The Innocence of Pontius Pilate?

The story is told how many years ago a young Russian Jew was paid a rouble a month by the local Mayor to stand on the outskirts of his town so that should the Messiah return there would always be someone there to greet him. When a friend of the young man complained that the pay was too low and that he should ask for more, he replied:  “I know the pay is poor but at least the work is permanent.”

But whereas the Coming of the Messiah remains a matter of dispute among Jews for one breakaway sect it long ago ceased to be the subject of intellectual debate for the Christians declared Jesus, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth who lived and preached in the land of Israel, to be their Messiah – the Son of God subject to a Virgin Birth who died upon the Cross for the remission of their sins.


But who killed Jesus, who was responsible for the death of the Messiah? Was it Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea? Caiaphas, the High Priest of the Jewish Temple? Or was it the Jewish people who had themselves demanded it?

It is written that Pontius Pilate only reluctantly ordered the crucifixion of Jesus, and upon this the Gospels, which otherwise vary in their accounts, agree.  But did he, would he, could he have been so ambivalent and indecisive? If so, then he was a strange choice as Governor of the most turbulent and fractious of all the Roman provinces? If so, then it would appear to have been out of character.

According to Philo of Alexandria, Pilate was a vindictive man of violent temper who was wilful, inflexible, and relentless in pursuit of his aims. He likewise criticised “his corruption and acts of insolence, his rapine and habit of insulting people, his cruelty, and his murder of people untried and un-condemned, and his never ending, gratuitous and most grievous inhumanity.”

Indeed, it was his cruel and arbitrary behaviour that the Jewish historian Josephus tells us was the reason behind his recall to Rome. He does not then, seem a character who would demur at the execution of a heretic preacher.

He had been born a Roman citizen but was not of Roman ancestry, rather he was a Samnite, a member of a hardy tribe from the mountain country of south-central Italy that had fought long and hard to resist Roman rule. By the time he reached adulthood the Samnites had only been fully assimilated into Roman society for a hundred years or less and they were still not entirely trusted.  They were considered outsiders still and sensing the need to prove and reaffirm his loyalty constantly Pilate would have had to try harder than most to succeed.

Even though he was of noble blood, a member of the Pontii clan, as a Samnite he could not rise above the rank of Equestrian, the lowest strata of Roman nobility making political advancement on the basis of status alone difficult and unlikely, so he instead chose a more traditional route for an ambitious young man of limited opportunities, he enlisted in the army.

In the Legions Pilate would have learned to be ruthless and hard but as an outsider would he not also have felt an empathy with, perhaps even sympathy for, others similarly marginalised. Who knows, but he was good soldier and rose rapidly through the ranks displaying a flair for leadership and administration as he did so.

In AD 26 his hard work was rewarded when he was appointed Prefect, or Governor, of Judea – his remit a simple one, to maintain order and collect taxes.

Caiaphas as High Priest of the Jewish Temple in Rome presided over the Sahnredin, the Supreme Council that administered to Jewish affairs religious and otherwise. He could be high handed in the delivery of his duties and lived in conspicuous luxury courtesy of his willingness to co-operate with the Roman occupiers. It was not something that had gone unnoticed by those who sought a change to the status quo but then his task was to ensure that the Jewish people remained compliant and that no serious threat emerged to Roman rule.

Religious preachers were not uncommon in Judea and Roman policy (such as it was) towards them was one of indifference as long as they did not advocate for rebellion and posed no threat. One such man was John the Baptist who had been practising his ministry along the banks of the River Jordan for a number of years. But Roman toleration of such activities was not necessarily mirrored by the Sahnredin who saw all such preachers as a direct challenge to their authority and were particularly concerned by all the constant chatter of a coming Messiah.

A preacher, Joshua Bar-Joseph, known as Jesus, had been gathering disciples for only a short time but his popularity had been noted and his growing reputation as a healer and miracle worker saw his name spoken of in the same breath as that of the Messiah.

Caiaphas felt threatened by this Jesus  whom he not only thought was preaching against him but showing great disrespect by his repeated attacks upon the Temple, the very hub of Jewish life and commerce, where, it barely needed saying, the blasphemy committed was both  stark and absolute.

Before entering the Temple a Jew had to be ritually cleansed in a mikveh, or bathtub, for which the priests charged a fee and once inside the Temple there were business transactions to be seen aplenty – it had, or so it seemed, ceased to be a place of worship and had instead become a centre of corruption, graft, and greed.  Jesus was furious and storming into the Temple, overturned the tables, and drove out the money-changers, “My house shall be called the house of prayer, but ye have made it into a den of thieves,” he said.  His behaviour was scandalous.

To verbally attack the Jewish Religious Establishment was one thing but to assail their holiest shrine and threaten their wealth was another. Caiaphas was unequivocal in his condemnation. Such behaviour could not be tolerated even if this meant the preachers death. Others among the priesthood were not so sure. His criticism was not without foundation, after all. He had condemned the money changers for defiling the sanctity of the Temple which was self-evidently true. But Caiaphas was adamant – by physically attacking the Temple he had committed a crime against God?

Even if his blasphemy could be proved to commit an offence under Jewish law was not to commit one under Roman law and Caiaphas who did not want the responsibility for condemning Jesus wanted Pilate to do it, but would he? There was someone who who was willing to betray this so-called Messiah.

Pilate may have had the reputation of a man who trampled upon the religious sensibilities of those he governed but he was no fool. As far as he was concerned Jesus had committed no crime under Roman law. His priority was to maintain order and collect taxes not launder the Jews dirty linen for them. But the Sahnredin having already condemned Jesus under Mosaic Law and taking their instructions from Caiaphas now accused him of openly opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar and to Rome even though he had already declared “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Words that are to be plainly understood but tax resistance could not be tolerated and was a capital offence. Pilate knew this and so did Caiaphas.

Four days after raising Lazarus from the dead in the village of Bethany, Jesus descended from the Mount of Olives to ride through Jerusalem on a donkey. It was Passover and the city was teeming with people who in anticipation of his arrival had strewn flowers and palms along his path.

Aware that tensions were often high during Passover, Pilate who resided in Caesaria and rarely visited Jerusalem was in the city for the festivities, his presence a reminder, should anyone be inclined towards dissent, who still governed in Judea.

A short time after events in the Temple, Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples and a close associate of Jesus approached the Jewish Authorities and agreed to betray him for the payment of 30 pieces of silver. Later at what became known as the Last Supper, Jesus told his followers that despite their assertions to the contrary one of their number would betray him. The following day he was arrested as he walked in the Garden of Gethsemane after Judas had identified him with a kiss on the cheek.

As the priests and the guards who accompanied them moved in to seize Jesus a scuffle broke out, weapons were drawn, and blows struck. To prevent further violence Jesus intervened telling his disciples: “Return your swords to their place, they who take up the sword will die by the sword.”

Judas, distraught at what he had done would later hang himself.

Taken before the Sahnredin Jesus angered Caiaphas by refusing to be cowed in his presence and infuriated him further by remaining silent under questioning spurring the High Priest to cry out in frustration: Will thou answer me nothing! At last to the question: are you Christ the son of the Blessed? He replied: I am, causing an increasingly agitated Caiaphas to tear at his cloak and demand “Are you then the Son of God?” Jesus, who had in contrast to his interlocutor remained calm, replied cryptically, “You say that I am.”

It was enough for Caiaphas, there was no need for witnesses the accused had declared himself King of the Jews and admitted his guilt. He ordered that he be taken to Pilate.

Pilate couldn’t care less that some itinerant preacher had declared himself King of the Jews – it wasn’t his affair. He sent him to Herod Antipas in Galilee under whose jurisdiction he fell.

Herod, who drunk and amorous had only recently succumbed to the wiles of his step-daughter Salome and her Dance of the Seven Veils presenting her with the head of John the Baptist as a reward was disinclined to offend God any further. It was his want to mock, humiliate and belittle Jesus demanding that he perform miracles for his entertainment but he would not take responsibility for his execution – he returned him to Pilate.

It came as no surprise to Pilate that the idiot Herod had returned Jesus to his care but it was unwelcome nonetheless especially as Caiaphas and the Sahnredin weren’t about to let the matter lie.  They continued to harangue the Governor until at last he determined to meet the preacher, the holy man, who was causing him such grief.

Their meeting would be brief but deeply profound in its simplicity. There would be little to add, all that could be said would be said.

Pilate asked the preacher:

Do you consider yourself to be King of the Jews?

Jesus replied:

“If you say it is so, but my Kingdom is not of this world. I came into this world to bear witness to the truth, and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.”

Pilate paused for a moment before replying:

What is truth?

It is the question of eternal memory the resolution of which lies in the redemption of man but even as the answer stood erect before him Pilate could see nothing. But he had been disturbed by the exchange, moved even. His verdict: I find no fault in this man. Caiaphas disagreed, and he was quick to remind Pilate that to declare oneself King of the Jews was to declare oneself against Caesar – how would the Emperor in Rome react to such an assertion going unpunished?  Pilate could only say once again, I find no guilt in this man. His wife Claudia Procula agreed, she whispered in his ear of a dream she’d had. It was a warning she told him: “Have nothing to do with this righteous, innocent man for I have suffered many things this day because of a dream I had.” Caiaphas whispered in his other ear: “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar’s.”

Jesus would be condemned. It could not be otherwise but what should be his punishment?

It was the custom during Passover for the Prefect to release a condemned man according to public acclamation. Pilate put the question to the crowd – should the preacher be set free? They responded,  “Let his blood be upon our heads, and the heads of our children,” and chose instead a common thief named Barrabbas.  But why, asked Pilate, “what evil has he done?” They chanted “crucify him, crucify him!”

Pilate yields to their demand but then washes his hands in full view of the crowd before saying to those accompanying him: “I am innocent of this man’s blood, see you to it.”

Made to wear a crown of thorns in mockery of his claim to Kingship, Jesus, relentlessly scourged and beaten as he did so was forced to carry the Cross to which he would be nailed upon his back along the Via Dolorosa to his place of crucifixion on the hill of Calvary overlooking the city.

The many women who lined the route hearing the jeers and seeing the blood and torn flesh wept at the torture he was forced to endure but he told them not to weep for him but for themselves and their children.

Nailed to the Cross with his arms outstretched Jesus did not cry out or beg for mercy much to the irritation of Caiaphas and many of those looking on, no doubt.  Meanwhile, Pilate had pinned above his head a sign which read: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. When Caiaphas complained that he was not King of the Jews only claimed to be and that the sign should be taken down Pilate refused saying: “I have written what I have written.”

Jesus died on the Cross for the remission of man’s sins, be resurrected, and ascend to heaven. Pilate too would die, but in Rome, made to account for his actions, condemned, and ordered to take his own life by the man he served, the Emperor Caligula.

Few ponder much upon the fate of Pontius Pilate, and fewer still that of Caiaphas, but the death of Jesus remains forever etched in the heart and soul of man whether one wishes so or not, that is the truth of eternal memory; but that it was meant to be surely negates the requirement for blame and all then are guilty and innocent in equal measure? Maybe, maybe not, it falls to man to find the imponderable intolerable.










William Jennings Bryan: The Great Commoner

A thick-set robust man of boundless energy with a loud voice and a big personality, William Jennings Bryan was difficult to ignore. His appeal to the hard scrabble workers of America, the forgotten man, would earn him a reputation as the ‘Great Commoner’, a name in which he revelled though it was never intended as a complement. Common he was not but he was certainly the ‘Great Campaigner’ as it fell to him, he believed, to carry the flag for social justice and a better world, an argument he would make at rally after rally in town after town across the heartland of the United States. To some his was a message of hope, a call to arms for David to rise once more and smite the Goliath of global capital and the East Coast elites; to others his message was a naive stump politics laced with hypocrisy and made sordid by deceit. It falls to few then in a world devoid of tyrants to enthuse so many while antagonising even more. Yet for all the bluster, the frenzied debate, and the endless oratory he would fail not once, not twice but again and again, and live to see his ideas thoroughly rejected by a liberal and progressive mainstream that had come to loathe and detest him and everything he stood for. But the maverick in politics is a beast not easily slain and his message both in style and content resonates still with the great silent majority it always intended to rouse from its slumbers.

William Jennings Bryan was born to some affluence in Salem, Illinois, on 19 March, 1860. His father, Silas, was a circuit court judge active in Democratic Party politics while his mother, Mariah, was active in the Church, and the earnest young William eagerly embraced both. Indeed, he was to experience his own religious conversion aged 14, that he was later to describe as the best day of his life.

A studious child it was said he was rarely distracted from his work and he excelled both at school and college often finishing top of his class, though he was to be distracted long enough while studying at Illinois College to court Mary Elizabeth Baird, the daughter of a local businessman whom he married in October 1884.

They shared a healthy and stable relationship in which Mary not only bore her husband three children but was constantly at his side working tirelessly on his campaigns. It was a partnership in more ways than one and her role in his future success cannot be underestimated.

After graduating from Law School in Chicago he briefly worked as an attorney in Jacksonville before moving to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the opportunities for advancement appeared greater; and being already by his mid-twenties a lay preacher and an experienced public speaker, having honed his oratorical skills at the pulpit and in college debating societies, he now entered local politics determined to succeed where his father had seen his political ambitions thwarted.

The Nebraska Democrats had in fact, never encountered anyone quite like him and he was to rise rapidly through the ranks of the local party machine.

The connections made by his father during his many years in the Democratic Party and his own association with the ex-Senator from Illinois, Lyman Trumbull, for whom he briefly worked, served the ambitious Bryan well and by 1891 he had been elected to the House of Representatives in Washington. His Congressional career was to be brief and not particularly distinguished but by force of personality alone his impact on the political scene was to be far greater than it perhaps at first appeared.

In the summer of 1896, as the great and the good of the Democratic Party gathered in Chicago to choose its Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan was not being spoken of as a serious candidate, though evidence now suggests that manoeuvres were underway on his behalf. He had recently been making a name for himself campaigning against the Gold Standard wanting instead the dollar pinned to the Silver Standard also, thereby putting more money into circulation, making it cheaper, lowering interest rates, and allowing easier access to credit and loans. This would not only put more money in people’s pockets but should also increase the price of agricultural produce making farming more viable.

On 9 July, following a series of dreary speeches either in favour of the Gold Standard or in defence of the deeply unpopular departing President Grover Cleveland; with many delegates plainly disinterested and shuffling about in preparation to vote on the party platform, William Jennings Bryan rose to address the Convention.

Although many had been bored into numb indifference there were those who had been waiting in eager anticipation for him to speak, and so it was to a mixed reception that he strode to the platform. It wouldn’t be long however, before he grabbed their attention. Modulating his voice to good effect and expressive in his mannerisms he seemed to grow like a colossus upon the stage and he was to dominate proceedings as none had before. With few able to divert their eyes he rode the rhythm of his speech as a ship rolls with the waves, plunging and rising and forging a way through as time and again he electrified them with comparisons between the hard working common man and the quixotic business elites while defending the small proprietor against the East Coast money men:

“Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight, upon the side of the idle holders of capital or upon the side of the struggling masses? That is the question which the party answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic Party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses who, have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party.”

As the delegates shouted their approval, cheered wildly and threw their hats into the air he treated them to a rousing and defiant finale:

If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the Gold Standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interest, the labouring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a Gold Standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

As he concluded delegates rushed the stage and chaired him from the platform. It had been the speech of his life and it would propel him to the nomination as he unanimously defeated the pre-Convention favourite, the ex-Congressman from Missouri, Richard P Bland, on the sixth ballot.

His Cross of Gold Speech, as it became known, was a sensation being widely reported, much commented upon, and eagerly dissected. It elevated William Jennings Bryan, the relatively obscure machine politician from Nebraska to national prominence – he would now take his message to the country.

Following the Cross of Gold speech and his nomination as the Democratic Party candidate the Populist Party which represented the farming interest and had received more than a million votes in the previous Presidential election threw its weight behind him.

The support of the Populist Party made him appear an outsider and this was to be his own cross to bear for he was seen by many not to be a true Democrat, that he didn’t really represent the values and ideals of the party. Nonetheless, he remained popular and could draw a crowd; but politics is as much driven by jealousy as it is the art of persuasion and though Bryan was now the de facto leader of his party those who had previously been so did not easily give up the reins of power.

President Grover Cleveland was certainly no admirer of Bryan’s and would not support his candidacy but did not make his objections public. Others were not so shy in coming forward however, especially those who remained supporters of the Gold Standard, the so-called Gold Democrats, who broke away and nominated their own ticket which was to receive 137,000 votes in the forthcoming poll, not enough to swing the election but a significant number nevertheless.

Bryan’s Republican rival in the race for the White House was the popular and urbane veteran of the Civil War, William McKinley who, no less earnest in his way than his Democratic rival but no orator would not even try to compete with Bryan on the campaign trail instead he would run his campaign from the front porch of his elegant home in Canton, IIIinois.

With the financial backing of big business and the support of a largely sympathetic press he could be assured of the positive coverage he required.

By contrast Bryan hit the road and he hit it hard, as travelling by train he embarked upon a whistle-stop tour visiting 27 States, making 600 speeches, and addressing as many as 5 million people.

His message that remaining on the Gold Standard and its strict control of the money supply was keeping people poor when switching to silver coin at a ratio of 16 to 1 would restore prosperity resonated with people; and so portraying himself as the man who would stand up for the weak against the strong, as the man who would be the voice for those who had no voice, he was cheered to the rafters as he swept through the mid-West and Deep South like a cyclone. But when he addressed an audience of white farmers on the wind-swept plains of rural America he was speaking to the already converted.  His  campaign for Free Silver had made the election about class and the small farmers and rural poor flocked to his cause but the industrial working class who would have to carry the burden of higher prices did not.

Opining from the comfort of his front porch it was easy for McKinley and those surrogates campaigning on his behalf to portray Bryan’s demand for Free Silver as reckless. It would make the dollar in your pocket worth less he declared while also destabilising the economy and threatening U.S trade overseas.

He also appeared positively sanguine in the comfort of his own home drinking coffee and sharing a joke with reporters while the energised Bryan stumped around the country as evangelical in his politics as he was in his religion.

When the election result was announced it was perhaps closer than many people had expected, at least in terms of the popular vote. McKinley received 7,116,607 votes or 51% of the total winning 23 States; Bryan received 6,509,052 votes or 46.7% of the total winning 22 States. It was a comfortable enough win in the Electoral College at 271 to 176, and the electoral map had what would be thought an unfamiliar feel to us now with the Republican McKinley securing the East and West coast and industrial centres while the Democrat Bryan swept the mid-West and South.

The impact of Bryan’s campaign had been great, however. He had received more votes in defeat than any other previous candidate, more votes indeed than Grover Cleveland had received in becoming President four years earlier. McKinley’s front porch campaign of calm reassurance had been a success but could any candidate again afford to give their rival free rein on the campaign trail? Bryan had perhaps shown they could not. As such, even in defeat he was encouraged to run again and he would run again, but first there was a war to be fought.


On the night of 15 February 1898, the Armoured Cruiser USS Maine, which had been sent to protect American interests in Cuba threatened by its rebellion against Spanish rule, blew up and sank in Havana Harbour killing 268 men. It was a shocking incident which had most likely been an accident, an exploding boiler, but an Inquiry held shortly after found otherwise declaring it an act of sabotage carried out on behalf of the Spanish Authorities. An affronted nation their outrage fuelled by a bellicose press ensured that vengeance was now on every man’s lips and though President McKinley was at first reluctant to enter upon the path of hostilities the war hysteria that gripped the country left him with little choice – on 25 April, the United States declared war on Spain.

Bryan, who despite rumours to the contrary was no pacifist, recruited a regiment of volunteers to fight but the war was over before they could serve overseas. He had displayed a willingness to take up arms in defence of his country but what he could not countenance was imperial adventurism and was outspoken in his opposition to the American annexation of the Philippines that followed the end of the war. His anti-imperialism and the fact he never led men in combat would bear comparison to the man who would soon loom large not only in his but the nation’s life.

Bryan had wanted to fight the 1900 election on the same issue as the previous one, Free Silver, but now with the country recovering from recession and confident in victory the case for a change of Administration was a difficult one to make and the argument had lost much of its potency. Undeterred however, he once more took to the stump, another whistle-stop tour, more speeches (up to six a day) and crowds no less numerous and enthusiastic than before.

President McKinley would again run a front porch campaign greeting delegations at his front gate and holding garden parties for his supporters but this time Bryan would have a rival on the campaign trail, the Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt, a man just as energetic, just as charismatic, and one who had led men in combat, his famous Rough Riders in the storming of San Juan Hill.

Perhaps deafened by his own rhetoric or blinded by the multitudes who came to listen Bryan was slow to realise that a focus on the evils of big business at a time of economic prosperity was not a good issue upon which to campaign but when he shifted the focus to America’s continued presence in the Philippines, despite the support of the vocal anti-Imperialist League, he struggled to make headway against the wave of patriotism that invariably follows victory in war – a patriotism that was embodied both in word and deed by the man stalking him on the campaign trail.

In truth, morality can rarely withstand the storm of a robust jingoism.

As the results came in a pall of gloom descended upon the Bryan camp and the Democratic Party, McKinley’s vote had risen to 7,228,864 and the Electoral College was even more decisive than before at 292 to 155. Bryan’s vote had decreased slightly to 6,370,932. He had also won 5 fewer States one of which was his own, Nebraska.

While it was clear that his supporters had remained essentially loyal he had failed to reach out beyond them – their champion had failed them. It was enough for the Democratic Party to look elsewhere in 1904.

Bryan meanwhile, remained determined to spread his message far and wide and in January 1901 published the first edition of his weekly newspaper The Commoner, a commentary on current affairs which permeated with religious fervour became a popular addition to the political discourse of the day. It would at its peak boast 100,000 subscribers and become a regular feature on small town newsstands, but though it was sold in every State of the nation it did little to boost his support among the urban working class.

On 6 September 1901, while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, President McKinley was shot twice by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz.  He remained conscious following the assassination attempt and it seemed for a time that he would make a full recovery but by the 13th it was clear that his blood was poisoned and there was little hope. He died the following day.

McKinley was the third President to be murdered while in Office in just over 30 years following Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and James A Garfield in 1881 but it came as no less of a shock for that and especially as reports had suggested he would survive. Indeed, Theodore Roosevelt had been so confident of the President’s recovery he had gone on holiday and had to be summoned back to be sworn in.

Bryan would have relished the opportunity to cross swords once again with his old rival on the campaign trail but though his ambition to be President had not dimmed the enthusiasm within the Democratic Party for another Bryan candidacy had. He chose then, not to seek the nomination in 1904 much to the relief of the party establishment if not his grass roots supporters who remained many; but as is so often the case when the establishment of any organisation is presented with a free hand they then proceed to reveal just how out of touch they really are.

Their nomination for President would be Judge Alton B Parker, a conservative Democrat respected but of limited vistas and little personality. He was also a Gold Democrat whom Bryan would not endorse and openly criticised declaring that no decent Democrat should.

The truth was Parker’s nomination and that of his running mate the 80 year old Henry G Davis was forced upon the party to prevent the campaign of another popular but controversial candidate, the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, from gaining any traction.

With the party platform offering little new and Parker failing to inspire the result when it came was not unexpected. The Democrat vote had decreased by more than 1,200,000, a mere 37:5% of the total cast, and every State in the mid-West had been lost. The return to a more traditional politics had failed. It only served to strengthen Bryan’s position and power within the party.

In the meantime, he travelled extensively including to Asia and Europe where he met leading politicians and collected lecturing fees while honing his pitch for the next Presidential cycle. But he was never to be an internationalist. Indeed, the more he travelled the more he came to appreciate the United States.

By 1908 he was again at the helm of the Democratic Party and once more its nominee for President.

Bryan had expected to run against Theodore Roosevelt but the President had kept to the promise he had made to the American people not to seek a Second Term (something he’d soon come to regret) but he would hand-pick his successor and that man would be his Secretary of War William Howard Taft whose campaign he effectively ran.

Taft, a large, avuncular man of common sense and integrity was considered a safe pair of hands while Bryan had a significant number of problems to overcome: the popularity of Roosevelt in whose shadow Taft basked; a lack of divide between the two parties and any real issue to fight over; and, of course, the law of diminishing returns. He may dominate the Democratic Party still, but this was his third run at the presidency and his standing as the champion of the people was beginning to wane.

Most of all however, was the problem of perception.

Bryan did not distinguish between his politics and his religion. Indeed, the one developed from the other and religion was in many respects his political crutch forming a large part of his mass appeal throughout the rural United States. But it was also his Achilles Heel for it allowed his enemies to portray him as an unsophisticated backwards populist appealing to the baser instincts of ill -educated yeoman farmers and an ignorant rural poor – a man congenitally incapable of running an increasingly industrialised, technologically advanced, and socially progressive country.

He was also a loser, and so it proved.

The outcome of the election was a disappointment for the Democrats not just for its defeat, Taft had won comfortably enough with 51.1% of the popular vote while Bryan’s had fallen to 43.4% or his worst performance to date, but in the manner Bryan had once again failed to bridge the gap between his traditional base support in small town America and the large and growing industrial centres. No matter what he said or what he campaigned on he just couldn’t make that breakthrough, it was as if he was banging his head against a brick wall.

Even so, there were those among his supporters who wanted him to run again in 1912, but he understood where perhaps others did not the weariness of the voter.  His time as a viable candidate for President was over and he would instead focus on what he did best, campaign, not now for election but social reform.

So Bryan stood aside and for a very different kind of man, the erudite law professor, former President of Princeton University, and one term Governor of New Jersey Woodrow Wilson who with his indelible air of intellectual superiority brought a gravitas to Democratic Party politics that some thought had been lacking for too long.

Bryan and Wilson had little in common other than shared political allegiance and a mutual disdain for black people but they would work together for the benefit of the party.

Having lost all faith in his protégé Taft, Theodore Roosevelt would run again for President in 1912 as candidate for the Progressive Party in effect creating a split Republican ticket. After sixteen years in the political wilderness it offered a path back to power for the Democratic Party and so it would prove as Woodrow Wilson was elected President on just 41.8% of the popular vote, less than Bryan had received in defeat four years earlier.

The now President Wilson was, he believed, a man for the age, weary of tradition, ambivalent towards the constitution, determined that the Government should have the greater say in man’s affairs, and dismissive of those who read their Bible and merely pray for deliverance. He had little time for Bryan’s more populist brand of small town politics, his fire and brimstone religiosity but he was an impossible man to ignore and so  he appointed him Secretary of State. Given his lack of experience in foreign affairs and limited diplomatic nous it seemed a strange choice but it did at least remove him from the domestic scene and restricted his ability to meddle with Wilson’s progressive agenda.

It came as little surprise to those who knew him that his naivety should be exposed on the international stage and he found both the minutiae of administration and the running of a department laborious and dull. The few initiatives he did explore such as coaxing mutually antagonistic countries to sign non-aggression treaties (and some did) were to prove a waste of his department’s time while his somewhat half-hearted attempt to mediate in the conflict that had broken out in Europe was largely ignored.

Rather than end the soon-to-be Great War, Bryan’s primary objective was to keep America out of a conflict he believed was the direct consequence of the Social Darwinism he had come to fear and dread; where the survival of the fittest in a world without God had replaced the Biblical mandate to be one’s brother’s keeper, where the desire for war and conquest had replaced the Sermon on the Mount and the love of Christ in men’s hearts.

When on 7 May 1915, the RMS Lusitania was sunk off the coast of Ireland by a U-Boat drowning 1,198 of its passengers and crew among them 128 Americans, Bryan believed Wilson would use it as the pretext for war.  The outrage that followed and the initial hard-line adopted by Wilson appeared to confirm Bryan in his view. When Wilson refused to unequivocally state that the United States would maintain its neutrality throughout and regardless of provocation, he resigned. No doubt, to the relief of both men.

But Bryan was first and foremost a patriot, when, following the revelation of the Zimmerman Telegram the United States did at last declare war on Germany he wrote to Wilson:

“Believing it to be the duty of the citizen to bear his part of the burden of war and his share of the peril, I hereby tender my services to the government.”

Wilson declined the offer but he did encourage Bryan to speak favourably in public of American involvement which he proceeded to do with his usual gusto.

Following his resignation from Wilson’s cabinet Bryan returned to Florida where he had moved for the sake of his wife’s health in 1912. It was also time for him to make some money and he would do so by promoting real estate giving speeches and entertaining potential buyers at his luxury home in Miami. It was perhaps not the most edifying career move for the Great Commoner, selling land to millionaires, but everyone has to live.

His removal from front-line politics also freed him to campaign on issues close to his heart not only as an advocate for prohibition and women’s suffrage but also a minimum wage, an eight hour day, and trade union rights. Issues he should perhaps have focussed on earlier in his career.

As the clocks approached midnight on 15 January 1920, the keynote speaker at a gathering of the Prohibition Movement in Washington’s First Congregational Church brought his peroration to a resounding crescendo as quoting from the Book of Matthew, William Jennings Bryan declared:

“They are dead who sought to take the young child’s life. They who would have killed us we have killed them.” 

Minutes later as the Church bells rang out the Volstead Act or Eighteen Amendment to the U.S Constitution banning the production, distribution, sale, and consumption of alcohol came into force to be followed just 18 months later by the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that granted the franchise to women nationwide. These were rare victories for Bryan and ones in which he took his full share of credit even though he had been a peripheral figure in both campaigns for many of the preceding years – even so, it was nice to taste the fruits of victory after so many bitter weeds of defeat.

There was still one battle to be fought, however.

Bryan considered Eugenics, as developed from Darwin’s theory of evolution to be the greatest threat to mankind and social cohesion.  It undermined Biblical teaching and advocated for a material rather than a moral world and he fought hard to restrict its teaching in public schools. Support for his campaign wasn’t always forthcoming from the sources he expected and so disappointed was he in the Protestant Churches embrace of Darwinism by its acceptance that one could be both an evolutionist and a Christian that he ran for Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church – it was yet another election he lost.

His determination to defend a fundamentalist interpretation of the Old Testament and to argue in favour of creationism over evolution and the inherent evil of natural selection it contained within made him both a figure of fun and easy to lampoon. He remained undeterred however, he had endured such all his political life and so he ploughed on regardless, writing, speaking, and organising against the further spread of Darwinism. But he was more and more only speaking to those who wished to hear. Elsewhere, away from his traditional support, he was becoming increasingly marginalised and ignored; but the opportunity soon emerged for him to make his case not just in a moral but a legal context, and to a much larger audience.

In March 1925, the State of Tennessee, which had three times voted for Bryan as President, passed the Butler Act making it an offence to: teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

Bryan, who had been campaigning for States to legislate against the teaching of Darwin was understandably delighted, though he wanted it banned or taught merely as one theory among many rather than made a criminal offence, wrote to the Governor of Tennessee:

“The Christian parents of the State owe you a debt of gratitude for saving their children from the poisonous influence of an unproven hypothesis.”

In Dayton an enterprising local businessman George Rappalyea aware of how controversial the Butler Act was likely to be saw it as an opportunity to put his small town on the map. He discussed the matter with others and together they persuaded a 24 year old high school teacher John T Scopes to deliberately violate the code. He agreed, and was duly arrested.

The case made headlines but the carnival that was soon to surround it astonished even Rappalyea.

The American Civil Liberties Union eager to contest the legality of the Butler Act agreed to represent Scopes and appointed the New York attorney Clarence Darrow as Defence Counsel. Darrow was the most famous advocate of his day and had recently represented the defendants in the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder trial saving both from the death penalty. He had also once campaigned for Bryan as President but he no longer had much belief in or affection for his old friend.

Learning of this Bryan, champing at the bit to get involved, volunteered to lead the prosecution.

Two of the most famous men in America were to go head-to-head and the press descended upon Dayton like a swarm of locusts, one of whom was the acerbic H.L Mencken, journalist with the Baltimore Sun who had a deep loathing for Bryan, what he stood for, and the places from where he drew his support. He would use his particular poison pen to very good effect.

He was to be scathing of Dayton and its inhabitants though it was in truth an attractive small town, bathed in sunlight, with a polite and hospitable people something he was to submit to the privacy of his diary:

The town, I must confess greatly surprised me. I expected to find a squalid Southern village with darkies snoozing on the horseblocks, pigs rooting under the houses and the inhabitants full of hookworm and malaria. What I found was a country town full of charm and even beauty.

But he wasn’t one to let reality intrude upon pre-ordained and long held prejudice or to unnecessarily influence his prose:

Everywhere I venture in the Tennessee hill country I encounter faith healers, fanatics, medicine men, and frauds.”

The people were ignoramuses, childish in their theology, narrow minded, bigoted, imbecilic in their beliefs, and Bryan was their fundamentalist pope.

H L Mencken would use his particular poison pen to good effect and set the tone for much of the coverage of the trial and the debate that followed but the picture he painted wasn’t always an accurate one.

The atmosphere in Dayton was not confrontational however, but celebratory; the streets were adorned with bunting, the bands played; there were markets and fairground stalls and salesmen and charlatans and itinerant preachers and even a chimpanzee or two.

Bryan was greeted like a returning hero and he was in his element as he played the crowd, spoke often, and attended prayer meetings. The reception for Darrow was a little more muted.

The trial began on 10 July, to a packed courtroom which with the public gallery resembling a melee, journalists in every nook and cranny and even microphones set up for one of the first live radio broadcasts was clearly too small to accommodate all those who wanted to attend. The intense heat of a Tennessee summer only made it more unbearable and the courtroom would soon be abandoned for the cooler climes of the grounds outside.

There was no doubt that Scopes was guilty but then Darrow was less interested in the fate of his client than he was in excoriating the law he had been accused of violating and he had gathered an impressive line-up of witnesses to do just that.  Judge John T Raulston thought otherwise however, and ruled all of them as inadmissible – the court was not charged with the responsibility to prove or disprove Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, or challenge the legality of the Butler Act, but to try the defendant John T Scopes with the violation of that act.

It seemed as if the case was as good as over but Darrow had another card up his sleeve, he would call the Prosecution Counsel William Jennings Bryan to bear witness to his ‘literal’ interpretation of the Bible. Judge Raulston was inclined to rule this inadmissible as well but Bryan was eager to take up the challenge and he was not one to defy the great man.

Darrow would prepare well for his cross-examination but Bryan felt no requirement on his part to do likewise. He was no theologian after all, and made no claim to be so, but he knew the Bible and he believed in the Word of the Bible. He had nothing to fear if he answered every question honestly and faithfully and by that alone the truth would be revealed to all those willing to listen.

Perhaps, he had become unfamiliar with the exigencies of the justice system or mechanics of court procedure but he was soon to find that whereas repeated declarations of one’s absolute faith might resonate with force from the pulpit it sits less easily on the witness stand.

The fish had taken the bait, and Darrow wasn’t about to let it off the hook.

The stuffiness of the courtroom ensured that Bryan’s testimony would be heard alfresco and a carnival atmosphere prevailed for a time as people gathered to watch.  A hush descended however, as their hero stepped up to the witness stand smiling and waving to his supporters. There was a little joshing between the men, a verbal joust or two, before Darrow began to turn the screw. He pointed out the Bible’s many contradictions, its lack of historiography, and questioned Bryan as to his own absurd assumptions. He demanded clarity where Bryan’s answers were often vague and uncertain. As the Great Commoner stumbled and narrowed his eyes the atmosphere turned into one of open hostility. At times appearing confused it was not only the bright sunlight that Bryan was subjected to but the intense glare of public humiliation. Diminished in the eyes of those looking on he could not escape the vice-like grip of having to defend the indefensible. He could not say what he wanted to say and they were laughing. These were his people and they were mocking him.

He had revealed himself to be what the so-called ‘smart set’ had always said he was, a bigoted old fool who peddled superstition and lies to stand upon the shoulders of those too ignorant to know better, and they revelled in it. H L Mencken wrote:

It is tragedy indeed to begin life as a hero  and end it as a buffoon.

It was unfair of course, and not all agreed with many in the South and mid-West considering the entire Scopes Monkey Trial to be an attack on their way of life but the support he received in the regional press had little influence nationwide or around the world.

Still he had one last chance to redeem his reputation, his summation at the end of the trial, a speech he had been working on for days. This would be his opportunity to address the Court and those looking on; to make clear the dangers inherent in abandoning the teachings of Christ for the assertions of an unfounded, unproven, and perverted science –  but it wasn’t to be.

Much to Clarence Darrow’s delight, on 21 July the Court reconvened to find John T Scopes guilty of violating the Butler Act. He could now appeal the verdict to a higher court and having informed Judge Raulston of his intentions he declined to deliver his summation. It was a last twist of the knife for he knew by doing so it negated Bryan’s right to do so.

The Scopes Monkey Trial would fade from memory only to be revived from time to time, but its damage to Bryan’s reputation would remain. The speech he never delivered would later be published though he would never see it.  The following brief extract provides something of its tone:

Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine.

 If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene. His teachings, and His teachings alone, can solve the problems that vex the heart and perplex the world.

Bryan remained in Dayton after the trial happy to be in the company of God-fearing people for a change where he held meetings, attended church service, and gathered his thoughts for the battles ahead. Always a prodigious eater on 26 July having dined lavishly he went for his usual afternoon nap. He never woke up.

Upon receiving the news that Bryan had died H.L Mencken remarked:

“So, we killed the son of a bitch.”

Clarence Darrow’s initial remarks were hardly less generous though he later tempered them somewhat. Mencken however, remained unrelenting in his hostility as he wrote in his obituary:

Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had travelled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.

Not all would agree and William Jennings Bryan remains one of the most significant figures in the political history of the United States more for what he stood and campaigned for than anything he achieved, though many of the things he advocated for would later become law such as female suffrage, a federal income tax, the direct election of Senators a ban on the corporate funding of campaigns, and the government guarantee of bank deposits.

By championing the causes he did he highlighted aspects of the American character that had been present since its founding and exposed a fault line in society that exists to this day – and when his legacy is debated at all it can still inflame the passions.  Even if up to the present day with our now mass media determined to peddle the conventional wisdom they themselves are the creators of the argument has been a lop-sided and unequal one.













Constance Markiewicz: The English Countess of Irish Freedom

Born on 4 February 1868, Constance Georgine Gore-Booth was destined to be a lady, and as an English aristocrat raised in Ireland, beautiful, intelligent, graceful and courteous she could have lived a decorous life; that she chose not to in the end can be worthy of praise but in her manner of doing so no less worthy of criticism, for she took up arms in the cause of Irish freedom thereby conspiring against the country of her birth and committing treason.

Her parents Sir Henry and Lady Georgina Gore-Booth were of Anglo-Irish stock and owned estates in County Sligo where unlike many of the English landowning class in Ireland they enjoyed a good relationship with their tenants and were well respected locally.  Liberal in their politics they also allowed their daughters a freedom to roam which Constance took full advantage of indulging her passion for the outdoors learning to ride, hunt, and fish. Indeed, she loved her childhood in Sligo, its landscape, the fresh air, and all the other myriad attractions of a carefree life in rural Ireland. It was a privileged existence, and she no less enjoyed being the pampered young lady as she did the self-indulgent tomboy of her daylight meanderings.

As she grew older and became increasingly accomplished she attracted a great many male admirers and even impressed the not always amenable Queen Victoria when presented to her as a possible paramour for her grandson the future King George V, but she had no relish for the ornamental life. She wished to achieve things in her own right, though what exactly remained a mystery but it certainly didn’t involve politics. Indeed, she showed little interest in the social movements of the day and would disagree agree passionately with her more engaged younger sister Eva on issues such as labour reform, improved living conditions, and even women’s suffrage.  So instead she studied art first in London and later Paris; and it was in Paris that she first met Count Casimir Markiewicz, a Ukrainian aristocrat of Polish descent, at least that’s what he told people, a not very successful playwright and theatre director who nonetheless was a familiar figure among the artistic mileu of the city introducing Constance to a bohemian lifestyle of which she neither approved nor disapproved but did think decidedly un-English. But able now to live outside the rigid social conventions of the day while still attending the Ambassador’s Ball suited her well, and it helped her relationship with Casimir blossom, that was until they married in September 1900.

Constance gave birth to a daughter not long after the wedding and in 1903 the now Countess Markiewicz and her husband returned to Ireland but despite being back in more familiar surroundings she could not adapt to domestic life, she was not equipped to be a mother neither was she a dutiful wife. It was not enough, she needed some purpose, some reason to exist, and her frustration was placing an intolerable strain on the marriage. In 1905 she wrote:

“Nature should provide me with something to live for, something to die for.”

Dissatisfied with life the Countess Markiewicz came late to politics.

By 1905, she and Casimir were living in Dublin where working as a theatre director he staged a number of plays in which Constance acted alongside Maud Gonne the unreciprocated love interest of the nationalist poet W.B Yeats. It was Maud who was to introduce Constance to radical circles where the promotion of the Gaelic language and preservation of Irish culture dominated literary output and was the topic of choice at any dinner party worthy of attendance.  Constance soon became an advocate for this resurgent Ireland but it wasn’t until the following year having read at length many of the pamphlets and essays then circulating which called for Irish independence from Britain, by force if necessary, that her cultural nationalism became political.

In 1908, she joined Maud Gonne’s radical Daughters of Ireland and a little later the recently formed nationalist party Sinn Fein – at last she had found that elusive purpose for life, a cause to fight for, and yes, to die for.

Not that she was entirely trusted by her new colleagues. She was after all a lady, English, and a Protestant. Turning up for her first party meeting in a ball gown and a tiara having just attended a party at Dublin Castle the seat of British power in Ireland, didn’t help; but she was soon to prove the sceptics wrong, that she was more than a merely decorative fellow traveller. She had been radicalised, and soon after travelled to England to harass Winston Churchill during the Manchester North by-election campaign over his refusal to support women’s suffrage. Her impact was minimal but this did little to diminish her delight at his defeat. There was always something about Churchill that brought out the worst in his opponents. This was just the beginning for Constance however, as she threw herself into the cause she now believed in utterly working assiduously at every level in both organisations from distributing leaflets, to sitting on committees, and addressing rallies. In 1909, she helped found Fianna Eireean, a front organisation for providing young men with military training and for which she made land available on the family estate. Her social connections would indeed prove of great value to the movement and in 1911, she was drafted onto the Sinn Fein Executive.

The situation in Ireland which so often appeared like a powder keg ready to explode was only inflamed further by the Liberal Government in Westminster introducing a Home Rule Bill intended to establish a bi-cameral Irish Parliament elected by Irishmen to administer Irish affairs. It was the third attempt in as many decades to secure a settlement for Ireland but it was to prove no less problematic than the previous two.

Protestant Unionists in the north of the country refused to be governed by a Catholic dominated Parliament based in Dublin. Under the leadership of Sir Edward Carson (who earlier as a barrister had prosecuted Oscar Wilde) they founded an armed militia the Ulster Volunteers, and on 28 September 1912, he presided over the ceremony that saw 500,000 Ulster Unionists sign the Solemn League and Covenant which vowed to oppose the attempt to introduce Home Rule by any means possible. In response to the belligerency of the Ulster Unionists in the north nationalists in the south also formed their own armed militia, the much larger Irish Volunteer Force.

Ireland seemed on the brink of civil war.

Unlike on previous occasions the Government appeared ready to face down the Unionist opposition to Home Rule by force if necessary, but doubt was cast upon their ability to do so when in May 1914 letters were received indicating that senior Officers of the British garrison based at the Curragh in County Limerick would resign their commissions if ordered to act against the Unionists in Ulster. The Curragh Mutiny as it became known sent a shiver down the spine of the British Establishment and it seemed as if an impasse had been reached. But while the Navy was being prepared to sail to Belfast and do if necessary what the Army could not be trusted to do war broke out on the Continent.

The Great War changed everything, or so it seemed, and when the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party John Redmond agreed to the shelving of the Home Rule Bill for its duration (expected to be a year) and called upon Irishmen everywhere to support Britain’s war effort it seemed that the crisis was at an end.  But it had only been stymied, passions were still running high, Redmond’s commitments had served to split the nationalist movement and more militant elements now came to the fore with their hopes raised rather than quashed by events.

Home Rule aside Ireland was also not immune to the rural unrest and industrial strife that beset mainland Britain in those turbulent months before the outbreak of war with Constance active in the many disputes working closely alongside the trade unionist leader James Connolly in setting up soup kitchens in Dublin and organising collections for the strikers. Times were tough yet despite this and the continuing rancour and division caused by the proposed Home Rule Bill there was little enthusiasm for independence. But the war provided an opportunity for where the nationalists could oppose it publicly they also knew it weakened Britain and made the prospect of finding allies among her enemies willing to support Irish independence more likely. Germany had indicated it would provide arms and ammunition in preparation for an uprising. Should such a rising prove successful they might even invade. It was enough to convince the nationalist leadership to make their bid and strike for freedom.

On 24 April 1916, Padraig Pearse, leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood stood upon the steps of the General Post Office in O’Connell Street, Dublin, and read out his Proclamation of the Irish Republic:

“In the name of God and the dead generations from which she receives her tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for freedom.”

The operation had been carefully planned and he had 1200 armed men behind him willing to fight but with little popular support Pearse knew the chances of success were slight but he was also convinced that a blood sacrifice was required and that Britain’s response to any rebellion would be swift, harsh, and vengeful – he was right. In the midst of a foreign war they were not about to countenance rebellion at home. Troops were despatched from the mainland to reinforce the local garrison and when the demand the rebels lay down their arms was refused the hostilities began.

The fighting was fierce as the determination of the rebels was more than matched by the anger of the British and Constance was in the thick of it. Stationed at St Stephen’s Green it was said she had been appointed second-in-command which may not have been entirely accurate but she was certainly prominent overseeing the positioning of troops, the building of barricades, and the distribution of ammunition before taking up arms herself.

A nurse who was taking shelter nearby later described in her diary:

“A lady in a green uniform holding a revolver in one hand and a cigarette in the other was standing on the footpath giving orders to the men. We recognised her as the Countess Markiewicz. We had only been looking a few minutes when we saw a policeman walking down the path. He had only gone a short way when we heard a shot and saw him fall forward onto his face. The Countess ran triumphantly into the Green shouting – I got him!”

If the writer’s account is accurate then she had just shot an unarmed man without warning who later died of his wounds.

It had been hoped, forlornly perhaps, that once news of the armed insurrection in central Dublin spread it would create in its wake similar events elsewhere in Ireland but no reports of such reached the rebels and while Dubliners ventured to look they chose not to participate. The rebellion then had not been the spark that would set Ireland ablaze, that would rouse the people to rise up and expel the foreigner from its blood soaked but sacred soil, to revive and restore once more the freedom and liberty of the Gaels sojourned for so long in the mists of time. Such was the rhetoric of romance, the romance no doubt that drew an English Countess to the cause of Irish nationhood.  But there is little romance in the crash of an artillery shell and he rat-tat-tat of the machine gun.

By establishing themselves in fixed positions that were easily cordoned off and surrounded the rebels had foregone any freedom of movement and could not be reinforced or resupplied.  Without support from outside the end was inevitable. Even so, the ferocity and determination with the Irish fought surprised the British who having seen their attempts to storm their positions repulsed would resort to siege and high calibre explosive shells – the rebels would either starve or die in the rubble.

After six long days and with the British poised to use even heavier artillery, maybe even warships moored on the River Liffey, to which the rebels had no answer with ammunition running low and casualties mounting on 29 April, in order to avoid further bloodshed and needless loss of life, Padraig Pearse agreed to an unconditional surrender.

This would not be the end of his intended blood sacrifice, however.

As the captured rebels were marched through the streets of the city they were shocked to find themselves jeered at and spat upon by a people hostile to their aims and unsympathetic to their plight – they had expected better. The Easter Rising as it was soon to become known was not after all a terrorist attack or an incident of guerrilla warfare, nor was it intended to be. They had announced who they were, declared their aims, had a command structure, some wore uniform, and they all acted under orders – they were an army, a citizen army, an Irish Republican Army, and had fought the enemy in the open after a formal declaration of intent. They had expected to be treated as prisoners-of-war but were in fact to be considered traitors to the crown.

During the first two weeks of May 1916, a series of military tribunals sentenced 90 of the captured rebels to death among them the seven signatories of the proclamation and the Countess Markiewicz.  Unlike the 15 who were to be executed by firing squad in the courtyard of Kilmainham Gaol, Constance, who’d had the dubious honour of being able to surrender to her own cousin and was the only one of the more than 70 women taken prisoner to be kept in solitary confinement, to preserve her dignity it was said, was to be spared such harsh treatment. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the grounds that she was a woman, not a factor that seemed to trouble the criminal courts greatly in passing judgement on capital cases.

The decision of the military authorities in Ireland to execute the leading rebels was obtuse and counter-productive in effect making the rebel’s case for them by rallying an apathetic Irish people behind the cause of national independence.

The Government in Westminster soon realised its mistake and Constance, along with the other prisoner were released just a year later following a general amnesty. But it was to prove too little too late.

Despite her work on behalf of the nationalist cause and participation in the Easter Rising there were always those within Sinn Fein who viewed Constance Markiewicz as an outsider and not an entirely trustworthy one. As such, she often felt the need to re-assert her credentials and so upon her release from prison she converted to Roman Catholicism despite having not previously expressed any deep religious faith. She also immediately re-entered the political fray and was briefly imprisoned once again this time for opposing the Military Service Bill which sought to extend conscription to Ireland but was released in time to campaign for the seat of St Patrick’s Dublin in the General Election of December 1918 which she duly won thereby becoming the first woman elected to the British Parliament; but she wasn’t to be the first woman to serve in the House of Commons  for like the other 72 members of Sinn Fein elected  she refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Crown and so was unable to take her seat. That honour would later go to the American born Nancy Witcher Langhorne, Viscountess Lady Astor.

The Election which had seen Sinn Fein take 73 of 105 Irish seats provided them with a political legitimacy and moral force unimaginable just two years earlier and they were determined to use it. Having chosen to ignore the Parliament at Westminster they now established their own the Dail Eireaan (Assembly of Ireland) which met for the first time in Ireland on 21 January, 1919.

The issue of Home Rule which had so dominated politics prior to the Great War was by now a dead letter and there seemed no possibility of Britain relinquishing its control over Ireland or tolerating any notion of dual power. A tense stand-off ensued which following a series of terrorist incidents descended into an undeclared war of independence between the British Armed Forces and the Irish Republican Army led by Michael Collins.

Such was Countess Markiewicz’s fame she was unable to play an active role in the war and remained for the most part in hiding but she stood firmly the activities of the I.R.A and its elusive and charismatic leader.  Her admiration for Collins wouldn’t last, however.

The war, though not the violence, would end with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.



Michael Collins had headed the Irish delegation sent to London to negotiate the end of the conflict but the treaty he signed which detached the six Protestant dominated northern counties from the rest of Ireland and kept the new Free State within the Commonwealth was simply unacceptable to many within the nationalist movement and their de facto leader, President of the Dail, Eamon de Valera.

hThe treaty was ratified at a stormy meeting of the Dail on 7 January 1922 but only just by 64 votes to 57. The violence of the debate made it clear there was little room for reconciliation and Constance argued furiously with Collins accusing him of being a traitor to which pointing at her he responded more than once, “You are English! You are English!”  The anti-treaty faction then walked out – Civil War would follow.

Though it would cost Michael Collins his life the war between the newly constituted Irish Free State and the anti-treaty forces would be an uneven struggle. Constance, who sided with the rebels, would again find herself imprisoned, this time by people she had previously fought alongside.

The Civil War was a sad denouement to the long struggle for Irish independence but in the end an Irish State would exist, not over the entire island perhaps, but over those parts which wanted and had voted for it.

Following the end of the Civil War, Constance joined Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fail Party for whom she was elected to the Dail in 1927, but she was not fated to serve as a peacetime politician. On 15 July following a short illness she died, aged 59.

The Countess Markiewicz had been a steadfast figure on the left of the nationalist movement at a time of great uncertainty and often discordant debate even if some doubted her commitment and were never convinced that it was more than a fad or the distraction from bored nobility. Those who worked closely alongside her knew otherwise however, and Eamon de Valera was present at her bedside as the end neared. Her contribution then was acknowledged even if the obituaries were often less than flattering. But even among her enemies and opponents there was a grudging respect, as the playwright Sean O’Casey, not always an admirer wrote:

“One thing she had in abundance – physical courage, with that she was clothed as if in a garment.”

Reconciled though she was to the Free State by the time of her death there was to be little official commemoration of her passing and certainly no State Funeral as had been requested. She was instead buried in a private ceremony at Glasnevin Cemetery with some of her previous colleagues in attendance, but certainly not all.
















Kaiser Wilhelm II

Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert, a Hohenzollern, and future Emperor of Germany was born on 27 January 1859 in Berlin at a time when the country he would come to rule, made up of a myriad of separate kingdoms, duchies, and principalities did not exist other than as a geographical expression on the map of Europe; but he was destined to be King of Prussia nonetheless, Germany would come later after a long gestation and much like his own, a difficult birth with severe and lasting implications.

His mother was the eighteen year old Princess Victoria known as Vicky, the strong-willed eldest daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria the future matriarch of Europe’s many dynasties great and small.

She had been schooled by her father, Prince Albert, to think for herself and be unafraid to express her views. She also shared his liberal values, the English way of doing things, and was determined that others should believe in them to, among them her husband Friedrich, the Crown Prince of Prussia, but when he spoke in favour of greater press freedom or liberty of conscience it was not well received in a deeply conservative country little interested in reform and dominated by the army. It would in time see him increasingly alienated from his father and excluded from affairs of state. This came as a surprise to Vicky, from a country where a prince’s views on a whole range of issues were not just expected but sought, listened to, and even acted upon.  But then the entire Prussian Court with its rigid protocol, cold palaces, and even colder servants was so unlike her cosy childhood in the bosom of a loving bourgeois family home. Even so, she would not be intimidated by the parade ground politics and barrack room manners of her new world. She would not be silent, she would have her say, and she remained determined that together she and the Crown Prince would change their country forever. Or so she thought.

But all such and their consequences thereof were as yet unknown, for now as a newly-wed young princess she had her duty to perform, to provide the Prussian Monarchy with a son and future heir, and so it would be that on a cold winters afternoon in the Crown Prince’s Palace on the Unter den Linden in Berlin that a most protracted and painful labour began.

In attendance at her bedside was Queen Victoria’s personal physician Sir James Clark who was a great advocate for the benefits of chloroform which, despite finding the baby lying in the breech position, he had administered to Vicky in heavy doses to help deaden the pain and silence the screams which were frequent and loud. Indeed, so much had been absorbed she was almost comatose and incapable of helping in the delivery. Under such circumstances a Caesarean Section would normally have been contemplated but it was then a perilous procedure and after consulting with his German colleagues it was decided they could not risk the death of both mother and child. Instead, the baby was quite literally yanked from the womb with great force. In doing so, its left arm which was lying behind its back was crushed.

The injury was not apparent at the time  and of far greater concern was the baby seeming not to breathe and it was only the timely intervention of one of the Princess’s female attendants who, much to the horror of the doctors present , took the baby and began to slap its face vigorously that likely saved the future Kaiser’s life.

The severity of the infant Wilhelm’s disability would become apparent over time and we can only speculate as to any brain damage that may have resulted from the violence of the delivery, though many would later remark upon his erratic behaviour and an evident emotional instability.

Vicky may have sparkled in the joy of having given birth and glowed with good health but the same could not be said for her son who as a future King would require not just the moral strength to lead but physical accomplishments to be admired. As he grew into infancy it became apparent that his disability was graver than at first thought. She could not allow it to go untreated and determined that his paralysed and useless left arm would be cured a series of increasingly bizarre medical procedures were undertaken to that effect.

At the age of six he was subjected to a twice weekly ‘animal bath’ where his left arm would be placed inside the still warm carcass of a freshly slaughtered wild hare, it being thought that its hot blood and feral energy would transfer itself to his withered limb; he was also forced to undergo galvanism, or electro-therapy treatment, powerful electric shocks that were intended to jolt his arm back into life but the impact of such treatment was not on his disability but on his nerves with the possible psychological effects on a child made to endure the fear and pain of such a harsh remedy never even taken into consideration.

On other occasions his good arm would simply be tied behind his back forcing him to try and use his other arm which of course he was unable to do causing him great embarrassment and no little distress.

Vicky was observant of every aspect of her son’s well-being and by the age of four Willy’s tendency to tilt his head to the left was causing concern and so he was made to wear a brace that extended the length of his back and neck and was fixed over his head which when screwed tight kept it ramrod straight. This particular anomaly was at least overcome but there was little they could do about his arm and it appeared his disability would be permanent. Vicky wrote in despair to her mother:

“The idea of him forever remaining a cripple appals me. It spoils all the pleasure and pride I should have in him.”

Vicky’s love for her first born diminished the more it became apparent he would remain an invalid and a distance grew between them. As a result, Willy’s childhood would be both a time of great affection and the most excruciating torment; a confused myriad of emotions that were reflected in a character that was needy, hyper-active, and prone to tantrums. Again Vicky wrote to her mother expressing her concerns:

“He gets so fretful and cross and violent, and passionate he makes me quite nervous sometimes.”

Still, if she could not cure him then she could at least educate and mould him as a man.  She would start by demanding that he learn to ride, withered arm or not, and learn to ride well. His disability should not be seen as an impediment and so he would learn to mount and dismount without assistance; to that end he would do so again and again and ride for hours without respite. If he lost his balance and began to fall then he would be allowed to do so. If it hurt him the more, then good, the sooner he would learn.  When Friedrich watching his son and seeing him in tears complained to Vicky that she was too harsh, she replied – it must be done!

Vicky was also eager to inculcate her son with the same liberal values she had been taught at her father’s knee and so Willy was encouraged to play with the children of ‘common folk’ and even made to visit their homes. They were of course the children of respectable bourgeois, friends of the royal couple, but even so she was insistent that he learn of life outside the Imperial Palace and the confines of the Royal Court. All it achieved was to provide him with an inflated opinion of his own understanding, that no one knew the people better than he for he had spent time alongside them.

Wilhelm would come to view his mother’s teachings as weak and foolish and in the end reject them in their entirety.

At the age of eleven Willy was sent to Boarding School in Kassel and it was here that he first imbibed the Prussian nationalism that came to dominate his thinking.

Lonely and infused with that sense of abandonment many children feel when sent away from home his relationship with his mother was only intensified by her absence. The many letters he wrote (often not reciprocated) were affectionate and filled with longing. Vicky, when she did reply, was cold and unsympathetic – where he expressed his love she corrected his grammar.  Indeed, the letters exchanged between them bear stark testimony to the breakdown in their relationship.

The happiest periods of Willy’s childhood were spent with his grandmother at her home Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. It was here playing with his British cousins that he fell in love with the sea and later as Kaiser he would regularly attend the Cowes Yachting Regatta not as a tourist but as a competitor. He would race his own yacht determined to win, or at the very least finish ahead of his Uncle Bertie, the future King Edward VII.

On 18 January 1871 following Prussia’s victory in their short but bloody war against the French, in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles, King Wilhelm I was proclaimed Emperor of the newly unified Germany.  Despite fears expressed in some quarters of Prussian domination a wave of patriotism swept the new nation as its people took pride in its achievement and Willy was no exception.  He was thrilled by the turn of events and especially proud of his father’s role as Commander of the victorious Third Army. At odds though he often was with his father this fact alone would earn him his undying respect and in later life no little envy.

The genius behind German unification however, was the Emperor’s Chief Minister Count Otto von Bismarck, a man who was to become increasingly influential in the young Wilhelm’s life and work to separate him from his father and the malign influence of the Crown Prince’s English wife.

With his coming of age Willy’s grandfather, the Emperor, decided it was time for the boy to become a man. He would learn the discipline the sense of duty, and experience the camaraderie that comes with army life and so he was commissioned First Lieutenant in the elite Foot Guards stationed at Potsdam.

Here at last was a place he felt at home, somewhere he could be happy morning, noon, and night whether on manoeuvres, in the officer’s mess, or on the parade ground.  The manly attributes of the soldierly life suited him down to the ground. If his disability was any impediment at all then no one cared to mention it – they were all stout fellows together. He wrote of his time there:

“In the Guards I really found my family, my friends, my interests – everything I had up to that time had to do without.”

Despite his acceptance into the Guards as a fellow officer with few questions asked his disability did in truth remain problematic. He could not mount a horse without assistance or wield a sabre or lance once he had done so; he could only fire a rifle using his good arm and had to have it reloaded for him; even at dinner a footman would stand behind his chair ready to cut up his food, at least until a knife and fork mechanism was designed specifically for his use. He also walked with a limp and had done so ever since he’d had a tendon removed to help with his balance.

But soldiers overcome such adversities, and so it was with the future Kaiser; he would become a competent if nervous rider, an expert marksman, and would stride out with confidence on the parade ground. He also learned to place the hand of his withered arm on the hilt of his sword making its paralysis barely visible even to those already aware of it.

On 27 February 1881, Willy married his second cousin Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein known in family circles as ‘Dona.’ He had previously proposed to his first cousin Princess Elisabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt, the older sister of Alexandra the last Empress of Russia, but she had spurned his advances in favour of the Grand Duke Sergei. As a future King of Prussia and German Emperor he did not take kindly to being rejected for a Duke, Grand or otherwise, and certainly not a Russian one. It reminded him perhaps, of Germany’s parvenu status among the great dynasties of Europe, so it could be said he married Dona on the rebound much to the chagrin of his parents  who considered her to be of minor nobility and unworthy of such elevation.

But if it was a hasty choice it was also a wise one for she would prove the ideal partner for her rarely less than exuberant husband. She said little, remained in the background, had no opinions anyone was aware of, and bore him seven children in ten years without complaint – it was a happy marriage and by all accounts a faithful one.

While his successor once removed wallowed for the time being at least in domestic bliss the Emperor Wilhelm lurched towards a venerable old age retreating further and further from public life leaving both domestic and foreign policy in the capable hands of Bismarck, but even as he succumbed to physical infirmity and the increasingly maudlin reminiscences of a long life there would still be no political role for the Crown Prince. Instead the wily old Chancellor fostered a relationship with his son providing him access to government documents denied his father.

Willy soon forged an understanding with Bismarck, a man whose views appeared to correspond with his own. If indeed they were his own for Bismarck was a master at manipulation who had long sought to influence the successor to the Crown Prince whose reign when it came would have to be hindered rather than helped.

So for now the longer the old Emperor remained alive the better but he was drawing on borrowed time and on 9 March 1888, just thirteen days short of his 91st birthday, the account was finally closed.

The Crown Prince would be Emperor at last, and he could no longer be excluded from affairs of state. Here, after being sidelined for so long was Friedrich and Vicky’s opportunity to shape the future of Germany and change it in their own image but he was ill, though few at the time realised how ill – what Friedrich believed was a lingering but heavy cold was in fact something far worse – throat cancer.

Vicky consulted the British cancer specialist Morrell Mackenzie who at first delivered a positive prognosis and recommended various treatments. Yet despite periods of apparent improvement and veiled optimism the decline in his health could not be reversed.

Willy was less than sympathetic and did little to lift the pall of gloom. Instead he strode the corridors of power as if he were already Kaiser-in-waiting criticising his mother and loudly damning those who were tending to his father’s medical needs. Vicky wrote despairingly to her own mother in London:

 “Willy is saying it was an English doctor who crippled his arm and that now it is an English doctor who is killing his father.”

Despite being too weak to attend his father’s funeral the new Kaiser nonetheless remained determined to do what he could but by now unable to communicate verbally he ceased to hold meetings or attend royal functions. Vicky was distraught and became even more so when at the end of May he was confined to his bed. Informed by Dr Mackenzie that the cancer was malignant she insisted there must be an operation to remove the tumour but there was little they could do.

Friedrich wrote a last entry in his diary:

“What is happening to me? I must get well again. I have so much to do.”

The Emperor Friedrich III died on 15 July 1888 – his reign had lasted just 91 days.

Mourn though the country did over the death of its second ruler in just a few months Friedrich’s passing came as a relief to many in government circles, none more so than Bismarck who at least knew that his successor was no liberal. Indeed, he had guided the young Wilhelm in his political development to ensure this would be so and in doing so encouraged his estrangement from his parents.

He was to confirm his conservative credentials when in one of his first acts as Kaiser he ordered troops to surround the Royal Palace and have his mother’s private chambers ransacked in the search for court documents and proof of private correspondence she was sharing with her relatives in England. They found little evidence of Vicky’s alleged espionage but it was to prove the straw that broke the camel’s back of their relationship.  Unable any longer to influence his behaviour and aware that he resented her presence she went into a self-imposed exile on her country estate.

Wilhelm’s first public address as Kaiser was also not to his people but the army, and this concerned Bismarck. The prosperous and stable Europe with Germany at its centre was very much his creation but the peace was a fragile one and the balance of power built upon shifting sands. He knew that Germany was surrounded by enemies who bore the mask of friendship only out of fear and intimidation; to the West was a France still bristling with resentment over its loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871, in the East was an aggressive and expansionist Russia with its eyes on Constantinople and access to the Mediterranean; while Britain remained the dominant commercial power and would respond to any threat posed to its control of the seas and the protection of its trade routes to India and the rest of its Empire.

The political situation in Germany itself was no less precarious with its rapid industrialisation seeing the emergence of a working class and their representatives an increasingly powerful Socialist Party.  Bismarck sought to curtail their influence by making concessions on welfare and pension rights while seeking to divide and rule in the Reichstag.

So there was a delicate balance to be maintained in both domestic and foreign affairs and Bismarck was a master of both but the young Kaiser was not. He was just 29 years old, a young man with a short attention span bombastic in his speech and impetuous in his decision making, who it was said lacked judgement – he hadn’t been expected to rule so soon and it showed.

The detail of politics and the everyday routine of governance bored him, and the popular image of him in some dress uniform or other entertaining friends and sipping champagne wasn’t an entirely false one. He was indeed more likely to be found in the company of his tailor or perusing the items on the wine list than he was at the cabinet table in the presence of his Ministers. But this didn’t prevent him from meddling in affairs of which he was at best ill-informed and at worst dangerously ignorant – a reckless foreign policy or ill-judged attempts at social reform could ruin everything. Bismarck tried to govern much as he had before but he would no longer be given a free hand, and the Kaiser determined to assert his authority could rely upon the support of the Chancellor’s many enemies in Cabinet and at Court.

Wilhelm, who had previously admired Bismarck and even been in awe of him now found this single-minded, strong-willed, and stubborn old man an inconvenience. He would rule not reign and if his Chancellor interfered and tried to prevent him from doing so then he would have to go. It was in fact a dispute in the Reichstag over labour legislation (which the Kaiser supported and Bismarck did not) which provided the excuse to wield the axe. When Bismarck refused to yield to the Kaiser’s way of thinking his resignation was demanded. It was duly received and accepted on 20 March 1890. Count Otto von Bismarck’s long and distinguished political career was over – the Iron Chancellor was no more.

Wilhelm did not require advice and in any case doubted the significance of diplomacy in foreign affairs, there were few difficulties on the world stage that could not be sorted out between Emperors and especially those who were close relations.  He believed himself to be on good terms with his cousins both in Britain and Russia therefore, any problem could be resolved over dinner or via an exchange of telegrams and private letters.

Likewise, opponents in the Reichstag, or the Monkey House as he preferred to call it, might well squabble with his representatives but could always be assuaged by his words and would never fail to condescend in his presence – he was Kaiser, after all.

But he was not a figure as admired and respected throughout the world as he imagined. Neither was his authority ever quite what it seemed at home. The realisation of both these facts would come as a profound shock to a man not given to introspection.

It was true that he could manipulate his cousin Tsar Nicholas but then so could everyone else while his relationship with his British cousins was in fact often strained and his frequent visits to England not always welcome.  Likewise, an invitation to visit him in Berlin was held in dread for he was never less than overbearing. But he could also be charming when the mood took him, and both offensive and sentimental in equal measure, at one moment berating perfidious Albion for her many misdeeds, the next waxing lyrical about the many happy days he spent at Osborne House and the love he felt for his English family.  He could barely speak of his grandmother Queen Victoria without a tear in his eye, and to his mind it was only fitting that she had died in his one good arm. Not that she had intended to do so.  It was instead the result of the doctor repositioning Her Majesty to make her more comfortable.

He was also a great admirer of his ‘Uncle Bertie,’ who succeeded to the throne in 1901 as King Edward VII, though he thought him as much a rival as a friend and was not averse to belittling him should the opportunity arise. Once at the Cowes Yachting Regatta when asked if he knew of the whereabouts of the Prince of Wales, who was in fact having lunch with the tea magnate and businessman Sir Thomas Lipton, he replied:

”I believe he is dining with his grocer.”

It was intended more as an insult than a joke. He wasn’t after all, a man known for his sense of humour unless it involved a bodily function, someone else’s misfortune, or, a ritual debagging.

In truth he could be unbearable, Queen Victoria had long before described him as a petulant child and his constant craving for attention and rigidity of demeanour even at the most informal of occasions drove many to distraction. Even in a world where blood was thicker than water and it certainly was among the Royal Families of Europe, he was a difficult man to stomach.

Yet he was proud of his British blood and envious of their customs and traditions, though he hated the Monarch’s purely ceremonial role; but he was also envious of its longevity, of the Empire it represented and he would seek to challenge the authority of Britain at every turn, and in increasingly reckless ways.

Still, if Wilhelm was not beloved by a vast swathe of his relatives he remained popular with his people who liked their assertive and vigorous Kaiser so firm of speech and strident of manner. They appreciated his love of display (few men enjoyed a parade more) and were emboldened by an army over which he took such pride and the powerful navy he had created – he made them feel good about themselves.

Yet even with their ebullient and self-confident Kaiser in charge Germany without Bismarck was like a ship with a functioning engine and no rudder, forging ahead, going around in circles, careering out of control, and getting nowhere – Kaiser Bill was to prove a poor Captain and certainly no navigator.

In foreign policy he threatened, and bullied, and provoked crises in Morocco (twice) and in Algiers that brought Europe to the brink of war. He nurtured a relationship with the Ottoman Empire that actively sought to promote anti-British sentiment in the Islamic world and boasted of building a Berlin to Baghdad Railway that would directly threaten Britain’s control of the Suez Canal.

He also supported the Boers in their war against Britain, and did so publicly by sending a telegram of congratulation to Paul Kruger, President of the Transvaal, and later provided them with arms and financial assistance.

In 1902, he embarked upon a naval arms race with Britain determined to create a Kriegsmarine that could compete with the Royal Navy both for control of the North Sea and across the world. Much to his surprise the gGovernment in Britain accepted the challenge forcing him to abandon his ruinously expensive project eight years later still far behind in Dreadnoughts and other armoured vessels

No one quite knew what this Kaiser was going to do next, where his interest might be drawn, or to whom he might pledge his own and Germany’s support. The uncertainty it caused in the corridors of power made it appear as if Europe was always on the cusp of another crisis.  His often ham-fisted attempt at alliance building first with Britain against France and Russia and then with France and Russia against Britain only made matters worse. Yet when the confrontation finally came it saw the great powers of Europe arraigned against Germany which could only call upon the support of a reluctant Italy that soon reneged on its obligations and a besieged Austro-Hungarian Empire desperate merely to survive it.

Unlamented though he undoubtedly was by those who’d had the temerity to oppose him the once all-powerful and all-knowing Bismarck was sorely missed. The ineptitude of those who had succeeded him as Chancellor and of the man who had appointed them would destroy all he had so meticulously created – from the other side of the veil he must have been turning in his grave.

Shortly before his death in July 1898 he had remarked:

“One day the Great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans.”

On 28 July 1914, a bucolic young Serb nationalist named Gavrilo Princip shot dead the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Sophie, in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo.  It was yet another Habsburg tragedy and as such, barely merited front page news but its repercussions would soon become apparent.

In Britain, Irish Home Rule dominated the news cycle while France was once more mired in scandal.  In Germany, as elsewhere, people were departing for their summer holidays and most of Europe was distracted in one way or another, but not Austria-Hungary and neither, monitoring events closely, was Russia.

The murder of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife was an outrage but not one deeply felt in the Habsburg Court, at least not on a personal level.  The heir to the throne was not popular among those who worked for him and the aged Emperor Franz Joseph disliked his nephew intensely, a man he considered a dangerous radical and had never forgiven for marrying Sophie Chotek, a commoner he thought little better than a serving wench.

Their murder and Princip’s links to the Serbian secret society the ‘Black Hand’ did however provide the opportunity long sought by the Commander of the Austro-Hungarian Army Conrad von Hotzendorff to teach the upstart Serbia a lesson and send a harsh message to Slav nationalists throughout the Empire – but would the professed defenders of that very same Slav nationalism, Russia, stand aside?  Given their humiliation when forced to back down over the Habsburg annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908, it seemed unlikely.

The threat of Russian intervention meant the Austrians dare not punish Serbia militarily unless they could depend upon German support and so it was that on 5 July, Count Alexander von Hoyos arrived at Potsdam from Vienna with two notes, one a formal representation to the German Government the other a personal letter to the Kaiser from the Emperor Franz Ferdinand, both requesting support for any action Austria might pursue in punishing Serbia the country they believed was behind the assassination of the heir to the throne and his wife.

The murder of one of their own never failed to send a shiver down the collective spine of the royal dynasts of Europe, and the murder of Franz Ferdinand was no different.  He was also a close friend of the Kaiser’s which made it personal, and given what we know of Wilhelm’s character his response then was not unexpected. He was bellicose and eager to help -the Emperor could rely upon his full support, he declared – but with the proviso that the Austrian’s march at once, there must be as little time as possible for the conflict to escalate. When soon after it became apparent they were in no position to do so he began to demur – he would have to consult with his Chancellor and the Foreign Ministry, the army would have to be notified, plans put in place, he would say. But for now that was not the case. On 6 July he wrote to his Austrian counterpart:

“The Emperor Franz Joseph may rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary.”

It was the notorious ‘Blank Cheque’ and Count Hoyos was able to return to Vienna with it firmly in his pocket.

In the meantime, Wilhelm set off for his summer cruise of the Norwegian fjords oblivious to the path of destruction upon which he had inadvertently set the Continent of Europe.

The embers of war still barely flickered for much of that hot July imbued as it was with a sense of gaiety and ennui. But in the musty corridors of power from London to Paris and Berlin to St Petersburg increased diplomatic activity was stoking those very same embers and a frantic exchange of telegrams was ramping up the pressure.

Aboard the Hohenzollern Wilhelm was becoming increasingly frustrated at Austrian inaction. Upon his return to Berlin he curtly informed their Ambassador that had they acted sooner the looming crisis could have been avoided. His mood hardly improved when told that Austrian mobilisation had been paused while the harvest was gathered in.

The likelihood of a European conflict involving Germany in a two-front war had long been anticipated and planned for. Indeed, the strategy to be adopted in just such a scenario, with various revisions, had been in place since 1905. The Schlieffen Plan, so-named after its chief protagonist General Count Alfred von Schlieffen, called for the bulk of the German Army, some 1.5 million men, to advance into north-western France via neutral Belgium where, with its right-flank hugging the coastline, it would cut deep into the French countryside before turning east then north, encircling Paris from the rear and trapping the main French Army they felt sure would be attempting to seize back the lost territories of Alsace and Lorraine between itself and the German Army stationed on its western frontier.

The entire campaign in the west was expected to last just six weeks during which time Germany’s eastern frontier would be held by a mere 275,000 fighting men of the Tenth Army. It being assumed the sluggishness of Russian mobilisation would see that there was no fighting to be done.

Only with France defeated could the full might of German arms be turned upon its real enemy, Russia.

It was a bold plan.

As for Britain, would she fight? Her defence of Belgian neutrality suggested she might.  It remained a concern despite the Kaiser’s dismissal of her ‘contemptible little army.’

In the meantime, as the clouds of war loomed large and grew ever darker a series of increasingly desperate telegrams were exchanged between Willy and his cousin Nicky, the Russian Tsar, each begging the other not to take the fateful step to full mobilisation.  But regardless of the fraternal greetings and words couched in the language of friendship neither could halt nor even slow the momentum towards catastrophe.

On 1 August 1914, Germany declared war on Russia. Two days later it would likewise declare war on France. But its demand that the Belgium Government surrender its sovereignty and allow the German Army to traverse its territory unmolested had been rejected. Even so, Britain had still not revealed its hand leading the Kaiser to rejoice – without British support the French would not fight there would be no two-front war.

“Now we need only wage war against Russia. So we simply advance with the entire army East.”

But despite his demand for more champagne and that the attack upon France be halted his exultation would be brief. Informed that with the trains rolling west, Luxembourg already invaded, and troops massing on the Belgium border the Schlieffen Plan once implemented could not be stopped he shrugged his shoulders as if to say, then do as you will. He would later remark:

“To think that George and Nicky should have played me false, if my grandmother had been alive she would ever have allowed it.”


On 3 August, from the balcony of the Imperial Palace in Berlin he addressed his people:

“This is a dark day and a dark hour. The crisis which is forced upon us is the result of an envy which for years has pursued Germany. The sword is being forced into my hand. This war will demand of us enormous sacrifice in lives and money but we will show our foe what it means to provoke Germany.”

The following day he likewise addressed the Reichstag:

“I have no knowledge any longer of party or creed, I know only Germans, and in token thereof, I ask all of you to give me your hands.”

Attempts over the previous decade by socialists across Europe to unite and organise against war were now forgotten in the wave of patriotic fervour that swept the Continent.  The Socialist Party, the largest in the Reichstag, the place the Kaiser had mockingly referred to as the Monkey House, now declared, “We shall not abandon the Fatherland in its hour of need,” and voted unanimously for the unprecedented War Budget of £265,000,000.

As he reviewed the troops parading through Berlin on their way to their way to the front Wilhelm told them, “You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.” It was to prove a popular refrain in all the combatant countries. They would be home before Christmas – it wasn’t to be.

It appeared for time as if the Schlieffen Plan might work as the Belgian forts that hindered the advance were swiftly turned to rubble by artillery pieces of immense power borrowed from Austria-Hungary catching the French unawares and forcing the British into hasty retreat; but moving so many troops in such a narrow corridor was to prove a logistical nightmare for the Germans and make rapid reinforcement almost impossible.  When in September near the River Marne the arc of the advance was changed so the attack broke down. The war of movement on the Western Front was over as both sides now dug-in and a line of trenches soon stretched from the Swiss frontier to the French coast.

The Kaiser who had so often rattled the sabre was nervous at what he had unleashed, now having unsheathed the sword he would have to use it – he would prove no Frederick the Great.

There was to be no swift victory as there had been in 1870 and the longer the war continued the less interested in its detail the Kaiser became; he would attend military briefings, peruse the maps, and make suggestions but the war would increasingly be run by others most notably Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich von Ludendorff.

Only in naval affairs did he continue to assert himself rejoicing in ‘German Victory’ at the Battle of Jutland – the legend of Nelson at Trafalgar had been surpassed, he declared – but his mighty navy would remain bottled up in port for most of the remainder of the war and do nothing to break the blockade that was strangling Germany and starving his people.

He rarely visited the front and when he did the cameras were always present. In one such publicised event he was seen surveying the battlefield of Verdun from a safe distance through an armoured viewfinder. He declined to visit the wounded preferring the company of his Generals to that of the men they led, not that he was wholly unsympathetic to the hardships endured by the troops at the front he just didn’t know what they were. Likewise, as his people starved so the champagne continued to flow at Headquarters and the Royal Palaces of the Kaiser Reich.

But while the war stagnated in the West it developed a momentum towards inevitable German victory in the East that could not be prevented by Russia’s large, ponderous, poorly trained, under-equipped and badly led army.  By the time the punitive peace of Brest-Litovsk was signed the Bolsheviks were in charge in Russia and his cousin Nicky and his family were their prisoners.

Wilhelm was sympathetic to his cousin’s plight and his wife urged him to do something, perhaps make the safe delivery of the Romanov family and their relatives into German hands part of any peace settlement.  But the proposal of asylum gained little traction, and how could it, Russia had only recently been the enemy in a war that had cost a great many German lives. In any case, peace overtures had been rejected not once but many times, so why now should Germany be gracious in victory? Whatever the Kaiser’s personal feelings, nothing would be done.

When in July 1918, he received the news that Tsar Nicholas, his wife, and his children had been murdered tears were shed but not by Wilhelm – Nicky was weak, if he had taken his advice it would never have happened – but by Dona, her ladies, and others who had known the family personally.

The lesson of their murder was also not lost on the recipients of such bad tidings.

The conclusion of the war in the East freed more than 600,000 men for the Western Front giving the Germans a numerical superiority for the first time since the opening weeks of the conflict but it could only be temporary.  General Ludendorff told the Kaiser the army must strike, that the British must be defeated before the American Army then gathering in northern France could become fully operational.  It would be the last great German offensive of the war.

Operation Michael, or the Kaiser’s Battle, began on 21 March 1918, and it seemed for a time that the breakthrough had at last been made as the first line of trenches fell, then the second line, a significant breach had been made in the defences and tens of thousands of troops were killed and captured. By the end of the third day of the offensive the British Fifth Army was in full retreat.  It was the deepest penetration on the Western Front since the summer of 1914.

His interest in the war reinvigorated on 23 March Kaiser Wilhelm pronounced:

“The battle is won the English have been utterly defeated.”

He declared a public holiday and that church bells be rung the length and breadth of the country.

But Ludendorff’s master plan for victory lacked a strategic objective; did he seek to capture the railway terminus at Amiens the pivot of the Allied line, did he wish to capture Paris, or did he want to threaten the Channel Ports and force the British to withdraw to the coast? As a result, a desperate situation for the Allies was squandered as he switched the direction of the attack to wherever a breakthrough appeared imminent. By July, exhausted and having lost a quarter of a million men the German attack began to lose momentum and peter out.  On 8 August, the Allies counter-attacked. The German Army remained a formidable foe and some of the hardest fighting was to be witnessed in those final months of the war. Even so, they were surrendering in unprecedented numbers, desertion had reached dangerous levels, and Germany’s cities were crammed full of soldiers absent without leave.

On 8 August, during the Battle of Amiens 16,000 German soldiers were taken with barely a shot being fired. Ludendorff referred to it as the ‘Black Day of the German Army.’ By September it was clear that Germany had lost the war, Hindenburg knew it, Ludendorff knew it, only the Kaiser it appeared did not, but even he felt compelled to remark:

“The troops continue to retreat. I have lost all confidence in them.”   

Fearing the army was on the verge of collapse on 29 September, Ludendorff informed the Kaiser that they must seek an immediate armistice. Wilhelm agreed but he wanted an assurance that any approach to the Allies would not entail surrender. It was not an assurance he could give in good faith, but the General did so anyway.

Well might the Kaiser remark, “the war has ended quite differently, indeed, from how we expected.” Not that he would take any responsibility, “the politicians have let us down miserably,” he said.

Despite Ludendorff’s worst fears the German Army continued to fight hard on the Western Front but at home where military discipline did not apply the situation was dire; famine conditions existed in many cities, anti-war sentiment was widespread, and the disorder that resulted increasingly unmanageable with street protests, food riots, and strikes becoming a daily occurrence – political radicals it seemed were everywhere, the plague of Bolshevism was spreading.

At his headquarters in Spa, Belgium, the Kaiser seemed oblivious to the seriousness of the situation. He still dreamed of leading his army to Berlin in person and restoring order by force. When he was verbally abused by troops on their way to the front who shouted that he was a murderer and butcher he was genuinely shocked – these were not his soldiers, these were not his guards!

On 28 October, the German High Seas Fleet received orders to put to sea and break the British blockade in what was widely seen as a suicide mission. The order was ignored and so repeated a further four times. Still the crews refused to budge instead threatening violence, imprisoning their officers and establishing ship board soviets.

Wilhelm was dismayed to learn that his beloved navy had mutinied, their unwillingness to fight he found incomprehensible, he put it down to the ‘Reds.’

Informed that he no longer had the confidence of the army, that they would follow Field Marshal von Hindenburg but no longer the Kaiser, he refused to believe it. When told that the Allies would not negotiate a settlement while he remained on the throne and that order could only be restored in Germany if he abdicated, he demurred. Could he not abdicate as Emperor but remain King of Prussia? The answer was no, the constitution did not allow for it – still, he refused to sign any abdication document.

On 9 November, his Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden announced the Kaiser’s abdication without informing him. He then resigned from his post later the same day.

Wilhelm was furious with his nephew Prince Max but there was little he could do and time was short if he wished to evade capture and so on 10 November he boarded a train bound for the Netherlands. Fearing it might be stopped by the radicalised troops of his once loyal army and that he might suffer the same fate as the Tsar, and Nicky was very much on his mind, the train was soon abandoned and the journey completed by car.

The Kaiser’s presence in their country wasn’t entirely welcomed by the Dutch Government and Wilhelm worried with good reason that they might bow to international pressure and hand him over to the victorious Allied powers – and for a time that pressure was intense – in Britain his cousin King George V had already referred to him as ‘the greatest criminal in history’ and the Prime Minister David Lloyd George had recently won re-election on the slogan ‘Hang the Kaiser.’  While in France their Premier, Clemenceau, for whom everything was personal, thirsted for revenge. His prosecution was even called for in the Versailles Treaty but in the end wiser counsel would prevail particularly that of the United States President Woodrow Wilson who saw no benefit in pursuing the vanquished Kaiser.

The Dutch eager to maintain their position of neutrality, especially in the event of any future European war, were unlikely to extradite him an any case but neither would they allow his presence to embarrass them. He would remain under surveillance and require permission to travel.

In May 1920, he moved into what would become known as the Huis Doorn, a country estate situated in the safety of the central Netherlands where he could live free from the fear of abduction. It would be his home for the remainder of his life and it was from here as a celebrity from a bygone era that he would hold court with, aside from those who merely came to gawp at the ex-Kaiser, eminent citizens from across Europe and elsewhere who visited to pay their respects. But it was tragedy that was to mark the early months of his exile.

On 18 July 1920, his youngest son Joachim committed suicide while less than a year later Dona, his wife of 40 years died. Wilhelm was devastated struggling to understand the former and greatly mourning the latter. Yet he was not one to let the grass grow under his feet and on 5 November 1922, he married Princess Hermine Reuss, a young woman who had become a frequent visitor to Huis Doorn and had long ago caught his eye.

Unlike the Kaiser who appeared willing to accept his fate Hermine remained ambitious for her husband  and was determined that he should be restored to the throne, if not as German Emperor then certainly as King of Prussia even if the role was to be a purely ceremonial one. There was little prospect of either as long as the Socialists remained in power but an opportunity appeared to present itself when in January 1933, Adolf Hitler assumed the Chancellorship  and Hermann Goering became one of the many prominent Nazis who were to pay homage at the Court of the ex-Kaiser.

Hitler may have fought for the Kaiser but it seemed doubtful that he would be willing to share power with him even if it were only the power of history and tradition. Nonetheless, Hermine remained hopeful and informal talks were to continue for a time.

Any thoughts of a restoration were soon dismissed as illusory however, much to the relief of Wilhelm no doubt, who had no desire to wear a paper crown. Instead, he would remain at Doorn to work on his memoirs, relish the hunting, chop down trees, drink champagne, and pontificate at length over dinner on why and where it all went wrong and what might have been – to his mind the fault lay with the Jews.

As early as 2 August 1919, in a letter to General August von Mackensen he had written:

“The deepest, most disgusting shame ever perpetrated by a people in history the Germans have done unto themselves. Egged on and misled by the tribe of Judah, whom they hated, whom were guests among them! That was their thanks! Let no German ever forget this, nor rest until these parasites have been destroyed and exterminated from German soil, this poisonous mushroom on the German oak tree.” 

He later told his doctor:

“The English, French, and German Jews were all in cahoots with one another. Their sole aim was to establish the Jewish domination of the world. Therefore they first had to enslave the German people completely.”

Such anti-Semitic rhetoric was to become a regular refrain throughout his exile yet in the immediate aftermath of Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom of November 1938, he was to say:

“For the first time, I am ashamed to be a German.”

His relationship with the Nazi Regime would always be a fractious one. In private he considered them an abomination to German culture but he was careful not to rile them even if his praise for the Fuhrer was often sparse and rarely unconditional.

When Nazi Germany achieved in just six weeks what the Kaiser had failed to do in four years of bitter conflict and force France’s capitulation he sent Hitler a congratulatory telegram. It was perhaps, more significant for what it didn’t say:

“Under the deeply moving impression of Frances capitulation I congratulate you and all the German Armed Forces  on the God-given prodigious victory  with the words of  Kaiser Wilhelm the Great of the year 1870. “What a turn of events through God’s dispensation.” All German hearts are filled with the chorale of Leuthen which the soldiers of the Great King sang in 1757. Now thank we all, our God!”

What Hitler made of that exactly remains unknown but he was to express on more than one occasion that he thought the Kaiser mad.

Following their occupation of the Netherlands the Nazis for the most let the Kaiser be, though Dutch police at the gates of Doorn were replaced with SS Guards and he was once again placed under close surveillance. People who sought to visit him now required permission and those who continued to venerate him did so in private.

Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert, Wilhelm II King of Prussia and last German Emperor died of a blood clot on the lungs on 4 June 1941, aged 82. The Kaiser Reich he had ruled over lasted 47 years the Thousand Year Reich that replaced it survived barely 11.

The question remains however, was the Kaiser to blame for the war? Perhaps, if any one man could be blamed but there were many factors that contributed to the tragedy which ensued. – Austro-Hungarian belligerence, Russian intransigence, a complex series of treaties and alliances, pre-determined military planning, even railway timetables. Yet it cannot be denied that brinkmanship had been the hallmark of Wilhelm’s foreign policy almost since the time of his succession, that it was a dangerous game, and not one he played well.  There is little doubt that the Blank Cheque he issued to the Austrian Imperial Representative on that fateful day in July 1914 was pivotal in leading the Great Powers of Europe into a war the magnitude of which was unforeseen and ill-prepared for. If any blame attached itself to him then he chose not to see it and certainly not to apologise for it. Even so, any prosecution of the Kaiser could only have been viewed as victor’s justice, a vindication almost of the persecution he believed had been his to endure since childhood. Better perhaps, a long and uneventful exile as a man from an age long past and committed to memory lost in the swirl of history, and cast into the wilderness of irrelevance.












The Great Siege of Malta (1565)

On 29 May 1453, after seven weeks of siege warfare the city of Constantinople fell to the Muslim Ottoman forces of the Sultan Mehmed II, and with it the Byzantine Empire which had stood for over a thousand years as the gateway to the East and defender of the faith in lands far removed from the influence of Rome. Its demise had dealt a tremendous blow to Christian Europe even if few had been so distressed as to come to the assistance of the great city of Byzantium in the hour of its need.

Constantinople, or Istanbul as it was soon to be renamed, was to prove more than a mere bridge across the Bosphorus from Asia Minor to the European shore, it would become the centre of Ottoman power in the world, provide control over much of the Eastern Mediterranean, and serve as the base for 250 years of Islamic expansion West.

Muslim incursions into Christian lands would not proceed uncontested of course, and at the forefront of the resistance were Military-Religious Orders such as the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller.

The Knights Hospitaller, also known as the Order of St John the Baptist, had long been a thorn in the side of Islam, though it hadn’t always been that way. Founded in the 1060’s by the Italian merchants of the Amalfi, they had received permission from the Sultan of Egypt to establish a hospice in Jerusalem and it wasn’t until the Crusaders captured the Holy City in 1099 that they became a warrior caste dedicated to the protection of Christian pilgrims in the East.

Made to leave Jerusalem after it surrendered to Saladin in 1187, they were forced to abandon the Holy Land altogether following the capture of the last great Crusader fortress at Acre in 1291 and the virtual elimination of the Outremer, or Christian presence in the region.

The Knights Hospitaller settled on the island of Rhodes but having successfully resisted siege sixty years earlier they were finally ejected by the Ottomans in 1522. The Order was to remain itinerant for the next seven years during which, with no base to operate from, they were to lose much of their wealth and most of their property. Indeed, so diminished had their status become that there was talk in Rome of dissolving the Order just as the Knights Templar had been 250 years earlier, if for very different reasons.

They were rescued from seemingly terminal decline by the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V who granted them rights in perpetuity over the islands of Malta and Gozo along with the city of Tunis in return for their guarantee of protection for all three. The Charter made clear their obligation was to:

“Perform in peace the duties of their religion, for the benefit of the Christian community, and employ their forces and arms against the perfidious enemies of holy faith.”

The Emperor’s reward for his largesse was a single Maltese Falcon delivered to his person every All Saints Day, November First.

With no home of their own and little prospect of finding one the Knights Hospitaller had little choice but to accept the Emperor’s offer, even though they knew it to be a poison chalice for even the merest glance at a map of the Mediterranean would identify the strategic significance of Malta, situated as it was some 60 miles south of Sicily and almost equidistant between the Italian mainland and the North African shore. It commanded the main channel by which any shipping east to west or vice-versa must pass and with one of the best natural harbours in the Mediterranean was a haven for those raiding Ottoman shipping. It was already marked for conquest and any further Muslim expansion west would make it a prime target.

The Maltese Archipelago consists of two main islands, Malta some 18 miles long and 9 miles wide and Gozo some 8 miles long and 4 miles wide. They are separated by a narrow channel in which lies the small isle of Camino. It was a hot and dry landscape, 120 square miles of barren limestone and rock but what it lacked in comfort it more than made up for in importance and should it fall to the Ottoman’s it would not only give them control over the Mediterranean but be a stepping stone to the conquest of Sicily and an invasion of southern Italy, possibly even an advance on Rome itself.

By the 1550’s, the Mediterranean and its invaluable trade routes long fought over was a place of almost perpetual conflict as the Barbary Corsairs operating from ports on the North African coast increased their attacks on Christian shipping with one man in particular more feared than any other.

Turgut Reis, also known as Dragut or the ‘Drawn Sword of Islam,’ was almost 80 years old and had terrorised the Christian West for decades both as a Barbary Corsair and as an Admiral in the Ottoman Fleet and servant of the Sultan. Time and again he had defeated opponents more powerful than himself capturing hundreds of enemy ships and repeatedly landing on the shores of Italy and elsewhere to pillage and burn taking captive thousands for sale in the slave markets of North Africa.

Dragut and the other Corsairs had become such a problem, even raiding along the coast of Spain, that Philip II had raised a fleet to destroy them once and for all but the campaign ended in disaster when they were routed at Djerba off the coast of North Africa in May 1560.

The Ottoman Empire now had almost total control of the Mediterranean and an attack upon Malta appeared imminent but for the next five years little happened as Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent dithered. Either complacent in victory or distracted by problems further east he failed to exploit his dominance during which time the Catholic nations recovered their strength.

In 1557, the Knights Hospitaller elected the 62 year old French nobleman Jean Parisot de Valette as Grand Master, an ill-tempered man of violent disposition who had once been sentenced to four months in a ‘guva,’ quite literally a hole in the ground, for beating to death a man who had dared cause him offence. He did not then suffer fools easily but as a member of the Order for more than forty years and a veteran of many campaigns against the Turk including the fight for Rhodes he was both trusted and admired, if not much loved. He had also made himself a wealthy man attacking and capturing Muslim galleys during which he crossed swords with Turgut Reis many times, even on one occasion being taken prisoner and forced to serve as a galley slave upon one of his vessels before being released in a prisoner exchange.

When the previous Grand Master Claude de la Sengle died unexpectedly he was the obvious choice to replace him – it would prove a wise decision.

Regardless of Suleiman’s dithering Valette was not naive to his intentions and preferring coercion to persuasion he now co-opted Malta’s populace into rebuilding its fortifications and ordered that Knights Hospitaller elsewhere in Europe return to the island and make ready for war.

In the meantime, the Order’s galleys continued to attack Turkish shipping and in June 1564 its most notorious raider Mathurin d’Aux Lescout, known as Romegas, captured a number of ships that not only carried a great deal of treasure but many high-ranking Ottoman officials and one of the Sultan’s beloved daughters. Suleiman was furious and rumours soon spread that he was preparing for war, rumours Jean de Valette knew to be true for his spies in Constantinople had told him so.

An Ottoman Fleet comprising 193 ships carrying 40,000 troops set sail for Malta on 22 March 1565, under the command of Piyale Pasha, the victor at Djerba; but he wasn’t to be in sole command, responsibility for the campaign was shared with the Chief of the Army Mustafa Pasha, and the friction between the two was clear from the outset.

Piyale Pasha, whose primary concern was the Fleet, insisted that it be moored in Marsamxett Bay as near to the Grand Harbour as possible where it would be sheltered from any adverse weather and be protected from enemy attack but this would mean having to subdue Fort St Elmo which stood as the mouth of both harbours. Mustafa was no less adamant that the army should be landed on the other side of the island where it could advance on the weakly defended town of Mdina, gain control of the centre, and assault Fort St Angelo and Fort St Michael from the rear. It was a sound strategy but Piyale Pasha was adamant that the Fort would fall in just a few days and it was his argument which prevailed.

Valette had under his command some 500 Knights Hospitaller, 400 Spanish regulars, 800 Italian mercenary soldiers, and 3,000 Maltese volunteers, fewer than 6,000 men in total. A motley collection perhaps, but it had at its core well-trained and divinely inspired warriors for Christ.

By focussing his attention on Fort St Elmo, Piyale Pasha had inadvertently played into Valette’s hands. The Grand Master knew that he did not have the resources to be strong everywhere at the same time and now he didn’t have to be, at least for the time being.

The bombardment of Fort St Elmo began on 27 May from guns placed on Mount Sciberras overlooking the Fort and from batteries deployed north of Marsamexitt Harbour, some 60 guns in total including among them the ‘Great Bombard’ which fired a 155ib cannonball from a range of 3,000 yards.

In response, Valette sent more than half his cannons to the Fort which despite being of much smaller calibre firing a 10ib cannonball some 800 yards were to prove numerous and effective but he did not increase its garrison of 150 Knights, 400 regular/mercenary troops, and 1,000 militia instead sending reinforcements and supplies across the bay from his headquarters in Fort St Angelo at night and only when required.

Fort St Elmo was to come under the most intense and protracted bombardment then known to history but as long as it held out it bought Valette valuable time, time to strengthen his defences elsewhere, and time for the Viceroy of Sicily Don Garcia to assemble his forces and come to their relief as promised.

Turgut Reis arrived in Malta on 31 May, too late to change the strategy already adopted (though he did try) and angry that the Fort had not already fallen. He immediately ordered St Elmo completely invested and that galleys patrol the harbour to prevent its resupply. He also added his 30 guns to those bombarding the Fort directing them to target those defences already weakened by the barrage.

The Turks had stormed the ravelin and outer defences early during in the siege but any further advance stalled against the massed ranks of pike and musket they encountered at every breach made in the walls, and they too came under heavy bombardment. Francisco Balbi, a Spanish soldier who witnessed events from across the bay described the scene:

The darkness of the night then became as bright as day, due to the vast quantity of artificial fires. So bright was it indeed that we could see St Elmo quite clearly. The gunners of St Angelo were able to lay and train their pieces upon the advancing Turks, who were picked out in the light of the fires.”

With supplies running low and little prospect of relief some in St Elmo began to despair but Valette ignored the reports of low morale and a breakdown in discipline determined that the Fort must be held as long as possible. When on 8 June he received a request that St Elmo be abandoned he was unequivocal in his response:

“If you will not die defending the Fort, then I shall send men who will.”

Shamed into remaining where they were, the siege continued.

Spirits were raised among the defenders when on 18 June Turgut Reis was mortally wounded by a cannon which having lowered its aim on his orders fired directly into the trench where he was standing. The legendary old Corsair died a little later plunging the Ottoman Camp into mourning and a deep sense of foreboding.

The pressure on Fort St Elmo continued however, and with more than 70,000 cannon balls having been fired at them so many breaches had been made in its walls it was no longer possible to defend them all.

On 23 June, after almost a month of bitter fighting Fort St Elmo fell – the defenders had fought almost to the last man just as the Grand Master demanded with only six who managed to swim the bay to safety surviving.

The following day was the Feast of St John the Baptist, Patron Saint of the Hospitallers, and Valette regardless of events insisted that the festivities go ahead as usual. The sound of hymns being sung and the torchlight processions as night infuriated Piyale Pasha who ordered the corpses of those Knights who had fallen to be decapitated, tied to rafts in imitation of the crucified Christ and floated in the bay with their chests and stomachs ripped open. Valette responded by ordering that all his Turkish prisoners be similarly decapitated before firing their severed heads into the Ottoman lines.

Piyale Pasha’s frustration had only been increased by the 6,000 men, many of them elite Janissaries who had been killed capturing a fort he had confidently predicted would fall in days.

The loss of St Elmo was greeted with dismay across Europe. If Malta should fall so might the entire Mediterranean. In England Queen Elizabeth wrote:

“If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom.”

But no help was forthcoming from the Protestant States of Europe but 600 troops did arrive from Sicily. They were a welcome addition but too few to change the dynamic.

There was now a lull in the fighting as Piyale and Mustafa Pasha redeployed their forces for an assault on Fort’s St Angelo and St Michael. Meanwhile, Valette had put to good use the time gained by the heroic defence of Fort St Elmo; walls had been reinforced with earthworks, ramparts constructed, traps set, a chain laid across the channel that separated the Forts to prevent Turkish ships from entering, and a pontoon bridge hastily built. He had also drilled his troops in how to defend a fixed position – they were disciplined and they were ready.

On 15 July, Mustafa Pasha ordered an amphibious landing to be made on the Senglea Peninsular in preparation for an assault on Fort St Michael – it did not go well.

As the slow moving flotilla of 100 small craft carrying 1,000 Janissary troops and weighed down with supplies passed within 200 yards of Fort St Angelo and the 5 cannon that had been sited at ground level specifically to counter just such a move they were sitting targets. Unable to manoeuvre or make haste chaos ensued as again and again the cannon fired their shot ripping into the boats, tearing them apart, and smashing them to pieces. Not one survived to land its cargo and 800 men were drowned.

The disastrous attempt at an amphibious landing was just part of a more general assault, however.

The bombardment was sustained by the ships moored offshore some of which had been dismantled to make siege engines which they then covered in leather strips and doused in water to protect against fire while troops attacked the two forts from the landward side. Valette ordered his artillery to focus their fire on the siege engines while any breaches made in the walls were defended by a mass of pike and musket.

Impeded by fire loops (wheels covered in combustible materials and set alight) rolled down from the hillsides on the approaches to the forts the Turkish attacks were repulsed time and again. With casualties mounting the Turks now began to mine beneath both forts but the rocky terrain rendered their efforts fruitless.

Unable to make progress against the forts on 18 August Mustafa Pasha shifted the focus of the attack to the less well defended town of Birgu to their rear. He had probed the town’s weaknesses earlier on 7 August in an attack that had been so successful it appeared it might fall there and then but they had been forced to withdraw fearing an attack from the rear following a fearful massacre at the Ottoman Field Hospital carried out by a cavalry detachment commanded by Vincenzo Anastagi skirmishing out of Mdina.

Anastagi had been fortunate in stumbling across the main Ottoman Field Hospital and finding it undefended but for many of the Turks it was the final straw and their morale never recovered. Even so, Mustafa Pasha would try once more and this time it appeared he might succeed as the town’s fortifications were easily breached and panic soon took hold of the defenders. Indeed, so bad was the funk that as the Turks swarmed into the town it was only the personal intervention of Jean de Valette who took up a pike and led his men in a desperate last ditch defence that saved the day.

The Turks had finally been ejected from Birgu but only after hours of bitter hand-to-hand fighting but encouraged by how close they had come to success they would try again the next day and this time they would bring their siege engines to bear. It was not something that could be done in secret and Valette forewarned acted accordingly. He had the stone chipped away from the walls where the siege engine stood and placed cannon in the space that had been made armed with chain shot. As the fighting reached a peak of intensity he had the cannon blow away the base of the siege engines causing them to collapse killing hundreds of men and creating chaos. A bloody debacle now ensued as Valette ordered a counter-attack and the Turks fled in panic and confusion.

A deep depression now descended upon the Ottoman Camp, a campaign that had been expected to be decisive and short had now dragged on for three months and with casualties mounting, ammunition low, supplies dwindling, and disease rife there was still no prospect of an end in sight.

Despite the victory of 19 August with much of the town reduced to rubble the elders of Birgu demanded that Valette allow them to withdraw to Fort St Angelo. He refused telling them the Turks were at breaking point and that it was no time to show weakness – he was right.

By the beginning of September the winds and the tides were changing and if they did not leave soon they would be forced to winter on the island where they would surely starve. Unable to remain any longer the Turks began to disembark their army. A week later after repeated pleas to do so Don Garcia, Viceroy of Sicily landed on the north of the island with a relief force of 8,000 men who attacked with fury and little mercy a weary enemy desperate merely to flee and survive.

By 13 September the Ottoman Army had departed leaving behind 15,000 dead while many of those evacuated were malnourished, sick with disease, and carrying wounds – their defeat had been total.

Behind their defences Maltese casualties had been much lower with some 2,500 killed, though this amounted to around one-third of the total a high percentage of which were Knights Hospitaller.

Some 7,000 civilians had also been killed either in massacres or while labouring for the Turks.

A sense of relief swept Europe upon the news Malta had survived, and also a feeling of pride for it was in many respects the last great Crusader battle. It had been the Warriors of Christ not the soldiers of a King that had defeated the Muslim menace – it was then, God’s victory.

Following the siege Jean de Valette was much lauded but he declined the many honours that were offered including the Pope’s desire to appoint him a Cardinal. Instead he remained on Malta to supervise the building of a new fortified town that was to be named Valetta in his honour.

Old and worn out by his exertions he did not live to witness its completion. He died amid much lamentation on21 August 1568 aged 73, a hero of his time.

Piyale and Mustafa Pasha squabbled over who was to blame for the defeat but neither was singled out for punishment. Indeed, Piyale Pasha was promoted to the rank of Vizier and would go onto command what remained of the Ottoman Fleet following its defeat at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

The failure to capture Malta had halted further Islamic expansion west but it had not dimmed their ambitions and they would return again and again over the next century and a half – there was still much fighting to be done.

Battle of Lepanto

The onset of the Reformation and religious schism had divided and seriously weakened a once unified Christendom and left it vulnerable to the ambitions of an insurgent Islam; a previous attempt by them to seize control of the Eastern Mediterranean and secure a base from which to invade Southern Europe had been thwarted by their failure to capture Malta in 1565, but this was to prove a temporary setback only, and five years later the Ottoman Empire would try again this time with an attack upon the island of Cyprus.

A possession of Venice since 1489 and a mere 280 miles or so from the southern shore of Turkey, Cyprus’s strategic significance could not be ignored dominating as it did the trade routes of the Levant and having grown rich as a result – not only would its capture greatly reduce Venetian power and influence in the region but the seizure of its assets would immeasurably increase the coffers of the Ottoman treasury – it was then, a mature fruit ripe for plucking.

The campaign against Cyprus should have come as no surprise to its defenders but when In June 1570 an Ottoman Fleet of 400 ships carrying 200,000 men was sighted off-shore it did, and it created panic for little preparation had been made to resist a siege and so behind poorly manned and dilapidated fortifications one town after another rapidly fell until by September the conquest of the island was almost complete. Only the city of Famagusta remained to be subdued.


Yet despite overwhelming odds and no prospect of relief the city’s Venetian Commander Marcantonio Bragadin refused to surrender. He had a garrison of only 8,500 Italian and Cypriot troops but they were to hold at bay 200,000 or more Turks for eleven long months.

It was a defiance that earned the defenders little respect from the Ottoman Commander Lala Kara Mustafa who was increasingly being seen as an incompetent braggart whose repeated declarations of victory had proven both hollow and without foundation. Finally on 5 September 1571 with their fortifications breached and his garrison reduced to fewer than a thousand ragged and exhausted men close to starvation, Bragadin agreed to surrender, but only under terms.

Such had been the humiliation endured Mustafa professed a willingness to negotiate, anything to bring the conflict to an end, and the terms he offered were generous.


The Ottoman Commander agreed an honourable surrender in which the defenders were promised their liberty and a safe passage to Crete, but no sooner had they laid down their arms than their Senior Officers were brought before Kara Mustafa and accused of a series of crimes among them the massacre of Turkish prisoners. Bragadin declared any such charges to be false and accused Kara Mustafa of cowardice, deceit and bad faith. In a no doubt somewhat contrived rage, Mustafa ordered the Venetian’s ears and nose be cut off and the Officers who had accompanied him beheaded before his eyes.  He was then thrown into a windowless dungeon where with his wounds allowed to fester and fed barely enough to keep him alive he was regularly beaten and deprived of sleep. In the meantime, those Christians remaining in the city were put to the sword while the troops who having surrendered had been promised their freedom were instead delivered into slavery and chained to the oars of the Turkish galleys.

Two weeks after his arrest Bragadin was taken from his dungeon his body weighed down by sacks of rocks and marched through the streets of Famagusta to the Ottoman Camp where paraded before the troops he was forced to crawl to Kara Mustafa’s tent and made to eat dirt. Then taken to a ship moored offshore he was bound to a chair and hoisted up the yardarm from where his degradation could be witnessed for miles around. After some hours subjected to the searing heat of the afternoon sun he was hauled down and taken to the town square where stripped naked and tied to a pillar he was flayed alive.

Death must have come as a blessed relief to the abused Bragadin but his humiliation did not cease with his passing; first his body was decapitated and quartered the various parts distributed among the Ottoman Army before his flayed skin was sewn back together, stuffed with straw, dressed in his military tunic and sent, along with the heads of his immediate subordinates, to the Sultan in Istanbul as trophies of war.  Selim the Drunkard as he was known, had neither the dignity of office nor generosity of spirit to decline such a gift.

Bragadin’s fate had been a horrible one but his heroic defence of Famagusta had provided time, invaluable time for the Pope to form a Holy League to defend against further Islamic incursions into Christian Europe – to do so was easier said than done but Pius V was to prove the right man at the right time.

Unlike his predecessor in the Vatican, Pius V was a man of God who disavowed the pleasures of the flesh. He wore a hair shirt under his plain Dominican robes and frowned upon those who did not do likewise and life at St Peter’s ceased to be sumptuous; the food served was of simple fare, wine became sparse, and the Court Jester was dismissed.  He passed his days on matters of state and his nights in deep reflection. He also took a keen interest in the activities of the Inquisition often attending interrogations and rarely missing an execution.

As Pope he worked hard to organise a unified Christian response to the threat posed by Islam but the diplomatic missions despatched to the Royal Courts of Europe to elicit support met with only limited success at best with both Portugal, concerned for the vulnerability of its lucrative slave outposts on the coast of West Africa, and France, which saw the Ottoman Empire as a potential ally in its ongoing struggle with Spain and the Habsburgs for mastery in Europe being notable absentees from what would be an entirely Catholic Coalition – the Protestant States of Northern Europe having decided to remain aloof from the fray uncertain as to who exactly was an ally and who a foe.

The Coalition that emerged was less than was hoped for but it would suffice.

The treaty formalising the creation of the Holy League was signed in Rome on 24 May 1571, its signatories were: Spain, Venice, Genoa, Urbino, Tuscany, Savoy, the Knights of Malta, and the Papal States.

Immediately upon the ceremony’s conclusion Pope Pius appointed Admiral Marco Antonio Colonna to form a fleet under the Banner of the Cross.

Colonna may have had the responsibility for the formation of the Holy League’s Armada but its command would fall to Don John of Austria, the illegitimate son of the previous Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and half-brother to Philip II of Spain, who despite his youth (he was 24 years of age) was an experienced naval officer and veteran of previous campaigns against the Ottomans.

As Spain financed the Holy League and provided it with most of its manpower and resources Pope Pius had little option but to comply with Philip II’s choice for its commander.  Even so, old rivalries die hard even in moments of the greatest extremity and though Don John was well-qualified to command there were others within the Holy League who thought themselves better able to do so.

When Don John arrived to take command he found many of the Venetian ships seriously undermanned and immediately ordered that Spanish troops make up the numbers but he had done so without first consulting Colonna. Furious that his authority had been undermined in a fit of pique the Venetian Admiral had a Spanish Officer arrested on trumped up charges and hanged from the yardarm of his own ship.  The row that ensued threatened to disrupt the cohesion of an always fragile coalition was eventually patched up but the two men did not speak again for the entirety of the campaign.

Venice was the city most immediately threatened by Islamic aggression. It had long been a thorn in the side of the Ottoman Empire competing as it did for control for the Levantine trade routes and domination in the Eastern Mediterranean. It was on paper at least an unequal contest but what the Venetians lacked in manpower and resources they more than made up for in experience, endeavour, and invention.

The confrontation when it came they knew would be at sea and both the arms designer and shipbuilder Francesco Duodo along with Admiral Sebastiano Venier had been endeavouring to improve the city’s capacity to wage such a war. Working closely together and in great secrecy they had designed and constructed the first Gallease which unlike the galleys of the day which rarely carried more than a gun at the front and perhaps two or three at the rear utilised the entire length of the vessel providing it with an immense armament of 40 guns or more. When galleys came alongside one another their guns were rendered useless but with a Gallease able to fire broadsides this was no longer the case. They had also been constructed with a heavier reinforced wood and had raised sides making them almost impossible to board, the Turks favoured tactic – Venice then, would be ready.

Spain, which would provide the largest contingent of troops and was still smarting from the annihilation of its mighty fleet at the Battle of Djerba ten years earlier, was also ready.

The Christian Fleet sailed from Messina in Sicily on 16 September 1570 through the Straits heading east to seek out and destroy the enemy. By 7 October it had reached the Gulf of Patros off the western coast of Greece where it sighted the Ottoman Fleet. An emergency War Council was immediately held where Don John decided to engage without delay – there were no objections.

The same unity of command was not to be found in the Ottoman camp where the Fleet Commander Muezzinzade Ali Pasha, no less eager to fight, was challenged by his subordinate Uluc Ali Pasha who thought it foolhardy to sail and engage with the enemy when they could remain where they were under the protection of the guns of the various fortresses that dotted the shoreline. Indeed, it might even be possible to lure the Christian Fleet further into the Gulf and destroy it piecemeal. Ali Pasha disagreed, not only would it be dishonourable to refuse battle once it had been offered  but he had strict orders from the Sultan in Istanbul to meet with and destroy the enemy for the greater glory of Allah not hide away and allow it to destroy itself.

As the two fleets formed up on uncertain waters beneath a brooding sky and with a storm brewing they did not appear to be evenly matched, and nor were they. In both ships and manpower the Ottoman Fleet was clearly the superior. It consisted of 278 ships (56 of which were Galiots, small, fast, and manoeuvrable vessels used for harassment and boarding) and 35,000 men.

The essential warship of its day and the one that made up the main component of both fleets was the galley, a vessel of slender construction some 120 feet long and in some places barely 6 feet wide with 25 benches of oars operated by 3 to 5 men on either side. On the Ottoman galleys these were for the most part Christians kidnapped from their homes, taken while at sea, or captured in battle who had since been sold in the slave markets of North Africa. There were some 30,000 at the Battle of Lepanto and chained to their oars there was little chance of survival should their ships be sunk or set afire.

With two large sails for long distance travel the galley could reach speeds of up to 12 knots and the optimum speed would be sought to fully utilise the ‘beak’ at the prow of the vessel intended to ram and snare the enemy in preparation for boarding. Its armament was often just one large gun sited at the front of the ship but with a great many anti-personnel weapons with which to clear the decks of enemy ships.

The Holy League had fewer ships just 212, with 115 provided by Venice, 49 by Spain, 27 from Genoa, 7 from the Papal States, 5 from Tuscany, and 3 each from Savoy, the Knights of Malta, and a further 3 licensed Privateers.

They were likewise outnumbered with just 28,000 troops – 7,000 Spanish, 6,000 Italian, 5,000 Venetian, 2,000 Croatian, 2,000 Slavs, and 6,000 sundry others. But they had many more guns 1,815, and among their ships were six of the new and formidable Galleases. Also their Spanish troops were among the finest in Europe and they were well equipped with helmets, breastplates, and many were arquebusiers while the Turks were perhaps over-reliant on bowmen whose arrows could often not penetrate the Spanish armour.

Much like the Ottoman Fleet their ships were powered by sail, oar, and slave.

A little before noon the two fleets formed up facing one another in a line stretching for four miles or more. It was important for Don John to get as close to the shoreline as possible to negate the Turks favoured tactic of developing a crescent like formation so as to be able outflank the enemy in a wide arc before enveloping them in a vice-like grip.

At the centre of the Christian line was Don John himself aboard his flagship the Real along with 61 other galleys. On the left nearest the shoreline was the Venetian Agostino Barbarigo with 53 galleys while commanding the right of the line was the Genoan Giovanni Andrea Doria. All three Divisions had 2 galleases at their forefront able to lead the charge and bring down a heavy fire.

Ali Pasha aboard his flagship the Sultana flying the Banner of the Caliphs, a huge green flag embroidered with text from the Qu’ran would confront Don John in the centre with 61 galleys and 32 galiots. On the right of the Ottoman line was the Barbary Corsair Mehmed Scirocco, a man of brutal and uneven temper with 57 galleys and 2 galiots while on the left was Uluc Ali Pasha with 61 galleys and 32 galiots. But whereas John Don had provided for a powerful Reserve of 39 galleys under the command of Alvaro de Bazin no such provision had been made on the Ottoman side, just a handful of undermanned galleys and sundry other craft – it was to prove significant.

Having formed up in order of battle with horns blaring and banners waving the commanders met with their subordinates, finalised their orders, and said their prayers.  Don John had just completed a tour of his ships in an open boat exhorting their crews not to flinch from the task that lay ahead and boosting morale. Now from the prow of his flagship he delivered the message:

“The time for talking is over. The time for fighting has come.”

Then with little further embellishment and no pretence to glory he informed them:

“There can be no paradise for cowards.”

Similar scenes were occurring in both fleets as decks were cleared, guns were primed, troops gathered, and Captain’s addressed their men. Perhaps with scant sincerity Ali Pasha promised all Christian galley slaves their freedom should they remain loyal. But for all the preparation and prayer complacency had been detected in the Ottoman camp. As one observer noted:

“They all went into battle with the greatest yearning although we believed that the enemy fleet was much greater than our own. Due to their victories achieved in the past they thought little of our strength.”

If there was any complacency it soon dissipated as it became clear the two fleets were more evenly matched than at first appeared.

In the centre of the line Ali Pasha, furious that he had not been made aware of the destructive power of the galleases, headed straight for Don John’s flagship seeking to kill his rival and end the battle early.

Picking up pace the Sultana rammed the Real with such force that the entire ship trembled and shook with many knocked from their feet and some thrown overboard, while the first four rows of galley slaves were killed outright; but the attempt to board was repulsed as elite Janissaries and Spanish infantry fought face-to-face and hand-to-hand. The struggle remained in the balance however, and had it not been for the timely intervention of Marcantonio Colonna who came alongside and boarded the Sultana it may have turned out very differently.

Outnumbered and attacked from both sides the Janissaries fought to the last man and among the killed was Muezzinzade Ali Pasha. Learning of the Emir’s death Don John ordered the body decapitated and his severed head placed upon a pole and paraded up and down the deck of his ship as the Banner of the Caliphs was lowered and that of the Holy League, raised in its place.

Elsewhere the two fleets converged with the galleases of the Holy League manoeuvring so as to bring their broadsides to bear taking a terrible toll of the lead Turkish galleys throwing them into disarray. The first ships to clash were those of Barbarigo and Scirocco nearest the shore and there was little time for seamanship or tactical genius as the two fleets rammed into each other at great speed seeking to ram and board. The ships being so tightly packed it was said that a man could simply step from one onto another. The author Miguel de Cervantes who fought at Lepanto losing the use of his right arm described the nature of such fighting in his epic novel Don Quixote:

“And yet, though he sees with a first heedless step he will go down to visit the profundities of Neptune’s bosom, still with dauntless heart the knight makes himself a target for all that musketry and struggles to cross the narrow path to the enemies ship.”

In a bitterly fought encounter that saw both Barbarigo and Scirocco killed, the former with an arrow to the eye, the latter beheaded on the deck of his own ship, the Holy League emerged triumphant but only just and largely as a result of freed galley slaves taking up arms and turning on their masters.

The death of Muezzinzade Ali Pasha and the lowering of the Banner of the Caliphs had greatly demoralised the entire Ottoman Fleet and as the battle turned against them those who were able to began beaching and abandoning their ships just as Don John had suspected they might.

Triumphant both in the centre and on the left of the line the Holy League’s victory appeared all but assured but on the right the story was very different. Here Uluc Ali Pasha had forced Andrea Doria to sail out of position thereby creating a gap that exposed Colonna’s left flank in the centre. This was the opportunity and Uluc Ali Pasha was quick to seize it as his fleet descended in force upon 15 or so of the Holy Leagues galleys clustered around the flagship of the Knights of Malta. They were hard pressed and it seemed for a moment that victory could still be snatched from the jaws of Ottoman defeat but it was now that the Christian Reserve Division would prove its worth.  Frustrated at having to witness events from afar its commander Alvaro de Bazan did not hesitate to act but there was little fighting still to be done. Witnessing Bazan’s onrushing galleys Uluc Ali Pasha decided discretion the better part of valour and disengaged heading for the open sea where he made good his escape.

After four hours of intense and brutal conflict the Battle of Lepanto was over – the Cross triumphant in victory, the Crescent humbled in defeat.

The Ottoman Fleet had been almost annihilated with 210 of 278 ships sunk, captured, or abandoned with many more badly damaged. Ships can be built of course and they were. Within a year of the defeat at Lepanto the Ottoman Fleet was similar in size to the one destroyed but the 30,000 experienced sailors and soldiers killed were not so easily replaced and they would shy away from any direct confrontation at sea for many years to come.

The Holy League had lost just 17 ships sunk and 7,500 men killed.

It was said that as Don John addressed his men from the prow of the Real and gave thanks to the Blessed Virgin Mary hundreds of miles away in Rome the Pope rose from his chair went to a window and gazing east declared – the Christian Fleet is victorious! He then wept tears of joy and then just as Don John had he to attributed the victory to the direct intercession of the Virgin Mary.

Don John, Colonna, Venier and the others returned to Rome as heroes their triumph at Lepanto celebrated throughout Catholic Europe like none before and few since as Turkish prisoners were paraded in chains through the streets of the Eternal City to the peel of church bells, the incantations of priests, and the prayers of the people.

The reception in Protestant northern Europe was more muted. They understood the threat posed by Islam well enough but at a time of heightened tension which often spilled over into open warfare the presence of an aggressive Islam on the eastern flank of Catholic Europe was viewed favourably as an impediment to Vatican ambition.

The Battle of Lepanto would not prove decisive in the struggle between East and West, between Christianity and Islam but it was significant nonetheless and would be recognised and resonate as such for many centuries to come. The advance of the Ottoman Empire had been halted but it remained a formidable enemy and the situation was far from secure particularly following the fall of Cyprus and the re-emergence of old divisions within the Holy League that saw it dismantled barely a year later. Even so, its propaganda value was immense and it provided further evidence, if any were needed, that Christendom remained in the ascendant and that Roman Catholicism was the – One True Faith; an epic tale of physical courage, moral certainty and spiritual renewal to be retold again and again in music, literature, and art.  It is only now since the narrative has shifted and by those heedless of the fact the thread of history endures and remains unbroken that it has been relegated in our consciousness to the back burner of past events.













Anne Boleyn Part Two: The Fallen Idol

Late in the afternoon of 31 May 1533, in what would be a great procession through the streets of the city, England’s new Queen, Anne Boleyn, left her temporary residence in the Tower of London for the place of her coronation at the Palace of Westminster.

Only two of Henry VIII’s six wives would be afforded he honour of a formal coronation, the other was Catherine of Aragon, but that had not been his doing. With Anne already heavily pregnant, a fact artfully disguised where possible, the event could have been seen as an occasion for much mirth and mockery even if the Queen’s condition did lend proof of the King’s virility, he had earlier been stung by the Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys casting doubt upon whether, at his age, the King could still sire a son, prompting him to respond angrily – Am I not a man like any other)

Given the mood of the country Henry had, perhaps wisely, chosen to stay away though he would be present for the celebrations. Even so, determined to make a statement, no expense had been spared on the spectacle.

The Tudor chronicler Edward Hall, who was present, provides us with an account of the scene as he would also of Anne’s coronation the following day:

“And on Saturday, the last day of May, she rode from the Tower of London through the city with a goodly company of lords, knights, and gentlemen, richly apparelled. She  herself rode in a rich chariot covered with cloth of silver, and a rich canopy of cloth of silver borne over her head by the four Lords of the Ports, in gowns of scarlet, followed by four richly hung chariots of ladies, and also several other ladies and gentlewomen riding on horseback, all in gowns made of crimson velvet. And there were various pageant made on scaffolds in the city; and all the guilds were standing in their liveries, every- one in order, the mayor and aldermen standing in Cheapside. And when she came before them the Recorder of London made a goodly presentation to her, and then the mayor gave her a purse of cloth of gold with a thousand marks of angel nobles in it, as a present from the city; and so the lords brought her to the Palace of Westminster and left her there that night.”

The thousands of people who lined the route patiently waiting for the procession to pass eager to catch a glimpse of their new Queen were entertained by the many jugglers, acrobats, fire eaters and musicians present while young children, many in fancy dress, danced and made merry.

The procession paused briefly at St Martin’s Church on Ludgate Hill where prayers were said, recitations made, and a choir sang in the Queen’s honour but the carnival atmosphere, tempered by such moments of reverence and solemnity, was not all it seemed. The Queen’s reception was mixed at best, the crowds were enjoying the festivities no doubt but the cheers rang hollow often drowned out by reciprocal jeers and catcalls despite the many there who had been amply rewarded for their presence.

But the moments of discord did little to diminish the occasion and Anne took it all in good heart  her countenance remaining pleasant to gaze upon throughout- she knew the people would love her well enough when she provided the King with a son and heir.

The following day Anne “was brought to St Peter’s Church at Westminster, and there sat in her high royal seat which was made on a high platform before the altar. And there she was anointed and crowned Queen of England by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York.”

Upon being crowned Queen, Anne was immediately taken to nearby Westminster Hall  where the great and good of the land, with the notable exception of Sir Thomas More, had gathered for the lavish celebratory banquet in her honour. Sitting at high table accompanied only by the Archbishop of Canterbury while the King looked on, the clearly exhausted and heavily pregnant Anne did not wilt outperforming all present with her ease of presence, pleasant demeanour, eating heartily, and dancing late into the night with her new husband Henry, King of England.

The festivities continued for another two days with tournaments, further banquets, and other sundry entertainments. It was  a triumph for both Henry and Anne, the cup of goodwill runneth over and was imbibed with great relish, but the sound of dissenting voices were never far away and as long as as Catherine of Aragon’s shadow loomed large over events and the King remained without a male heir an atmosphere of uncertainty would prevail

By now exiled to Kimbolton Castle in remote Huntingdonshire far removed from the Royal Court in London and the centre of power, Catherine refused to be cowed by the King’s bullying and not very subtle acts of intimidation insisting that she was still the “King’s only lawful wedded wife and England’s rightful Queen.” Moreover, and much to Henry’s chagrin, she demanded her servants refer to her as such and she could still count among her friends many influential people none more so than the Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas More and John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester.

Since the annulment of the marriage Catherine had been relegated in status to Dowager, Princess of Wales, starved of funds, and seen her household reduced to the bare minimum required as Henry maintained the pressure on her to accept the divorce and his marriage to Anne Boleyn as the fait accompli it clearly was; but despite the promise of improved relations and conditions should she relent Catherine stubbornly refused to do so.  As a result, she was denied permission to meet or even communicate with their daughter Mary – they were in fact never to see one another other again.

On 7 September 1533, Anne Boleyn gave birth to a healthy baby girl she named Elizabeth. Henry went through the formalities of recognising her as his daughter but he could barely disguise his disappointment.  He had married Anne in the belief she would provide him with the son and heir he so craved now she had failed to deliver. She would soon be pregnant again Anne reassured him but he had divorced Catherine believing he had sinned in marrying his brother’s widow and so had been cursed to remain without male offspring.  He was still without male offspring – had she deceived him?  All celebrations were quietly put aside, the great joust that had been arranged in the baby prince’s honour was cancelled, and Henry did not call upon Anne again for some time.

Henry’s determination to divorce Catherine and marry Anne had also set in motion a series of events unforeseen and unimaginable just a few years before.

In order to secure the divorce denied him by the Vatican Henry had first to break with Rome, an issue that had acquired greater urgency since Pope Clement VII had declared his marriage to Catherine legal.

In May 1532, at the Convocation of Canterbury the clergy yielded to the King’s demand that it abandon its right to formulate Canon Law without his consent or in future seek instruction from or implement any policy emanating from Rome – the Pope’s jurisdiction would no longer run in England.

The Submission of the Clergy, as it became known, was not passed without opposition. John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester, was particularly hostile urging fierce resistance but the Archbishop of Canterbury William Warham, who despite it seeming lukewarm at times had been a long-time supporter of Catherine of Aragon was now old, ailing, and his resolve weak – he would carp and complain but not resist the King who had made it clear in a speech before parliament how any such opposition would be regarded:

“Well beloved subjects, we thought that the clergy of the realm had been our subjects wholly, but now we have well perceived that they be but half our subjects, yea, and scarce our subjects.”

This was soon followed by the Act of Supremacy which recognised King Henry VIII and his subsequent successors as Head of the Church in England. The Pope would in future be referred to as the Bishop of Rome.

Upon learning that the clergy had submitted to the will of the King and signed the Oath of Supremacy, Sir Thomas More resigned as Lord Chancellor. He would not take the Oath but neither would he speak against it, and Henry, though disappointed appeared at first willing to let his old friend and mentor be. Thomas Cromwell, in effect the King’s Chief Minister and master manipulator in a variety of roles was not, he would not let sleeping dogs lie. As long as Sir Thomas refused to publicly submit as others had he remained a threat to the religious reforms he was so assiduously working to impose; time and again Sir Thomas was interrogated whether it be over accusations of bribery while in office or over his association with Elizabeth Barton, the Holy Maid of Kent, who had prophesied against the King’s relationship with Anne Boleyn. There was little evidence of wrongdoing against the former Lord Chancellor as Cromwell knew full well but then it was about bringing pressure to bear, pressure to take the oath.  If he did so then the King’s generosity would know no bounds, if he did not then intimidation would suffice – and so it would prove.

In March 1534, the Act of Succession declared the King’s daughter by Catherine of Aragon, the Princess Mary, a bastard and removed her from the line of succession. At the same time Anne Boleyn’s daughter, the Princess Elizabeth was elevated to be next in line to the throne. Those required to take the Oath would in effect be recognising Anne Boleyn as the legitimate Queen while the Treason Act passed around the same time made not taking the Oath a crime punishable by death.

Despite the severity of the penalty imposed for not doing so Sir Thomas More could no more swear this Oath than he could the previous one. If there had been an opportunity for him to do so, if the wording of the text had been different, if a loophole had existed, he would have taken it for he had no desire to lose his life as he made plain many times, but he could not act in defiance of his conscience and perjure himself before God.

On 17 April 1534, Sir Thomas More was arrested on a charge of high treason and taken to the Tower of London where he would remain for over a year in the hope the reality of imprisonment and the prolonged separation from his family would in the eyes of most at least, bring him to his senses.

Soon after Sir Thomas’s incarceration his friend and fellow Oath resister Bishop John Fisher was likewise arrested and taken to the Tower. Both men had taken shelter behind the legal precedent that silence implies consent, if so their silence must have been the loudest in recorded history for it resounded throughout the Royal Courts of Europe. But whether spoken or otherwise, the wily Thomas Cromwell, acting on behalf of his master the King of England, had long ago decided that such dissent could not be tolerated.

In May 1535, the recently installed Pope Paul III made Bishop Fisher a Cardinal in the hope that his elevation to a Prince of the Church would, if not secure his freedom then at least save his life. Learning of this King Henry declared scornfully that should he receive his Cardinal’s hat in time he would gladly return it to Rome with the Primate’s head in it.

John Fisher was executed on 22 June 1535, not as a Cardinal or a Bishop but as a commoner and as a frightened, physically broken but stubborn old man.

Sir Thomas More could now be in no doubt as to his own fate and on 1 July was found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death on the perjured evidence of a former acolyte, Richard Rich.

Returned to the Tower to await his execution it was even now hoped that there may be a last minute recantation and swearing of the Oath, anything that might allow the King to commute his sentence to something other than death; but he had already publicly condemned the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and his usurpation of power in matters spiritual at his trial and so there was no acceptance now which might ever be thought true and sincere.

A final visit from his family who he had earlier ordered to swear the Oath for their own safety and during which emotions ran high could not sway him from his conviction. Not even the succinct and passionately argued reasonableness of his daughter Margaret, to whom he was particularly close, could change his mind.

Sir Thomas More met his fate that warm 6 July morning with all the calm resolution people had come to expect from one of the leading humanist thinkers of his day, though perhaps his spirit surpassed his body as ascending the steps to the scaffold he asked:

“I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and for my coming down, I can shift for myself.”

Before recompensing his executioner in assurance of a swift death, Sir Thomas addressed briefly those in attendance:

“I die the King’s faithful servant, but God’s first.”

Perhaps the man in greatest pain that fine July morning was the one responsible for the death of his former Lord Chancellor. Perhaps the person who should have been most nervous was the woman who had sealed his fate.

Henry, who cared little for Bishop Fisher was deeply conflicted over the execution of Sir Thomas More. He had been his guide and mentor, his close personal friend and confidante since boyhood, now he was dead, and he was dead as a result of Anne Boleyn. He expressed his regret in private often in tones of bitterness and recrimination – but at least Anne would soon be pregnant once more and he would be vindicated in the eyes of God.

On 8 January 1536, news reached the Royal Court at Greenwich that Catherine of Aragon had died and an overwhelming sense of relief swept through its environs as if caught in lightening and its dark corridors had been bathed in shafts of light. Both Henry and Anne were reportedly delighted though the proprieties of grief were respected and maintained even if some thought otherwise when the colour yellow (supposedly the colour of mourning in the late Queen’s native land) was ordered to be worn lending proceedings a more celebratory feel.

Aware that she was not long for this world Catherine had penned one final letter to her erstwhile husband:

My most dear lord, king, and husband

The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer to all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that he will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also , on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants             i               solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.

Katherine the Queen

Now Anne had all that she had ever wanted – she was married to the King, she was Queen, her daughter Elizabeth was in the line of succession, her opponents at Court and in the Church had been disposed of, and her great rival Catherine of Aragon was dead. All she had to do in return was provide her husband with a son and heir.

On the day of the former Queen’s funeral Anne’s pregnancy bore fruit in the form of a stillbirth – the child would have been a boy. The King’s ill-temper was evident, if his Queen expected sympathy she would get none from him. He now began to speak openly of being deceived and beguiled, bewitched even.

Henry and Anne’s love affair had rarely been less than tempestuous with the former driven by lust the latter by ambition. Anne’s natural vivacity, sharp intellect, independence of thought, and outspoken ways so admired in a mistress were less so in a Queen. The expected deference was not forthcoming, neither was the silence of a dutiful wife. Henry and Anne argued often, and loudly.

And she could never truly be Queen while Catherine lived, no matter how hard she tried, and she did try living ostentatiously with no expense spared and adopting the airs and graces of regality to the uttermost.  Even so, she remained an interloper, the King’s prostitute, that goggle-eyed whore.

It made her spiteful towards her household, her husband, even her own sister but the primary target of her vindictiveness would always be Catherine. She demanded that her retinue be reduced, that she not be allowed visitors, that she hand-over her jewels, and that the minimum only be spent on her maintenance. The Princess Mary she made work in her infant daughter Elizabeth’s household ordering that she be closely watched and if heard make mention of the succession be severely beaten.

Now Catherine of Aragon was dead she was losing the King’s affections.

The Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who was no friend to Anne Boleyn referring to her in his correspondence as the King’s concubine remarked of the stillbirth – the Queen has miscarried of her saviour.  He could say this with some confidence as it was increasingly apparent that she was no longer in the King’s favour. He had earlier written:

“It is heard in France that Anne Boleyn has in some way or other incurred the Royal displeasure and that she is in disgrace with the King who is paying his court to another lady, and other people are uttering words of much indignation against her.”

Anne had begun to fear for her safety and that of her daughter, Elizabeth. Already embroiled in a power struggle with Thomas Cromwell for influence over the King especially in the area of foreign affairs where she favoured an alliance with France rather than the closer ties with the Protestant States of northern Europe sought by the Chief Minister. She was also aware that one of her ladies-in-waiting Jane Seymour had caught the King’s eye. Indeed, upon discovering that she was wearing a locket given her by Henry she tore it from her neck with such force that the violence involved frightened others present. But such temper tantrums were becoming increasingly commonplace. She felt increasingly isolated with her only salvation being her ability to provide the King with a son, and this she had been unable to do.

Rumours had long been circulating regarding the Queen, that she was the ‘King’s Whore’ just as her sister had been, and as the saying went – once a whore always a whore. Whether the charges that would be brought against her were then, entirely the invention of Thomas Cromwell or that he was merely exploiting these rumours it is difficult to say, but that they were readily believed is not.

Henry had already decided he was a victim of her witchcraft, that he had been seduced with evil intent. He too had heard the rumours and he wanted Thomas Cromwell to investigate them.

In April 1536, a young musician in Anne’s service Mark Smeaton was arrested and charged with being the Queen’s lover. To commit adultery with the Queen carried a sentence of death and so he at first frantically denied the charges but put to the rack soon confessed and implicated others.

On 1 May, Henry Norris, an old friend and jousting partner of the King’s, was likewise arrested. He was said to have expressed an unhealthy interest in the Queen visiting her often in her chambers and other arrests soon followed, a courtier Sir Francis Weston, a groom William Brereton, and the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt but most damaging and hurtful was the detention of her brother George, Viscount Rochford on charges of committing incest with his sister.

Kept unaware of the details Anne was not heedless to the gossip and in desperation tried one last time to reconcile with her husband carrying the infant Elizabeth in her arms she pleaded her innocence and begged him not to forsake their daughter but Henry remained impassive, and unmoved dismissed her from his presence.

On 2 May, Anne Boleyn was arrested charged with adultery and high treason and taken by river to the Tower of London where she entered by the notorious Traitor’s Gate. She appeared frightened and a little disbelieving of the fate that had befallen her. She asked often for news and her mood it was said swung from a calm indifference to hysterical fits of tears.

On 6 May, she wrote what would prove a last letter to her husband, the King:


Your Grace’s displeasure, and my imprisonment are things so strange unto me, as what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send unto me (willing me to confess a truth, and so obtain your favour) by such an one, whom you know to be my ancient professed enemy. I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if, as you say, confessing a truth indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all willingness and duty perform your demand.

But let not your Grace ever imagine, that your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault, where not so much as a thought thereof preceded. And to speak a truth, never prince had wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Boleyn: with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself, if God and your Grace’s pleasure had been so pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation or received Queenship, but that I always looked for such an alteration as I now find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than your Grace’s fancy, the least alteration I knew was fit and sufficient to draw that fancy to some other object. You have chosen me, from a low estate, to be your Queen and companion, far beyond my desert or desire. If then you found me worthy of such honour, good your Grace let not any light fancy, or bad council of mine enemies, withdraw your princely favour from me; neither let that stain, that unworthy stain, of a disloyal heart toward your good grace, ever cast so foul a blot on your most dutiful wife, and the infant-princess your daughter. Try me, good king, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my accusers and judges; yea let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open flame; then shall you see either my innocence cleared, your suspicion and conscience satisfied, the ignominy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that whatsoever God or you may determine of me, your grace may be freed of an open censure, and mine offense being so lawfully proved, your grace is at liberty, both before God and man, since have pointed unto, your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicion therein. But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander must bring you the enjoying of your desired happiness; then I desire of God, that he will pardon your great sin therein, and likewise mine enemies, the instruments thereof, and that he will not call you to a strict account of your unprincely and cruel usage of me, at his general judgment-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear, and in whose judgment I doubt not (whatsoever the world may think of me) mine innocence shall be openly known, and sufficiently cleared. My last and only request shall be, that myself may only bear the burden of your Grace’s displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls of those poor gentlemen, who (as I understand) are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake. If ever I found favour in your sight, if ever the name of Anne Boleyn hath been pleasing in your ears, then let me obtain this request, and I will so leave to trouble your Grace any further, with mine earnest prayers to the Trinity to have your Grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your actions. From my doleful prison in the Tower, this sixth of May;

Your most loyal and ever faithful wife, Anne Boleyn”

Yet, even now she could not bring herself to believe that the King would truly do her harm; surely he would pardon her or banish her from Court, perhaps exile her to another country.  It wasn’t until her trial on 15 May before a tribunal of 27 of the most prominent peers of the realm one of whom was her old paramour Henry Percy now Duke of Northumberland, and presided over her own uncle the Duke of Norfolk that the implications of what was happening became truly apparent.

Anne defended herself as best she could knowing that the charges against herself and the others were false but there was little sympathy to be had and minds were closed and hearts cowed to judge other than the verdict predetermined:

“I am entirely innocent of all these accusations that I cannot ask pardon of God for them. I have always been a loyal and faithful wife to the King. I’ve not perhaps always shown him that humility and reverence that his goodness to me, and the honour to which he raised me, did deserve.

I confess I have had fancies and suspicions of him which I had not the strength, nor discretion to resist, and God knows and as my witness I have never failed otherwise towards him, and shall never confess any otherwise.”

It was an admission of sorts but of an entirely different guilt, perhaps.

The verdict was against her and unanimous as it could be no other and so found guilty of incest, adultery, and treason she was sentenced to death.  Finally, informed that Archbishop Cranmer had the previous day declared her marriage to Henry null and void she realised that death awaited her and that there would be no reprieve.

The final few days of Anne’s confinement in the Tower were a torment to her, she was in deep mourning for the fate of her brother, feared for the safety of her remaining family in particular her daughter, and repented for the behaviour that had lost her the affection of her husband the King, doomed the lives of others likewise accused with her on trumped up charges, and had brought her to this.

On 17 May, she may have seen but would certainly have heard the execution of her brother George and the other accused. She was due to be executed herself the following day but now there was a delay.

Henry had relented a little, Anne would be spared the indignity of the axe and instead an expert swordsman had been brought from Calais to ensure that the decapitation would be as swift and painless as possible, but the journey to London had taken longer than anticipated.

Anne’s final hours were spent reading the Bible in quiet contemplation of her fate, though her eyes were reddened and her cheeks rarely dry of tears. The Constable of the Tower Sir William Kingston who had warmed to the condemned Queen during the period of her confinement wrote of her final hours:

“This morning she sent for me, that I might be with her at such time as she received the good Lord, to intent I should hear her speak as touching her innocence always to be clear. And in the writing of this she sent for me, and in my coming she said: “Mr Kingston, I hear I shall not die afore noon and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought to be dead by this time and past my pain.” I told her it should be no pain, it was so little. She said, “I heard say the executioner is very good and I have a little neck,” and then she put her hands around it, laughing heartily. I have seen so many men and women executed, and that they have been in great sorrow, and to my knowledge this lady has much joy in death.”

Dressed in a dark grey fur trimmed gown and red petticoats and accompanied by two ladies-in-waiting it was said she went to the scaffold as a lady out for stroll, taking in the air and with a bounce in her step uncommon to those condemned to die. She then addressed those present in a clear and unhesitating voice:

“Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I have come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray God save the King and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler nor a more merciful prince was there never and to me he was ever a good, gentle, and sovereign lord. And if any person should meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world, and of you all, and I heartily desire you all pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.”

Many of those in attendance were reduced to tears by her humble demeanour and generous words for a King who had in truth shown her no mercy and people knelt to pray and there were cries of God save the Queen as Anne, blindfolded and on her knees before her executioner, her head held high, mumbled the words over and over “O sweet Jesus receive my soul. O Lord God, have pity on my soul.”

Little could Anne have anticipated the fate that awaited her when she coaxed and teased her way into the royal marriage bed, Queen’s were not executed, they might be banished, exiled, sent to a nunnery even, but they were not put to death; but then a royal marriage was a political event that lay within the purview of the diplomats and dynasts. Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was one such arrangement; his relationship with Anne Boleyn however was not, she had little political cachet, rather  it was driven by passion and desire and as is often the case when such affairs cool they lead to bitterness, resentment, and suspicions of betrayal.

Anne Boleyn’s generous words upon the scaffold might suggest otherwise but maybe she understood her role in turning the romantic, lovelorn prince of those early years into the monstrous tyrant of a decade later. After all, he had divorced a devoted wife, executed his friends, and imperilled his soul for her, and she had not delivered on the promises she had made. Perhaps, she was merely seeking to protect her daughter Elizabeth from any further retribution and secure her place in the line of succession. Then again, she may have meant every word she said.

The day after Anne Boleyn’s execution Henry became betrothed to Jane Seymour (that empty headed harlot, according to Anne) and nine days later they married. On 12 October 1537, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy, the future Edward VI. On 27 October, Jane Seymour died from puerperal fever contracted during childbirth.

Henry was saddened by the loss but it mattered little – a Queen had done her duty, at last.








Anne Boleyn Part One: The Goggle-Eyed Whore

Anne Boleyn was born in Norfolk sometime in 1501, the second daughter of the diplomat Thomas Boleyn and his wife Anne Howard. As a result of her father’s profession, though born in England, she was raised mostly abroad.

She first came to the attention of Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, that lavish extravaganza of Kingly display and Royal authority that took place just outside Calais between 7 and 24 June, 1520. At the time Anne was serving as Maid of Honour to Queen Claude of France. Indeed, she was to spend seven years at the French Court which with its music, dancing, poetry, provocative fashions, and emphasis upon flirtation made for a sexually charged environment that simply wasn’t to be found at its more formal and deferential English counterpart.

It comes as little surprise then, to find French etiquette and courtly manners greatly admired – and the young Anne Boleyn had been well-schooled in both.

Having returned to England in 1522, Anne announced herself to the Royal Court when  wearing a white satin dress embroidered with gold thread she made a stunning appearance (alongside the King’s sister, Mary) as one of the dancers at the Green Castle Pageant held in honour of the Ambassador for the Holy Roman Empire – it did not go unnoticed.

But it was not merely her appearance that caught the eye and provoked the senses, her other attributes were no less evident; she was lively and playful, stayed up late into the night, played dice and cards, and was no less at home with the more masculine pursuits of archery, hunting, and falconry. Clever, witty, and fun to be around she was in other words good company and had no lack of suitors. Indeed, she enjoyed the chase playing the games of love with an expert hand. .

In March 1526, Henry began to actively pursue Anne, though it is likely he had expressed an interest much earlier for in 1523 her engagement to Henry Percy, heir to the Duchy of Northumberland, had been broken off following the intervention of Cardinal Wolsey. It had been love and so when Percy married another soon after, Anne was left distraught. Her enmity towards the Cardinal dates from this moment and never relented – she was not one to forgive and forget.

Even so, she continued to have affairs one of which was with the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt who ended the relationship upon learning that the King shared his passion expressing his trepidation plaintively in the sonnet Who So Wish to Hunt:

“Graven in diamonds with letters plain there is written her fair neck roundabout. Noli me bangure (do not touch me) for Caesar’s I am.”

A King was expected to have mistresses and in this regard Henry did not disappoint but it was assumed that sharing the King’s bed was not the same as sharing his throne, and this was not his first pursuit of a Boleyn either, for he had been in a relationship with Anne’s sister Mary whom he had made his official mistress and the family had prospered as a result, even if it meant Mary being referred to as the ‘King’s Whore.’ But she had since been rejected and their star had waned as a result. The lesson had been learned however, Mary had given herself too freely and now he had resumed his interest in the other Boleyn girl Anne, she would not make the same mistake – the King would have to earn her affection: when he offered to make her his official mistress she refused outright, his letters went unanswered, his gifts were returned unopened, and when his presence became overbearing she dismissed herself from the Royal Court and returned home to Hever Castle in Kent. Her refusal to be seduced drove Henry to distraction but he had to learn – if he wanted her for his bed he would have to marry her. She would never be his mistress she would only ever be his Queen.

Henry’s determination to win the hand of Anne Boleyn might surprise us now for she was far from conventionally beautiful but then similar to a previous femme fatale, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, her powers of seduction lay mostly elsewhere.

The Venetian diarist Marino Sanuto who encountered Anne on a royal visit to France in October 1532, described her as:

“Not one of the handsomest women in the world being of middling stature with a swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, with a bosom not much raised but with eyes that are black and beautiful.”  

Nicholas Sanders, a Catholic propagandist who had little reason to admire Anne Boleyn and every reason not to was even less flattering:

“Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature with black hair and an oval face of a sallow complexion as if troubled by jaundice.”

She was perhaps wisely referred to as beautiful in most contemporary accounts but descriptions drawn from the secrecy of the diplomatic bag declare her attractive at best and rarely strikingly so. It was in Anne’s skilful use of her feminine wiles that her charm lay and never more so than when contrasted to Henry’s pious, dignified, courtly and deferential Queen Catherine of Aragon, a goodly wife but a dull mistress.

Atypically Spanish in appearance with her red hair, pale skin, and blue eyes Catherine had once been described as the ‘most beautiful creature in the world’ but she had few of Anne Boleyn’s charms and despite such a fervent admirer as Thomas More declaring there to be ‘few women in the world comparable to our Queen’ in middle age she had become plump and increasingly dowdy in appearance.

Despite his later behaviour suggesting otherwise Henry VIII was a devout Catholic and a regular Bible reader who not only wanted a divorce from his wife but also sought God’s sanction for having done so.

Catherine had not borne him a surviving son and heir and Henry now doubted she ever would for he believed he had been cursed with childlessness for marrying the widow of his deceased older brother, Arthur. Catherine was barren because they had sinned (the birth of a daughter Mary, the death of an infant son and the many still born counted for nothing) and he found evidence for his belief in a passage from Leviticus:

“If a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing, he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness and they shall remain childless.”

But Catherine had sworn under oath and before God that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated and that she remained virgo intacta, and a Papal Dispensation had been received for her to marry Henry on these grounds. Should she now retract, or at least cast doubt upon the accuracy of her previous statement, then her marriage to the King could be dissolved as illegitimate and he would be free to wed Anne Boleyn. But when it was suggested to Catherine that she do as His Majesty wished and simply retire from public life, perhaps to a nunnery, she remained steadfastly defiant replying:

“God never called me to a nunnery I am instead the King’s true and legitimate wife.”

Henry appealed to the Vatican to grant an annulment of his marriage regardless of the Queen’s wishes and placed the affair of the’ King’s Great Matter’ in the safe hands of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey confident that his ever-reliable Lord Chancellor would secure the divorce. Even so, he also made a secret approach to Pope Clement VII requesting he simply waive the divorce through as the Dispensing Bull of his predecessor but one, Julius II, had been procured under false pretences; but events in Rome took a turn for the worse when on 6 May 1527, the city was sacked by the forces of Charles V who was not only the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor but the nephew and therefore protector of Catherine of Aragon. Now a virtual prisoner within the confines of the Vatican it would not be possible for Pope Clement to grant Henry his divorce even if he had chosen to do so.

In the meantime, Wolsey presented the King’s case to Pope Clement, it rested upon three key points; firstly, that the original Dispensation was illegal as it contravened Biblical teaching as clearly laid out in the Book of Leviticus; secondly, that the original document had been incorrectly worded thereby making it void; thirdly, that the divorce of an English King should be tried in an English Court over which he as Papal Legate should preside.

The second claim was withdrawn when a correctly worded copy of the Dispensation was discovered in Spain but then it little mattered for everyone knew that the validity of the marriage rested upon whether or not Catherine’s earlier marriage to Prince Arthur had been consummated, and its outcome upon whether or not Cardinal Wolsey could control proceedings.

Thomas Wolsey had been King Henry’s Lord Chancellor and a Prince of the Church for more than a decade, he was a politician without peer, a statesman of renown, and in religious affairs a virtual law unto himself. Henry VIII may have been the final arbiter on all affairs domestic and foreign but Wolsey was their architect. There was no scheme adopted, no document signed, no legislation passed that did not have his fingerprints on them. More than anyone else he had been responsible for legitimising the Tudor regime and establishing England as a major player on the European scene. He was confident of concluding the issue of the divorce to the King’s satisfaction, he told him so, and there were few who would argue with him. But this was an issue that went beyond the mere governance of the realm, it was personal to the King, and there were powerful forces at play.

Pope Clement acceded to Wolsey’s demand that the trial be held in England far away it was assumed from interference by Charles V but with caveats – the Court would be presided over by his trusted factotum Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, and the final decision was to be made in Rome based upon his recommendations.

But unsure of his own position since the sack of Rome, the Pope did not want a decision made rather he wanted a decision delayed, and Campeggio was to fulfil his remit to the letter – he would arrive late for meetings, feign illness at every opportunity, and hold proceedings up while he awaited instructions from the Vatican.

In October 1528, Wolsey established his Ecclesiastical Court to rule upon the validity of the King’s marriage to Queen Catherine at Blackfriars in London. Campeggio, who was already in England, delayed travelling to Blackfriars for almost two months not arriving until 3rd December. He then engaged in a series of meetings with Wolsey, often in the presence of the King, where he outlined the position of the Vatican while taking testimony from leading theologians and evidence gathered by legal scholars.

Well schooled in the art of diplomacy the silver-tongued cleric was able to convince both Wolsey and the King of the sincerity of his endeavours and those of the Pope but frustration soon began to set in as one difficulty after another delayed the process.

After months of hearing evidence and taking legal advice on 21 July, King Henry VIII appeared before the Court to argue in person his case for a divorce. Also due to testify was Queen Catherine while watching from the wings but hidden from view was Anne Boleyn.

The King spoke first, he remarked upon his love for the Queen, of his devotion to her person, and that he was seeking an annulment of his marriage not for reasons of lust or because he desired a younger woman but rather that the consummation of her previous marriage to his older brother Arthur had rendered their union unclean, a sin before God, and therefore unlawful.

There had been murmurings of discontent throughout the King’s address from the many clerics present, sotto voce perhaps, but evident nonetheless. As he returned to his seat so Catherine was called to speak and a deathly hush descended upon the Court as she threaded her way past the many ushers and guards present towards where the King was sitting. Then in a moment of high drama she threw herself down in supplication before him.  Henry was so taken aback he tried to raise her up only for Catherine to throw herself down once more this time even more emphatically.

Then with tears in her eyes she spoke clearly and plainly, her voice strong and only occasionally faltering:

“Sir, I beseech you for all the love that hath been between us, and for the love of God, let me have justice. Take of me some pity and compassion, for I am a poor woman, and a stranger born out of your dominion. I have no assured friends, and much less impartial counsel. Alas! Sir, wherein I have offended you, or what occasion of displeasure have I deserved! I have been to you a true, humble and obedient  wife, ever comfortable to your will and pleasure, that never said or did anything to the contrary thereof, being always well pleased and contented with all things wherein you had any delight or dalliance, whether it were in little or much. I never grudged a word or countenance, or showed a visage or spark of discontent. I loved all those who ye loved, only for your sake, whether I had cause or no, and whether they were my friends or enemies. This twenty years or more I have been your true wife and by me you had divers children, although it hath pleased God to call them out of this world, which hath been no default in me.

When ye had me at first, and I take God to be my judge, I was a true maid without touch of man. And whether it, be true or not, I put it to your conscience. If there be any just cause by the law that ye can allege against me either of dishonesty or any other impediment to banish and put me from you, I am well content to depart to my great shame and dishonour. And if there be none, then here, I most lowly beseech you let me remain in my former estate. Therefore, I most humbly require you, in the way of charity and for the love of God – who is the just judge – to spare me the extremity of this new court, until I may be advised what way and order my friends in Spain will advise me to take. And if ye will not extend to me such impartial favour, your pleasure then be fulfilled, and to God I commit my cause!”

With that she rose to her feet and briefly curtsied before turning on her heels and walking out. Three times she was ordered to return but staring straight ahead refused to do so. When one of her attendants breathlessly informed her, “Madam, they wish you to return” she replied, “It matters not, this is no indifferent Court for me. I will not tarry.” As she emerged from the building it was to the cheers of the people gathered outside, particularly the many women in the crowd.

Catherine had earlier denied the right of the Court to rule on the validity of her marriage to the King and as such had appealed directly to the Pope for a decision. In light of this and the unsatisfactory conclusion to the day’s events Cardinal Campeggio suspended further proceedings until October when Pope Clement could be expected to declare his verdict – the Court would never meet again.

The events at Blackfriars had not only seen the King humbled in sight of his subjects but had ended in farce with Queen Catherine more popular than ever and her intended replacement Anne Boleyn demonised far and wide as that Goggle-Eyed Whore. Indeed, the prevailing mood was that with the Court suspended, the Papal Legate returning to Rome, and the case no nearer a resolution the King of England had been led up the garden path and down a blind alley.

Henry VIII was not a man, and even less so a King, who looked kindly upon failure and his Lord Chancellor, had failed him. That Wolsey had never done so before was his defence but with few friends willing to speak on his behalf and a great many enemies wanting to see the ‘Butcher’s Son’ brought to heel, once would prove enough.  Henry would never forgive him for betraying his trust and making promises he could not keep but mindful of his past service there would be no further punishment for now. Yet in truth, the anger he felt towards his confidante, sometime friend, and devoted servant could only ever be transient. It would take others to make it permanent.

Anne Boleyn had hated Wolsey ever since he had forced her to break off the engagement to Sir Thomas Percy. She was also aware that he would often refer to her as that ‘foolish little girl’, now she believed that he had conspired with Cardinal Campeggio to delay the proceedings of the Ecclesiastical Court long enough for the King to fall out of love with her.

Not long after the case for the annulment had been referred back to Rome she witnessed Henry and Wolsey sharing a convivial moment together. That night at dinner with the King she made reference to it:

“What things hath he wrought to your great slander and dishonour, there is never a nobleman within this realm that had he done but half what he hath done, he were well worthy to lose his head.”

Henry appeared dismissive at first, “Why then I perceive you are not the Cardinal’s friend.”

But he would act on her words.

Not long after this exchange between the King and his mistress Wolsey was removed from office, stripped of his wealth and property, banished from Court, and exiled to the provinces but he remained a Cardinal, Papal Legate and Archbishop of York so could not yet be considered a broken man. He remained determined to resurrect his career but his enemies, prominent among them the Boleyn family, were no less determined to prevent him.

The rumour soon began to circulate that he was involved in a plot to kidnap Anne Boleyn and have her smuggled abroad. Ordered to return to London to explain himself on 29 November 1530, while resting in Leicester he died. Although he had been ill for sometime his death was still unexpected but it had perhaps been timely for it almost certainly saved him from a charge of treason and a less dignified and peaceful end.

As he lay upon his sick bed the once most powerful man in England aside from the King who had been brought low by that ‘foolish little girl’ remarked somewhat despairingly:

“If only I had served God as diligently as I served the King he would never have brought me to this.”

Any jubilation felt on Anne’s part at Wolsey’s downfall was tempered somewhat by Henry’s choice of Sir Thomas More as his successor.

A lawyer by profession Sir Thomas More was one of the leading intellectuals of his day, a renaissance man, a humanist, and a theologian of international renown but he was also religiously orthodox, a believer in the primacy of the Church, and a firm, if not always explicit and vocal, opponent of the divorce. He had been both a friend and mentor to Henry since he was a young man and they spent many an hour together staring at the heavens and discussing God, astronomy, and philosophy.  Indeed, he had tutored the young King on governance and helped him write the book that would earn him the title Fedei Defensor, or Defender of the Faith, from a grateful Pope. They had a special bond but if Henry thought that their relationship would see Sir Thomas lend him his support regarding the divorce then he was to be sorely mistaken. It was however agreed between them that if Sir Thomas would remain silent on the issue of the divorce then Henry would not involve him. His silence however, would prove to be deafening.

While Lord Chancellor More turned a blind eye to the divorce in favour of eradicating the Lutheran heresy from England the King’s secretary, Thomas Cromwell was busying himself unpicking the very fabric of Papal authority in the country.

The ambitious Cromwell who had learned the dark arts of good governance as secretary to the master himself Cardinal Wolsey, was in fact one of those very heretics whom Sir Thomas More was burning at the stake. He was a Protestant and denied the authority of the Pope but he was cynical and pragmatic enough to remain circumspect about such things, for now. It was he who put it to Henry that as the divinely appointed King of England he need not seek permission of the Vatican to annul his marriage – he could award himself the divorce. Henry, nervous of excommunication and of imperilling his soul had yet to be convinced but he did little to impede Cromwell in his endeavours.

Working closely with the Boleyn family chaplain Thomas Cranmer and with the support of Anne herself, who had earlier presented Henry with a copy of the Protestant reformer William Tyndale’s ‘Obedience of a Christian Man’ which advocated for the Divine Right of King’s over and above the authority of the Pope, Cromwell was bit by bit legitimising the future break with Rome.

Anne, who kept a copy of a Tyndale Bible on a lectern in her Bedchamber and insisted her ladies-in- waiting read aloud a passage from it every day, formed, along with both Cromwell and Cranmer, an influential triumvirate of Protestant reformers at the heart of English governance – just how influential was yet to be seen.

In the meantime, Henry’s attitude towards Catherine hardened no doubt encouraged by Anne who didn’t merely consider the Queen an impediment to her own ambitions but had learned to dislike her intensely ever since serving as her Maid of Honour. She considered her proud, obstinate, dull, and resented her piety. She wanted her out of the way and cajoled Henry night and day into breaking completely with his Queen forcing him to deprive Catherine of her rooms at Greenwich Palace before in the winter of 1531 notifying her that she was no longer to attend Court. Instead, she was to remain at More Manor House in Rickmansworth some twenty miles from London.

Catherine wrote of her despair to Charles V in Vienna:

“My tribulations are so great, my life so disturbed by the plans daily invented to further the King’s wicked intention, the surprises which the King gives me, with certain persons of his council, are so mortal, and my treatment is what God knows, that it is enough to shorten ten lives, much more mine.”

With Catherine removed from his presence Henry declared himself separated from his Queen and began to live openly with Anne.

On 1 September 1532, Henry made Anne Marquess of Pembroke while her father became Earl of Wiltshire, her brother George, Viscount Rochford, her sister Mary was provided with a pension, and other members of the Boleyn family were similarly rewarded.

That autumn, in what could be considered her first official engagement alongside the King she accompanied Henry to Calais for a meeting with the French King Francis I. She performed her role impeccably, she was elegant, gracious, conversed with nobles, debated with clerics, met with ambassadors, and King Francis was happy to call her Majesty.

She was every inch the Queen, except she wasn’t Queen – but that would soon change.

Soon after their return to England, Henry and Anne were married in secret. Upon discovering she was pregnant Anne insisted that the marriage service be repeated and so on 23 January 1533, a second wedding ceremony took place in London as revealed by Thomas Cranmer in a letter to his friend Archdeacon William Hawkins just prior to the coronation:

“But now, Sir, you may not imagine that this coronation was before her marriage; for she was married much around St Paul’s Day last, as the condition thereof doth well appear, by reason she is now somewhat big with child.”


On 23 May 1533, a special Court was convened at Dunstable Priory under the auspices of the recently appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer to pronounce upon the validity of the King’s marriage to Queen Catherine. Henry would not on this occasion make the case for the divorce himself, although Catherine was summoned to attend as the old arguments were trundled out once again even if this time the testimony taken wasn’t intended to lay bare the facts but merely to prove that due process had been undertaken.

Little time was required to pass a verdict that had long been pre-determined – the King’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was annulled on the grounds that it was contrary to the law of God and the law of the land. Three days later Cranmer made public the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and declared it legal.

After seven long years of fraught courtship and interminable legal wrangling Henry had at last triumphed and Anne Boleyn was his Queen, but what had taken so long to put together would prove much easier to tear asunder.











Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima

On the morning of 19 February 1945, men of the United States Marine Corps landed on the small island of Iwo Jima, an eerie place, flat and almost featureless, of hard basalt and volcanic ash 750 miles south-east of mainland Japan which as part of the Home Islands defensive perimeter had become a honeycomb of tunnels, underground lairs, and deeply entrenched gun emplacements.

It was dominated at its southern end by Mount Suribachi, 528 feet at its highest elevation and from where the Japanese could observe everything for miles around.  As such, it became an early target for U.S Forces; but Iwo Jima would prove a tough nut to crack and the fight for its possession would soon descend into another of the attritional and bloody battles that marked the war in the Pacific out from other campaigns. Unlike those that went before however, it would provide one of the most iconic and enduring images of warfare the world had ever seen.

As a result of a daring raid by 40 men of the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marine Regiment led by Lt Harold Schrier, on 23 February, just four days after the battle for the island had begun the summit of Mount Suribachi was taken.

Despite its slopes having yet to be cleared of the Japanese and it being far from secure when at around 10.20 am the Stars and Stripes was raised by Schrier and Sergeants Oliver Hanson and Ernest Thomas along with the assistance of others it was to the cheers of those Marines already on the island and a discordant cacophony of wailing sirens from the ships offshore.

Although there were photographers present they had not captured the moment in quite the right way and the flag was also too small to add the drama required so these were not the men who were to be lionised in the press, immortalised on the silver screen, or cast in bronze at the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. It was not their image that would circulate around the world.

The flag used wasn’t clearly visible from every part of the island, and it was in any case rumoured that the Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal who witnessing events had been so fired by patriotic zeal that he not only agreed to the flag being replaced with a larger one but wished to keep the original as a souvenir.

The Commanding Officer present Colonel Chandler Johnson ordered a more suitable flag be found and one was quickly retrieved from a destroyer moored offshore. Taken to the summit of Mount Suribachi the new flag replaced the old as the process of raising it was replayed. It was no big deal, when the Stars and Stripes had first been seen fluttering in the breeze and dominating the skyline of the yet to be conquered island fortress it was of profound significance, this was merely a cosmetic exercise, a tidying up, or so it seemed, but war brutal and savage though it be is accompanied by a nobility and glory that also cannot be denied and in which symbolism plays a pivotal role, and so it would prove.

As the second flag was being raised it was captured in the lens of Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal who was standing nearby. The image that emerged was so striking it has been rumoured ever since that the event was staged, something he always denied:

“Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera around and shot the scene. That’s how the picture was taken.” 

It soon became clear that Rosenthal had captured a moment that would echo down the ages for it was more, much more, than the mere depiction of weary and bedraggled troops engaged in a morale boosting exercise, the flag  was a symbol of liberation planted firmly upon the soil of the oppressor, it was liberty triumphant and tyranny vanquished, it was the reason they were fighting; and as the image which appeared in the American newspapers over the next few days circulated more widely the world sat up and took notice. But while Rosenthal would be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his endeavour three of the men who had raised the flag, U.S Marines Harlan Block, Michael Strank, and Franklin Sousley would be killed in action.

The surviving members of the flag raising team identified as U.S Marines Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and Navy Corpsman John Bradley were ordered back to the United States where hailed as heroes and feted by the great and the good they were to help with the War Bonds Drive.

Upon their return to America, Rene Gagnon, who had been instrumental in finding a replacement flag but had arrived fairly late at its actual raising and so could not be absolutely certain who was present, misidentified one of those who appeared in the photo as Hank Hansen who had indeed helped raise the original flag, rather than Harlan Block.  It was a genuine mistake but one that greatly angered Ira Hayes who disliked Gagnon and did not trust his motives.  When he reported the mistake to the military authorities however, he was told to remain silent on the issue as the names had already been released to the public. When he confronted Gagnon hoping to elicit his support in correcting the error his apparent indifference only angered him further.

Differences in character alone would have perhaps been enough to engender a degree of antagonism but it may have been made worse by a broken promise from Gagnon not to reveal Hayes as one of the men who had raised the flag, though under pressure he would have had little choice but to do so. Regardless, it did little to cement a bond of trust between the two men.

No doubt Hayes was genuine in his desire that due credit be given to those who deserved it but there is little doubt that his personal animosity towards Gagnon also played a role.

But in the midst of war people care little for  minutiae preferring instead the broad narrative sweep and to the American people the survivors  of the flag raising on Mount Suribachi, the men in the picture, were everything their country epitomised and stood for, and they wanted to join in and celebrate their heroism.

On 20 April, to great fanfare Gagnon, Hayes, and Bradley met with the recently installed President Truman at the White House before being sent on a carefully orchestrated whistle-stop tour of the country to raise morale and more importantly sell war bonds making public appearances aplenty, shaking hands, signing autographs, and giving speeches. They even re-staged the flag-raising first for the cameras in Washington DC on 9th May and later on in sold out football stadiums along with a papier-mache mountain accompanied by dramatic music, flashing lights, and fake explosions.  Doing so did not always sit easily with them but men are different and they respond to the same things in different ways. Rene Gagnon appeared to enjoy himself while, John Bradley quietly went about his business. Ira Hayes on the other hand, found all the adulation hard to bear.

Ira Hayes was a Pima Indian raised on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona who upon volunteering to fight had been told by a Tribal Elder to be a noble warrior and he was proud of his service as a United States Marine, for him that was enough and he struggled to understand why he should be singled out for praise having merely raised a flag where others had died. He had just been in the right place at the right time that was all. He found the attention intrusive, the praise undeserved, and the cheers rang hollow when he thought of those still fighting.

“I was sick I guess. I was about to crack up thinking about all my good buddies. They were better men than me and they’re not coming back, much less going to the White House like me.”

He turned to drink to assuage his sense of guilt or at least deaden the pain but it did neither instead becoming such a problem that in late May it saw him removed from the tour and returned to his unit.

Although he may not have considered himself a hero he could still not accept that Harlan Block had been misidentified in the photo as Hank Hansen and remained determined to rectify the matter if only for the sake of his family, and so following his discharge from the Marines in 1946 he journeyed the thousand miles or more from his Reservation to the Block parents home in Texas to inform them that it was indeed their son in the photo.  They were able to use the information he provided to get their son’s participation recognised.

His time away from home did him good in more ways than one for as he complained:

“I kept getting hundreds of letters. And people would drive through the Reservation, walk up to me and ask, are you the Indian who raised the flag on Iwo Jima.” 

In the meantime, his addiction to alcohol worsened and it was only with great reluctance that he attended the dedication of the Iwo Jima Memorial on 10 November 1954, at which President Eisenhower and leading members of the military would be present. It was further evidence if any were needed, that the flag raising was part of his life now, that it had become folklore, and that it could only be ignored at best but never avoided.

Pictured sitting uncomfortably between Bradley and Gagnon he appeared bored by the proceedings and following a brief, somewhat faltering conversation with Vice- President Richard Nixon he declined to attend the reception held in their honour and left.

On the morning of 24 January 1955, barely two months after his last public appearance, Ira Hayes was found dead on a patch of frosted waste ground near his home. It seemed that he had collapsed and died of exposure after a night of heavy drinking. He was just 32 years of age.

Ira Hayes had never reconciled himself to his fame or indeed his good fortune. As he remarked:

“How could I feel like a hero when only 5 men in my platoon of 45 survived, when only 27 men in my company of 250, managed to escape death or injury.”

Rene Gagnon, an extrovert by nature appeared to have far less of a problem adapting to circumstances and was appreciative of the opportunity to be withdrawn from the front-line and returned home to visit the White House and be lauded and applauded wherever he went.  This was no bad thing but as he was soon to discover celebrity whether borne of trivia or matters of some substance is fickle at best and often fleeting.

He had been buoyed during the War Bonds Tour by all the thanks he had received, promises of assistance should he ever require it, a level of interest from girls that he had never previously known, and the many job offers that came his way. It seemed that he would be well set once the war was over. But it is an eternal truth of conflict that upon its conclusion the first reaction is to flee from its reality and to leave its horrors behind, remembrance comes only later.

The immediate post-war years were to prove tough, the promises made to him weren’t kept, the job offers never materialised. He did in the end find work (if not of the type he had been led to expect) married and raised a family. There is some dispute as to whether he in the end became embittered about the whole affair or thought it better to let sleeping dogs lie but as the years passed he became less inclined to talk about it. He may have done so in time but the reminiscences of an old man were to be denied him. Rene Gagnon dropped dead of a heart attack on 12 October 1979, aged 54.

The third surviving member of the flag raising team, Navy Corpsman John Bradley, hadn’t been in the photograph at all, though this was only verified following a Marine Corps investigation in 2016. He had helped raise the original flag and was present at the raising of the second but as a spectator not a participant. The actual final member of the party misidentified as Bradley was Corporal Harold Schultz who died in 1985 long before his presence was formally acknowledged.

A quiet and reserved man Bradley had proven himself a devoted and brave soldier who had been decorated many times and now he saw it as his duty to promote the War Bonds Drive as one of the flag raisers. After all, if the War Department said he was in that photo then he was in it even if he knew he wasn’t. But it would seem unfair to attach any blame here, none of the participants benefited much from their fleeting brush with fame.

It is likely that both John Bradley and Ira Hayes were suffering from some degree of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder which cannot be entirely ruled out for Rene Gagnon either.  In the case of Bradley, he was haunted all his life by the fate of his best friend Ralph Ignatowski who had been captured by the Japanese and brutally tortured to death; the thought that had he been there for his friend it may not have happened never left him.

Having married and raised a large family he also became a successful businessman and respected member of the community in his hometown of Antigo, Wisconsin.  His exploits were well known but he nonetheless declined to speak of his wartime experiences despite repeated requests to do so, which was perhaps understandable.

Navy Corpsman John Bradley died on 11th January 1990, aged 70, following a stroke.

The image of the Stars and Stripes being raised atop Mount Suribachi has a resonance that endures, perhaps it always will; but those who were its inspiration were flesh and blood infused with the spirit of humanity that for all its flaws make such things possible.










Galileo: An Inquisitive Mind

Galileo Galilei was born in Pisa, then part of the Florentine Republic, on 15 February, 1564, the eldest of six children. Raised a devout Catholic (he was to remain one for the rest of his life) he briefly considered joining the priesthood but it provided little opportunity for self-expression, and none at all for the inquiring mind; and so, in part to satisfy his father, in 1581 he enrolled at the University of Pisa to study medicine but this was a profession that had barely advanced since the days of Hippocrates. Its study bored him and his mind often strayed to other things, things that he saw and wanted to explain. Once, witnessing a chandelier swaying in the breeze he noticed that it took the same time to complete its course regardless of whether it travelled on a wide or narrow arc. It intrigued him and he persuaded his somewhat reluctant father to allow him to study mathematics and natural philosophy instead.

Galileo flourished in academia, despite the curriculum at most Italian Universities restricted to that considered acceptable by the Jesuits with study contrary to their prohibitions being unwise and ill-considered; nonetheless he didn’t feel over inhibited and while at Pisa invented a forerunner of the thermometer and published a number of scholarly works on the dynamics of motion.

In 1592, he moved to Padua, a place less under the influence of the Jesuits and where appointed chair of mathematics he was able to discourse on a wide range of subjects free of interference.

He soon established himself as a man of letters but he was no mere theorists or book bound academic, he was a practical man who believed in practical experiment and observable fact.  In Galileo’s world something which could be understood should be known about. If the mind was his weapon of choice then society was his battleground and of uneven temper and lively personality he became animated in the company of others, often unbearably so.  Intelligent conversation sustained him, good food and wine were a constant companion, and argument an object of pursuit not avoidance.

In one of his frequent visits to Venice he met a young woman, Marina Gamba with whom he soon formed a relationship that saw her move into his house and bear him three children out of wedlock, two daughters and a son. His name did not appear on their baptismal records, the eldest child, Virginia, being described as: “daughter of the fornication of Marina of Venice.”

Following Marina’s death in 1612, Galileo chose not to secure his daughters future himself, but instead commit them both to a convent, their illegitimacy making the dowry he would have to provide upon marriage an expense he wasn’t willing to bear. Whether or not this was an entirely harsh and arbitrary decision it is difficult to ascertain, great honour was attached to those who devoted their lives to God and he may have been influenced by the young women themselves. If so, they had pledged themselves to a hard life, one of toil and prayer.

Yet, and despite, the isolation of convent life Virginia, now Sister Maria Celeste remained close to her father and they corresponded regularly. He does not appear to have been so close to his younger daughter Livia, who became Sister Arcangela, as no record of any discourse between them exists.

In 1608, the Dutch maker of spectacles Hans Lippershey applied for a patent to secure the protection of his ‘perspective glass’ which had a three-fold magnification. The patent was declined but the details of it soon became public leading to further experimentation in its development. Even so, it remained little more than a novelty item but by the following year it had come to the attention of Galilieo:

“During reports of a new invention by a lens maker in Holland, I determined to fashion a device for myself, and was to make a considerable improvement.”

Indeed he did increasing its magnification ten-fold causing a sensation and at the same time making his fortune.

He demonstrated his ‘telescope’ from the top of St Mark’s Tower in Venice and those invited to use it were impressed. It was now possible to see ships on the horizon long before they came within view of the naked eye. For Venice, then one of the leading sea powers in the world and desperate to protect its trade routes, it was a weapon of war, and they not only purchased hundreds of the new eye glass but rewarded its inventor with a life-long pension for his services to the Republic.

It wouldn’t be long before he turned his new telescope to the heavens but first with his financial future secure and his reputation enhanced he would seek the patronage of a great man, and that man was Cosimo de Medici, the ruler of Florence, to whom he wrote repeatedly receiving little in response despite naming the four moons of Jupiter after him and his brothers.

He remained undeterred however, and tried once more this time ensuring his letter was delivered with gifts including one of his famed telescopes:

“It is up to our Sovereign whether I spend the rest of my days here in Venice or return to Florence. If I am to return I desire that Your Highness will give me leave and leisure without my being occupied in teaching. Finally, I desire of His Highness that in addition to the Little Mathematician he will annexe the Little Philosopher.”

But it was more his own research and growing reputation as a man of intellect to compare with any found in Protestant Europe that convinced the Medici family, who considered themselves among the avant-garde in all things cultural and likewise, to embrace him than any special pleading on his part. Having developed a telescope so powerful  that he could study the stars in detail he had made a number of discoveries, not only the four largest moons of Jupiter, but sunspots, and the mountains and valleys that dotted the lunar landscape. Indeed, it was his work in astronomy that made famous, or at least notorious, and for which he was well-rewarded being appointed chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at the Court of the Medici in Florence. It would also precursor his fall from grace.


The Catholic Church was at war and had been ever since 31 October 1517, when the German theologian Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Church door in Wittenberg. The schism within Christianity that ensued as a result would see Catholic and Protestant in conflict for centuries to come, not just on matters of religion but militarily, culturally and in the realm of science and ideas.

Culturally the Catholic Church flourished, its art and architecture, the propaganda of its day, had no parallel anywhere in the civilised world but in matters of scientific endeavour and advancement it was seen as dogmatic and unenlightened. Religious orthodoxy was to be its chosen weapon of choice not intellectual inquiry, and the Inquisition was to be its enforcer.

Rumours of heresy would dog Galileo all his professional life, as it would anyone who expressed an interest in the heavens and drew conclusions counter to those already determined by the Church.

The Council of Trent (1545-63) had made clear the Vatican’s position regarding dissent:

“To check unbridled spirits the Holy Council decrees that no one relying on his own judgement shall in matters of faith and morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, distorting the Scriptures in accordance with his own conceptions , presume to interpret them contrary to that sense which the holy mother church, has held or holds.”

The Catholic Church, along with most educated people held to the Aristotelian geocentric view that the Earth was the centre of the Universe something that was proven daily by the rising and the setting of the Sun. Further proof of this was provided by Scripture:

“The Lord set the earth and its foundations, it cannot be moved.” (Psalm 104)

“And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place.” (Ecclesiastes)

Galileo thought otherwise and shared the opinion of the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus that the planets, including the Earth, revolved around the Sun which lay at the heart of the universe.

To share the heliocentric view was considered at best an eccentricity common to the untamed mind or at worst a great heresy that denied the veracity of the Bible..

In any case the very idea that the Earth moved was absurd, and certainly at the speeds Copernicus suggested. If that was the case people would not be able to stand up, it wouldn’t be possible to breathe, towers would topple over, bridges would fall down, the seas would swamp the land, and objects would be flying through the air like the rain falls from clouds.

But Galileo knew this wasn’t so and he conducted an experiment to prove it: if one sits upon a horse and drops a ball, it falls straight to the ground but if one rides that horse at a gallop and drops a ball it still falls straight to the ground. It was a ‘thought experiment’ only, he did not have to carry it out, he knew it to be true.

In December 1613, in a discussion with Cosimo de Medici’s mother, the Grand Duchess Christina, the philosopher Cosimo Boscaglia suggested that even if Galileo’s theory of the Earth’s motion had some validity in science it was still obviously contrary to Holy Scripture. When Benedetto Castelli, who was also present, rushed to his friend Galileo’s defence the Grand Duchess cast doubt on the authenticity of her Court Philosopher’s views by quoting passages from the Bible, in particular the account of Joshua at the Battle of Gibeon when the Lord commanded the Sun, and not the Earth, to remain still.  Surely then, his theory that it was the Earth that moved was contrary to Scriptural teaching not only contradicting the Bible but also by necessity the Word of God.

Although the discussion had been conducted amicably enough and had in no way been accusatory Castelli felt obliged to inform his friend of its content. Galileo incapable of letting sleeping dogs lie in matters of intellectual discourse responded by letter. He agreed that the Scriptures did not err arguing instead that it was they who interpreted them who erred; and that if the science appeared to contradict the Bible then it wasn’t because the science was mistaken but that the Holy Scripture had been wrongly understood, and that all great men of science, their work would not permit them to do otherwise, questioned the literalness of Holy Scripture but this wasn’t to cast doubt upon its validity or dispute as to the existence of God – but to dispute at all with the Church on matters of theology even when it was dressed up as scientific method was a perilous business.

A copy of his letter to Castelli found its way into the hands of the Dominican Friar Niccolo Lorini, a long-time critic of the scientist who now used it to openly attack Galileo finding a willing audience among colleagues who despised his arrogance and the Jesuits who feared his unorthodoxy.

Preached against from the pulpit of Churches the length and breadth of Italy the demand in religious circles that he be investigated for heresy could no longer be ignored.

Under the protection of the Medici the disputatious Galileo felt confident that he could convince the doubters in Rome of the veracity of the Copernican theory and he looked forward to meeting with the Grand Inquisitor Roberto Bellarmine, who sixteen years earlier had presided at the trial of Giordano Bruno.

Despite his reputation as an unworldly man of cloth and cloister Galileo had heard that the Grand Inquisitor was also a man of great intellect with a keen interest in astronomy. He looked forward to a lively discussion that would put to rest once and for all the ridiculous allegations of heresy being made against him and had been encouraged in this view by the many positive meetings he’d had with other Cardinals and leading religious and political figures during his stay in Rome.

Galileo was naive in his assumptions however, for whatever the Cardinal’s personal passions in matters of religion he was orthodoxy itself, and there were others who also doubted Galileo’s own powers of persuasion among them the Tuscan Ambassador who wrote to the Medici in Florence:

“Galileo is passionately involved in this fight of his, and he may well get himself into serious trouble along with anyone who shares his views. This business not a joke and the man is staying here under our protection.”

Just three days before he was due to meet with the Cardinal the Holy Office of the Inquisition gathered in the Collegio Romano and voted 11 to 0 to ban the teachings of Copernicus and denounce the theory that the Sun was the centre of the universe as contrary to Biblical teaching and that as a consequence the espousal or repetition of such was an act of heresy.

All of the Polish astronomer’s works were then placed on the Prohibited Books Index.

There was no longer any discussion to be had and when Cardinal Bellarmine, on Pope Paul V’s instruction met with Galileo it was merely to be told of the Inquisitions earlier decision and that he was not to defend Copernicus’s position but to remain silent on the issue and  “to abandon completely the opinion that the sun stands still at the centre of the world and the earth moves, and henceforth not to hold, teach, or defend it in any way whatever, either orally or in writing.”

In private conversation however, Cardinal Bellarmine had made it clear that the Church was not averse to change but to do so it needed proof, not theory, but physical proof – Galileo was determined to provide that proof.

He believed that he could validate the Copernican view by showing that the tides of the sea were caused by the earth’s rotation, that he failed to do this even to his own satisfaction let alone anyone else’s was not only a personal humiliation for a man who had previously considered himself flawless in such matters but also heaped further suspicion upon his motives for pursuing such research.

Following the failure of his experiments into the mechanics of tidal movements he wisely steered clear of further controversy.

On 8 July 1623, the brief papacy of Gregory XV ended and with it, Galileo hoped, the Vatican’s hostility towards him for the following month the Conclave of Cardinals elected his friend and long-time admirer Maffeo Barberini  as Pope Urban VIII.

Galileo’s daughter Maria Celeste, writing from her convent of San Matteo in Arcetri expressed her delight at the elevation of Barberini and that her father and the new Pope remained friends and were still corresponding:

“Father, the happiness I derived from the letter written to you by the Supreme Pontiff was indescribable. His note so clearly expressed the affection this great man has for you.”

Galileo met with his friend the Pope in the Vatican and it was while strolling through its grounds, admiring its garden, and pointing to the heavens that he sought his permission to write his great book on cosmology. Urban declared that he would not stand in the way of its publication nor would he inhibit the debate on its findings, and as an old friend he assured Galileo that he need not fear of persecution as long as he remained Pope.  But there were caveats; he must write only hypothetically of Copernicus while making clear that his was a theory and no more.  He also demanded that his views as Pope, and therefore those of the Church, were given equal weight and consideration in the text.

Galileo’s dialogue ‘Concerning the Two World Systems’ took five years to write and wasn’t completed until Christmas Eve 1629 but even then he remained wary of making it public despite the Pope’s assurances, and it wasn’t made available until 1632.

Galileo’s reluctance to publish became clear when he was found to have hidden his scientific discourse beneath the thin veneer of a social satire in which the views of the Catholic Church were spoken by a character named Simplicio, or the Simpleton.

To place the words of the Pope in the mouth of an idiot was a step too far and Urban, personally affronted, now came under renewed pressure to prosecute the incorrigible old heretic. Already engaged in the Counter-Reformation, threatened by the Turks in the East and embroiled in the Thirty Years War in the West, he now abandoned his old friend.

In September 1632, Galileo was summoned to appear before the Grand Inquisitor Vincenzo Maculani to explain himself. He could either come to Rome of his own volition or be brought to the city in chains. He chose the former but even so delayed his arrival until February of the following year.

Galileo vehemently denied that he had sought to defend Copernicus in his book and had in any way mocked the Church.  He was, he said, a faithful and devout Catholic who believed in the literal truth of the Bible. His book was merely a summation of the geocentric and heliocentric view of the heavens as already expressed, and no more. But it was clear to anyone who had read it that he advocated for the latter and mocked the former.  Galileo declared that if this was so then it was unintentional and regretted that he had written it in such a way that it could be so misunderstood; but at 70 years old, in poor health and threatened with torture he caved in completely.

On 22 June 1633, Galileo appeared before the Inquisition to learn his fate and he cut a sorry figure, aged and stooped his movements were slow and deliberate, his voice weak and faltering, his eyes moist.  He even at times seemed a little confused but if this was exaggerated to elicit sympathy he received none.

Informed that he was ‘vehemently suspect of heresy’ and guilty of advocating for a theory already found to be contrary to Holy Scripture and in violation of a previous agreement not to do so he was sentenced to indefinite imprisonment in the dungeons  of the Inquisition in Rome. Following intensive lobbying on his behalf by the Medici family he was released into house arrest where he was to remain for the rest of his life.

It had not come easy to the Catholic Church to openly condemn their great man of science and it was perhaps for this reason, and this reason alone that he had avoided torture and a sentence of death, but with his works past, present, and future placed on the banned list (where they would remain for the next 250 years) his career was effectively over.

On 2 April 1634, Maria Celeste died aged 33, she had been her father’s rock in hard times and her loss was a heavy blow for the old man to bear.  Restricted to the confines of his home and receiving few guests he revisited his early work on the laws of motion writing up his notes that had lain dormant for so many years.

Using his invention of the ‘Inclined Plane’ he judged how fast a ball would roll over varying distances as timed by the swing of a pendulum. He measured how in 1 unit of time it would roll 1 unit of distance but in the next unit of time it would roll 3, and then 5, and then 7, and so on.

At the age of 74, by means of his ‘Odd Number Rule’ and resuming the research he had begun as long ago as 1592 when it was said he dropped objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to disprove Aristotle’s theory that objects of the same material fell, or travelled through the air at different speeds according to their weight and mass, he had uncovered the rules of acceleration and established a universal law for accurately predicting the motion of objects in the real world. But proscribed throughout Catholic Europe his book ‘The Two New Sciences’ could only find a printer in the Protestant Netherlands where it was published to very little fanfare and achieved only a meagre distribution.

Galileo, who had always enjoyed being the centre of attention, spent his final years in isolation from the literary salons and intellectual soirees he had so often lit up by his presence instead under house arrest complaining to his servants of the cold and the aches and pains of old age.

That was the price he paid for his notoriety, many would rather he’d have paid with his life.

Galileo Galilei died on 8 January 1642, aged 77, repentant only that he may have imperilled his soul.