Monday, 10 July 2017


My parents visited Yugoslavia, as it then was, some forty years ago, and took masses of photographs. This summer I signed up for a tour of Croatia and neighbouring republics, eager to see Split and Dubrovnik for myself, and find out what had changed in the interim, with the death of President Tito and the collapse of the Yugoslav state.
We flew into Dubrovnik airport and embarked on a coach drive to our first base, which was at Omis, some distance to the north. This took even longer than appeared likely on the map, because it is not possible to drive very far northwards along the coast from Dubrovnik whilst remaining in Croatia. Soon you come to the small resort town of Neum, which Tito had granted to Bosnia. Going through two border crossings within a handful of miles necessitated stopping the coach for passport checks. We had to go through this process several times in a week, and it was impossible to predict how long one would take. Would the officials scan each passport individually, or wouldn’t they bother? Also, Croatia and Bosnia now have their own currencies, though Bosnia also accepts Euros. (Montenegro is different again, as we found out later).
Eventually we arrived at Omis. My parents’ guidebook from the 1970s dismissed this as a scruffy place, but now it has new hotels along the beach, with a network of tiny stone alleyways behind. The setting is dramatic, being overlooked by massive cliffs.

 It lies on the estuary of the river Cetina, and in earlier centuries was the home of notorious pirates who preyed on Venetian galleys sailing down the Adriatic, and then retreated upriver out of sight behind deep limestone gorges. We took a boat-trip to these waters.

 Nowadays the overwhelming majority of businesses are cafes, restaurants and tourist shops; but our hotel, the Plaza, was comfortable, with a good selection of food. There is a castle above the town, but I didn't climb up to see it.

Our first expedition was to the Krka national park, inland from Split. The this part of Croatia proved to consist of rough scrubland, with few trees more than 6 feet high, with plenty of bare rock showing. We were told that wildfires were common. I saw signs of stones having been piled up for field boundaries and terraces, but these appeared to have been abandoned. Krka park consists of a large area where the river tumbles over a series of small waterfalls, and a broadwalk meanders through the woods and across the many small streams. 

It was all very pretty. The water was very clear, slightly blue, and there were plenty of fish to be seen, though not, unfortunately, any of the terrapins, frogs or snakes also advertised. 

My only complaint would be that there were far too many people about; which proved to be an annoyance throughout the holiday. We were then taken by boat to the little town of Skradin further down the river

Next day we drove north to Split; a fair-sized town with a harbour and sea-front promenade but unpleasant suburbs, famous for Diocletian’s palace.

 Diocletian was a native of the district: a rough soldier who rose to be Roman Emperor and revived the crumbling empire in the late 3rd century. He then, uniquely, abdicated and retired to his homeland, where he built this huge rectangular structure which more resembles a fortified military camp than a palace as we would understand the term. 
Much of it is still inhabited, with four gates known as Gold, Silver, Iron and Bronze, 

and alleyways laid out in a regular grid pattern.

Since my parents' visit the vast storerooms beneath the palace have been opened to the public

 Diocletian was the last great persecutor of Christians, so it was ironic that his mausoleum at the heart of the palace was later converted into an ornate cathedral.

 The peristyle and vestibule next to the cathedral must be the most photographed places in the country, and it was a shame we couldn’t get a better view of them. 

But alas, there was a new invasion of barbarian hordes, in the shape of several huge cruise ships had anchored in the harbour, and we had to elbow our way through dense crowds, particularly of Chinese intent on taking selfies in front of any place of interest. It was amazing that we all kept in touch with our guide and didn’t get lost.

After some time wandering inside and outside the palace, our group reassembled and were taken a few miles along the coast to Trogir, a mediaeval city on a small island reached by a single bridge.

 Fortunately there were fewer tourist parties about. Like every other place we visited, the construction was of a particularly hard white limestone, with the streets polished like marble by the feet of generations of visitors. There was a Venetian fortress at the western end. 

The cathedral was particularly fine, with splendid carvings around the west door. 

I climbed the hazardous steps up the campanile for a view over the town.

On the next day, a Sunday, we said farewell to Omis and passed through a very long tunnel through the mountains en route to Bosnia. (Technically we were to enter Hercegovina, a matter of considerable importance to the inhabitants). As soon as we crossed the frontier, the sparsely inhabited grazing-land was replaced homes with small market-garden plots, notably of tobacco. There was also a profusion of car-breakers’ yards: we were told that most of the stolen cars of Europe ended up in these. Finally we reached Mostar, just before midday.

The city is built in a bowl in the mountains, and is incredibly hot. It used to be a city with a mixed Moslem and Christian population, famous for its bridge over the river Neretva, constructed for the Sultan Sulemein the Magnificent in the 16th century. 

The bridge was deliberately destroyed by shellfire in 1993, in the wars that marked the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and a replacement, closely copying the old bridge, was opened in 2004.
 Nowadays the city is segregated, with Christians on the west bank and Moslems on the east. A new Franciscan monastery has been built, with a tower deliberately planned to overtop any of the Turkish minarets. Despite the heat I climbed the minaret of the Koski Mehmet Pasha mosque to get the best view of the bridge and the city.

 Then we drove south, once again passing through Neum, to reach our next base, at Dubrovnik. I shall describe this in my next entry.    

Friday, 30 June 2017

The Bridge at Mostar

Mostar, in what is now Bosnia, was famous for its great bridge over the river Neretva, built for the Ottoman Sultan Sulemein the Magnificent in the mid-16th century.
This is a photograph my father took of the bridge 40 years ago:-

Unfortunately the bridge was destroyed by shellfire in November 1993, in the wars that followed the collapse and disintegration of Yugoslavia. A film showing the fall of the bridge can be seen at a local bookshop.
Since then, the bridge was reconstructed and reopened in 2004, and is once again a tourist attraction. I took these pictures this year:-

Although the new bridge manages to resemble the ancient one as far as is possible, somehow it doesn't have the same effect.  

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Thought for the day: The role of the press

I found this quotation in the autobiography of Matthew Parris; "Times" columnist, gay rights campaigner and former Conservative M.P.; concerning the behaviour of the press in political battles :-

"All the newspaper editors ever do is  wait until the battle is over, then come down from the hills and bayonet the wounded"

I think this is well illustrated in the conduct of the press after last year's referendum and the recent general election - although the bayoneting of Jeremy Corbyn proved to be premature.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Martin Luther and the start of the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation is traditionally said to have begun at the end of October 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” against the sale of Indulgencies to the church door at Wittenberg in eastern Germany. The questions that emerge from this and what followed are: why did Luther do this, and why was he not crushed as previous would-be reformers had been? Why was Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, the ruler of Germany, unable to stop him?
   Luther was born in 1483 and had become an Augustinian friar in 1505. He had become increasingly obsessed with a sense of his own sinfulness, and his inability to achieve any sense of salvation by his own efforts or through the traditional rituals of the church. He had visited Rome and been disgusted by the luxury and cynicism he saw there.
   Luther’s ruling prince, Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, was a pious man who owned a famous collection of holy relics. He had endowed a university at Wittenberg in 1502 and appointed Luther as a lecturer in theology. He remained a cautious supporter of Luther until his death in 1525, when he was succeeded by his nephew, John Frederick, an enthusiastic Lutheran.
   Indulgencies were documents from the Papacy which guaranteed reduction of penance in Purgatory, either for the buyer or for a deceased relative. Many theologians had their doubts about them, especially when they were being hawked in high-pressure salesmanship as a blatant fundraising measure, as was being done by certain Dominican friars in Germany in 1517. Luther’s protest therefore sparked a response, and he defended his actions in debates with other clerics. But Luther went further than this. Over the next few years he wrote such pamphlets as “An Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation” (written in German, for a wide circulation), and “The Babylonish Captivity of the Church” (written in Latin, for the clergy). He denounced the authority of the Pope and the doctrine of the Mass. He also denounced the necessity for clerical celibacy, and himself later married a former nun. When he was excommunicated by a Papal Bull in 1520 he publicly burned the document. Charles considered things were getting out of control and decided to intervene.

Charles, or Carlos, or Karl; whatever we want to call him; was born in 1500 in Ghent, in what is now Belgium. His paternal grandfather was the Maximilian, the head of the great Habsburg family, who bore the title of Holy Roman Emperor, and his grandmother was heiress to the lands of the Duchy of Burgundy. Through them, Charles inherited the Netherlands and the lands of the modern state of Austria. But Charles’s mother was the daughter of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, and through her Charles inherited not only Spain itself but also Sardinia, Naples and Sicily, and the lands beyond the Atlantic which Spanish explorers were conquering. (Magellan’s voyage round the world, financed with Spanish money, set sail in 1519; Cortez destroyed the Aztecs of Mexico in 1522, and Pizarro inflicted the same fate on the Incas of Peru in 1533) Such a vast inheritance had not been seen since the days of the Roman Empire.
   Charles never knew his parents, who left for Spain soon after he was born. His father died in 1506 and his mother, Joanna, was certified as insane; some said unjustly. Charles was brought up by Margaret, the dowager Duchess of Burgundy, who was the sister of Kings Edward IV and Richard III of England, and then after her death by his aunt, Margaret of Austria. His first language was French, but at the age of 17 he was sent to Spain to be crowned as King. He was a rather dour young man compared with his glamorous contemporaries Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England; not particularly talented, but conscientious and hardworking.

   The Emperor Maximilian, who had never shown much interest in his grandson, died in 1519, leaving the Imperial throne vacant. Charles was determined to succeed his grandfather, but that was by no means guaranteed, for the Imperial title was bestowed by election.
   The Holy Roman Empire dated back to the days of Charlemagne. By this time, it effectively meant Germany.
   In theory, all the Kings of Western Europe were subject to election, but by this time England, France and Spain were developing into centralized hereditary monarchies supported by embryonic bureaucratic governing structures. In Germany, by contrast, election was still very much a reality, and the 300-odd little territories (a mish-mash of princely states, bishoprics and free cities) into which the land was divided, jealously guarded their independence against the claims of any Emperor. Just seven Electors chose the Emperor; one of their number being Luther’s prince, Frederick the Wise of Saxony.
   The election of Charles was by no means guaranteed, especially when Francis I of France decided to throw his hat into the ring. (Henry VIII considered intervening, but wisely decided not to proceed). After enormous sums, all borrowed at crippling rates, were expended in bribes, Charles was duly elected Emperor in 1521. But Luther was just one of many problems with which he would have to deal.
The Pope at this time was Leo X, from the great Florentine family of the Medicis. Destined for high office in the church since childhood, he had become a cardinal at the age of just 16, and then Pope at 37. His attitude to his duties was, “God has given us the Papacy: let us enjoy it”. He lived a spectacularly luxurious lifestyle, and was a lover of the fine arts. In the same year as Luther’s gesture at Wittenberg, Leo survived a plot to poison him, following which the suspects (who included a cardinal) were tortured and publicly executed. At first he treated the disputes in Germany as a remote and uninteresting squabble between monks, and did not get around to issuing his Bull excommunicating Luther until it was too late. Then in 1521 Leo died, aged only 46.
   Charles decided, with some justice, that the church was in dire need of reform, and the man he selected to do the job was his old tutor, Adrian of Utrecht, a Dutchman in his sixties, who was now installed as Pope Adrian VI. When this austere old man arrived in Rome the cardinals were horrified by his attempts to curb their lavish lifestyles. Adrian knew nothing of the complexities of Vatican politics, all his attempts at reform were obstructed, and the French were intent on stirring up trouble in Italy. After just two years the unfortunate Adrian died (of a broken heart, it was said), and it was with sighs of relief that the cardinals turned to another member of the Medici clan to return things to normal. But the new pontiff, Clement VII, was to prove one of the most disastrous Popes of all time.              

In 1521 Charles summoned Luther to appear before a meeting of the German Parliament (the Diet) in a city on the Rhineland: the memorably-named Diet of Worms. There Luther was asked to justify his beliefs, but he refused to recant, and was duly condemned for heresy. Previous would-be reformers had been burnt at the stake for this, but Charles had promised Luther a safe-conduct, and the young Emperor clearly thought his personal honour was involved. So he let him go.
   Luther was taken by his supporters to safety in the castle of Wartburg, where he spent the next year translating the Bible into German. Luther’s writings came to form the standard German language, and thanks to the recently-invented printing press, they were rapidly dissembled all over Europe. The Protestant Reformation was now under way. New reformers appeared, such as Zwingli in Zurich. More alarmingly for the princes, a massive peasant revolt broke out in Germany in 1524, inspired by a charismatic preacher called Thomas Muntzer. Luther showed where his loyalties now lay by calling on the nobles to crush the peasants, and many thousands were duly slaughtered. In the 19th century, Engels hailed Muntzer as a proto-communist.

Charles had simply too much on his plate to deal with this, for he was now engaged in a major war with the French for the control of the great city of Milan. In 1525 the Imperial forces, which consisted mostly of Spanish troops and German mercenaries, destroyed the French at the battle of Pavia, capturing King Francis himself. But things now got out of control, as the hungry and leaderless Imperial army (Charles being in Spain) marched on Rome itself, where Pope Clement had been conducting a futile and irresolute attempt to play the French and the Imperialists off against each other. In 1527 the Imperial army stormed Rome and sacked the city, amidst appalling scenes of slaughter and plunder. Pope Clement barely escaped with his life. There were many Lutherans amongst the German mercenaries, who raped nuns and conducted obscene parodies of the Mass in the churches. An unknown soldier hacked the name of Martin Luther into the base of Michelangelo’s statue of the Virgin Mary.

The greatest threat, however, was in the east. The power and wealth of Charles and Francis were but little when compared with the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. The Turks had taken Constantinople two generations before, and made it the capital of their empire, which now stretched through the Balkans, down through Syria and Palestine, and across Egypt and the north African coast. In 1526 Suleiman struck north, and destroyed the Hungarian kingdom at the battle of Mohacs. King Louis of Hungary, who was Charles’s brother-in-law, was drowned in a river as he fled the battlefield.
   Three years later, Suleiman struck again, seizing Budapest and advancing up the Danube to the gates of Vienna itself. Fortunately for central Europe, it was too late in the campaigning season for a full-scale siege of the city, and the Turkish forces soon retreated; but the threat remained all-too-real for the next century. King Francis had no compunction in allying France with the Moslem Turks against his fellow-Catholic monarch, and Henry VIII of England was a diplomatic “wild card”, especially after his breach with Rome in the 1530s.

With all these international troubles, it is hardly surprising that Charles was unable to crush Protestantism in Germany, but was forced to accept, at least as a temporary expedient, a compromise whereby the individual princes were able to choose which church they wished their subjects to follow. In 1556 he decided he had had enough, and he abdicated. His vast domains were divided: Spain, Italy and the Netherlands went to his son, Philip, and the Empire to his brother Ferdinand, who also claimed the throne of what was left of Hungary. He must have died a disappointed man. Never again would any western European monarch rule such an enormous area. And Protestantism, though under severe threat for the next century, survived.

  There is a famous remark attributed to Charles (though in a number of slightly different forms) that he “spoke French to his friends, Spanish to his priests, Italian to his mistress and German to his horse”!

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Taleban bans cricket!

The Afghanistan cricket team has made an impressive impact recently, including a memorable victory over the West Indies in the World 20/20 Cup, but we are now informed by the "Times" that a resurgent Taleban has banned the sport, along with other games.
   A tribal elder explained, "The Taliban said the three sticks [the stumps] behind the player represent Allah. Throwing the ball at them means you hate Allah. So stop playing. 
  "Some villagers refused. They said, "Afghan players have raised the national flag all over the world. We will play". But then the Taliban started shooting, and some youngsters got wounded".

It strikes me that this reasoning provides an excellent excuse for anyone who wants to get out of school cricket. After all, children from a Christian background can argue that the three stumps represent the Holy Trinity. This would be just as valid.
   I wonder if anyone will try it?

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Shropshire in the Civil War

On August 22nd 1642 the English Civil War officially began when King Charles I raised his standard in Nottingham and attempted to rally support. In early September, threatened by The Earl of Essex’s army in Northamptonshire, he decided to link up with Royalists in Wales and the borders, so he marched westwards into Shropshire. He reached Wellington on September 19th and issued his manifesto, calling for a “free Parliament” and the rule of law; entering Shrewsbury the next day.
   The Civil War is popularly seen as either a class struggle or a contest between the King and Parliament. The first is no longer much regarded by historians, and the latter requires an investigation of why the King was unable to gain a majority of the M.P.s, who were overwhelming drawn from the landowning gentry. In fact the 12 M.P.s representing Shropshire (two for the County, and two each for the boroughs of Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Bridgnorth, Wenlock and Bishop’s Castle) were divided: 8 for the King and 4 for Parliament. Ludlow and Bridgnorth were strongly royalist, but Richard More, M.P. for Bishop’s Castle, was a dedicated Puritan. The county sheriff was a royalist; the Lord-Lieutenant, the Earl of Bridgwater, attempted to remain neutral, and Parliament replaced him with Lord Littleton, who promptly defected to the King. One major landowner, Edward Herbert, a lukewarm royalist, retired to his power-base over the border in Montgomery. Other landowning families gave their support to one side or the other, and some changed sides.
   King Charles did not remain in Shrewsbury for long before leading his army eastwards for the indecisive battle of Edgehill on October 23rd. But the town remained in royalist control for the moment.

The Civil War in Shropshire really began in September 1643 when the town of Wem, north of Shrewsbury, was taken and fortified by Parliamentary forces under Sir William Brereton. They successfully repelled an attack by royalists led by Lord Capel, who was without military experience and proved an inept commander. There followed a whole series of small local battles and skirmishes, often for control of a single village or manor-house. It was rare for any army to number more than a couple of thousand men. Both sides tried to recruit volunteers, but there were also conscriptions, and men who deserted and changed sides were liable to execution. Horses were seized from farms, money and goods confiscated from those deemed to be “disaffected”, and there was much looting, masquerading as demands for “free billeting”. Not surprisingly, many areas saw the emergence of “clubmen”; villagers intent on defending their homes and property against soldiers of either side.

Prince Rupert, the glamorous cavalry commander, arrived in Shrewsbury in February 1644 to make the town his base, but then led his army into Yorkshire, where he was decisively defeated at Marston Moor in July. The royalist position in Shropshire never fully recovered from this, for while he was away Parliamentary forces under the Earl of Denbigh scored a decisive victory in Montgomery and then moved to relieve Wem and take Oswestry.
   In February 1645 Rupert’s brother Prince Maurice took command in Shropshire, but was called away to Chester, leaving Shrewsbury open to attack. The town fell to a surprise night attack by Colonel Myttton’s Parliamentary forces a week later. Thirteen Irish soldiers in the King’s service were then hanged, to the disgust of many on both sides. The same year witnessed the destruction of the King’s army by Fairfax and Cromwell at Naseby, and the Civil War in Shropshire came to an end with the fall, after the siege and bombardment, of Ludlow and Bridgnorth in April 1646.

Shropshire was thus never witnessed any major battles, but was the scene of many smaller engagements, by local forces commanded by local gentry. In this way it was similar to many other counties where loyalties were divided.

   There is a detailed survey of Shropshire in the Civil War in “To Settle the Crown”, by Jonathon Worton. 

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Rousseau on General Elections

"The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during the election of Members of Parliament; as soon as the Members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing. In the brief moments of its freedom, the English people makes such use of that freedom that it deserves to lose it". 

(Rousseau: "The Social Contract)