahl - Hitler’s favourite director - gave Owens equal godlike status with the white athletes in her documentary, Olympia (1938). As for Hitler’s attitude to Owens, Owens says: ‘When I passed the Chancellor he arose, waved his hand at me, and I waved back at him. I think the writers showed bad taste in criticising the man of the hour in Germany’.
What Happened Next
Owens has been crticised for giving conflicting accounts of what happened in Berlin, but this is unfair: Owens found himself custodian of a powerful myth he did not create, a myth that America was comfortable with. The fact that the American Olympic Association cowardly dropped two Jewish sprinters from the contest was quietly forgotten, as was the fact that when Owens returned to the States, President Roosevelt refused to meet him, on the grounds that honouring a black man would lose him votes. Roosevelt, not Hitler, snubbed Jesse Owens.
1937: The Windsors meet Hitler and the Duke gives a Nazi salute
Edward, Prince of Wales became King Edward VIII in January 1936. By then, Edward had become a bit better at interacting with his subjects than he used to be (see 1923: Thomas Hardy entertains the Prince of Wales), though not everyone was happy with the appearance of this new young king - Betjeman’s poem ‘Death of King George V’, describes Edward VIII, the first monarch to fly, landing at London airport, where ‘Old men who never cheated’ stare at a young man landing ‘hatless from the air’.
The forebodings were justified. Edward was in love with an American divorcee, Mrs Simpson, and only ruled for 327 days, abdicating in December with the words ‘you must believe me when I tell you that I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love’. In the streets, the children sang: ‘Hark, the herald angels sing, / Mrs Simpson’s pinched our king’.
The two lovers went into exile and became Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They became a real embarrassment to Britain in 1937, by visiting Adolf Hitler in his Berchtesgaden retreat. The Nazi propaganda machine gleefully publicized the visit, which managed to unite most of British opinion - except the far right - in dismay, particularly as the duke enthusiastically gave both ‘full’ and ‘modified’ Nazi salutes. The duke’s stated intention for visiting Germany - to examine German solutions to unemployment - was regarded as ludicrous by most observers, who also mostly regarded the duke’s behaviour as naive, but it is entirely possible that in putting himself forward as a friend of Germany, Edward was also putting himself forward as a possible future ally of the Nazis in any conflict with Britain. This was a view held by many in both Germany and Britain, though it seems probable that at the meeting, Hitler and the duke did no more than exchange banal pleasantries. The only public comment Hitler seems to have made about the Windsors was that Wallis would have made a ‘good queen’. Hitler probably only said this to annoy the British. Rumours of Wallis’ infidelities abounded, and even diehard monarchists in Britain blanched at the thought of Wallis becoming queen. Wallis seemed to some to be rather like a former British royal, George IV's wife Caroline (see 1810: Tom Molineaux fights Tom Cribb; 1815: Jane Austen visits the Prince Regent’s librarian).
What Happened Next
WWII happened next, in 1939, in which context, for Britain, Edward was a potentially major irritant. The duke was known to favour a ‘negotiated peace’ with Hitler, and was thus packed off in 1940 to become governor of the Bahamas - a position Churchill thought was sufficiently harmless for this loose cannon. He died in Paris in 1972; Wallis also died in Paris, in 1986.
1938: Salvador Dali sketches Sigmund Freud
The great surrealist painter Dali was obsessed with dreams and their significance: Freud was the great explorer of the unconscious, the man who had claimed to reveal the hidden, unconscious drives behind our actions and beliefs, and had also unlocked the keys to the inner landscape of the sleeping mind in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), a book Dali studied with close attention in 1925. So although Dali and Freud should possibly have been in touch more often, in fact they only met once, in the unlikely setting of North London, where the Freuds stayed briefly on arriving in London in 1938, after fleeing Vienna in June.
Freud received many visitors in London, though he was probably proudest to receive officials from the Royal Society, who brought - in an unprecedented gesture for someone who was not the monarch - the Society’s charter for him to sign as he was too ill to travel. A stream of writers and celebrities came to visit Freud, including HG Wells (Freud wrote to Wells saying he was now fulfilling his childhood fantasy of becoming an Englishman) and old friends such as Princess Marie Bonaparte and the writer Stefan Zweig; the latter arranged for Salvador Dali to visit Freud, and Dali came along with his wife Gaia and the art collector Edward James, who brought along Dali's work, The Metamorphoses of Narcissus, a work inspired by Freud’s study of Leonardo da Vinci.
The meeting was slightly strained: Dali, who saw Freud (consciously) as a father figure, thought Freud a bit 'cold' and may even have been a bit in awe of Freud, who observed quietly that if Spaniards commonly looked like Dali, it was no wonder they had a civil war. He also told Dali that he felt the work of the surrealists compared unfavourably with that of the old masters: when looking at great works of the past, he said, one looks for the unconscious, but with surrealist art, one looks for the conscious. He does seem to have been pretty impressed with the Dali painting, however, and later said that although he had previously dismissed surrealists as 'nuts', Dali's visit had made him reconsider.
The meeting also produced a masterpiece. While conversing, Dali was also quickly and quietly sketching Freud, and he subsequently worked up the sketch into a pen-and-ink drawing, which is proof in itself of Dali’s real talent. Freud was dying of cancer, and he was not shown either the sketch or the finished drawing - Zweig felt it showed the great man's imminent death too clearly.
What Happened Next
Freud died in September 1939, after the family had become established at 20 Maresfield Gardens, Primrose Hill, which became the Freud family home until Anna Freud’s death in 1982. It is now the Freud Museum, and contains Dali’s drawing of Freud, and many fascinating artefacts - including the famous ‘consulting couch’. See 1927: the Einsteins visit the Freuds
1939: Abel Meeropol sings 'Strange Fruit' to Billie Holliday
It has been argued that popular song rather than cinema is the great 20th-century art form, and it is certainly the case that the lives of many westerners are soundtracked with memories of songs, from Chevalier and Dietrich to Andy Williams and the Stones. While it is true that many of these songs may remind you of young and happy moments, it is also fair to add that most of them have nothing terribly profound to say. There are some magnificent exceptions, however, and 'Strange Fruit', first recorded by Billie Holliday in 1939, is one such exception.
It is still a common assumption that Billie Holliday wrote the song, or perhaps adapted an original text, but this is not the case and the story of the song's creation is now undisputed. (Holliday's authorship is asserted in her 1956 ghostwritten autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, but the work was ghostwritten to the extent that she would later claim 'I ain't never read that book').
The original source is a poem called 'Strange Fruit', written by the young Jewish poet and communist Abel Meeropol (who also wrote under the name of Lewis Allan, the first names given to his still-born children). The poem was inspired by a 1930 photograph of the lynching of two young black men in Indiana. Copies of such photographs from the 1920s and 1930s were very popular in the American south, and the images can be easily found on the web. One particularly disturbing example shows a mother and her child hanging from a bridge. In many cases, the hanged victims are surrounded by happy whites, smiling and waving at the camera. They sometimes have their children with them. The horrible truth is that in large parts of the US the hanging of black people in public was a family occasion; lynching was part of the social fabric of the American south in the early 20th century. 'I wrote "Strange Fruit", said Meeropol, 'because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and i hate the people who perpetuate it'.
Meeropol recognized that he had written something that could make his fellow white citizens more aware, and decided he had to turn it into a song, which quickly became a popular protest song in New York (and was sung at Madison Square Gardens by Laura Duncan), prior to Meeropol turning up in April 1939 at a New York club frequented by Holliday called Cafe Society. This club, founded by another Jewish socialist, Barney Josephson, has been described as a 'milestone' in American integration between black and white, a brave attempt at creating an environment in which white and black could mix socially.
It was Josephson who introduced the two: Meeropol sang the song for Holliday who, Josephson would later say, seems at first not to have understood 'what the hell the song was about', with its ironic reference to 'pastoral' and the 'gallant south'. A few days later, Meeropol returned to the club to hear Holliday sing his masterwork: 'She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation of the song which could jolt the audience out of its complacency anywhere. This was exactly what I wanted the song to do and why I wrote it. Billie Holliday's styling fulfilled the bitterness and the shocking quality I had hoped the song would have. The audience gave a tremendous ovation'.
What Happened Next
Released in 1939, the record eventually sold over a million copies and became one of the most influential protest songs ever written, thanks to its exceptionally rare combination of potent lyrics, a decent melodic line and a beautiful voice. Protest song became commercial as well as an expression of idealism: the song is thus arguably the first major popular blow for civil rights, a song that previously non-political citizens could find themselves humming: just what Meeropol hoped would happen.
Meeropol also wrote (with Earl Robinson) the civil rights anthem 'The House I Live In' in 1943, which was used for a 1945 11-minute movie of the same name, which consisted largely of Frank Sinatra singing about religious tolerance to (white) children. The effect of Meeropol's song in this brief movie - the song enjoyed a brief resurgence in the US after 9/11 - was somewhat lessened by the removal of a stanza celebrating racial harmony (the reference to white and black living side by side was also cut from Sinatra's first recording of the song). The movie's distributor felt that America was not yet ready for an explicit message on racial harmony. A furious Meeropol had to be escorted from the cinema when he saw what been done to his song.
In 1953, Meeropol and his wife Anne adopted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's two children after their parents' execution for treason. Meeropol's significance to the American civil rights movement has been largely underplayed in the US, perhaps because it remains too embarrassing to give due credit to a communist.
See also 1946: Beryl Formby tells Daniel Malan to piss off
1940: Franco and Hitler confer in a train
Meetings between dictators are unlikely to be joyous occasions for the rest of us, but occasionally such meetings are unpleasant for at least one of the participants, and such was the case with the notorious October 1940 meeting between Franco and Hitler on a train stationed at Hendaye on the Franco-Spanish border. It was the only time they met.
Hitler had of course given Franco decisive help during the civil war; the raid on Guernica by Nazi bombers had become (and remains) for many one of the defining images of modern warfare (thanks in part to Picasso’s 1937 painting). Hitler could thus reasonably feel he was due payback from Franco.
The dictators will have been well aware of each other's agendas and the possibility of disastrously conflicting interests. Most notably, Franco will have been keen to acquire France’s colonial territories in northern Africa, which Hitler’s ally, Vichy France, equally certainly would not want to give up.
The meeting was thus meant to decide the extent to which Franco’s fascist Spain would help Hitler’s Germany during WWII and it remains a much-debated encounter. It has been argued, for example, that Hitler may not even have really wanted Spain as a full-blown partner: Spain had a large army but was still weak from the aftermath of the Civil War, and if Spain came in on Hitler’s side but was then overrun by the Allies, the Nazis would face a strategic nightmare. Hitler may well have believed Spanish neutrality was the best bet for him, and wanted to keep Franco out.
Franco subsequently liked to claim that he had deliberately kept Spain out of the war despite Hitler’s entreaties; but some historians argue that Franco wanted in, as in 1940 Hitler looked a winner. This is a busy little niche of modern history and the question will likely be never settled. We do know it was a very hard bargaining session, and Hitler later declared that he would rather have three or four teeth pulled than go through another negotiating session with Franco.
What Happened Next
Unlike Hitler and Franco, the train in which they met still exists, as a museum piece. After the meeting, Franco maintained a cautiously informal neutrality that became less cautious and more pro-Allies as the war progressed. In 1943 he finally declared Spain’s full neutrality, a blatant display of realpolitik. When the war ended and the Cold War began, Franco found western powers perfectly willing to accept him as an associate ally (his dispatch of volunteers - the ‘Blue’ division - to fight the Russians did him no harm in some post-war quarters (the volunteers were recalled to Spain in 1943). Franco does have one thing in his favour: he protected Sephardic Jews (descendants of Jews expelled from Spain in 1492) throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. A Spanish fascist passport meant immediate protection in Europe throughout the war, and Franco’s policy may have saved the lives of over 45,000 Jewish refugees.
1945: L Ron Hubbard possibly meets Aleister Crowley
Religions are often associated with deserts, and Los Angeles has long been associated with both cultural desertification - ‘there is no there, there ‘ (Gertrude Stein) - and the creation of cults, religions in embryo. The black magician Aleister Crowley had mystic communities in many places, including Los Angeles, where his devotees included the rocket scientist Jack Parsons, who, it is said, would invoke the god Pan before rocket launches (the unwary should note that much information on occultists - printed or on the web - is suspect).
Crowley’s mother called him ‘The Beast’, a title he happily adopted, as he did with the British press’s description of him, ‘the wickedest man in the world’ (rumours about Crowley’s awful practices abounded, and some of them were even true). Parsons introduced a young science fiction writer, Ron Hubbard, to the LA satanic community. It is said that Parsons brought Hubbard and Crowley together. The extent of any possible acquaintance is debated, and while some believe Hubbard and Crowley definitely met - Hubbard later described Crowley as a friend - others regard a meeting as improbable. Several sources say they met in 1945, though it was in January 1946 that Parsons wrote to Crowley, according to The Sunday Times in 1969, telling him about this wonderful new novitiate called Ron (Hubbard had maybe moved in with Parsons in May 1945; this saga is one of unreliable narration). Parsons told Crowley he planned to ‘incarnate’ a ‘moon child’ with Hubbard’s help. Crowley responded with this rather dubious tribute: ‘ I thought I had the most morbid imagination but it seems I have not. I cannot form the slightest idea what you can possibly mean’.
Adherents of Scientology, the religion Hubbard later founded, describe Hubbard’s venture into Crowley’s weird world as a rescue mission. He wanted to save a young woman from the cult, while critics of Scientology play up the association, but by April 1946 Hubbard had run off with Parsons’ girlfriend or had saved her, depending on your point of view; and Crowley was writing to Parsons telling him he had been conned.
What Happened Next
Crowley died in 1947; Parsons blew himself up in his lab in 1952; Hubbard officially founded the Church of Scientology in 1953. Hubbard’s son has stated that his father told him that the day Crowley died, scientology was born. It has been claimed that Hubbard derived inspiration from Crowley’s occult system. For example, the Greek word ‘theta’ occurs in Crowley’s system; in scientology, the word ‘thetan’ means (approximately) soul; and as has been delightfully noted, ‘thetan’ sounds like ‘Satan’ said with a lisp. Crowley was the source for the magician in the classic MR James story, 'Casting the Runes', and appears on the cover of the Sergeant Pepper album (Crowley has long been an important reference point for many rock musicians; Jimmy Page bought Crowley’s home beside Loch Ness, whose monster had been long forgotten when the Beast moved there in 1900; see c. 563: Columba preaches to Bridei, King of the Picts (and tells Nessie to behave)
MODERN TIMES (20th CENTURY FROM 1946)
1946: Wittgenstein possibly waves a poker at Popper
Philosophy belongs to the world of ideas, while waving a poker about traditionally belongs to other spheres of human life. However, on one famous occasion, philosophy and a poker came together.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the greatest 20th-century philosophers, and was very likely also the only one who knew how to work a howitzer, having served in the Austrian army in WWI (he was decorated for bravery). Karl Popper was 13 years younger than Wittgenstein, was also Jewish, Viennese, and a product of the fading culture of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and was also a renowned philosopher. Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies, a strong defence of the virtues of western, liberal democracy, had just been published in 1945.
Yet they had never met before their encounter at the Cambridge Moral Science Club - and they were never to meet again. The club was a venue where college dons and students could meet and discuss philosophy. On this October night the heavyweights were out in force to hear Popper, the guest speaker, give a paper entitled ‘Are There Philosophical Problems?’, the club’s chairman, Wittgenstein, was present, as was Bertrand Russell (see 1920: Bertrand Russell meets Lenin),
Popper spoke for about 10 minutes, Wittgenstein left when Popper finished. The essential guide to this most controversial 10 minutes in philosophy is Wittgenstein’s Poker (2001) by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. The philosophical disagreement between Wittgenstein and Popper was fundamental. For Wittgenstein, philosophy was about the nature of language; the so-called ‘problems’ of philosophy were simply to do with misuse of language. For Popper, philosophy was about morality, about life, how we live together.
A rumour spread quickly that the two men had duelled with pokers: Popper stated in his 1974 autobiography that Wittgenstein had been waving a poker, making emphatic gesturers with it, while asking Popper for a ‘moral rule’. Popper suggested that a good rule would be ‘not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers’, whereupon Wittgenstein threw down the poker and stormed out of the room.
What Happened Next
Wittgenstein died in 1951, but had already challenged Popper’s widely circulated version of the poker evening. It seems quite possible that Wiggenstsein did wave a poker: academics in full flow often employ props, but it seems improbable that Wittgenstein used it in any threatening manner. As for leaving early, he was easily bored and often left meetings early. There have been several versions of the poker incident from the philosophers present, and disciples of both men inevitably became involved. The awful implications of such basic disagreement - among such observers - with regard to the reliability of personal testimony, are often commented upon. Wittgenstein may share another odd connection with Popper. Wittgenstein was at school with Hitler in Linz 1903-1904 (there has been speculation that he is the ‘Jewish boy’ mentioned with hatred in Mein Kampf), and it has been suggested that Hitler - while a struggling artist - may have benefited from a charity that Popper’s father contributed to.
1946: Beryl Formby tells Daniel Malan to piss off
George Formby's movies were popular in England and in the USSR (he was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1944) but perhaps not elsewhere very much. In fact, though admittedly more watchable than Norman Wisdom movies, which were popular in England and Albania, they are extremely irritating, and when George gets amorous, a bit disturbing. The Fast Show's 'Arthur Atkinson' character - with his ludicrous catchphrases and unfunny 'business' - has made it very difficult to take the popular entertainers of Formby's generation seriously.
But in fact, as the playwright Dennis Potter kept insisting, British popular music from the 20s to the 40s was as good as any popular music anywhere, ever, and Formby was a performer of some genius. His use of double entendres may be largely for those who like that sort of thing, but he could entrance the demanding music hall audiences of his day, even the fearsome Glasgow Empire.
In 1946 George and his wife Beryl (also his manager) flew to South Africa, Beryl as usual demanding the best of everything. The tour organizers were not sure how to promote George, and publicized him as 'the male Gracie Fields' (over 20,000 fans greeted them in Cape Town). The head of the National Party, Daniel Malan (who two years later would introduce apartheid), sent the Formbys a note telling them not to perform to coloured audiences. Beryl tore up the note and the Formbys declared war on the National Party, causing profound regime shock by performing 20 shows for black audiences. Beryl was famously mean, but the Formbys took not a penny for the shows. Crisis came when a black child came on stage at one show and gave Beryl a box of chocolates: Beryl picked her up and kissed her, then passed her to George, who did the same, causing an immediate sensation. Next day Malan sent a delegation giving the Formbys a 'final warning', and of course Beryl slammed the door in their face. So Malan phoned Beryl and began to berate her: Beryl, at her most magnificent, simply said 'Why don't you piss off, you horrible little man?' and hung up. The Formbys were thrown out of South Africa.
They visited again in 1955 (Malan had served as prime minister 1948-54) and defied death threats to again perform before black audiences for free. The South African government was incensed, but there was little they could do but fume. The Formbys had fought the rulers of South Africa and won.
What Happened Next
From the inception of apartheid in 1948 to its abolition in 1991, the South African government drew much succour from the visits of western entertainers who were prepared to play to segregated audiences. The Formbys visited both before and after apartheid was given legal formulation, and demonstrated that it was possible to beard the Beast in its lair and give succour to its victims. Alas, however, very few of the British performers who were to tour South Africa from then until the end of apartheid took the same defiant stand of non-compliance with inhuman laws (Dusty Springfield being another notable exception). The furious reactions of Malan and his associates to the open defiance of the Formbys shows clearly how important such gestures could be, and not just in South Africa. In 1955, Marilyn Monroe made a significant breach in the wall of racial discrimination in the US when she persuaded the owner of the Mocambo Hollywood nightclub to allow Ella Fitzgerald to perform on stage - by promising to take a front table for herself every night. In 1955, this was still a brave thing for an American white woman to do; but Monroe, like the Formbys, was prepared to make a stand.
See also 1939: Abel Meeropol sings 'Strange Fruit' to Billie Holliday.
1948: Mary McCarthy reprimands Lillian Hellman
One of the longest-running and most famous literary feuds ever was between two writers who only met once, but fired at each other from a distance for decades like battleships - out of sight but within range.
The dramatist Lillian Hellman was born in 1907, and wrote several fine plays, such as The Children's Hour (1934), possibly the first Broadway play to tackle lesbianism, and The Little Foxes (1939). The novelist Mary McCarthy was born in 1912, and is now best known for The Group (1963), a novel about the ambitions and sex lives of a group of Vassar graduates. Both women were politically active and joined in many of the leftist campaigns of the 1930s. and although they may have been in the same room together at different points, their 1948 encounter is the only certain face-to-face encounter.
The poet Stephen Spender was teaching literature at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, and asked his (all female) students which women writers they would like to meet. they nominated McCarthy and Hellman, and both accepted Spender’s invitation to meet the students. McCarthy arrived late, and stood at the back of the room (she said, perhaps optimistically, that Hellman mistook her for a student). She was in time to hear Hellman tell the students that the novelist John Dos Passos had only made a short visit in 1937 to Spain during the Spanish Civil war, and abandoned the Loyalist (socialist) cause, because he didn’t like Spanish food. An incensed McCarthy exploded. She later wrote that Hellman was trying to brainwash the students, and described the comment on Dos Passos as ‘vicious’. She broke in and told the students: ‘I’ll tell you why he broke with the loyalists, you’ll find it in his novel, The Adventures of a Young Man, and it wasn’t such a clean break’. The Dos Passos novel, detailing the progress of a young idealist disillusioned with communism, reflects the experiences of many contemporary socialists, such as McCarthy and George Orwell. McCarthy says Hellman began to ‘tremble. . . it was a very dramatic moment of someone being caught red-handed’. According to Spender, the enmity between the two women was already an old one.
What Happened Next
Whatever her other faults may have been, Hellman gave a magnificent response to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952: ‘I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions’. But it was not just McCarthy who accused her of being less than truthful: the accepted original, Muriel Gardiner, for ‘Julia’ in Hellman' 1973 memoir Pentimento (Jane Fonda played Hellman in the subsequent movie, Vanessa Redgrave played ‘Julia’), said she had never even meet Hellman. The feud became world news when McCarthy, in a 1980 episode of the Dick Cavett Show, said of Hellman: ‘I once said in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'". Hellman responded with a lawsuit for libel, but died in 1984 before the case came to court. The feud is the subject of Nora Ephron’s musical play Imaginary Friends (2002).
1956: Eric Newby meets Wilfred Thesiger in a mountain pass in Afghanistan
In early 1956, Eric Newby was working in the fashion industry, trying to sell a poorly designed dress to sceptical buyers (‘’it was not only a hideous dress; it was soaking up money like a sponge’). Newby, a decorated veteran of both the Black Watch and the Special Boat Squadron, enjoyed the fashion business, but decided to accept ten years of advice to quit and resigned. He then sent a telegram to his diplomat friend Hugh Carless, ‘CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE?’
Until the 1890s, Nuristan, that part of Afghanistan enclosed by the Hindu Kush (‘Hindu Killer’) mountains, was called Kafiristan: ‘The Land of the Unbelievers’. The region was little known to anyone, and had changed little since Kipling used the place for the setting of his short story, ‘The Man Who Would be King’. Carless said yes, and discovering that neither knew how to climb, they went to Wales to practice; luckily the waitresses at their inn were experienced climbers and taught them the rudiments.
The expedition was actually quite dangerous. The mountains of the Hindu Kush are not far off 20,000 feet high, and the locals were possibly even more of a threat. After a harrowing session on the mountains, they headed for Kabul by descending into the Lower Panjshir, where the two amateurs encountered the genuine article, the great explorer Wilfrid Thesiger. Thesiger was 46, and Newby’s description of the man sums him up well: a ‘throwback to the Victorian era, a fluent speaker of Arabic, a very brave man, who. . .apart from a few weeks every year, has passed his entire life among primitive peoples’. In the 1930s Thesiger crossed the Arabian Empty Quarter twice, and was the first European to traverse the hostile Danakil country in Abyssinia. During WWII, he led SAS raids behind German lines in North Africa.
In exploring terms, Thesiger belongs, as Newby said, to an older, imperialist school, a hard world in which shooting lions, crocodiles and bandits was normal, whereas Newby is among the first and certainly one of the finest (and funniest) of the modern, ironic school. Yet Thesiger would have rejected Newby’s use of the term ‘primitive peoples’, for Thesiger, the people he preferred to be with, far from being 'primitive', were the best of people, people for whom generosity, simplicity, and courage were everyday virtues. Thesiger told his new companions about the medical treatments he dispensed on his travels, which included surgery such as finger amputations (‘hundreds’), and just a few days previously, an eye removal. An exhausted Newby and Carless began pumping up their airbeds on the ‘iron’ ground. Said Thesiger: ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies’.
What Happened Next
Newby’s account of working as a seaman in 1938 on the last merchant sailing voyage between Britain and Australia, The Last Grain Race, was to be published later in 1956, establishing him immediately as a travel writer of note. Thesiger’s ‘God, you must be a couple of pansies’ is the last line in Newby’s account of the Nuristan adventure, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (1958), which includes Thesiger's photograph of the two 'failures'. Thesiger died in 2003, Newby in 2006.
1958: Luis Bunuel asks Alec Guinness to be his lead actor
Of the many ‘might have been’ movies in the history of the cinema, one of the most intriguing is the movie the great Spanish director Luis Bunuel might have made with one of England’s greatest actors, Alec Guinness. performing the lead role in a film version of Evelyn Waugh's dark little satire on the Los Angeles funeral business, The Loved One (1948). This movie would certainly have been different from the surrealist gem Bunuel made with Salvador Dali, Un chien andalou (1929), but would equally certainly have been a very interesting film.
Before leaving for Mexico to attend the 1958 Film Festival, Alec Guinness received the film script. Guinness and Waugh had met three years previously at Edith Sitwell’s reception into the Roman Catholic church (both men were themselves converts). Waugh and Guinness took to each other, and the notoriously foul-tempered Waugh later wrote to a friend ‘I liked Alec Guinness so much’. The script was a Bunuel project, and had been partly written by him, and when Guinness arrived in Mexico City Bunuel visited him to discuss his possible involvement. Bunuel began their meeting by telling Guinness that he had asked some critics how they liked the music in his last film: they responded that it was ‘wonderful’. ‘I promise’, Bunuel said to Guinness, ‘there is not one note of music in the movie’. Guinness had a similar impish sense of humour, and described Bunuel’s film ideas about The Loved One as ‘very simple, true to the novel ands yet sometimes daringly odd. . . We got on well and I was thrilled at the prospect of working with him’.
Alas, the film was never made; possibly, as Guinness believed, because the film rights were not acquired in time. Instead Tony Richardson directed a version which came out in 1965, and which few Waugh aficionados like: as far removed, thought Guinness, ‘from the factual, debunking spirit of Waugh as a flying saucer’.
What Happened Next
Bunuel and Guinness never worked together, which is a loss to cinema. Spiritually and intellectually, they had much in common with each other and indeed with Waugh. Religion was deeply important to all three. Bunuel observed that he was ‘an atheist, thank God’, Waugh - after Edith Sitwell’s reception - wrote to a friend ‘I know I am awful. But how much more awful I should be without the faith’, a comment that Guinness’s biographer Piers Paul Read says could perhaps also be made of Guinness. See also 1978: Alec Guinness has lunch with ‘M’.
1960: Fidel Castro wins the Ernest Hemingway prize
In 1960, the tenth annual International Marlin Fishing Tournament earned a place in history by being a rare example of a national sporting competition being won by the head of the country, the prime minister, Fidel Castro.
The marlin competition had been founded in 1950 by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was a competitive soul, and as Michael Palin observed, was ‘never really happy with any activity unless some sort of contest was involved’. Marlin fishing was important to Hemingway, who had moved to Cuba from Key West in 1939. The contest was founded not long before Hemingway wrote his novel about an old Cuban fisherman grappling with a huge marlin he has caught - The Old Man and the Sea (1952). In the novel (there is a fine movie version starring Spencer Tracy and a big fish) the old fisherman, Santiago, straps the marlin to the side of the boat and heads back for home, fighting off sharks who strip the marlin to the bone. The marlin would sell for a lot in the market, but Santiago thinks no one is worthy of eating it anyway. The duel between the man and the marlin is what matters, not the fish’s market value.
In 1960, the tournament was named after Hemingway, a decision Hemingway was not entirely happy about. He called the renaming ‘A lousy posthumous tribute to a lousy living writer’. Even some great admirers of his work had suggested that the post-war Hemingway was in danger of becoming self-parodic - what Hemingway saw as correct male behaviour was increasingly seen as macho posturing - and Hemingway’s response to the renaming suggests he may not have been unaware of the danger of his talents simply fading.
Castro loved fishing too, and was delighted to be the (no doubt worthy) winner of the competition, and the fact that it was now named after Hemingway undoubtedly added flavour to the victory. He regarded Hemingway as an inspirational figure, and described Hemingway’s novel about the Spanish Civil war, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), as a key influence on the Cuban revolutionary struggle.
There are several photographs of the awards at the end of the tournament, and one particularly good one by the revolutionary photographer Osvaldo Sales, showing, as, Hemingway’s niece Hilary said, the ‘two most famous beards’ of the age together at last. The event concluded with Hemingway presenting Castro with the winner’s cup. It was the only time the great revolutionary met the great writer, and it is said they exchanged ‘pleasantries’. Hemingway, in truth, was not that sympathetic to the Cuban revolution, but refrained from criticising Castro in public. He regarded such behaviour as ungentlemanly, if not unmanly.
What Happened Next
Hemingway left Cuba in 1960, settled in Idaho, and shot himself in 1961. Castro went to become the world’s longest-running head of state, but seems to have won no more fishing competitions. Marlin are still fished for by tourists in Cuba, but are nowadays tagged and released instead of being killed.
1963: Josephine Baker stands beside Martin Luther King
One of the world’s most famous, popular and influential American-born dancers was also a war heroine with a life worthy of Hollywood - and being black, was pretty much unknown in the US until the 1950s. Josephine Baker was born in St Louis in 1906. She became a vaudeville performer in her teens, and travelled to Paris in 1925 as a member of La Revue Nègre. African-American jazz was popular in 1920s Paris, and Baker quickly established herself as a popular performer on the cabaret scene.
African art of all kinds was sold at the time on its sensuality; Baker’s stage performances as a dancer added wit, humour and simple clowning to the mix; she was beautiful, clever, talented, made people laugh, and sometimes wore a skirt made of feathers. Paris loved her, and she soon opened her own club - Chez Josephine. She also, in 1927, starred in a movie, La Sirène de Tropiques (a not highly rated film, but it does show her dancing in her prime - early film of Baker can usually be found on YouTube).
During WWII. Baker worked in exile for French military intelligence and in 1946 was awarded the Rosette de la Resistance and became a knight of he Legion d’honneur. Baker retired in the mid-1950s to look after her 12 adopted children, her ‘rainbow tribe’ (her only child was stillborn in 1941) and fell upon hard times. She performed in America, but resolutely refused to perform before segregated audiences, even though she needed the money (Princess Grace of Monaco was among her benefactors).
In 1963, Baker joined the ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’ and stood beside Martin Luther King on the platform, She wore her Free French uniform and her Legion d’honneur medal. Other prominent black female entertainers on the march included Eartha Kitt, Lena Horne, and Mahalia Jackson. Baker was the only woman - white or black - given a chance to speak, as she introduced Rosa Parks and other ‘Negro Women Fighters for Freedom’ to the crowd, which she charmed the crowd, as she had done throughout her career, with her humour: standing next to Martin Luther King, she told the crowd they were ‘salt and pepper’ - just what it should be’. No one that day put it better.
What Happened Next
As happened with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the American newspapers initially largely failed to see - despite the proximity of the Lincoln Memorial - the significance of the march, and made little mention of any of the speeches, even King’s speech. And while King’s speech is now remembered for ‘I have a dream’, King, like the other speakers, was actually talking hardball for most of the time: ‘There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship’. Baker died of a stroke in 1975, and was given a state funeral in Paris. See also also 1939: Abel Meeropol sings 'Strange Fruit' to Billie Holliday; 1946: Beryl Formby tells Daniel Malan to piss off
1963: Bill Clinton shakes the hand of President John F Kennedy
The 16-year-old Bill Clinton went to Washington in April 1963 as a delegate for ‘Boys Nation’, a civic training organisation set up by the American Legion. Each delegate received a handshake from the president, and archive film and photographs show Kennedy and the young Clinton shaking hands and beaming at each other - an actually quite rare example of a current US president meeting a future one when young. Clinton’s presidential ambitions are generally said to date from that handshake (the other great influence on Clinton was Martin Luther King, whose ‘I have a dream’ speech he memorised).
Kennedy - who had recently returned from Europe - gave a speech to the boys in the White House Rose Garden, addressing them as ‘Gentlemen’ and told them that ‘ I recently took a trip to Europe and I was impressed once again by the strong feeling that most people have, even though they may on occasions be critical of our policies; a strong feeling that the United States stands for freedom, that the promises in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence while they may not be fully achieved we are attempting to move to the best of our ability in that direction, that without the United States they would not be free and with the United States they are free, and it is the United States which stands on guard all the way from Berlin to Saigon’.
Ronald Reagan’s later presidential declaration that America was a ‘shining city on a hill’ has been much mocked but - despite Kennedy’s slight qualification that American aspirations ‘may not be fully achieved’ - does not differ in essentials from the sentiments expressed in the earlier speech by Kennedy. From ‘Berlin to Saigon’, the oppressed peoples of the world look to the United States for help and succour.
What Happened Next
Less than six years after the meeting in the Rose Garden, Clinton managed to avoid being drafted into the US armed forces - like many of his generation, Clinton believed that, despite Kennedy’s opinion, Saigon did not need his actual presence. Kennedy and Clinton are linked in the public mind as men who were fatally attracted to women, but the linkage is perhaps unfair to Clinton: Kennedy was completely obsessed with sex, and his subsequent reputation on all fronts, from foreign policy to personal morality, has receded to the extent that he may eventually be remembered mainly as the source for the corrupt Mayor Quimby in The Simpsons. Novelist Norman Mailer was obsessed with Kennedy and his women and in Harlot’s Ghost (1991) the narrator shares one of Kennedy's mistresses. And by a curious coincidence, Clinton dated Barbara Davis before he married Hillary - and Barbara was to become Mailer’s sixth wife.
1965: Elvis Presley jams with the Beatles
There have been many encounters between famous musicians that no one could have recorded; maddeningly, there is one encounter which could have been easily recorded, but no one bothered. In 1965, the Beatles toured America for the second time and visited Elvis at his Bel Air house. There had been some half-hearted attempts in the press to present the two acts as rivals - America versus Britain and so forth - but in fact the Beatles thought Elvis was magnificent, and Elvis, publicly at least, expressed his admiration. Indeed, in 1964, before their electrifying appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Sullivan read out - to about 70 million viewers - a telegram from Elvis praising the Beatles.
The Beatles had tried to meet Elvis in 1964 but never quite managed it. Elvis’ manager, Colonel Parker, who probably felt they should know their place, apparently sent them a few Elvis souvenirs, and that was it. It is possible Parker felt they were not quite worthy. This was possibly Elvis’s view also. Priscilla Presley - perhaps the best witness to an occasion which is remembered differently by different observers - says in Elvis by the Presleys (2005) that when John, Paul, George and Ringo walked into the room, Elvis remained reclining on the sofa watching the TV - with the sound off. Elvis ‘rarely got up’, says Priscilla. The Beatles maintained a respectful silence, expecting the ‘king’ to get the ball rolling. Half an hour into this subdued atmosphere, Elvis put a record on - possibly Charlie Rich - and played along, with a bass guitar (he had been teaching himself bass, McCartney was surprised to learn). A few more guitars appeared and the Beatles began jamming with Elvis. There was, says Priscilla, more music than talk. The Beatles were shy, and Elvis was not disposed to talk much. But the music was ‘sweet’, she adds. Sadly, no one recorded anything, no one took any pictures. At the end, the Beatles invited Elvis to visit them at their leased house - Elvis smiled and said ‘We’ll see’, but, adds Priscilla, ‘I knew he had no intention of returning the visit. Elvis rarely went out in Hollywood’.
What Happened Next
Just five years later, in December 1970, Elvis descended upon the White House in a purple jump suit to meet (without an appointment) President Nixon, and being the king, was granted an audience. Presley’s body was getting bigger, but his career was dwindling towards the freak-show act he would shortly become. Elvis gave a startled Nixon a gift - a pistol - and launched into a tirade about how British entertainers, particularly the Beatles, were anti-American and spreading drug culture. Elvis asked the president for a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs badge, and was later sent an honorary one which is now on display at Graceland. Elvis seems to have thought the badge meant he had legal powers. He died in 1977, his health ruined by junk food and substance abuse.
1978: Alec Guinness has lunch with ‘M’
By August 1978, Alec Guinness had become a grand old man of the stage, and had also acquired a new, huge (and unwanted) fan base for playing Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977). Guinness says that Harrison Ford referred to him as the ‘Mother Superior’, which was perhaps affectionately meant, as both Ford and Guinness shared a horror at the unspeakable (in every sense) script (Ford to director George Lucas: ‘George, you can write this shit, but you can’t say it’).
Guinness wanted to put Star Wars behind him. So when the writer of spy novels (and former spy) John le Carre discussed the televising of his novel Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy (1974), and made it plain to the BBC that only Alec Guinness could play George Smiley, the head of the secret service in the ‘Spy Wars’, the subsequent offer of the part was accepted. Guinness took the role despite complaining about the ‘passive’ nature of Smiley, and le Carre arranged to host a lunch for both Guinness and the former head of MI6, Sir Maurice Oldfield - claimed by some to be the model for both Smiley (le Carre denies this) and ‘M’ in the James Bond films.
Le Carre described Guinness and Oldfield as ‘cuddling up and I was an intrusion’. Guinness assumed that Oldfield was the raw material for Smiley, and studied the spy chief closely: ‘Liked him. A bit plumper and shorter than me. . .execrable tie, tatty shirt, good suit, flashy cufflinks and bright orange shoes. . . Le Carre says: ‘At the end of the lunch, Oldfield left and Guinness watched him go down the road. . . He then says, "Do they all wear those very vulgar cuff links?"’
The Guinness characterisation of Smiley which emerged from the meeting ended up a blend of elements from both Oldfield (including the orange shoes and cuff links) and le Carre. Oldfield was an admirer of Guinness but why he agreed to the lunch - knowing Guinness would be studying him - is unclear. Oldfield’s spy career ended completely two years later amid murky allegations that he bought sex from boys. It is possible that he hoped the coming Guinness performance would somehow submerge the grubby reality of his life.
What Happened Next
After the TV spy saga, Guinness returned to the grind of Star Wars sequels, partly because of gratitude for Lucas’ gift of a post-contract increase in royalties. Oldfield - who died in 1981 - got what he may be assumed to have wished for, a dignified, intelligent, portrayal of a civilised British spy chief. But while the British secret service is supposed to be a class act, at least one agent - Malcolm Muggeridge - wondered if the weird set-up he had joined was a parallel organisation, set up to protect the real secret service. It is clear from such memoirs, and novels such as Norman Lewis’ A Small War Made to Order (1966), that there was no golden ‘James Bond’ age for British espionage. Guinness’s earlier role as the hoover salesman turned spy in the 1959 movie Our Man in Havana, based on the novel written by another British agent, Graham Greene - seems closer to the mark. See also 1958: Luis Bunuel asks Alec Guinness to be his lead actor.
1985: Jackie Kennedy pops downstairs to meet Princess Diana
Princess Diana and Jackie Kennedy had much in common. Their parents went through bitter divorces, they each had what seemed to many to be marriages that could be defined as ‘arranged’ to men who were 12 years older, they became much-scrutinised public figures when they wed, and both were popular with women as well as men. And while the family (known internally s the ‘firm’) into which Diana married was the ancient British royal family, its latest dynasty was the Windsor dynasty, a dynasty not actually that much older than the Kennedy one.
In 1985, Diana and Prince Charles travelled to Washington to open a show celebrating centuries of British upper-class art patronage. The American socialite Bunny Melon invited the royal couple to her Virginia estate to meet some young blood: perhaps not absolutely blue blood, but certainly well-connected blood. John F Kennedy Jr and Caroline Kennedy were there (Caroline and Diana may have had a macabre connection of their own; it is possible that the same IRA bombers who in 1975 narrowly missed murdering Sir Hugh and Lady Antonia Fraser - and Caroline, who was staying with them - may have also planned to kill Charles and Diana in 1983).
Jackie left the children to mingle for a while before popping downstairs to meet Diana. It was to be the only time these two iconic figures ever met and while it would be nice to know what they chatted about, those who were there are not telling (blue blood means silent tongues).
We do know, however, that Diana admired Jackie, and Jackie, to begin with, admired Diana, though she later described Diana as having ‘disemboweled herself in public’. The Kennedy biographer Jay Mulvaney points out that whereas Jackie adopted a British stiff-upper-lip approach to the fact that her husband reeked of other women, Diana went in for an all-American public quiver. (Arguably, however, Diana’s love life never caused a national shock comparable to that delivered to Ireland by Jackie when she married Onassis in 1968, and grown women wept in the Irish streets at this desecration of the Kennedy myth).
What Happened Next
Diana wept when Jackie died in 1994, and Mulvaney quotes Diana as describing the older women in a letter of condolence to Caroline and John as a ‘role model’ for bringing up children in public (John died in a plane crash in 1999). Both Diana and Jackie were also fashion leaders, but both also used fashion as protective armour. Jackie’s words to a designer: ‘Protect me - I am so mercilessly exposed and I don’t know how to cope with it’, applied to them both.
1985: Kurt Waldheim punches John Simpson in the stomach
In 1972, the respected Austrian statesman Kurt Waldheim succeed U Thant as secretary general of the United nations, a post he held for two terms, until 1981. He tried to stand for a third term, but his attempt was vetoed by China.
In 1985, Waldheim began campaigning for the Austrian presidency, and also published his memoir In the Eye of the Storm. The memoir concentrated on his UN role, and prompted several journalists to begin asking questions about Waldheim’s role in WWII, particularly his role as a counter-insurgency officer in the Balkans, at a time when ferocious reprisals were being carried out against Yugoslav civilians, prisoners were being tortured and executed, and trains and trucks bore victims to death camps. When challenged about his role in all this, Waldheim took the line that he was a simple soldier carrying out clerical duties, and knew nothing of any of the horrors taking place - which, as has been said, made Waldheim the worst-informed military intelligence officer in history.
The presidential campaign in Austria thus attracted a lot of international attention, and observers noted how Waldheim was being rapturously cheered by veterans of Hitler’s war wherever he went. John Simpson of the BBC went to one such emotionally charged election meeting, described in his enthralling autobiography, A Mad World, My Masters (2000). Simpson asked Waldheim if he was going to win. Waldheim replied, yes, the people loved him, as Simpson could see. Simpson then asked a rather direct question: ‘Even though in today’s British press there are accusations that you ordered the execution of several British prisoners of war?”
Waldheim seems to have punched Simpson in the stomach even before he finished asking the question. Simpson had been punched in the stomach before, in 1970, by the then British prime minister Harold Wilson, and says Wilson’s punch was harder (it floored him, in fact). The assault on Simpson was filmed by an American camera team and caused a sensation in Austria. Waldheim was elected president in 1986.
What Happened Next
Also in 1986, Waldheim gave one of the oddest wedding gifts in history when Arnold Schwarzenegger, who held dual Austrian and American citizenship, married Maria Shriver. Waldheim was invited to the wedding, but wisely did not attend, and sent instead a life-size papier-mâché statue of Schwarzenegger, clad in lederhosen, carrying off Shriver, clad in a dirndl. Someone lucky enough to see this strange object described it as ’sinister’. Andy Warhol's diary records Schwarzenegger's delighted reaction to the gift. Waldheim served as Austrian president until 1992, and in 1994 the US Justice Department concluded that Waldheim had indeed been guilty of war crimes, and barred him from the US. A few months later, Pope John Paul II gave Waldheim a papal knighthood.
2000: Sami Al-Arian promises to support George W. Bush
When a group of hopefuls seeking the Republican candidacy for the presidency were asked in December 1999 'What political philosopher or thinker do you most identify with and why?’, Governor Bush responded ‘Christ, because he changed my heart’; Bush had become a born-again Christian in the mid-1980s.
In March 2000, George Bush visited the key state of Florida during his campaign to become the Republican candidate for the US presidency. Florida is a state with a large Muslim population, and Bush was an active seeker of Muslim votes. Most Christians - such as Bush - are trinitarians and regard Christ as part of the godhead, the trinity; Muslims regard Christ as a man, as a prophet, but not divine. Republican campaigners in 2000, however - again, such as Bush - did not dwell on theological differences, but rather on the American 'centre-right' social values Republicans were said to share with Muslims: pro-family, anti-gay, pro-capital punishment, etc. Meetings between Republicans and Muslim leaders became part of what Republicans called the ‘Muslim Outreach’. In the Republican faith-group strategy, most Christians were seen as conservative rather than liberal, and thus already part of the Republican bloc, as were many Jews. The Jewish vote, however, was seen as mainly tied to the liberal, Zionist-favouring Democrats, thus making the Republicans the best option for the Muslim vote.
One of the local Muslim leaders Bush and his wife Laura met was Professor Sami Al-Arian, and there is a charming group photograph of the Bushes and Al-Arians in Craig Ungers’ study of the Bush/Saudi connections, House of Bush, House of Saud (2004). Unger says that Al-Arian’s wife told Bush, ‘The Muslim people support you’. Bush, whose folksy manner is a finely honed tool, called Al-Arian’s son ‘Big Dude’, and Al-Arian vowed to build support for Bush amongst Florida Muslims - a promise he kept. Al-Arian was a popular figure in the Muslim community, and spoke enthusiastically for Bush, who publicly pledged to end the use of ‘secret evidence’ against those accused of terrorism.
What Happened Next
In the 2000 Presidential election Bush narrowly defeated the Democratic challenger, Al Gore. The Florida vote was decisive, with Bush and Gore separated by a few hundred votes. Much fuss was made over ‘chads’ - what the punches on different pieces of paper on the ballot paper might mean - thus obscuring the fact that a Florida exit poll suggested that Bush had got over 90% of the Muslim vote, and it was that huge percentage which got Bush Florida, and thus the presidency. In the American Spectator, the Republican strategist Grover Norquist said ‘George W. Bush was elected President of the United States of America because of the Muslim vote’. In May 2006, after a trial which remains controversial, Sami Al-Arian was sentenced to 57 months in prison for conspiring to violate federal law relating to a proscribed group called Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Muslim who made George Bush president was also told he would be deported after completing his sentence (see the wikipedia entry on Sami Al-Arian.)