Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Emperor Frederick II and his Crusade

The first half of the thirteenth century witnessed a titanic struggle for supremacy between two of the most spectacular personalities of the Middle Ages: one a Pope, the other an Emperor. 
    The Pope in question was Innocent III, one of the greatest Popes of all time. He came from a noble Roman background, was born in 1161, studied in Paris and Bologna, and made a pilgrimage to the tomb of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury in 1187. He became a cardinal in 1189, and was elected Pope in 1198 at the astonishingly young age of 37. He called the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, attended by over 400 bishops from all over Europe, where the Pope was proclaimed “Vicar of Christ” on earth, with supervision over all archbishops, bishops and monasteries. Detailed plans for church reform were issued. All secular rulers were also to be guided by the church, with papal supremacy over kings being stressed. Innocent III exercised this authority by excommunicating at different times the Emperor Otto and King Philip Augustus of France, and placing England under King John under an Interdict following a dispute about appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury. (John submitted and did homage to the Pope in 1208, meaning that the Pope was now technically the feudal overlord of England! The Pope duly helped his new vassal by excommunicating the barons who forced John to sign Magna Carta in 1215) 

          Innocent’s great ambition was to recover Jerusalem. In 1202 he proclaimed the Fourth Crusade, intended to strengthen the weak Christian position in Palestine by an attack on Egypt. But the result was a disaster of epic proportions. The crusaders who assembled were largely French, and their leaders, William of Montferrat and Baldwin of Flanders, negotiated with Venice to ship their army out. The Venetians then hijacked the campaign into staging an attack on Constantinople, resulting in enormous destruction in the city, immense plunder for the Venetians, and a permanent weakening of the Christian position in the eastern Mediterranean. For half a millenium Constantinople had held at bay the Moslem threat, but could never do so again.

Despite this, Innocent never lost hope, but unfortunately he had other, more overtly political concerns. The temporal power in central Italy had long been threatened from two fronts: the Holy Roman Empire, based in Germany, to the north, and the Norman kingdom of Sicily to the south. Now these twin threats were to be united in one man.  

The future Emperor Frederick II was born in 1194. His two grandfathers were the greatest European monarchs of their day.

His paternal grandfather was the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, the legendary German warrior-king who had died on his way to join the Third Crusade; and his maternal grandfather was Roger II, King of Sicily, ruler of the most glittering and sophisticated court of the century. But by the age of four young Frederick had lost both his parents, and was now heir to both Sicily (where he was proclaimed King at the age of three) and the Holy Roman Empire. The Pope was appointed guardian to the little orphan.
     In fact Innocent III did not even see him until he was 17. He was bought up in Palermo, and despite the German inheritance on his father's side, was always really a Norman-Sicilian, with the Greek and Saracen traditions of the island, and its cultivated and intellectually vibrant court life. 
He was the best-educated prince of his time, speaking Greek and Arabic as well as French, German, Latin and Italian. Frederick had a lifelong interest in philosophy, science, literature and all the arts. He founded in Naples in 1224 the first entirely secular European university, together with a great medical school at Salerno, and forbade his subjects to study anywhere else. He wrote poetry and a book on falconry, opened his court to minstrels and troubadours, and conducted curious scientific experiments of his own devising. Everywhere he went he was accompanied by his private zoo, which included leopards, ostriches,  and even an elephant and a giraffe.It is little wonder that he became known as "Stupor mundi": the wonder of the world.
    Sicily may be considered the first modern state in mediaeval Europe. It had a proper written code of laws, together with a bureaucracy and professional judges. Frederick extended this by issuing the Constitutions of Melfi, 1233, with full details of how the kingdom was to be governed. Income came from customs duties, with central control of the ports. There were state monopolies on certain goods such as silk, iron manufacture, salt and pitch. The army included Moslem mercenary troops as well as Norman knights. Court etiquette based on that of Constantinople: the King was treated as a semi-divine being, rarely seen in public, and only to be approached with prostrations. He lived in a guarded palace, with beautiful gardens, complete with a harem and eunuchs. Northern Europe would have seemed very uncivilized by comparison.
     Frederick was notoriously irreligious and blasphemous in his speech. He was also a cruel man, with no personal friends; never very popular with his subjects, and ruled largely by fear: always travelling with a substantial bodyguard and a team of executioners, mostly Moslems. When he faced a Moslem revolt in Sicily in 1221-2, he deported many of his Moslem subjects to a special colony at Lucera in mainland Italy; local population being cleared out to make room for them. The new settlers were provided with a mosque, and Christian missionaries were forbidden to try to convert them!

Innocent III was determined to ease pressure on central Italy by preventing any unification of the Holy Roman Empire with the Kingdom of Sicily, and to this end was prepared to use young Frederick to stir up trouble in Germany. Early in the 13th century the Bavarian, Otto IV, was Emperor, and Frederick’s claims were ignored by the German princes; but in 1212 Pope Innocent III excommunicated Otto and sent Frederick to Germany to overthrow him. Frederick allied with King Philip of France to defeat Otto at the battle of Bouvines in 1214, and gained the support of the German princes by recognizing their privileges in the “Golden Bull”. He was crowned "King of the Romans" at Aachen in 1215, then crowned Emperor by the new Pope, Honorius III, in 1220. But Frederick had no desire to stay in Germany. He left his son Henry, aged 9, as titular ruler there and returned to Sicily and the splendours of Palermo. This support of Frederick was a major misjudgment by Innocent III and his successor, for Frederick was to prove the greatest threat yet to the temporal power of the papacy. The rest of his reign was to be marked by increasingly bitter hostility.

There were other causes for dispute. Frederick twice promised to lead a crusade, but always found excuses for not setting out. In  1227 he faced a new and aggressive opponent in the shape of Cardinal Ugolino, who had sponsored St. Francis and was now at the age of 86 elected Pope as Gregory IX; remaining in office till he was 100! At once he decided to show Frederick who was boss, and so when Frederick once again found excuses for not crusading, Gregory excommunicated him.

But Frederick did go on a sort of crusade. In 1225 he married, as his second wife, Yolande, the daughter of John of Brienne, the titular king of Jerusalem. (The city had been in Moslem hands for almost 40 years, and only the coastal areas of Palestine were still controlled by the crusaders). She gave birth to a son, Conrad, but died soon afterwards. In 1228, Frederick set out for the east, to claim his rights in name of his infant son. The Pope not impressed, renewed the sentence of excommunication. 
    He landed first in Cyprus, where the crusader lords who ruled the island were forced to acknowledge him as their overlord, and then proceeded to Acre, but found most of the crusaders there refused to work with him. So instead he opened negotiations with the Sultan of Egypt, and in early 1229, signed a treaty with him!
     Under this agreement, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth were to be restored to the Christian kingdom, though Moslems could keep a few holy places (such as the al-Aqsa mosque),and would be allowed allowed freedom of worship. All prisoners to be exchanged. In March 1229 Frederick entered Jerusalem, was given the keys of the city, attended mass in the church of the Holy Sepulchre. He found the place almost deserted: local clergy and crusaders boycotted the ceremony. Undeterred, Frederick crowned himself King of Jerusalem. He then went on sightseeing tour of mosques before returning to Acre. As he passed through the streets, people pelted him with filth. He landed back in Italy that summer. Despite the common sense and usefulness to Christian pilgrims of Frederick's arrangements, the Pope was absolutely livid. This wasn’t proper crusading! Frederick had made a mockery of whole idea! (which he had, of course!)

In 1237, Frederick decided to suppress the free cities of northern Italy, who were being encouraged by pope to fight against him. This initiated a division which was to dominate Italian politics for many generations, between "Guelfs" (who supported the Pope) and "Ghibbelines" (who supported the Emperor); though soon these labels took on other implications as well, as can be seen in the writings of Dante. Frederick defeated the Milanese, and was excommunicated again. He then marched on Rome intending to overthrow the Pope, but Gregory IX died in 1241. Frederick hoped the new Pope, Innocent IV, would be more amenable, but instead he fled to Lyons, where he summoned a Church Council that in 1245 declared Frederick to be deposed. In 1248 Frederick was decisively defeated by an alliance of the Guelf cities in a battle near Parma, and his power was broken. He died two years later and was buried in Palermo cathedral. But the struggle of his family, the Hohenstaufen, with the papacy continued. 

         Frederick II, 1194-1250

1197   King of Sicily
1215   King of  the Romans
1220   Crowned Emperor
1221   Moslem revolt in Sicily
1225   Revolt in Italian cities
1228   Excommunicated
1229   Crowned king of Jerusalem
1231   Constitutions of Melfi
1233-4   Revolt in Germany
1238   Italian revolt suppressed
1245   Proclaimed to be deposed
1247   Defeated near Parma
1250   Death of Frederick


Innocent III   1198-1216
Honorius III   1216-27
Gregory IX   1227-41
Innocent IV   1243-54

Thursday, 18 September 2014

A Snuff Bottle

George read through the advertisements in the local paper.
     “For sale: several Chinese works of art: soapstone carvings, ink painting of bamboo, blah, blah, amber snuff bottle ….. Hmm, now that might be worth investigating!”
     He had yet to find a really good amber snuff-bottle to add to his collection. Of course, the chances were that this was just some rubbishy modern piece; but even so, it would be silly to let the chance slip away. He dialled the telephone number given on the advert. A woman’s voice answered. He gave his name, and then, in order not too sound too eager, asked about some of the other items first, and only came to the snuff bottle as if was an afterthought.
     The woman gave him a brief description of the object. “It's about two inches high, with a carving of a dragon on it. There's some Chinese writing on the bottom, but of course I can't read it. It's a beautiful golden colour, and it's got a stopper with a little spoon for the snuff", she told him. "I really can’t say how old it is; I’m not an expert at all! You see, I’ve inherited all these things from my aunt, and I need to dispose of them as quickly as I can, because I live abroad. Why don’t you come and have a look at it? And if you think it’s any good, you can have it for ….. what shall we say? ….. fifty pounds? Fine! How about next Tuesday? Three o’clock?  Now, how to get here: do you know Foxton? Well, go out from there on the Brackenford road, and after a couple of miles you’ll see a turning on your left, just opposite the bus stop. Go down there, and after a few hundred yards there’s a big holly hedge on the left and a sign saying Bluebell Cottage. That’s where I am. Park your car in the drive. If no-one answers the bell, it probably means I’m in the back garden, so come and look for me. See you then!”
     After he had put the phone down, it suddenly occurred to George that he might have heard the woman’s voice before, but he couldn’t  quite recall the circumstances.

     As he drove out on Tuesday, George reflected on his possible good luck. The description of the snuff bottle had genuinely excited him: it had sounded exactly like the real business! He wondered how he might turn the situation even more to his advantage. Should he, for instance, regretfully inform the woman that her snuff bottle was a modern fake, but, rather than make the visit fruitless, he would take it off her hands for thirty pounds? or perhaps only twenty?
    He found Bluebell Cottage without difficulty. It was the only building down a narrow country lane. As predicted, a ring of the front door bell brought no response, and he wandered round into the secluded back garden. This also seemed deserted.
     “Hello, George!” came a voice from behind him. He spun round.
     “You!” was all he could manage to say.
     “Yes, George, it’s me! It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? I rented this cottage specially to meet you again, and here you are. I remembered how you used to collect snuff bottles, and I just had to pray you hadn’t given up the hobby. I hope you appreciate the research I put in, to make sure I could describe one that you’d want! So here we are together again, after all those years. It’ll be just like old times. Well; not quite like old times….”
     And she drew a small pistol from her pocket.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

The Pals Battalions

The months immediately following the declaration of war in August 1914 witnessed one of the most extraordinary phenomena in recent British history, as hundreds of thousands of men, some of them quite mature in years and others mere boys, flocked to volunteer for the army.
     Before the war, Britain was the only major European country without a system of military conscription. Her army was ridiculously small by Continental standards, and furthermore carried little prestige with the mass of the general public. Army pay was too low to attract any skilled workers (a soldier’s pay was much lower than that of a coalminer, for instance), and the ranks were recruited mostly from the countryside, and increasingly from Ireland and even from India; with Sikhs forming more than 10% of the men in uniform. Officers were recruited from the less academic younger sons of the landowning classes. Most of the great public (independent) schools had an “Army Class” for those considered not bright enough to go to university: Winston Churchill was in the “Army Class” at Harrow. The upshot of all this was that very few people in Britain had any idea what military life was like; and soldiers were generally held in low esteem, as Kipling noted in his early writings.

In August 1914 there was a widespread belief that the war would be over by the end of the year: the German “Schlieffen Plan”, for instance, envisaged capturing Paris within a few weeks. But Lord Kitchener, Britain’s most famous general, appointed Minister of War in August 1914, in a flash of insight predicted that the war would last at least three years and that Britain would need an army of a million men to fight it. He set himself to create a new army.
The campaign was an immediate success, as enormous numbers volunteered, most of whom would never previously have considered joining the army. This included for the first time large numbers from the industrial cities in the north of England, where the military authorities had previously not sought recruits; considering industrial workers less physically fit than farm-boys, and likely to be contaminated with “trades-union attitudes”, making them less willing to accept orders unconditionally. But the new volunteers now included factory workers, coalminers, clerks, shopkeepers, engineers, tram-drivers, railwaymen and boys who lied about their age. It was all very unorganized, and many of them would have been far more use to their country’s war-effort by remaining in their current jobs.
      By the end of September, half a million men had volunteered; the oldest, as far as is known, being 68, and the youngest just 15. But how could this enormous mass of civilians be turned into a proper army?
      It was decided to keep the new recruits alongside their friends, neighbours and workmates, forming new battalions*[i] (see footnote at the end) of existing regiments. So were born the famous “Pals’ Battalions”; a unique feature of British army in the First World War. So the 10th Lincolns were the “Grimsby Chums”, the 12th, 13th and 14th Yorks and Lancs were the “Sheffield City Battalion” and the 1st and 2nd  “Barnsley Pals”, and the 15th Highland Light Infantry was drawn entirely from employees of the Glasgow trams. The entire 93rd brigade was made up of four battalions of the East Yorks, all coming from Hull, and were known as the “Hull Commercials”, “Hull Tradesmen”, “Hull Sportsmen” and “T’ Others”. Two brigades, the 102nd and 103rd, all came from Tyneside were made up of four battalions of Tyneside Scots and four of Tyneside Irish, officially known as the 20th – 27th Northumberland Fusiliers. The entire 36th division consisted of thirteen battalions of Ulster Protestants, who just a few weeks earlier had been prepared to rise in armed rebellion against the prospect of Irish Home Rule. The Lancashire cotton-manufacturing town of Accrington was determined to be the smallest town in Britain to have its own battalion, and the “Accrington Pals” duly became the 11th East Lancs. The oddest battalion of all was the 16th Middlesex, which consisted of young men from the great public (independent) schools, who were resolved not to seek commissions as officers but to fight in the ranks.  

Who would command the new battalions? Kitchener called up several hundred officers from the army in India who happened to be home on leave, and brought others out of retirement, some of them now well over military age. The posts of junior officers were filled by around 2,000 young men straight from the universities and the great public schools, many of them only just into their twenties, or even younger. So one new battalion, the 10th West Yorks, had just two officers who had served in the regular army. On the other hand a young chap from an exclusive school could now find himself responsible for a platoon of coalminers, some of whom were old enough to be his father, and would somehow have to win their trust and respect. For many such young men it was their first contact with the working classes, and the social consequences would be enormous.

The New Army started with no rifles, no barracks, not even sufficient uniforms; so their early training would perforce consist of little except route-marches and square-bashing. This must have been somewhat disillusioning, but nevertheless enthusiasm remained high. Meanwhile the old British professional army, small in numbers, was mostly slaughtered by the end of 1914, and in 1915 the war was largely kept going by the Territorial brigades. The New Army was held back for the “big push” of 1916, remembered as the battle of the Somme.
       It was without question the most educated, the most literate and also the most enthusiastic army that Britain had ever sent overseas. But ultimately the high command did not really trust the New Army. The tactics laid down for them for the first day of the Somme offensive were the simplest possible: when the artillery bombardment lifted, they were to march slowly and in formation across No Man’s Land towards the German trenches; forbidden to run or to take cover.
The result, famously, was disaster. On that day, July 1st 1916, 20,000 British troops were killed and twice that number wounded. The young officers especially suffered: of those who went “over the top” leading their men, no fewer than 75% became casualties.  Twenty of the Pals battalions lost over 500 men that day, and ceased to exist as viable units; including all eight of the Tynesiders, three of the Ulstermen, the Public Schools battalion, and the Leeds, 1st Bradford and Accrington Pals. Back in Accrington, the rumour spread that all their men had been killed, and crowds besieged the town hall demanding to be told the truth.
      The battle of the Somme continued as a grinding attrition until it finally petered out in the November mud. Every British Prime Minister between 1940 and 1963 had fought at the Somme; Churchill, Attlee, Eden and Macmillan, who was seriously wounded. Almost all the war poets were there: Siegfried Sassoon won the Military Cross and Robert Graves was so badly wounded he was left for dead, and it was only by chance that a medical orderly noticed he was still breathing. The roll-call also included the great socialist historian R. H. Tawney (also wounded), J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, A. A. Milne ….. the list goes on and on. One wonders how many men of equal talent and potential did not survive. As enthusiasm turned to disillusionment and horror, it is little wonder that so many, especially amongst the young officers, began to write poetry. They identified with the sufferings of their men, and were bitterly critical of the top brass; men of their own social class, whom they portrayed as being both callous and stupid. This remains the popular image of First World War generals to this day. But there were to be no more Pals battalions: the experiment was abandoned and never repeated. 
     Kitchener did not live to see the slaughter of his new army. Forced out of the war cabinet by his colleagues, he was sent to Russia in June 1916 to advise the ailing Tsarist regime; but he never got there. Somewhere off the north of Scotland his ship struck a German mine. He was an old man, and would not have survived for long in the chilly water. 

(For further reading, I would particularly recommend "The First Day on the Somme" by Martin Middlebrook, and "The Great War and Modern Memory" by Paul Fussell)

[i] A British battalion at this time contained, in theory, up to 1,000 men and about 26 officers. In the First World War, a battalion in attack would probably involve 700-800 men and most of the officers.