Alsace/Lorraine & Schleswig/Holstein

These two tongue-twisters used not only to twist tongues, but eject furious spittle from the pursed mouth of European statesmen and politicians. The problem is not only of dual nationality and two different languages, but also historic bickering between countries traditionally seeing each other as treacherous enemies.

Alsace is a part of North/East France, comprising Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin. They lie on the frontier with Germany. Thus enters the traditional loathing of the French for the Germans, and vice-versa. Alsace was a simply a part of France (Lorraine) before finding itself fairly suddenly a part of the German Empire: the fault lies with treaties, as usual: The Peace of Westphalia (1648) and Treaty of Rijwijk (another tongue-torturer, 1697) handed over most of Alsace to France – but in 1871 it was re-annexed by Germany! As if this were not complicated enough, Alsace was subsequently returned to France in 1919 (Treaty of Versailles of immortal memory), and then, though this may difficult to believe, regained by Germany during the Second World War! Continue reading

Queen Elizabeth I (the ‘Virgin Queen’)

The queen in 'the Armada Portrait', note the right hand resting comfortably on the globe /en.wikipedia.org

The queen in ‘the Armada Portrait’, note the right hand resting comfortably on the globe /en.wikipedia.org

The only half-decent member of the infamous Tudor dynasty was Elizabeth, born in 1533. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn. It is a matter for debate from whom Elizabeth inherited the worst genes, though it is admitted that Anne never went to bed with Henry until he was properly divorced from Catharine of Aragon and a marriage between them had taken place; the Catholic Church had meanwhile been assaulted and robbed, Thomas More and others had been shortened by a head etc. etc. Continue reading

The importance of being Okinawa

Yamato goes to war! / tamiya.com

Yamato goes to war! / tamiya.com

In April, 1945, the 2nd World War was very far from over. A huge invasion of the French mainland was planned for June. Japan, however, was seen by the Americans as being equally important as Europe. Tokio must be vanquished too if the Allies were to succeed in the destruction of Axis Powers.

Okinawa is a Japanese island some sixty miles long and very narrow – at certain strategic points only two or three miles wide. But it could prove to be the springboard for a massive invasion of the enemy mainland. It is the largest island of the Ryukyu archipelago, and it was that there that the worst, hardest and bloodiest battles of the Pacific War took place between the beginning of April and 22 June, 1945. The Japanese had carefully built and preserved defence lines already built and manned, and had sworn to their Emperor that their resistance would be fanatical. The latest artillery was concealed behind camouflage, and munitions were ample. Continue reading

The ‘White Terror’

Jean Cottereau, leader of the 'Chouans' / en wikipedia.org

Jean Cottereau, leader of the ‘Chouans’ / en wikipedia.org

It is a common misconception that the French Revolution (q.v.), the ‘Terror’ and the fall of Robespierre and other leading Jacobins, led immediately to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in France, and his very nearly successful bid to make that country supreme in Europe, by waging war on almost everybody else. But the fact is that in 1794 revenge became briefly sweet for those whose lives and properties had been seriously affected by the Revolution.

The so-called ‘White Terror’ was an attack launched against the terrorists, and all who could properly be accused of doing well out of the French Revolution. White was a Bourbon colour, and some historians have taken this as indicating the movement for revenge as a royalist adventure, but this is not strictly true. Very few wanted a restoration of the old régime; they simply wanted to settle old scores. Clever men had taken advantage of the Terror, grabbing land and property by force and murder, including Church lands. Many had appointed themselves as government officials, with powers emanating from the awful force of the ‘Terror’ itself. Continue reading

The dry martini cocktail

The green olive properly speared / noilly prat.com

The green olive properly speared / noilly prat.com

The history of this cocktail is not without incident. It is a potentially lethal mixture of a raw spirit – gin – with a distillation of the vine, and you were always taught never to combine the two in one glass. The invention was American, perhaps taking place during the years of prohibition and after, again perhaps in New York City, where the Three Martini Lunch soon became fashionable, though it never really disturbed the good American tradition of hard work and commercial success. Manhattan spies tell me it first appeared in either the Algonquin hotel, or the St. Regis, both ultra fashionable with what used to be termed ‘The Upper Class’ US citizen, usually male.

There are many receipts for the making of this explosive sip. Ben Schott says it is Dry Vermouth one third, two-thirds Dry Gin, shaken, garnished and served on or off the rocks. Professional barmen will disagree with the words in italics. ‘Ginger’ Taylor, for half his life chief barman at the Connaught Hotel in Carlos Place, W.I. Had a different method: Half fill your cocktail shaker with fresh ice cubes; pour gently over the ice either Gordon’s or Beefeater’s best gin while you count four seconds out loud: then pour Dry Vermouth just as gently, also counting four seconds. Close the coctelera and shake vigorously as if you are playing the marracas; pour into a special martini-glass (see illustration) and add an unstoned green olive speared with a wood toothpick (or you may own your own pure silver implement). The ice cubes must be prevented from entering the glass by a special filter in the top of the shaker. Sip slowly and do not smoke while sipping, as the tobacco spoils the unique taste.

Shaker with detachable, filtered top / stepoffthecliff.com

Shaker with detachable, filtered top / stepoffthecliff.com

On the market there are many shapes and sizes of Martini glasses. Edith Sitwell had her own glass at her ladies only club in London. According to Gore Vidal, the glass was a small goldfish bowl, which meant that poetess and eccentric Edith would have to be helped a little later into her dining chair to enjoy her ‘Red Luncheon’ – lobster, strawberries and a bottle of red Burgundy.

Some restaurants cheat by employing those horrid bowl-like glasses into which champagne should never be poured. This wine must be served in tall, thin tulip glasses, or those wonderful bubbles escape and the taste is lost. As I was saying, some eating houses cannot be bothered with proper martini glasses. If so, you should withdraw your custom.

Should you feel a bit like James Bond, you will prefer the Vodka Martini, also shaken not stirred, and made with Smirnov vodka. In fact Smirnov is not Russian at all, it is made in America, to a recipe by a Russian. The cocktail is made in exactly the same way, though some like a Maraschino cherry in the glass instead of a green olive. On the subject of olives, do not use one stuffed with anchovy, for obvious reasons or taste and good manners.

One last word: actually they were the last words spoken by Humphrey Bogart the film actor, who was born into an upper-upper-class American family, and spent his working life playing growling bum gangsters. It is said on good authority that when ‘Bogey’ was dying, he whispered, “I knew I should not have changed from whisky to dry martinis”.

A seventeenth century diarist – Samuel Pepys

/ en.wikipedia.org

/ en.wikipedia.org

History too is re-cycled, like glass, water, paper and other essenials. A history book is nothing more than a re-thinking, in some cases revising as well, of what an earlier historian wrote in another book. What happened in the world ten thousand years ago on a certain day is History, but then what happened in our world yesterday is History too. Historians have always relied on contempories who were there, in a great battle for instance, survived injured or whole, and wrote about that battle as soon as they could. This particular piece of history might be heard in the form of a ballad, or published as writing, or become a yarn told in taverns. In a recent very serious case, England discovered that their teachers, and their teachers’ teachers, and their teachers’ teachers, relying on published history texts, have been stating untruths for nearly five hundred years. This is the case of King Richard III, last of the Plantagenets, who died on a battlefield. He was everybody’s wicked uncle, a serial murderer, poisoner of his own wife, assassin of his own brother etc. etc since 1485 because the contemporary historians said so. Though it was mostly mythical, it was taught as fact in schools and colleges. Luckily, the very finest texts that can be used by historians, if they have been preserved well, are diaries. Obviously they were written by first-hand witnesses, though many have been embellished, as a diarist’s wont. It was a diarist, a foreigner whose English was questionable, called Polydore Vergil, who wrote most of the lies about Richard. Another contemporary diarist was Thomas More, an official and well paid Tudor historian, who wrote distatefully about Richard because it suited his book to do so. It was pure propaganda, but it kept More’s head on his shoulders – even if only for a while.

Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703) is probably the most famous and quoted (and misquoted) diarist in world history. He was nothing more than an Admiralty clerk, who rose after the Restoration of Charles II in the ever-growing British Navy. He became Admiralty Secretary in 1672 when he was thirty-nine. Then he lost his job because some imp accused him of involvement in The Popish Plot (1679). It was nonsense, and he was re-instated in 1684. Meanwhile however, he was keeping a diary which became internationally celebrated, running from January, 1660 to May, 1669. It is fascinating because it provides an intimate picture of everyday personal life (Pepys was exceptionately fond of buxom, pretty, large women), court intrigue (the merriest of melancholic monarchs, Charles II, was on the throne), and naval administration. His account of three national disasters, The Great Plague of 1665/66, the Great Fire of London (1666) that followed, and the impertinent but courageous sailing up the Thames Estuary and river itself of the Dutch war fleet and the damage it did – have been quoted and used by historians ever since. It should be noted that these diaries were written in code which was not de-coded until 1825, one hundred and twenty-two years after Pepys’ death at the age of seventy. Continue reading

Some ineffectual prime ministers

Britain has had some seventy-five prime ministers since the year 1721. Many in the earlier days came from the higher aristocracy, were landed and naturally unpaid. Many, but by no means all, had been to schools like Eton, Harrow and Winchester, though mainly Eton. The last senior aristocrat to be PM was the Marquess of Salisbury (PM 1895 – 1902). One man was PM no less than four times – William E. Gladstone ( PM 1868 – 74, 1880 – 85, 1886 and 1892 – 94). Despite being middle class, Scottish and representing the Labour Party, Ramsay Macdonald was prime minister three times (PM 1924, 1929 – 31, 1931 – 35). No Labour prime minister in the 20th or 21st century has been genuinely working class, though one (Gordon Brown) was a son of the manse, and knew what being poor was like. Tony Blair was of much higher class, though a Labourite, than Conservative John Major. Around twenty-five PMs have been hereditary dukes, marquesses, earls or viscounts. In the 20th century one Scottish earl renounced his earldom in order to become prime minister (14th Earl of Home, PM 1963/64 as Alec Douglas-Home). One Anglo/Scottish/American prime minister became an earl (of Stockton) when he retired from politics (Harold Macmillan PM 1957 – 63). Margaret Thatcher (Cons. PM 1979 – 90) and Harold Wilson (Lab. PM 1964 – 70 and 1974 -76) were educated at grammar schools before this excellent educational system was destroyed by legislation. Here we mention three somewhat ineffectual prime ministers from different periods in British history. Continue reading

Further thoughts on John of Gaunt & his son Henry Bolingbroke

The old Palace of the Savoy / freegaes.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com

The old Palace of the Savoy / freegaes.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com

In early February, 1399, John of Gaunt died in Leicester. He was fifty-eight years old – not a bad age-scale for the fourteenth century. His body was brought for burial at the old St. Paul’s church in London, the mourners dressed in black. King Richard II had been to see his old councillor on his deathbed, who warned him against lechery.

John was the third son of the great Plantagenet King Edward III. The son and heir was Edward the Black Prince, black armour, black humours, fabulous in battle. The second son was Lionel of Clarence, who had died in 1368. John had first married Blanche, only daughter of the Earl, then first Duke of Lancaster, Henry Grosmont. Grosmont was extremely rich, and Blanche had inherited land, farms and castles spread across medieval England. Through marriage, John became the first (Plantagenet) Duke of Lancaster and whatever was Blanche’s became his. Blanche died in the same year as brother Lionel of Clarence, providing the opportunity for John to marry Constance (Constanza) of Castile in Spain. John, who was son of kings and father of them too, had no kingdom, and thought that he might, through diplomacy or warfare or both become King of Castile (Castilla) too. But Constance died in 1394, so John married his mistress of many years – Catherine Swynford – with a quiverful of illegitimate children whom he intended to make legitimate. When this was done the children became John, Henry, Thomas and John Beaufort. They were all of the House of Lancaster, and from them descend the ducal line of Beaufort, still very much in existence now. The first, John Earl of Somerset, was great-grandfather to the horrible first Tudor, Henry VII, through his mother Margaret Beaufort. Continue reading

Further thoughts on Edward I of England

Artist's impression of King Edward / genial.net

Artist’s impression of King Edward / genial.net

On the afternoon of 7th July, 1307, the Plantagenet king of England Edward I died on his way north with a huge army. His intention had been, again, to smash the irritating and disobedient Scots. After all, he was known by his politer subjects as ‘Hammer of the Scots’. He had certainly hammered the Welsh, after many bloody battles, leading to the building of dozens of superior castles on the borders with England, and surrounding Gwynedd and most of North Wales.

He collapsed and died as his servants tried to lift him out of a bed to eat something, but had been ill for many months, and was too weak even to hault himself out of bed. Later he tried and failed to get on his faithful old warhorse, much to the latter’s astonishment. But Edward, once tall, immensely strong, with dark blond locks and a fearsome temper (Plantagenet) – was now a shattered wreck. He was sixty-eight, and his courtiers could hardly recognise the great man and monarch he had been. Continue reading

An infamous trio, Darnley, Bothwell & Rizzio

These three sixteenth century men had a lot in common, though the first had royal blood, the second noble blood, and the third was a foreign commoner. What they had in common was Mary Queen of Scots. All four would have spectacular or gruesome ends.

The explosive end of Lord Darnley / groteskology.blogspot

The explosive end of Lord Darnley / groteskology.blogspot

Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley was an Anglo-Scottish aristocrat who married as her second husband the ill-fated Mary Stuart, whose first husband had been a king of France.This matrimony produced a son, the future King James VI of Scotland and First of England – founder therefore of the reigning Stuart dynasty. Darnley was tall, athletic and handsome, but weak in mind and spirit. At his marriage to Mary he was Earl of Ross and Duke of Albany, both ancient Scots titles dotted about in the works of Shakespeare. This young man quite liked his very tall wife (Mary was six feet high in her silk stockings), but then he liked all women equally, and spent much time in bedchambers other than his wife’s. He was arrogant, debauched and made a present to his wife of a venereal disease. He was, like so many ladychasers, insanely jealous, and it was his jealousy of Mary’s young Italian secretary, David Rizzio, that caused his downfall. Continue reading