Monday, 27 June 2011

Alexander Pope and Lord Hervey

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was the greatest English poet of the first half of the 18th century. What I am presenting here is, in my opinion, the most brilliant piece of vituperative satirical abuse in our language. It is taken from Pope's "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot" (1735), and its target is Lord Hervey (pronounced "Harvey"), a prominent courtier, politician and notorious bisexual of the reign of George II.

What Pope did not know was that Lord Hervey was secretly writing his memoirs. The manuscript was only discovered more than a hundred years later, and in the 20th century Romney Sedgwick edited it for publication. It is all splendidly entertaining, telling us what really went on at George II's court. We can read how the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, considered the King to be “As great a coward as ever wore a crown”, and how Queen Caroline doubted whether her son, Frederick, Prince of Wales, was capable of consummating his marriage with his wife, the Princess Augusta, and what might be done about it (they wondered whether Hervey should impersonate the Prince in bed one night, but in the end decided this would not be advisable). There is a particularly touching scene describing the death of the Queen, who had suffered for years with a rupture, and had endured an unsuccessful operation without any anaesthetic. As the Queen expires, presumably in appalling agony, the King kneels at her bedside and they have a final conversation (which is in French, in Hervey’s account). “My dear”, whispers Caroline, “You must marry again”. “No, no!” sobs George, “I shall have mistresses!” They don’t write lines like that any more! How different, we might say, from the home life of our own dear Queen!

Here is Pope's assault. I have added a few footnotes of my own, indicated by numbers in the text. Note the ease and fluency with which Pope rolls out his couplets, with the result that thenceforth no-one could write poetry in this form without sounding like a feeble imitation of Pope: later poets had to find other means of expressing themselves.

"Let Sporus tremble (1) - What? that thing of silk?
Sporus, that mere white curd of asses' milk?
Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel? (2)
Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings,
This painted child of dirt, that stinks and stings;
Whose buzz the witty and the fair annoys,
Yet wit ne'er tastes, and beauty ne'er enjoys:
So well-bred spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the game they dare not bite.
Eternal smiles his emptiness betray,
As shallow streams run dimpling all the way.
Whether in florid impotence he speaks,
And as the prompter breathes, the puppet sqeaks (3);
Or at the ear of Eve, familiar toad (4)
Half froth, half venom, spits himself abroad
In puns, or politics, or tales, or lies,
Or spite, or smut, or rhymes, or blasphemies.
His wit all see-saw between that and this,
Now high, now low, now master up, now miss,
And he himself one vile antithesis.
Amphibious thing! (5) that acting either part,
The trifling head, or the corrupted heart,
Fop at the toilet (6), flatterer at the board,
Now trips a lady, and now struts a lord (7).
Eve's tempter thus the Rabbins have expressed,
A cherub's face, a reptile all the rest (8).
Beauty that shocks you, parts that none will trust (9),
Wit that can creep, and pride that licks the dust".

(1) Sporus was a beautiful boy beloved by the Emperor Nero, who had him castrated in the hope that his boyish beauty would not be ruined by the onset of puberty. Pope would know that his educated readers would grasp the reference, and recognise it as an allusion to Hervey and his notorious bisexuality.
(2) This line was famously quoted, or rather misquoted, in the headline of a "Times" leader in summer 1967, criticizing a prison sentence passed on Mick Jagger for a very minor drugs offence (the sentence was soon quashed). The "Times", for some strange reason, rendered it as "Who breaks a butterfly ON a wheel", which plainly does not scan!
(3) The "prompter" refers to the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Hervey is seen as no more than Walpole's mouthpiece in the House of Lords
(4) "Eve" is Queen Caroline, Hervey's particular friend and confidante. This line is a reference to the temptation of Eve in Milton's "Paradise Lost"
(5) "Amphibious" is an imaginative metaphor for Hervey's bisexuality!
(6) "Toilet" means not, of course, a lavatory, but follows the French "toilette", meaning how a lady applied makeup before going out. Hervey was noted for wearing large quantities of makeup.
(7) When Hervey was given a peerage, one of his other enemies, William Pulteney, commented that he had been made "Lady of the Lords"!
(8) "Rabbins" = Rabbis. Many Jewish and Christian theologians were puzzled by the account in the Book of Genesis of Eve's temptation by the serpent: particularly by the aftermath when the serpent is cursed to "go on thy belly", which seems to imply that the serpent had previously some different means of locomotion! There was a Jewish tradition that before this the serpent must have had legs, and perhaps a human face too: hence Pope's analogy.
(9) To say a man had "parts" meant that he had qualities, talents or abilities. Pope does not deny Hervey's abilities, but denounces him for abusing them.

Lord Hervey eventually fulfilled his ambition of becoming a cabinet minister under Sir Robert Walpole, but Walpole's government did not long survive his admission to its ranks....

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

James Brindley

James Brindley (1716-1772) was a self-taught genius of civil engineering, who was responsible for the design and building of the first network of canals in England.He worked with the immensely rich young Duke of Bridgewater and the Duke's agent, John Gilbert, on a series of increasingly ambitious projects: first the Worsley canal to bring the coal from the Duke's mines into Manchester, next the Bridgewater canal to link to the river Mersey at Runcorn, and then the Trent-Mersey canal, 93 miles long. (Amongst other benefits, the Trent-Mersey canal enabled the great potter, Josiah Wedgwood, to bring in his china clay from Cornwall via Liverpool to his factory in Stoke-on-Trent, and then ship his finished products to the London salerooms via Hull) Brindley did not live to see the fulfilment of his greatest vision: a "Grand Cross" of canals, centred on Birmingham, linking together England's four principal river systems; the Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames.

Brindley's canal designs involved daring innovations, such as the Barton Bridge aqueduct (shown in the picture above) which carried the Bridgewater canal over the river Irwell, and the Harecastle Tunnel, 2880 yards long, a few miles north of Stoke-on-Trent (shown in the picture below). Contemporary commentators were well aware that nothing like this had ever been attempted before, and everyone hailed Brindley's genius. He was well paid for his work: his salary as Surveyor-General for the Trent-Mersey project was £200 a year, almost ten times the income of a labourer in those days, and he was hired as a consultant for other canal plans as well.

I would like to focus on one minor incident in his life. In 1762 Brindley went down to London with John Gilbert and the Duke to give evidence at a Parliamentary hearing into the plans for building the Bridgewater canal. Brindley was almost illiterate and found it hard to explain his designs to others, but he was undaunted by the occasion. He brought troughs of clay and sand to demonstrate to their Lordships how a canal-bed could be made water-tight, and drew diagrams in chalk on the floor to explain the workings of a lock-gate. The plans were approved. While in London, he was taken to the theatre to watch the great actor David Garrick star in Shakespeare's "Richard III". Brindley had never seen a play before, and Garrick's performance as the wicked king so unsettled him that it is said he had to spend the next few days in bed before he was fit to resume work! Nowadays it is inconceivable that anyone could reach the age of 45 without ever having seen a dramatic production, and would be so much affected by one.

The picture below shows the northern entrance to the Harecastle tunnel, viewed from Kidsgrove station. Brindley's tunnel is the one on the right, but for a long time now it has been too unsafe to be entered. It was replaced by the left-hand tunnel, built by Thomas Telford between 1824 and 1827, which is still in use today. Most of Brindley's canals are still functioning.

For more on Brindley and his canals, see my later piece, "The Canal Duke"

Friday, 17 June 2011

Rome on the Rates

My grandfather, Richard Durant Shilston, was marine engineer who became an inspector for Lloyd’s Register of Shipping. Only once in his life was he in trouble with the authorities, in a case which he and others considered to be of great moral importance. It happened in the following manner, and tells us a great deal about the differences between life a century ago and the present day. His diary includes some cuttings from the local press, describing the case.

There had been a system of compulsory state primary education in Britain since the 1870s, but the provision of secondary education was still most unsatisfactory. For this, apart from the independent boarding schools (confusingly known as “public schools”) and some ancient grammar schools, there were a number of “voluntary schools”, many of which were sponsored by the Church of England, and which consequently could be expected to impart religious instruction on Anglican lines.
In 1902 the new Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, piloted through Parliament a far-reaching Education Act, which empowered county and borough councils to run primary and secondary schools, financed through the rates (a local property tax). The Act enabled the “voluntary schools” to enter the system and receive finance from the rates, whilst retaining a measure of independence, such as the appointment of their own staff. This proved deeply controversial. Despite the fact that the Act laid down that religious instruction in the schools was to be “non-denominational”, there was an outcry from Nonconformist churches (such as Methodists, Baptists, and in my grandfather’s case Congregationalists) that children would now be fed Anglican or even Roman Catholic propaganda at ratepayers’ expense. A cry went up denouncing, “Rome on the rates!” A National Passive Resistance League was formed, whose members refused to pay that section of their rates which they believed was going to support church schools.

On November 6th 1903 Richard Shilston was one of nineteen “passive resisters” (eight of whom were Nonconformist clergy) who appeared before the Police Court in Middlesbrough, charged with refusal to pay their rates. It was all very British somehow. The local paper commented that the stipendiary magistrate “had never previously had before him so highly respectable a batch of defendants, and never have cases been dealt with in a more happy, good-tempered or courteous way”. All the defendants stated that they would not contribute towards the teaching of doctrines in which they did not believe: my grandfather saying, “I conscientiously object to pay anything to increase the power of the priests”. Some of the others in the dock expressed their beliefs in stronger terms; one of the Nonconformist ministers saying, “My master, the Lord Jesus Christ, will not allow me to pay it”. Although the magistrate appears to have been fairly sympathetic, he ordered that if the defendants continued to refuse to pay, their goods would be distrained to cover the sums involved plus the legal costs. In my grandfather’s case, the sum he refused to pay amounted to one shilling and four pence: a little under seven pence in today’s money!

On January 13th 1904, bailiffs seized a quantity of Richard Shilston’s silverware, listed in his diary as “A case of carvers, a case of fish carvers, a silver soup ladle and half a dozen silver teaspoons”. These were to be sold to cover the rates he had refused to pay plus the legal costs, amounting to a total of £1. 4 shillings. The local papers reported “lively scenes in Stockton High Street” when these items, together with goods from the other “passive resisters” were auctioned off on market day. As it happened, the first item offered for sale (the carvers) was bought by a supporter, the Reverend E. B. Mahon, for the required sum, so the remainder of the distrained items were returned. (I presume that Mahon also returned the carvers to my grandfather, though this is not mentioned in the diary). The fact that my grandfather possessed this quantity of silver cutlery shows that he was quite well off, and could easily have paid the rates, but he viewed the whole question as a matter of high principle. He refused to change his opinions, and in consequence was summoned to appear before the courts again in August 1904, in February 1905 and in March 1906, but his diary does not record what happened as a result of these hearings. At least he was not sent to prison, which was the penalty suffered by about 170 “passive resisters”.

My grandfather’s refusal to pay was just one small part of the campaign of passive resistance. It was particularly widely supported in strongly Nonconformist areas such as Wales, where some local councils simply refused to implement the scheme, and were strongly supported by the rising Liberal politician and future Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The campaign was believed to be one of the main reasons why Arthur Balfour was forced to resign as Prime Minister at the end of 1905, and his Conservative and Unionist Party suffered one of its worst-ever defeats in the general election of early 1906. The incoming Liberal government was much more sympathetic to Nonconformist attitudes, and the controversy quietened down.
A local newspaper report of the Middlesbrough events describes a mass meeting to support the protesters, at which a certain Nonconformist minister said, “At one time England used to pride herself upon the motto ‘Government for the people, by the people’, but now it seemed as though it was government for Mr Joseph Chamberlain, by Mr Joseph Chamberlain’”. It seems grossly unfair to pin the blame on Chamberlain: he was Colonial Secretary in Balfour’s government, he had nothing to do with the Education Act (being at the time out of action following an accident), and as a prominent Nonconformist himself was known to have doubts about it. But this was the penalty he had to pay for being the government’s most high-profile member: better-known even than the Prime Minister himself!

Nowadays historians see the Balfour Act as being one of the most important steps forward in the history of education in Britain. It is not easy for us to understand how controversial it was at the time, reflecting deep divisions, not as today between Christians and non-Christians, but between different Protestant churches. The only possible modern analogy I can think of (and it is not a very close one) would be if it was alleged that taxpayers would have to finance Moslem schools which were said to be spreading extremist terrorist propaganda. Even then, I doubt if it would result in many people risking prison for refusing to pay their taxes.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

National Mythology

George Orwell wrote in one of his essays that the fundamental British story or myth was that of "Jack the Giant-killer": the individual hero who triumphs over great odds through his courage, determination and ingenuity. However, he detected signs that this scenario was in danger of being replaced by something quite different; one in which the hero triumphs because he is a member of an all-powerful organisation against which all enemies are helpless. Orwell thought such a story could best be called "Jack the Dwarf-killer"

There are good reasons for Britain finding "Jack the Giant-killer" appealing as a national myth. For most of the past 400 years or more, Britain faced enemies who were alarmingly close and dangerous-looking: first Spain in the 16th & 17th centuries, then France until the mid-19th century and Germany in the first half of the 20th; we might add to this the Soviet Union after 1945. These enemy countries were very much larger in size and also superior in armaments (in the 18th century, the population of France was at least five times that of Britain, and its army proportionately bigger). It is therefore quite reasonable that the idea should grow up of the "gallant little island" massively outnumbered by its foes. As is the way of mythologies, this basic attitude persisted even when Britain had become a major power.

The position of the U.S.A. is quite different. As a superpower from the time early in the 20th century when it first became involved in international politics, America's appropriate national myth is that of "Superman", who crushes all enemies with his overwhelmingly superior strength; precisely what Orwell described as "Jack the Dwarf-killer". This is coupled with the Hollywood-cowboy ideology which teaches that all the problems of the world can be sorted out by the simple process of socking the bad guys on the jaw. Furthermore, it's easy to tell who the bad guys are: they are anyone who opposes American interests. This attitude can still be seen in American foreign policy.

On a related theme, there is an interesting difference between the James Bond books and the films. In the books, Bond is always on his own when facing deadly danger, and is entirely reliant on his toughness and cunning to see him through. In the films, by contrast, he is equipped in advance with items of amazing technology which you know will give him the edge over his enemies. I don't think enough attention has been given to the heavy sado-masochistic element in the novels: in every book Bond is savagely beaten up, tortured, or is seconds away from some particularly painful and gruesome death. This aspect is missing from the films, and you never feel Bond is in any real peril.

The George Orwell essay in question is called "Raffles and Miss Blandish"; a survey of changes in the nature and tone of detective fiction. In it, amongst other things, he contrasts Sherlock Holmes, who solves his problems by individual intelligence without any help from the professionals of Scotland Yard, with modern fictional detectives who are supported by the immense resources of an organised police force and forensic scientists. Orwell also points out that in more recent detective stories the forces of law and order are often just as violent in their behaviour as the criminals. He suggests that the only moral to be drawn from such stories is that we should always side with the "big battalions", and that admiration for the police often comes close to mere bully-worship: we side with them not because they are morally better than the crooks, but merely because they are stronger.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Sports reporting

Some years ago I met a veteran sports writer, now dead. Frank, as I shall call him, told me the following story. He began his newspaper career working with Neville Cardus, the great cricket writer, up in Manchester, and on this particular occasion they were writing up an interview Cardus had done with some fine old northern professional cricketer, full of the wryly amusing comments that Cardus loved to hear and record from these people. But Frank experienced some qualms. "Mister Cardus", he protested, "I was at the interview, and he never said anything like that!"
"I know", Cardus replied, "A lot of these professional sportsmen aren't very articulate, so I put down what I think they'd have liked to have said!"

I think this is an excellent way of approaching things. I wonder how many reporters today follow the same principle?

Monday, 6 June 2011


Timur, also called Tamer the Lame, Tamerlane or Tamburlaine, was born in 1336. He was of Mongol ancestry but not a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, which meant he could never himself take the title of Great Khan. He was a Moslem, though this in no way reduced his savagery towards his co-religionists. By a foretaste of the mixture of violence and cunning diplomacy which marked his career, he had gained control of the city of Samarkand by 1366, which thenceforth became the capital of his empire.
Circumstances of the time were favourable towards his ambitions, since throughout central Asia the great Mongol empire of the previous century had disintegrated into rival Khanates. In China the Yuan dynasty, the descendents of Kubilai Khan, was overthrown in 1368 and replaced by the native Ming. Timur was able to isolate and launch attacks on surrounding territories one by one. His basic tactic was terror: if a city resisted him he would slaughter most of the inhabitants and pile up their skulls into huge pyramids; though sometimes for variety he would bury his victims alive, or mortar them into his city walls. This would convince other cities that it was prudent to ally with him, pay tribute and provide soldiers for his armies. The only people likely to escape his depredations would be skilled artists and craftsmen, who would be conscripted to glorify his capital city of Samarkand with new mosques and midrasas.

Timur’s forces took and sacked Heart in 1381, Tabriz in 1384 and Tbilisi in Georgia in 1386. In 1390-91 he turned northwards, permanently destroying the power of the Tatar Golden Horde on the Volga; a campaign which had the effect of allowing the Dukes of Moscow, who had previously acted as tax collectors for the Golden Horde, to become independent. In 1398 Timur turned his attention to India, crossing the Hindu Kush and putting Delhi to the torch. Next came the Islamic states to the west: Aleppo and Damascus were taken and burnt, followed by Baghdad, where it is said that 90,000 skulls were piled up into 120 great pyramids. Following this, the Mamluk sultan of Egypt thought it prudent to announce his friendship with Timur.

Then came the greatest campaign yet. The Ottoman sultan, Bajazit the Thunderbolt, had crushed the crusading forces at Nicopolis in 1396 and looked certain to capture Constantinople, the last feeble remains of the once-powerful Byzantine Empire. But first he would have to deal with Timur, who marched his forces into central Anatolia in 1402. The two armies which approached each other on July 28th must have formed the largest battle yet seen in world history. Timur is said to have mustered 200,000 men; heavy cavalry, mounted archers, infantry and even elephants. Bajazit’s forces must have been similar in number; centred upon his elite Janissaries, the slave-soldiers conscripted from Christian boys, together with 20,000 heavy cavalry provided by his Serbian vassals, Macedonian allies and Tatar nomads from the Ukrainian steppe (By comparison, the crusader army at Nicopolis was probably no more than 10,000 strong). After a fierce initial impact the Tatars, who had possibly been suborned beforehand by Timur’s agents, suddenly changed sides, and seeing this the Macedonians took flight. The Serbs were driven back and disintegrated. Bajazit and his Janissaries fought on, but were eventually surrounded and the survivors taken prisoner. According to legend, Bajazit was placed in an iron cage and carted around by Timur as a trophy before dying of rage and despair a year later, though some accounts say he was treated more chivalrously.
Timur’s forces now pressed on westwards. Bursa was taken and destroyed, and the for the first time Timur came up against a Christian fortress, at the port of Smyrna (modern Izmir) which was held by the Hospitaller knights. After two weeks of siege it fell, with the usual slaughter. A fleet of galleys sailing to relieve the city were bombarded with severed heads and retreated in terror.
What would happen now? Was anywhere in Europe capable of resisting Timur’s armies? But instead of continuing his advance, he headed eastwards for his most ambitious campaign yet, to attack the Ming empire in China. Over the winter of 1404-5 he assembled new armies and advanced into Kazakhstan, but there he died on Fenbruary 18th 1405, at the age of 68. He was buried beneath the great dome of the Gur Emir in Samarkand, where he lies still. In 1941 Soviet archaeologists exhumed his body and found signs of serious injuries, showing that he was indeed lame. He became a figure of legend, as in Christopher Marlowe’s play “Tamburlaine the Great”, where he becomes a Renaissance prince with limitless ambition for world domination. In what is now the independent state of Uzbekistan, Timur has been elevated to become a great national hero, and his suitably grandiose building projects, like the Gur Emir and the Bibi Khanum mosque, do duty as tourist attractions.

Timur’s vast empire did not remain intact for long, though his grandson Ulugh Beg became the greatest astronomer of his day, famous even in Europe. Over a century later his descendent Babur crossed through the Khyber Pass into India and seized Delhi, founding the Mughal (= Mongol) empire; which is why India’s most famous building, the Taj Mahal, is wholly Islamic in design, and why so many Pakistanis bear the Mongol title of Khan (lord). In Europe his impact was minimal. The Dukes of Moscow, freed by his victories from the “Tatar yoke” of the Golden Horde, were able to assert their independence and became the ancestors of the first Russian Tsars. But the opportunity to drive the Turks from the Balkans was not taken, Ottoman power soon revived, and the fall of Constantinople to the Turks was only postponed for half a century.

(For Genghis Khan and his successors, see my earlier post "Storm from the East; part 3; Mongols")

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The Last Crusade

By the end of the 11th century the empire of the Seljuk Turks had disintegrated into several little clan-states, unable to unite against the crusaders or later against the Mongols, but they held onto the lands they had occupied in Asia Minor, the modern Turkey. The Byzantine Empire never recovered from the destruction wrought on it by the 4th Crusade’s capture of Constantinople in 1204, and the last crusader states in Palestine fell to the Egyptians in 1291. In the early 14th century a certain Osman was Bey (chieftain) of a small territory in western Anatolia near the greek city of Bursa. His descendants became known as the Ottomans.

Early conquests saw the Ottoman Turks take Bursa in 1397 and Nicaea two years later. Greek emperors were by this time restored to Constantinople, but there were frequent battles for the throne in which the rival claimants were foolish enough to employ Turks as mercenaries. In 1354 the first Turks crossed the Dardanelles into Europe, helped by an earthquake which destroyed the castles guarding the straits. Soon large numbers of Turkish settlers followed, creating pastures and farms and raiding deep into the Balkans. In 1362 they took their first major city in Europe, Adrianople, which they renamed Edirne. The once-great city of Constantinople was now virtually under siege: mainland Greece was occupied by Latin mercenary forces, and in the Balkans the kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria were independent of Byzantine control.
In 1356 King Stephen of Serbia died, and his kingdom soon disintegrated. The Serbs suffered a decisive defeat by the Turks at Kossovo in 1389, and Serbia was reduced to a vassal-state of the Turks. At the same time the Tsar of Bulgaria was also forced to become a vassal. Turkish power extended up into Wallachia and Moldavia, modern Romania, and Hungary was threatened.
The native peasantry probably found Turkish rule no more oppressive than that of their former masters. No attempt was made to assimilate the conquered peoples, of whom only a small proportion ever converted to Islam. Vassal troops from Europe were sent to hold the frontiers in Anatolia. Early Turkish government was primitive, relying on plunder rather than systematic finance. The early Ottoman sultans were illiterate, and were happy to take wives and concubines from the conquered people, which meant that they soon ceased to be fully Turkish in any genetic sense. One Islamic tradition which was maintained was the training of non-Moslem boys as slave-soldiers, known as “Mamluks”. In 1365 Sultan Murad I formed an elite guard of these, called simply the “New Troop” - the “Jeni Ceri”: to become famous and dreaded throughout Europe and the Near East as the “Janissaries”. Soon the forcible conscription of Christian youths to serve as Janissaries became a rgular tribute imposed on the conquered lands, causing much resentment.
In 1389 Sultan Murad was murdered in his tent by a Serb assassin. His son by a Byzantine princess now seized power. His name was Bajazit, nicknamed Yilderim, “the Thunderbolt”, whose reign was to be one of the most extraordinary and tumultuous of the age. He immediately embarked on a career of conquest, with his Ghazis (religious zealots who fought for the glory of Islam and the extermination of idolators) ravaging into Macedonia and Bosnia. In 1393 he seized Nicopolis, a Bulgarian fortress on the Danube: the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan, who was supposed to be a vassal, protested and was strangled. Bajazit’s next step was to lay siege to Constantinople, but called it off on hearing alarming news from the west.

For ages, the popes had appealed for a new crusade, but without any useful result. The main stumbling-block to full co-operation against Islam was the religious divide between the Catholic west and the Greek Orthodox church of Byzantium: always a source of mutual suspicion or downright hostility. The Serbs, Bulgarians and Wallachians were also Orthodox, which divided them from the Catholic Hungarians. In 1369 the Emperor John V was so desperate for aid that he visited Rome and promised mass conversion of the Orthodox church to Catholicism; a promise that was promptly repudiated by his own clergy.
But now King Sigismund of Hungary was seriously worried, and sent envoys to the King of France, with whom he had connexions by marriage. This was a period of peace between France and England, and the Hungarian appeal awakened great enthusiasm, notably from the young Count of Nevers, son and heir of the duke of Burgundy. An army was raised from the flower of the French nobility, with support from the Venetians, from some German princes, and from the Knights Hospitaller in their bases at Rhodes and Smyrna. A great expedition set out in April 1396, to link up with Sigismund at Budapest in July, while Venetian ships brought the Hospitallers through the Dardenelles straits, along the Black Sea coast and up the Danube. The total force probably numbered perhaps 10,000.

Sigismund was cautious, and advised waiting for Bajazit to advance into Hungarian territory before giving battle. But the Turks did not move, and the French insisted on an aggressive campaign, being full of grandiose plans to march through to Constantinople and thence across into Palestine. The armies therefore advanced down the Danube to join with Wallachian and Transylvanian allies. The advance was marked by increasing jealousy and squabbles, and by the bad behaviour of the French vanguard as they moved into the lands of the Greek Orthodox church. They reached Nicopolis in September, but since they had neglected to bring any heavy siege equipment with them, they settled down in an ineffective siege of the city. Bajazit meanwhile had called off his attack on Constantinople, and advanced to meet the crusaders.
Battle was joined on September 25th 1396. The first move was made by a Turkish vanguard. King Sigismund, who was familiar with Turkish tactics, told the crusaders that this would merely be an initial probing force, made up of untrained peasant conscripts: his infantry could easily hold them off, and the French cavalry should hold back until more significant forces appeared. But the French knights insisted on charging, with results which Sigismund could have predicted: they scattered the Turkish advanced guard easily, but then pressed onwards and were caught and surrounded by a counterattack by the Turkish cavalry. The Wallachians and Transylvanians, deciding from this that the battle was lost, promptly fled the field, whereas the Serbs, vassals of the Turks and bitter enemies of the Hungarians, hastened to join in on the winning side. The Hungarian forces were smashed. King Sigismund and the Grand Master of the Hospitallers managed to escape to their boats on the Danube. But the French fought on until they were killed or forced to surrender. A few great nobles were held for ransom, others were sold as slaves, but the rest, whose numbers were estimated as anything from 300 to 3,000, were deemed not be worth the trouble and expense of keeping alive, and had their throats cut.
The news of the disaster horrified France. A huge ransom of 200,000 gold ducats was demanded. Some lucky few, including Nevers, were allowed home in return for a down-payment, but many died in captivity before they could be redeemed.

So ended the last serious attempt at a crusade against Islam. Nicopolis doomed the Balkans to many centuries under Turkish rule, though Bajazit’s losses were such that he had to postpone any attack on Hungary. It seemed certain that Constantinople would soon fall; but this did not happen, for soon afterwards Bajazit the Thunderbolt came up against a foe far more deadly that himself.

See the next entry (titled "Tamerlane")