Burgundy and Armagnac: England’s Opportunity 1399-1413

Graham Turner’s Art – prints, cards and original paintings

Events across the Channel were also conspiring to prevent a lasting peace between France and England in the Hundred Years War. The growing rivalry among the Valois Princes of the Blood was to end by plunging their country into a French Wars of the Roses, and in consequence France would be unable to defend herself against invasion. It was to provide England with her greatest opportunity.

In 1392 Charles VI had gone mad while riding through a forest, slaying four of his entourage and even trying to kill his nephew. Later he would run howling like a wolf down the corridors of the royal palaces ; one of his phobias was to think himself made of glass and suspect anyone who came near of trying to shatter him. He recovered, but not for long, lucid spells alternating with increasingly lengthy bouts of madness-‘far out of the way, no medicine could help him,’ explains Froissart. (The cause may have been the recently diagnosed disease of porphyria, which was later to be responsible for George III’s insanity.)

When the King was crazy France was ruled by Burgundy, who annually diverted one-eighth to one-sixth of the royal revenues to his own treasury. When Charles was sane his brother Louis, Duke of Orleans, held power, no less of a bloodsucker than his uncle Philip. Louis hoped to use French resources to forward his ambitions in Italy, where he had a claim to Milan through his wife Valentina, the daughter and heiress of Gian Galeazzo Visconti (and a lady ‘of high mind, envious and covetous of the delights and state of this world’). He imposed savage new taxes and was also suspected of practising magic, becoming even more disliked than Burgundy. Frenchmen began to divide into two factions. Few can have realized that this was the birth of a dreadful civil war which would last for thirty years and put France at the mercy of the English. However, fighting did not break out for almost another two decades.

The French were stunned by the news of King Richard’s deposition. Henry IV hastily sent commissioners to confirm the truce and Charles VI’s government agreed, although the new English King owed a good deal of his home support to his repudiation of Richard’s policy of peace. Having bought time, Henry refused to send little Queen Isabel home. She was only restored to her family at the end of July 1400, without her jewels or her dowry; he explained that he was keeping them because King John’s ransom had not been paid in full.

In fact Henry was desperately short of money. During Richard II’s reign the average annual revenue from customs duties on exported wool had been £46,000, but by 1403 it had fallen to £26,000 ; later it rose but only to an average of £36,000. Calais cost the exchequer £17,000 a year and Henry could not pay its garrison ; eventually the troops mutinied and had to be bought off with loans from various rich merchants. Moreover the King was plagued by revolts by great magnates and by a full-scale national rising in Wales. Henry IV was therefore in no position to go campaigning in France, though everyone knew that he hoped to do so one day.

Louis of Orleans believed that the time was now ripe to conquer Guyenne. In 1402 the title of Duke of Guyenne was bestowed on Charles VI’s baby son, a gross provocation as Henry IV had already given it to the Prince of Wales. In 1404, with the approval of the French Council, Louis of Orleans began a systematic campaign against the duchy and took several castles. Henry thought of going to the aid of the Guyennois in person, but was only able to send Lord Berkeley with a small force. In 1405 the situation worsened, the Constable Charles d‘Albret overrunning the north-eastern borders, the Count of Clermont attacking over the Dordogne, and the Count of Armagnac advancing from south of the Garonne to menace Bordeaux. In 1406 the Mayor, Sir Thomas Swynborne, prepared the ducal capital for a siege after the enemy had reached Fronsac, Libourne and Saint-Emilion, almost on the outskirts of Bordeaux (and to the grave detriment of the vineyards). The Archbishop of Bordeaux wrote desperately to Henry ‘we are in peril of being lost’, and in a later letter reproached the King for abandoning them. Somehow the Bordelais beat off the attack, defeating the French in a river battle on the Gironde in December 1406. The other Guyennois cities were also loyal to the Lancastrians ; even when occupied by the French Bergerac appealed to the English for protection. When in 1407 Orleans failed to take Blaye (the last stronghold on the Gironde before Bordeaux), he and his troops, already disheartened by disease and unending rain, withdrew in despair. Guyenne was left in peace to make a full recovery.

The French offensive had not been confined to Guyenne. Privateers roamed the Channel and the Count of Saint-Pol raided the Isle of Wight in 1404, demanding tribute in the name of Richard II’s Queen though with scant success. An attack on Dartmouth was also unsuccessful while an attempt to take Calais failed disastrously. In July 1404 Charles VI concluded an alliance with Owain Glyndwr whom he recognized as Prince of Wales ; but a French expedition of 1,000 men-at-arms and 500crossbowmen was prevented from sailing by bad weather. The force which eventually landed at Milford Haven the following year was too small to be of much use to the Welsh; in any case Owain’s rising was already doomed. In 1407 dramatic developments in France precluded any further interference in the affairs of Wales, let alone of England.

In 1400 the French monarchy had once again appeared to be the strongest power in western Europe. It was France who mounted the Crusade of Nicopolis in 1396 to aid the Hungarians against the Turkish onslaught and, though the crusaders met with a terrible defeat, even to mount such an operation was a remarkable achievement. Furthermore France still possessed her own Pope at Avignon. She had tamed Brittany and absorbed Flanders and dominated the Low Countries. She had also acquired the overlordship of Genoa and was now engaged on an ambitious Italian policy which might well gain her Milan.

This appearance of strength was the hollowest of façades, and owed more to the splendour of the French court and of the French Princes than to reality. For the realm was divided into great apanages as, unlike England, French duchies and counties were territorial entities, sometimes whole provinces, which went with the title and constituted semi-independent palatinates. (The only remotely comparable parallel in England was the Duchy of Lancaster.) The greedy Valois magnates who held them were usually content to live in semi-regal splendour in their beautiful châteaux, even if the countryside around them was still ravaged by routiers. There were two exceptions, the Dukes of Burgundy and Orleans.

Sir John de la Pole, nephew of Richard II’s Lord Chancellor and father-in-law to the Lollard heretic Sir John Oldcastle, with his wife Joan, daughter of Lord Cobham. From a brass of 1380 in the parish church at Chrishall, Essex.

Philip the Bold of Burgundy had died in April 1404, to be succeeded by his son John the Fearless-so called from gallant behaviour during the Crusade of Nicopolis. He was a taciturn little man, hard, energetic and charmless and, to judge from a famous contemporary portrait, singularly ugly, with an excessively long nose, an undershot jaw and a crooked mouth. In character, in Perroy’s view, he was even more ambitious than his father and ‘harsh, cynical, crafty, imperious, gloomy and a killjoy’. No one could have been more different from his refined and graceful, if scandalous cousin of Orleans.

Both Dukes were equally determined to rule France. They were opposed to each other in almost every important matter of policy. While John of Burgundy supported the Pope of Rome to please his Flemish subjects, Louis of Orleans upheld the Pope at Avignon ; John opposed war with England because of the danger to Flemish trade, but Louis was hot against the English. Council meetings were wrecked by the Dukes’ loud arguments and recriminations, while their followers-who constituted two political parties—brawled in the streets. When the Orleanists adopted the badge of a wooden club to signify Louis’s intention of beating down opposition, John made his Burgundians sport a carpenter’s plane to show that he would cut the cudgel down to size. However on 20 November 1407 Duke John and Duke Louis took Communion together, in token of reconciliation. Only three days later, on a pitch-black Wednesday night and after visiting the Queen, Louis of Orleans was ambushed as he went down the rue Vieille-du-Temple ; his hand was chopped off (to stop it raising the Devil) and his brains were scattered in the road. The Duke of Burgundy wept at his cousin’s funeral-‘never was a more treacherous murder,’ he groaned—but two days later, realizing that the assassins were about to be discovered, he blurted out to an uncle, ‘I did it ; the Devil tempted me.’ He fled from Paris and rode hard for Flanders.

France, and especially Paris, divided into two armed camps-Burgundians and Armagnacs. The latter took their name from their leader, Bernard, Count of Armagnac, whose daughter had married Louis’s son, Charles of Orleans. The Burgundians drew their strength from the Parisian bourgeoisie and academics, while the Armagnacs were what might be called the party of the establishment and included the greater royal officials, a few of the richer bourgeoisie, most of the nobles outside John’s territories and the other Princes of the Blood. In 1408, having hired a theologian from the Sorbonne to justify his cousin’s assassination-on the grounds that he had been a tyrant-John returned to Paris and extracted a pardon from the King. He then set up as a champion of reform, promising to reduce the high taxes imposed by Louis, and secured the execution of the Chancellor of the royal finances. By 1411, after purging the administration and by well-placed gifts, especially to the important Guild of Butchers, Burgundy had won control of Paris. The Armagnacs assembled an army and with the Duke of Berry (Charles V’s last surviving brother) blockaded the capital.

John of Burgundy then had recourse to Henry IV, offering the hand of his daughter for the Prince of Wales, four towns in Flanders (including Sluys) and help in conquering Normandy, in return for troops. In October 1411, 800 English men-at-arms and 2,000 archers marched out from Calais under the Earl of Arundel. Henry had meant to lead them himself, but was prevented by chronic ill-health. The English expedition soon joined John and 3,000 Parisian militia at Meulan. The combined force stormed the Armagnac strongpoint at Saint-Cloud and broke the blockade. Arundel and his men then went home.

Led by old Berry, the Armagnacs now made their own bid for English aid. In May 1412, in return for the use of 1,000 men-at-arms and 3,000 archers for three months, they offered the eventual cession of all Aquitaine as it had been in 1369, with the immediate surrender of twenty fortresses on the Guyenne border. In August Henry’s second son, the Duke of Clarence, landed in the Cotentin and marched down towards Blois. Here, however, he received news that Burgundian troops had invaded Berry’s territory and forced the Armagnacs to surrender, and that all the French Princes including Burgundy were declining any sort of military assistance from England. Undeterred, Thomas of Clarence crossed the Loire and went through the wild and marshy Sologne and down the Indre valley. The English were only bought off by the Princes with a promise of 210,000 gold crowns (over £34,000), 75,000 of which were to be paid immediately, together with seven important hostages as surety for the balance. The English leaders also extracted individual payments. Clarence asked for 120,000 crowns and received 40,000 and a gold crucifix worth 15,000 (with a ruby as the wound in the side and three diamonds as the nails in the hands and feet). His cousin the Duke of York wanted 40,000 crowns and was given 5,000 together with a gold cross of Damascus work valued at 40,000. Sir John Cornwall, King Henry’s brother-in-law was paid in full 21,375 gold crowns. (It must have been this money which paid for Sir John’s new house at Ampthill in Bedfordshire ; it was built ‘of such spoils as it is said that he won in France’, recorded Leland.) Nothing could have been better calculated to excite the greed of the English aristocracy and put them in mind of those wonderful sums extorted from the French by their fathers and grandfathers. Clarence and his army then went on to winter in Bordeaux, burning and slaying en route in the good old style.

Meanwhile in northern France the Calais garrison had taken advantage of Clarence’s chevauchée to attack and capture Balinghem. It provided yet another fortress in the March of Calais to add to the ring of strongpoints which defended the precious English bastion.

Even John of Burgundy now became nervous about the possibility of a full-scale English invasion. He summoned the Estates to meet in Paris to grant new taxes to pay for defence. When the Estates began to criticize his government, John retaliated by unleashing his Paris butchers who, led by their leader Caboche, began a reign of terror which lasted for several weeks and was aimed as much against the rich as the Armagnacs. So murderous were their excesses that many bourgeois turned against Duke John and invited the Dauphin and Princes to come and save them. In August 1413, after a vain attempt to kidnap Charles VI, John the Fearless of Burgundy had to abandon Paris to the Armagnacs and Count Bernard’s ferocious Gascons, and went home to spend the next few years in his own semi-kingdom. Already he and the Armagnacs had ruined France. For on 20 March Henry IV had breathed his last in the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey and there was a new King of England—Henry V.


French Military 1850-80 Part I

Napoleon III Takes Power

That year revolutions ignited by economic distress swept Europe. Paris, that powder keg of revolutionary passions, erupted in February. King Louis-Philippe, despised for his cautious and inglorious foreign policy, abdicated and fled to England. The Second Republic was proclaimed by Paris radicals, but France became embroiled in internal troubles. Such was the need felt in the country for a man of order that the presidential election held on 10 December produced a result undreamt of by the revolutionaries of February when they introduced universal male suffrage: a Bonaparte was restored to power in France.

Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte was elected President of France by 5.5 million votes: far ahead of his nearest rival. Born in 1808, he was the nephew of the great Emperor, on whose knee he had been dandled as a child and whose legend he revered. After Waterloo Louis had lived in exile in Switzerland with his mother Hortense Beauharnais, and spoke French with a German accent. During disturbances in Italy in 1831 he had sided with the revolutionaries against the Austrian regime there. After both his elder brother and his cousin, ‘Napoleon II’, died in 1831–2, Louis assumed the role of Bonapartist pretender to the French throne. His pamphlets, notably Napoleonic Ideas (1839), promoted the myth Napoleon had woven around himself in exile on St Helena: of Napoleon the Liberal, Napoleon the friend of nationalities working for a united Europe, who had been thwarted by the reactionary monarchies. However, his first attempts to exploit his uncle’s legend against King Louis-Philippe ended in farce. An attempted military rising at Strasbourg in 1836 was a debacle and earned him a sentence of exile. A second attempt, a landing at Boulogne in 1840 with a boatload of volunteers and mercenaries who had joined him in London, was quickly overpowered by royal troops. This time Louis was imprisoned in the damp northern fortress of Ham. He escaped disguised as a workman in 1846 and fled to London where, supplied with money by his rich friends and English mistress, he was well placed to take advantage of events unfolding in 1848.

In the presidential campaign his supporters adeptly promoted the power of the Bonaparte name, using images that appealed to classes who had never before had the vote. Not for the last time, bourgeois professional politicians underestimated the powers of this unimpressive figure, whose tendency to stoutness, drooping eyelids, and hesitant, heavily accented delivery belied his political skills and determination. As Prince-President, he swore to defend the Republic and toured the country, promoting himself as the only man who could defend both liberty and order and reconcile internal divisions that lately had made France seem ungovernable. Continuing radical disturbances rallied conservatives to him as a man of order. Catholics approved of a new education law favouring religious schools, and of the despatch of an expeditionary force to protect the Pope from revolutionaries at Rome. Louis-Napoleon’s championship of universal male suffrage against the bourgeois politicians of the National Assembly who tried to restrict it made him appear a defender of democracy.

His appeal to many groups, combined with shrewd appointments of supporters to key posts, put him in a strong position to extend his presidency, which was due to end in 1852. The National Assembly, however, blocked his attempt to achieve this legally. Louis, with careful planning by his inner circle and the support of reliable generals and his police chief, staged a coup d’état on the night of 2 December 1851, the anniversary of his uncle’s victory at Austerlitz. The Assembly was locked out; its leading politicians were arrested and imprisoned.

‘Operation Rubicon’ did not go as smoothly as planned, however. On 3 December a Deputy of the National Assembly, Dr Baudin, was killed on a Paris barricade. Next day over a thousand protestors manned barricades in the city. Troops opened fire and killed dozens of them and bystanders too. In the provinces over 26,000 people were arrested, half of whom were deported, banished or imprisoned. Throughout the nineteen years of his rule, the ‘crime of 2 December’ blighted Louis-Napoleon’s attempts to win over a hard core of opponents to accept the legitimacy of his regime. Nevertheless, the great majority of French voters supported him when he sought popular endorsement of his coup. He had brought something new to European politics; a dictatorship resting on popular approval, but supported by strict censorship, police surveillance and electoral manipulation. Pressing his advantage, in November 1852 he sought approval for restoration of the Empire and got it by 8 million votes to 250,000, with 2 million abstentions. With effect from 2 December 1852 he declared himself Napoleon III, Emperor of the French, and shortly promulgated a constitution that preserved the forms but not the substance of parliamentary government.

To calm fears at home and abroad that the return of the Empire meant war, he declared at Bordeaux in October 1852 that ‘The Empire means peace’, and that his focus would be on internal improvements like building roads, railways, dockyards and canals. He was careful to cultivate his uncle’s old nemesis, Great Britain. Despite his peaceful professions, he cultivated the army, recreated an elite Imperial Guard, and frequently appeared in military uniform, in deliberate contrast to the black-coated dullness of Louis-Philippe’s court. Like all French governments since Waterloo, he nurtured hopes of burying the 1815 treaties. Unlike the Bourbon monarchs, but like the republicans of 1848, he sympathized with the cause of nationalities in Europe. He might be expected to act in their favour where opportunities arose.

A Franco-German Crisis, 1859

A shift in Great Power relations came sooner than anyone foresaw, as a result of the Crimean War of 1854–6, in which Britain and France combined to defeat Russia’s attack on the ailing Turkish Empire. The defeat her army suffered at allied hands at the long siege of Sebastopol exposed Russia’s weaknesses and discouraged her from active intervention in European politics for two decades while she undertook internal and military reforms.

The war had another important consequence for European and German politics: it isolated Austria. Like Prussia, Austria had wished to stay neutral, but Russian forces at the mouth of the Danube intruded on her vital interests. Her long resistance to joining the western camp won her no friends; yet her eventual signature of an ultimatum to Russia weighed heavily in Russia’s decision to accept peace terms. Russia regarded Austria’s action as rank ingratitude for the military help she had received in 1849, and an intolerable betrayal by a fellow conservative power. In future Austria could expect no Russian help if she needed it; indeed, Russian court circles desired to see her punished. Prussia, which had not intervened against Russia and had a common interest in keeping the Poles suppressed, was on the contrary seen as Russia’s only friend in Europe.

If Russia and Austria were losers, victorious France gained prestige. Napoleon III’s army had acquitted itself well, albeit at the cost of 95,615 French lives. It had made up the majority of allied land forces and had shown itself less incompetent than any other in the field; even if the latest communications technology, the electric telegraph, had proved a mixed blessing. One French commander-in-chief in the Crimea, Canrobert, had resigned in despair over orders wired direct from the Emperor in Paris. The 1856 peace conference was held in Paris, where Napoleon invited the delegates to banquet and waltz at the Tuileries Palace and savoured his moment as arbiter of Europe. His chances of founding a stable dynasty improved when the Empress Eugénie gave birth to a healthy male son, Louis, the Prince Imperial.

In 1858 Napoleon exploited his diplomatic and military advantages in the hope of ‘doing something for Italy’. Having long desired to help the Liberal and national cause there, he secretly agreed with the Kingdom of Piedmont to drive the Austrians out of the parts of Italy they had occupied since 1815. Napoleon was mixing idealism with opportunism, for he had the chance to achieve military success, weaken reactionary Austria while she was isolated, create client states in northern Italy, and regain Nice and Savoy as the price of his support. Yet, as conflict became imminent, his resolve faltered, even once he was sure of Russia’s neutrality. Napoleon was finally pulled over the brink only when, provoked by Piedmontese military preparations, Austria obligingly declared war in April 1859.

The Italian campaign showed how much warfare had changed since Waterloo. The French army was transported by railway and steamship, debouching over the Alps and to the port of Genoa in three weeks. At close hand there was much that was chaotic about French supply arrangements: Napoleon lamented privately to his War Minister that ‘What grieves me about the organization of the army is that we seem always to be … like children who have never made war … Please understand that I am not reproaching you personally; rather the general system whereby in France we are never ready for war.’ Yet to outside observers it seemed that the French army was again proving itself the best in the world. With no interference from the sluggish Austrians it completed its concentration, outmanoeuvred the enemy and marched across the north Italian plain, winning bloody battles at Magenta and Solferino in June. If little tactical brilliance was on display, French troops showed the superior élan and willingness to get to close quarters that made them so formidable. Their senior commanders, driven by the instinct that getting close to the enemy was the path to honours and promotion, included men who would command armies in 1870. The courtly aristocrat Maurice MacMahon, already distinguished for his successful assault on the formidable defences of Sebastopol in the Crimea, won his marshal’s baton and the title of Duke for his performance as a corps commander at Magenta.

Decorations, promotions, and victory parades in Milan and Paris were one side of French success in Italy, but another shocked European opinion. Solferino, a savage battle involving 300,000 men, produced 36,000 casualties by the time a thunderstorm of extraordinary violence put an end to fighting. With none of his uncle’s ruthless indifference to high casualties, Napoleon III was sickened by what he saw and smelled on the battlefield next day. In a famous pamphlet, the Swiss traveller Henry Dunant described the horrors of the battlefield. The army medical services were overwhelmed. Dunant’s lurid description rallied widespread support for the initiative of a group of Swiss philanthropists, who in 1863 founded the International Society for Aid to the Wounded, later known as the International Red Cross. The Society’s efforts gave birth to the Geneva Convention of 1864, which laid down an international code for the humane treatment of wounded enemies and prisoners of war, and conferred neutral status on medical personnel. Prussia was among the first and most enthusiastic states to sign the Convention. France signed too at the Emperor’s behest, despite the reservations of military men who had no wish to see hordes of civilian volunteers working in the battle zone.

This was for the future. In the wake of Solferino Napoleon decided to end the war. He and Emperor Franz Josef of Austria met and agreed peace terms at Villafranca on 11 July. It was not simply that Napoleon had little stomach for further battles. Typhus was spreading in his badly fed army, camped under the torrid Italian sun. He had conquered Lombardy for Piedmont, but if he wanted to force the Austrians out of Venetia he faced a long and difficult war for which there would be diminishing support in France. Revolutionary support for Italian unification in central Italy was getting out of hand, threatening the Papal territories around Rome and alarming French Catholics. Worryingly, too, Prussia was mobilizing her army.

In the German states, Napoleon’s war in Italy was execrated as naked aggression against Austria. Fear that Napoleon’s next goal would be the Rhine revived enthusiasm for and debate about German unity as nothing else could. Newspaper and pamphlet denunciation of French ambitions was as virulent as in the crisis of 1840, and much slower to subside. Yet popular sentiment did not produce cooperation between Prussia and Austria. As she had in the Crimean War, Prussia obstructed proposals for the German Confederation to mobilize forces to support Austria. Finally, in mid-June, Prussia mobilized six of her nine army corps, but as the price of her support sought command of Confederation forces on the Rhine front. The suggestion made sense while Austria was under attack in Italy, but her mistrust of Prussian ambitions in Germany was such that she refused to yield precedence on this point. For the Austrians too, Prussian mobilization provided an incentive to make peace rapidly.

Even without an ultimatum, Prussia’s show of strength was sufficient to cause Napoleon alarm for his eastern frontier. He feared that the Prussians could put 400,000 men on the Rhine in a fortnight. This expectation was slightly exaggerated. Helmuth von Moltke, the studious and methodical Prussian Chief of General Staff, worried that in the present state of the German railway network – much of which was still single-tracked – it would take at least six weeks to move a quarter of a million men to the frontier. At all events, Napoleon concluded that he was in no position to fight the Prussians while continuing his campaign against Austria. Peace was concluded. The Prussians demobilized from 25 July, and the French eventually withdrew all their forces from Italy save for a garrison to protect the Papal territory of Rome, which Catholic opinion at home demanded. As his price for accepting the transfer of the central Italian states to Piedmont, Napoleon received Nice and Savoy following plebiscites in all the affected areas. The recovery of these two territories on France’s south-eastern border was his first reversal of a loss France had suffered in 1815: a gain which boosted the popularity of his regime at home. The other powers, and particularly the German states, were greatly alarmed that it might not be his last. After his Italian adventure it was hardly surprising that Napoleon III was feared as the ruler most likely to disturb the peace of Europe.

French Military 1850-80 Part II

Napoleon III Watches the Rhine

In setting out to coerce Austria out of Germany, Bismarck knew that the diplomatic situation continued to favour Prussian ambitions. Neither Russia nor Britain was inclined to an active role in European politics. France, however, remained a key piece on his chessboard. Before making any final decision for war he had been at pains to ensure her neutrality. He had visited the Emperor at the storm-swept resort of Biarritz in south-west France in October 1865 to reassure him that no anti-French alliance had been made at Gastein; nor had Prussia guaranteed Austria’s possession of Venetia, in which the Emperor made clear his close interest. Napoleon listened politely to Bismarck’s suggestions that an enlarged Prussia would be no threat to France, significantly raising no objection. Although no definite commitments apparently were asked for or given on either side, the outcome encouraged Bismarck to reassure Wilhelm that France would not stand in Prussia’s way.

Napoleon seemed to be in an excellent position as the quarrel between Austria and Prussia deepened. Military experts thought Austria the stronger party, but a long war was likely from which France might reap rewards. If he favoured any side, Napoleon seemed to lean towards Prussia, which was a force for change and might prove a useful protégé and even ally in northern Germany. A weakened Austria would enable France to gain influence in the South German states. It would also allow Napoleon to fulfil his promises made in 1859 by liberating restless Venetia from Austrian rule, thereby perhaps restoring his tarnished prestige and influence in Italy. Napoleon encouraged the Italians to ally with Prussia, so facilitating the war.

Would the Emperor ask any reward for his neutrality other than Venetia for the Italians? Napoleon dropped hints to the Prussian ambassador, mentioning the frontiers of 1814 and the Bavarian Palatinate, but declined to specify what he might demand. ‘I cannot point to an item of compensation; I can only assure you of my benevolent neutrality: I shall come to an understanding with your king later,’ he intimated in March 1866. In May he hinted to the ambassador that the Austrians were making overtures to him and that: ‘The eyes of my country are turned towards the banks of the Rhine.’ He appeared to be playing a clever hand, keeping his options open to exploit the situation whatever the outcome of an Austro-Prussian War.

Although Napoleon’s diplomacy was secret, enough was known to inform a powerful public attack. Adolphe Thiers, leader of the French Government in the 1840 crisis, had been imprisoned and exiled briefly by Louis-Napoleon after the coup d’état of 1851. He had returned to politics in 1863, being elected to the Legislature. On 3 May 1866 he gave a superb performance in the Chamber, pushing the boundaries of criticism permitted by the imperial regime. He pointed to the dangers of encouraging Prussia’s aggressive designs and questioned the wisdom of France promoting a new German power and Italian unification. Thiers saw no advantage in revising the 1815 settlement of Germany. Stung by the attack and the stir it created, Napoleon declared at Auxerre three days later that he ‘detested’ the treaties of 1815.

The Emperor’s speech alarmed business circles and the public. Was he about to embark on some new foreign adventure? There was a run on the stock exchange. Ever attentive to public opinion, which strongly favoured peace and neutrality, Napoleon called for a European Congress to settle current disputes. To Bismarck’s relief, Austria would accept only on condition that no power should gain territory, effectively killing the proposal.

In the last days of peace, in June 1866, Napoleon nevertheless could be confident that his diplomacy would win Venetia for the Italians however the war turned out. In return for his pledge of neutrality, the Austrians undertook to surrender Venetia to him if they won. They also agreed verbally that, if they beat the Prussians, Napoleon could have Belgium, and the Rhineland would become a buffer state. Thus, as Prussian troops marched south, it seemed that Napoleon might gain handsomely from the war without shedding a drop of French blood. The Austrians, in desperation, had already offered him his price. Bismarck, meanwhile, was taking a double gamble, both on the military outcome of the war, and on the unspecified reward France might exact for neutrality.

French Army Reform

In the wake of Sadowa, on 30 August 1866, Napoleon signed a decree to re-arm his infantry with breech-loading rifles. The weapon adopted was the Chassepot, named after its inventor Alphonse Chassepot, who for a dozen years had been developing and improving it with encouragement from the Emperor and Marshal MacMahon but in the face of resistance from the War Ministry. Tests of the latest model showed it to be a fine weapon, with a range of 1,200 metres; twice that of the needle gun, to which it was superior in all respects. It could fire six or seven 11mm rounds per minute, and the ammunition was sufficiently light to enable the infantryman to carry ninety rounds with him. It could be fitted with a fearsome-looking sabre-bayonet. Production was put in hand in French arsenals and by contracts placed abroad, and by mid-1870 the army had over a million Chassepots. The weapon was tried out against tribesmen in Algeria, and most spectacularly against Garibaldi’s men at Mentana. ‘The Chassepot worked wonders,’ wired General de Failly to Paris, to the horror of Liberals everywhere, but the news seemed to give assurance that French infantry would be able to meet the Prussians on better than even terms.

Great hopes were placed too on a secret weapon, the mitrailleuse, a machine gun resembling a cannon with a barrel consisting of twenty-five rifled tubes. By inserting pre-loaded blocks, fired by a rotating hand crank, the ‘coffee grinder’ could fire 100 rounds per minute, albeit into a small area, and had an effective range of 1,500 metres. Napoleon had funded development himself up to its adoption in 1865, and five years later 215 were stored ready for use. Beyond a few trained teams, no one knew much about using the new weapon, and it had yet to be tried in battle; but taken together the new armaments would surely give great advantages to the tactical defence.

French weaponry might be a source of confidence, but when Napoleon opened the Legislature in February 1867 he urged that ‘A nation’s influence depends on the number of men it can put under arms.’ However, in pressing for a greatly enlarged army, the imperial government faced a dilemma. If it sounded alarmist about the threat from Prussia it would contradict its own claims to foreign policy success, and could raise tensions that might precipitate a war. Its political credit had sunk so low that its programme was vigorously opposed in the country on the basis of Napoleon’s past record rather than on any dispassionate assessment of the danger to France.

The French army in the 1860s required a seven-year term of service. Men reaching the age of 21 were subject to conscription, but a lottery system gave them a reasonable chance of escaping the obligation to serve. If a conscript drew a ‘good number’ in the lottery, he was free of any further obligation. Even if he drew a ‘bad number’ and was drafted into the ‘first contingent’ of the army, budgetary limitations meant he was unlikely to serve his full term. For the Legislature jealously guarded its right to fix annually the size of the contingent required and the military budget. If the conscript was drafted into the ‘second contingent’ he might have to do only a few weeks’ training in the reserve before being sent home, though he remained subject to recall in wartime. Or he might be in an exempt occupation, and even if he were not the system enacted in 1855 allowed those with money to buy themselves out of the army.

The funds raised from these payments went towards bounties that encouraged serving soldiers to re-enlist, and towards hiring replacements. In theory this provided a long-service force of seasoned professionals; in practice it reinforced a tendency for the army to be the home of ‘old soldiers’ in every sense of the term, supervised by ageing NCOs with some bad ingrained habits. The 15 per cent of soldiers who were hired replacements were viewed as a mercenary element that damaged morale and effectiveness. Promotion in the army was slow, initiative and study were frowned upon, and the stultifying routine of overcrowded barracks far from home, low pay, hard discipline and hard drinking scarcely encouraged educated and ambitious young men to enter the ranks if they could possibly avoid it. Budgetary restraints also kept the army below strength: 390,000 men in 1866, including non-combatants, compared to half a million at the time of the Crimean War.

Napoleon, long an advocate of universal military service, wanted to overhaul the system radically to increase the regular army to 800,000 men, and to form a new territorial army – the Garde Mobile – on the lines of the Prussian Landwehr, that France could call upon for home defence in wartime. As War Minister he replaced the ageing Randon, who was unconvinced of the case for change, with its ablest advocate, Marshal Niel, who tried to steer army reform through the Legislature during 1867.

The plan to extend military obligations met determined opposition from many quarters. Republicans saw it as a sinister plot to foment war by an untrustworthy authoritarian regime. Their faith in the efficacy of the levée en masse that had saved revolutionary France from invading Prussians and Austrians in 1792–3 remained deep-rooted. Jules Simon advocated the Swiss militia system on the premise that the breasts of patriots who kept a rifle over the hearth would, given a few weeks’ training, be a more than sufficient bulwark against the conscript hordes of foreign despots. The Peace League, which had been born from the Luxembourg crisis, pleaded that in the mid-nineteenth century Europe should be moving towards a brotherhood of nations, and that there should be no place in a prosperous and progressive society for anachronistic militarism. Many bourgeois, though enamoured with histories of France’s military glory, were aghast that they would no longer be able to buy their sons out of military service, and at the prospect of higher taxes. Peasants too resented the blood tax that would take them from the plough. On the right, conservative generals were comfortable with the existing system and indignant at the suggestion that a long-service professional army, toughened by combat in Algeria, Italy, Mexico and the Far East, could not see off double their numbers of enemy conscripts. They found their spokesman in Thiers, who extolled quality over quantity and ridiculed claims about the number of men Prussia could put in the field. This supreme confidence in French military excellence was widely shared, even by those convinced that a war with Prussia was on the horizon. Government supporters feared that universal conscription would be so unpopular that they would lose their seats at the next elections, and Rouher shared their assessment.

Although Niel’s law was finally enacted in February 1868, concessions had eroded the government’s original proposals. The Legislature’s right to decide the size of the annual intake, the lottery, the two-tier contingent system and the right to buy oneself out of the regular army were retained. Conscripted men in the first contingent would serve a total of nine years, including four in the reserve. Men in the second contingent would go straight into the reserve and serve five months. In theory, the obligation to serve five years in the new Garde Mobile would catch all those who escaped service in the first contingent: those who had drawn a ‘good number’ in the lottery, those who hired replacements, those in the second contingent who had completed their time in the reserve, and some who had been exempted from army service. The value of the Garde Mobile was vitiated, however, by the restrictions placed on its training by a Legislature mistrustful of the regime’s militarist designs. Instead of the twenty-five consecutive days of annual training sought by Niel, training was limited to a derisory fifteen days with no overnight stays in barracks.

In his 1869 message Napoleon assured the nation that the reform had been a great success. An official circular declared that the army was now so well prepared to meet all eventualities that France could be ‘confident in her strength’. These claims, and the figures published to support them, may have been intended to mislead the Germans, but they were a delusion. The Niel law resembled universal military obligation sufficiently to make the government deeply unpopular, but failed abjectly in its aim of doubling the number of trained men available for call-up in case of war. The Garde Mobile soon proved a farce. Attempts to muster it at Paris, Bordeaux and Toulouse led to serious disorders. After Niel’s death in August 1869 his successor, Edmond Le Bœuf, did not repeat the experiment, and in July 1870 the Garde Mobile was formidable on paper only. Little provision had been made even to equip it. Partly Le Bœuf was governed by budgetary constraints, just as the government could obtain only a fraction of the funds requested for the programme of modernizing the eastern fortresses begun after Sadowa. But he also shared the scepticism of the upper echelons of the military, who had overweening confidence in the regular army and despised the very idea of a citizen militia. Indeed, they feared that arming and training one would put guns in the hands of revolutionaries who might overthrow the regime.

The unpopularity of conscription merged into a wider wave of discontent that seemed to herald the approaching end of the Second Empire. Relaxation of laws governing the press and public meetings in 1868 produced a proliferation of newspapers and a ‘revolution of contempt’ directed at the regime. Amid this rising tide of criticism and ridicule, the most stinging attacks appeared in La Lanterne, a pamphlet by the aristocratic vaudeville satirist Henri Rochefort. His mordant wit made it a runaway best-seller and a dozen editions were published before the government banned it. In November a young lawyer from Cahors, Léon Gambetta, made a slashing courtroom attack on the Empire while defending the revolutionary Charles Delescluze for organizing a subscription to erect a memorial to Baudin, the half-forgotten deputy who had been killed during the 1851 coup d’état. The charismatic, passionate and eloquent Gambetta emerged as foremost among a new generation of republicans impatient for change to whom the reputation of Napoleon III as the ‘man of order’ who had saved the country from anarchy after the 1848 revolution meant nothing.

In 1869 France seemed bound for revolution, and the government to have lost its grip. It was often a handicap to be identified as a government candidate in the elections that summer and the big cities voted heavily against the Empire. The elections were accompanied by riots in the cities, and by a wave of industrial unrest which saw striking miners shot down by troops. Although socialists and representatives of the extreme left did not do well in the elections, the results were an impressive showing for republicans. Opposition candidates polled 3.3 million votes against 4.4 million for government candidates. Gambetta was elected for the working-class Paris district of Belleville, standing on a radical platform that included a condemnation of standing armies as ‘a cause of financial ruin’ and ‘a source of hatred between peoples’. However, he opted to represent a Marseilles constituency where he had also been elected, and at a byelection for Belleville in November Rochefort, returned from exile in Belgium, was elected in his place.

Although Napoleon continued to command the political centre ground, he slowly made concessions in the face of mounting opposition. He granted the Chamber additional powers. Rouher resigned, though he remained a confidential adviser and became President of the Senate. In December the Liberal Émile Ollivier, a former republican, was invited to form a ministry. This appeared to Napoleon to be the best way of saving his regime, though it created tensions among its loyal supporters. Those, including the Empress, Baron Jerome David (another nephew of Napoleon I) and Rouher, who believed that the imperial government needed more authoritarianism, not less, would await their opportunity to sabotage what they saw as the dangerous experiment of the ‘Liberal Empire’.

The Race to the Sea 1914 Part I

The Race to the Sea left both German and Allied forces exhausted. For the balance of 1914, both sides could do little more than replenish their losses and fortify the continuous lines that now covered the Western Front from the Swiss border to the English Channel. The elaborate trench systems that developed would not be breached until 1918.

Start Date: September 1914

End Date: November 1914

Series of battles in northern France and Belgium in the autumn of 1914. Following the Anglo-French counteroffensive of the First Battle of the Marne (September 5–12, 1914), stalemate emerged along the Aisne River Valley. Consequently, in the area from the Aisne north to the English Channel both Allied and German forces initiated a series of attempts to outflank the other.

This maneuvering, known as the Race to the Sea, was in fact a race to find an open flank on which to resume mobile operations with the intent of bringing the war to a decisive conclusion. From late September until mid-November, however, neither side was able to reach open territory in advance of the other. The result was a series of violent collisions that ended with Belgian, French, and British forces facing their German adversaries in static positions extending from the English Channel to the Swiss border.

On September 14 with the German defeat in the Battle of the Marne, General of Infantry Erich van Falkenhayn replaced Colonel General Helmuth von Moltke as chief of the German General Staff. Falkenhayn decided to revive the failed Schlieffen Plan by sending German forces around the French left flank on the Aisne. Simultaneously, French Army commander General of Division Joseph J. C. Joffre resolved to outflank the German right at Noyon. Consequently, in the second half of September, units of French general of division Noël de Castelnau’s Second Army collided with those of Bavarian crown prince Rupprecht’s German Sixth Army as both formations stretched to the northwest in an effort to find open territory.

Fighting intensified in early October as the two forces clashed around Arras, an important transportation hub in northeastern France. On October 1, two French infantry corps and one cavalry corps under General of Division Louis Ernest de Maud’huy began pushing toward Arras from the west. At the same time, units of the German Sixth Army were approaching the city from the east. Rupprecht intended to hold the French at Arras while wheeling forces to the north of the city, thereby outflanking the French wing. By the evening of October 4, Maud’huy’s force was in danger of being encircled. German units had occupied the city of Lens to the north, while French Territorial units south of Arras were giving way under heavy German pressure.

Both Castelnau and Maud’huy suggested retreat. Unwilling to concede Arras, Joffre quickly reorganized the French forces in the vicinity. Detaching Maud’huy’s force from the Second Army, Joffre designated it the Tenth Army and placed both formations under General of Division Ferdinand Foch. From October 5, Foch forbade retirement fromArras.

Despite heavy losses, French forces held their positions. By the evening of October 6, German pressure had diminished as Falkenhayn decided to cease attacks in the vicinity. Both he and Joffre subsequently turned their attention northward.

While Rupprecht’s German Sixth Army attempted to turn the Allied flank in northern France in late September, Falkenhayn had directed the III Reserve Corps, commanded by General of Infantry Hans von Beseler, to besiege the fortified Belgian port city of Antwerp. The capture of Antwerp and destruction of the Belgian Army, which was using the city as a base, would ensure the safety of German lines of communication west. It would also remove any impetus for the dispatch of British forces to Belgium. Falkenhayn hoped that this, combined with the operations of the Sixth Army to the south, would leave the Germans in control of French and Belgian territory from the Somme River north to the English Channel, enabling their forces to outflank the Anglo-French armies and march on Paris.

Beseler’s forces opened the siege of Antwerp on September 28. After subjecting the city to an intense artillery bombardment, on October 1 Beseler initiated infantry attacks. With only limited French and British assistance forthcoming, Antwerp capitulated on October 10. Most of the Belgian Army, however, escaped and retired behind the Yser River. This development presented a problem for Falkenhayn. In early October he had assembled in Belgium the Fourth Army under Colonel General Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg. Falkenhayn intended to send the Fourth Army south into France in an attempt to outflank the Allied left wing, but the presence of 53,000 Belgian troops at the Yser inhibited Albrecht’s freedom of movement.

Consequently, on October 18 the German Fourth Army attacked Belgian positions along the Yser. Although they were supported by French forces and British naval guns in the English Channel, the Belgians were slowly forced to give ground. In desperation, King Albert on October 27 ordered the locks at Nieuport opened, inundating the countryside. By October 31 the rising water level had created an impassable barrier for the Germans, thereby securing the Allied left flank.

By this point German and Allied efforts were concentrated around the Belgian town of Ypres. In early October the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had begun transferring from positions on the Aisne to northern France and Flanders. As elements of the BEF arrived in the area between La Bassée and Ypres, British commander Sir John French directed them to advance. By mid-October, however, they faced increasing resistance from German cavalry, which preceded the arrival of more substantial forces. By October 19, elements of Albrecht’s Fourth Army and Rupprecht’s Sixth Army had assembled and began advancing westward north and south of Ypres, respectively. The BEF was forced onto the defensive, but the timely arrival of French and Indian reinforcements prevented a German breakthrough.

By late October, Falkenhayn’s search for open ground was increasingly desperate. In an effort to resume mobile operations before the arrival of additional Allied troops, he quickly assembled a new force between the Fourth and Sixth Armies. It consisted of six divisions and more than 250 heavy guns formed into Army Group Fabeck, under General of Infantry Max von Fabeck. Falkenhayn directed Fabeck to punch through the fragile British line south of Ypres, resulting in the First Battle of Ypres (October 19–November 22).

British units at Ypres weathered fierce German attacks during October 29–31. On the afternoon of October 31, German forces nearly broke through at Gheluvelt. In early November, however, pressure on the BEF subsided, as French reinforcements launched counterattacks around Ypres and mounting German losses diminished the intensity of their offensive. Falkenhayn made a final effort on November 10–11. On November 11 the Prussian Guards managed to crack the British line south of Ypres, but the British were able to blunt it. By November 13 the fighting around Ypres had largely subsided, and the Race to the Sea was over.


The counter-attack on the Marne was indeed the end of the Schlieffen Plan; but it was also the beginning of Churchill’s ‘desperate and vain appeals against the decision of fate’ – appeals that on the Western Front would ultimately cost the lives of over half a million men of the British army.

On the Aisne, meanwhile, the armies began digging in. At first they dug simple, shallow rifle-pits, but as more and heavier artillery was brought up, the trenches were dug deeper and became more elaborate, the Germans generally with the advantage of the better ground. Both sides began ‘feeling for the flank’ again – trying to find the end of the opponent’s line, to force the defender to fall back so as not to be enveloped. At first it was local, the French on the left attacking with troops already in the line and the Germans likewise, before becoming more deliberate, with both Joffre and Falkenhayn trying to find ‘fresh’ troops for the task. For whatever the dashed hopes of the Schlieffen Plan, Moltke’s successor had first to make sure the situation did not, at the very least, get any worse. Surmising that the British, having been thoroughly blooded, would now reinforce the BEF, he thought it well to capture the Channel ports and cut their supply lines – except that the lines of communication did not run through the northern Channel ports. Besides, the Grosser Generalstab was still hankering after its Cannae: opportunities might be created from unexpected tactical success. After all, a fortnight earlier, General Paul von Hindenburg’s 8th Army had destroyed the better part of the Russian 2nd Army at Tannenberg, which for a while at least took the pressure off the Oberste Heeresleitung. For the time being, the flanks of both sides hung tantalizingly in the air, with 200 miles of open country to the west: perhaps there was still time to knock out France (and now the British) and then turn east with all the efficiency of the Prussian (and, they must hope, the French and Belgian) railway system to defeat the Russian bear?

During late September and early October there was a continuous series of battles in Picardy, Artois and Flanders, Joffre having matched the efficiency of the Eisenbahnamt by moving General Noel de Castelnau’s 2nd Army from Lorraine to Amiens, while Falkenhayn moved Crown Prince Rupprecht’s (Bavarian) 6th Army opposite him to St Quentin in a remarkable but little-known railway race (through Luxembourg). On 17 and 18 September the French attacked at Noyon; the Germans countered by attacking on the French flank towards Montdidier. On the twenty-second the French attacked north of Roye; and again the Germans countered by attacking on the flank. On 27 and 28 September Rupprecht struck near Albert, but Castelnau managed once more to halt them. With each attempt the line was prolonged west and north, in what would become known as ‘the Race for the Sea’, though the object was not so much reaching the coast as re-establishing a war of manoeuvre.

The search for the open flank now moved even further north, towards Arras. Two infantry corps and one of cavalry from Castelnau’s 2nd Army, under General Louis de Maud’huy, advanced up the River Scarpe towards Vimy. Rupprecht tried to outflank him and on 3 October sent his reserve corps north of Arras and the IV Cavalry Corps further north towards Lille. By the evening of the 4th Maud’huy was in serious danger of being cut off, having lost contact with his cavalry to the north, and a gap having opened on his southern flank. He told Joffre he would have to withdraw, and asked in which direction. Joffre, desperate to protect the industrial areas of Artois, ordered Maud’huy to hold his ground, and at once set about reorganizing the northern armies. Maud’huy’s detachment became yet another new army, the 10th (remarkable promotion for a man who in July had been commanding a brigade), and the 2nd and 10th, along with any other troops in the area, mainly Territorials, were grouped together under the command of Ferdinand Foch, as Joffre’s deputy. The front held; for the moment the crisis was over.

Sir John French, and Kitchener, watching this slow-motion race for the sea, had been getting anxious, and had decided that the BEF must shorten its lines of communication as soon as possible, not least by resuming its place on the left flank of the French, rather than remaining sandwiched between armies. It were better, in any case, that Calais, Boulogne, Dunkirk or Dieppe (perhaps even Ostend and Zeebrugge) replace St Nazaire as the port of entry – or ‘base’, as it was called in Field Service Regulations. Besides, if the Channel ports fell into German hands, the Channel itself would soon be full of mines and U-Boats. Churchill, as first lord of the Admiralty, was only too well aware of the threat, and was already preparing to send a Royal Marines Brigade and two more of the Royal Naval Division – reservist sailors not required for ships’ crews, half-retrained as infantry (among them, hastily commissioned, Rupert Brooke – ‘Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour, / And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping …’). With aircraft of the Royal Naval Air Service and an improvised force of armoured cars, as well as his own (personally chosen) Yeomanry regiment, the Oxfordshire Hussars, they were to screen the northern ports – and later, at the beginning of October, would sprint to Antwerp to stiffen the resolve of the Belgian garrison.

On 29 September Sir John French sent a note to Joffre:

Ever since our position in the French line was altered by the advance of General Manoury’s 6th Army to the River Ourcq, I have been anxious to regain my original position on the left flank of the French Armies. On several occasions I have thought of suggesting this move, but the strategical and tactical situation from day to day has made the proposal inopportune. Now, however, that the position of affairs has become clearly defined, and that the immediate future can be forecasted with some confidence, I wish to press the proposal with all the power and insistence which are at my disposal. The moment for the execution of such a move appears to me to be singularly opportune.

The opportuneness lay in part with the imminent arrival of significant reinforcements, including the newly formed 7th and 8th Divisions (both almost exclusively regular) and the leading elements of the Indian Corps and the Indian Cavalry Corps (via Marseilles, as Churchill’s 1911 memorandum had suggested). ‘In other words,’ Sir John French explained, ‘my present force of six Divisions and two Cavalry Divisions will, within three or four weeks from now, be increased by four Divisions and two Cavalry Divisions, making a total British force of ten Divisions (five Corps) and four Cavalry Divisions.’

Joffre agreed at once, and the BEF began its move west.

At the same time, French began preparing to send an infantry and a cavalry division to Antwerp, but on 8 October King Albert was forced to abandon the city, leading the Belgian army west and south along the coast until they could take up a coherent line of defence on the River Yser. A week later, in yet another attempt to outflank the German line, the BEF crossed into Belgium, to Ypres, to attack east along the Menin Road. As they did so, the Duke (Albrecht) of Württemberg’s 4th Army, which had been railed from the Upper Aisne and reinforced by fresh troops from Germany, and from the siege of Antwerp after its surrender on 10 October, attacked the Belgians on the Yser. They were eventually halted when on the twenty-first the King ordered the sea-locks at Nieuport to be opened, flooding the surrounding country.

By now Sir John French had some 250,000 men at his command. Urged on by Foch, he went onto the offensive along the Menin Road on 21 October. His forces soon ran into trouble, however, the speed of the redeployment of Rupprecht’s Bavarians and Albrecht’s 6th Army taking both GQG and GHQ by surprise. A month’s hard – at times, desperate – fighting would follow. Many of the newly formed Cavalry Corps went into action for the first time – dismounted, the horses being sent to the rear and the men taking up their rifles to hold Messines Ridge south of Ypres. The first regiments of the Territorial Force would be blooded too (those that had volunteered in sufficient numbers for service overseas) – the London Scottish, the first Territorials to go into action, losing half their strength in the process. And the Germans would have their first sight of the turbans, pugarees and Gurkha pill-boxes of the Indian Corps. At Hollebeke on 31 October Sepoy Khudadad Khan of the Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchi Regiment won the first ever Indian VC, when it looked as if the Germans might break the line: ‘The British Officer in charge of the [machine-gun] detachment having been wounded,’ ran the citation, ‘and the other gun put out of action by a shell, Sepoy Khudadad, though himself wounded, remained working his gun until all the other five men of the gun detachment had been killed.’ He would later receive a Viceroy’s Commission as subedar.

That last day of October was indeed a desperate time, the moment when it looked as if the dyke would rupture, a day when individual soldiers in individual regiments made a difference. If there were to be an accolade of saver of that dyke it would almost certainly go to the 2nd Worcesters, the only troops left in front of Ypres that morning as the Germans managed to capture Gheluvelt, key to the Ypres–Menin gap and therefore to the open country beyond. The battalion had already been reduced to 400 (less than half its embarkation strength in August), and they would lose another 200 recapturing this vital ground. Major Edward Hankey, who had taken command a month before when the battalion’s lieutenant-colonel was promoted to command the brigade, led what remained of the Worcesters across 1,000 yards of open fields, under artillery fire, to drive the Germans from the grounds of the Chateau Gheluvelt, managing then to hold on against the inevitable counter-attacks just long enough for reinforcements to be cobbled together from the rest of the brigade to plug the hole.

On 11 November there was another crisis astride the Menin road, when the 1st and 4th Brigades of the Prussian Guard attacked, breaking through the defence line and getting to within 2 miles of Ypres. Only the bayonets of the 2nd Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and a scratch force of Grenadiers, Irish Guards and the Royal Munster Fusiliers were able to restore the situation – but at shattering cost, including the loss of the brigadier, Charles FitzClarence, who had won the VC at Mafeking.

The attack of the Prussian Guard, however, like that of the Garde Impériale at Waterloo, was the high-water mark of the German offensive at Ypres, and in the days that followed the fighting slackened. The BEF dug in – just as they had on the Aisne – but deep, and the Western Front began its consolidation into a continuous line of trenches that would eventually stretch from the North Sea coast to the Swiss frontier. But the fighting in October and November, on top of the August retreat and the counter-attack on the Marne, was the end of the old BEF – the four divisions that had marched up to Mons, and the fifth and sixth that had joined them thereafter. The casualties for the six weeks of the First Battle of Ypres, as it became known, were 58,155 (7,960 dead, 29,562 wounded, 17,873 missing, the remainder classified ‘sick’); the BEF had arrived in France with around 80,000 infantry, which by the end of October had increased to 130,000, and which on paper stood at about 150,000 by the close of First Ypres. On 30 November the officially recorded figure for casualties of all kinds since the beginning of hostilities was 86,237. Most of these were in the infantry, where the officers and NCOs led from the front. The conclusions hardly need spelling out. The 1915 edition of Debrett’s Peerage was delayed for many months until the editors had been able to revise the entries for almost every blue-blooded family in the kingdom.

Regulars from all over the empire would now be recalled and fed piecemeal into Flanders, reinforced in equally piecemeal fashion by the Territorials once the necessary legislation had been enacted, and then from the summer of 1915 by the men of Kitchener’s ‘New Armies’, the volunteers who were flocking in their many tens of thousands to answer the secretary for war’s famous poster-call ‘Your Country Needs YOU!’, until in January 1916 conscription was introduced.

Need so many – the core of the professional army – have died in those first two months? In his memoir of the BEF’s opening battles, Forty Days in 1914, Major-General Sir Frederick Maurice, Henry Wilson’s successor-but-one as DMO (1916–18), writes plainly of the missed opportunities: ‘We have in the end gained complete victory [his book was published in 1919], but we could have gained it more quickly had our Governments been organized for war.’ This is the point at which, therefore, while recognizing that the BEF was standing (with the French) in the path of the greatest military juggernaut the world has ever seen, we must scotch any idea that what happened in the ‘Battle of the Frontiers’ was inevitable. Actions have consequences; and inaction has consequences too. Quoting the historian E. H. Carr is a perilous business, but in this he is worth the risk: ‘Nothing in history is inevitable, except in the formal sense that, for it to have happened otherwise, the antecedent causes would have had to be different.’

The futile encounter-battle on the Mons–Condé canal, the ensuing battle at Le Cateau and the subsequent retreat – these need not have happened if the BEF had concentrated at Amiens rather than Maubeuge, as both Sir John French and Kitchener had wanted at the 5 August war council (at which Churchill had suggested they should concentrate well to the rear of the French army to form a strategic reserve) – and as Lanrezac himself had suggested to Joffre as late as 15 August. On 21 September, Haig – whose handling of I Corps in the fighting at Ypres was to earn him considerable acclaim – wrote in unequivocal terms to the King’s assistant private secretary, Major Clive Wigram, whom he had known in India: ‘I am glad you already realize how wrong it was to have rushed the Army north to Mons by forced marches before our reservists had got their legs. GHQ had the wildest ideas at this time of the nature of the war and the rôle of the British Force.’

Had this alternative plan been adopted, though, would it have meant that the Germans would have been able to turn the flank of Lanrezac’s 5th Army?

No. From 20 August, when Moltke told Kluck that ‘a landing of British troops is reported at Boulogne: their advance from about Lille must be reckoned with’, both the OHL and Bülow, commanding (ineffectively) the 1st and 2nd Armies as an army group, were acutely conscious of the danger to the 1st Army’s (Kluck’s) flank. Two days later, the 1st Army halted for two critical hours to realign west in order to meet what Kluck believed was the BEF detraining at Tournai but turned out to be French Territorials. By 24 August – the date Sir John French had originally given to President Poincaré and Joffre before agreeing to bring it forward to the twenty-first – the BEF would have been ready at Amiens to take the offensive. Its divisions could then have been transported via the excellent French railway system the 50 miles to St Quentin, whence it would have posed too great a threat to the 1st Army’s right for Kluck to have risked trying to envelop Lanrezac’s 5th Army south of Maubeuge. In the meantime, Lanrezac would have had to shift for his own left flank; but this was, in essence, what he was doing anyway in the withdrawal on 22 August. Without the BEF on the Mons–Condé canal, Kluck would of course have had a free run south through Mons, but he could not have presented a flank to the fortress of Maubeuge without impunity, nor could he have made any real turning movement north of Le Cateau because of the Forêt de Mormal – and, anyway, Lanrezac was already taking precautions by withdrawing to the Sambre. Lanrezac’s position would have been little different from the actual situation on 26 August since the BEF had by then been driven away to the south and west, and the gap was opening up – except, of course, that Kluck’s 1st Army would have been in greater strength and better shape without the encounters with British rifle fire. From 27 August the course of events would, at worst, have been no different from actual events, the BEF retreating from St Quentin on the same line – but without the losses incurred at Mons and Le Cateau, with greater cohesion between its two corps, and perhaps with much better cooperation and contact with the French. Its subsequent performance in the Marne counter-offensive might then have been more spirited, with a chance of ‘bouncing’ the Aisne heights and preventing the Germans from consolidating.

The Race to the Sea 1914 Part II

But Churchill had put his finger on the bigger issue in his memorandum to the Committee of Imperial Defence for the meeting on 23 August 1911: what was the strategic role of the BEF? In the discussion at that meeting on the BEF’s status of command, Reginald McKenna, the then first lord of the Admiralty, had suggested that ‘if a British force were to be sent at all, it should be placed under French command’. Perhaps McKenna knew that this would not be palatable to the general staff (which indeed it wasn’t, as Henry Wilson at once protested), thereby advancing the cause of the naval option; but in any case, ‘Mr Churchill dissented emphatically’, say the minutes: ‘The whole moral significance of our intervention would be lost if our Army was merely merged in that of France.’

This was a moot point – perhaps Churchill was thinking of his illustrious ancestor’s difficulties with the Dutch field deputies in the war with France – but it needed mooting nevertheless: how was Britain to exert the greatest moral effect – and, implicitly, at the lowest cost? But there was more at stake than this. The question was really what was to happen after the Germans had invaded; for, having the initiative and therefore being able to concentrate, they would certainly force the frontiers at one point or another. Churchill had grasped the difference between merely winning battles and winning the war: ‘France will not be able to end the war successfully by any action on the frontiers. She will not be strong enough to invade Germany. Her only chance is to conquer Germany in France’.

This, he said, would mean the French accepting invasion, including even the investment of Paris, but such a policy might depend on knowing that the British would be coming to France’s aid on land – which, by return, would depend on our knowing what were the French intentions. This was, of course, a view entirely at odds with that of the French general staff, who did indeed envisage the invasion of Germany, or at least, certainly to begin with, that former French territory occupied by Germany (Alsace-Lorraine) – which for a few days in August 1914 was largely what happened. However, Churchill’s bold assertion was based on the calculation that by the fortieth day of mobilization.

Germany should be extended at full strain both internally and on her war fronts, and this strain will become daily more severe and ultimately overwhelming, unless it is relieved by decisive victories in France. If the French army has not been squandered by precipitate or desperate action, the balance of forces should be favourable after the fortieth day [and improving] … Opportunities for the decisive trial of strength might then occur.

It could easily be supposed that this memorandum had been written in late 1914 rather than the summer of 1911: the fortieth day of German mobilization was 9 September, the day the BEF crossed the Marne on its way to the Aisne. Historians have sometimes commented on Churchill’s prescience, but none has ever fully examined his conclusion that the French must accept penetration of the borders and organize to defeat the Germans thereafter, the part the BEF might play in such an operational plan, and the possible outcome.

So how did Churchill see the BEF’s contributing to these ‘opportunities for the decisive trial of strength’?

In short, by generating a BEF that could act decisively ‘instead of being frittered into action piecemeal’ – the argument, indeed, that Haig was making at the time of the 5 August war council, and in his preceding letter to Haldane: ‘so that when we do take the field we can act decisively’. Churchill envisaged the immediate despatch of a BEF of four divisions plus the Cavalry Division, for its ‘moral effect’, to be joined by the two remaining divisions ‘as soon as the naval blockade is effectively established’ (and the threat of invasion thereby ended). These would assemble not at Maubeuge for incorporation in the French line of battle, but well to the rear, at Tours, more or less equidistant between St Nazaire and Paris. As soon as the colonial forces in South Africa could be mobilized, the 7th Division would be recalled from there and its stations in the Mediterranean. To these would be added 15,000 Yeomanry and TF cyclist volunteers. And – perhaps the greatest gamble (though in fact it would eventually happen) – six out of the nine divisions of the Indian Army could be brought to the BEF, ‘as long as two native regiments were moved out of India for every British regiment’ (Churchill was as aware as any – and more than most – of the peculiar mathematics and chemistry of the Indian Army): a further 100,000 troops, ‘brought into France via Marseilles by the fortieth day’.

In total, by 14 September this would have furnished a BEF of some 290,000 (Haig had written to Haldane of 300,000), which the actual arrival of the 7th and 8th Divisions and the Indian Corps before Ypres shows was perfectly possible. And, although Churchill does not mention it, there would also have been time to assemble additional heavy artillery.

But what, meanwhile, of the gap which a BEF at Tours would have left in the French line of battle? In his letter to Haldane, Haig had made the filling of this gap, so to speak, a fundamental assumption: ‘I presume of course that the French can hold on (even though her forces have to pull back from the frontier) for the necessary time for us to create an army …’

The answer lay with the nine French divisions – two corps – earmarked for the army of observation on the Italian border. These could have been put at notice to move as soon as the Italians declared their neutrality on 3 August (a decision confirmed to the second war council by Grey on 6 August), and the move begun as soon as French intelligence could confirm that the Italian army, although recalling some reservists to the colours, was not moving to a war footing (Austria was, after all, the more recent enemy, and France the ally: there was every reason for Rome to fear an Austrian grab in Venezia). If such a redeployment sounds injudicious – perilous even – in the event this is what did indeed happen: the French Army of the Alps was stood down on 17 August (at which time much of the BEF was still encamped near their ports of landing). Though it would have been a last-minute affair, its six in-place divisions (five of them regular), which were surplus to Plan XVII, would have been available to re deploy to the left of Lanrezac’s 5th Army, where, indeed, the erstwhile commander of the Army of the Alps, d’Amade, had already been sent to take command of the Territorial divisions. The great advantage that the French enjoyed – though they failed to make full use of it – was that the Schlieffen Plan unfolded at walking pace, and on exterior lines, observable by air, while the strategic movement of French troops, on interior lines, could be conducted at the speed of the railway engine. Never, before or since, has a commander-in-chief had so much time in which to make his key decisions. That is the real import of A. J. P. Taylor’s quip about ‘war by railway timetable’ – not that Europe’s leaders were forced into war by movement schedules. The Elder Moltke had said it to Bismarck: ‘Build railways, not forts.’

If these dispositions had been made, there is no reason to suppose that the situation at the end of September would have been any different from that which actually transpired – with French forces mounting a successful counter-attack on the Marne, and then the stalling on the Aisne. There was an undoubted moral effect in having the BEF in the line, and it certainly ‘punched above its weight’, but it is unreasonable to suggest that the French would not have been able to manage things on their own if they had been able to replace the BEF with the same number of their own regulars. Joffre, seeing the enemy, as it were, off guard, had brilliantly improvised and delivered a blow on the Marne that had sent the flower of Brandenburg reeling; but it was not enough. In the terminology of modern doctrine, he had executed the first two of the four requirements of victory – ‘find’ and ‘fix’: he had found the weak point, Kluck’s and Bülow’s flank, and he had fixed them – temporarily (which is all that can be expected) – on the Aisne. What he then had to do was ‘strike’ and then ‘exploit’ (as suggested by Churchill’s ‘Her only chance is to conquer Germany in France’).

However, at the time of launching the counter-offensive on the Marne Joffre had not been able to create a striking force to exploit success. What he needed was what the BEF could have offered had it been allowed to build its strength at Tours – a fresh, strong, virtually all-regular army numbering nearly 300,000. It should have been the winning move.

Not, however, simply to attack on the Aisne, to apply more brute force where brute force had already exhausted itself. What was needed was overwhelming force applied as a lever rather than as a sledgehammer. The German flank was not just open in a localized way after the retreat to the Aisne; the entire Schwenkungsflügel – the ‘pivot’ or ‘swing’ wing – was extended in an east–west line through mid-Champagne and southern Picardy, and it was beginning to bow back on the right. Indeed, with each successive encounter on the extremity of the flank, even as the Germans brought up new troops, the line backed further north rather than projecting further west. In the third week of September, with Antwerp still holding out, the BEF, some 300,000 strong, fully equipped, its reservists fighting fit, and with the RFC to direct its advance, could have launched a massive counter-stroke from Abbeville, a major rail junction, east between Arras and Albert (or even more boldly, further north between Arras and Lille), on a front of at least 30 miles – with strong reserves and artillery, screened by the Cavalry Corps, with the Indian Cavalry Corps ranging further north towards the high ground at Vimy.

With a simultaneous offensive by the French along the Aisne – indeed, across the whole front, to fix the Germans in place so that they could not further reinforce the right – all that Falkenhayn’s 1st, 2nd and 4th Armies would have been able to do to avoid being enveloped would have been to turn through 90 degrees to face west. But their pivot point would have had to be somewhere that did not form too sharp an angle and therefore a dangerous salient, and with Belgian forces perhaps making another sortie from Antwerp, it is probable that this pivot point would have to have been Rheims, or even Verdun. In any case, with the BEF pressing hard, and taking account of its own extended lines of communication, in particular the railheads, there would not have been the manoeuvre space for Kluck’s 1st Army to change direction through 90 degrees west of a line running north–south through Mons and Maubeuge. Had Falkenhayn got intelligence of the move of the BEF to Abbeville he might have made an orderly withdrawal from the Aisne to the Mons–Maubeuge line, dug in and brought up heavy artillery to halt the BEF’s advance; but this in turn would have given the BEF the option of avoiding making a direct attack and again threatening to turn the German right flank – further north, between Mons and Brussels. In the best case for the allies, with the Germans unable to find a natural line on which to try to halt the BEF, and a renewed offensive by Franchet d’Espèrey’s and Foch’s armies to threaten the 1st, 2nd and 4th Armies’ lines of communication, Falkenhayn would have had to pull back to the Meuse below Namur. He would then have had to garrison the river with all the troops he could find as allied strength built up on the Lower Meuse as far as Liège and within closing distance of the Dutch border in the Maastricht corridor.

Supposing, then, that at that point the Germans had been able to check further allied progress east – even perhaps, by a desperate reverse-Schlieffen transfer of troops from East Prussia – the situation in the west would have seen a strategic sea change. Joffre, to exploit, could now have used the growing Russian strength on the Eastern Front to his advantage: Falkenhayn would have been truly caught between two giant hammers. And with the Germans now on the defensive, Joffre would have had the choice of where to concentrate. With so catastrophic an end to the whole Schlieffen ‘plan’, it is not impossible to imagine the Kaiser’s suing for terms.

However, on 4 September the Triple Entente powers had signed a pact: ‘The British, French, and Russian Governments mutually engage not to conclude peace separately during the present war. The three Governments agree that when terms of peace come to be discussed, no one of the Allies will demand conditions of peace without the previous agreement of each of the other Allies.’ All could not go quiet on the Western Front unless the Germans ceased fire on the Eastern.

It was ironic that, by this pact, the British were now in effect pledged to the defeat of the Germans not just in France but in Russia too – an object that would have been scarcely conceivable to the cabinet a week before the war began. Of course, in December 1917 a new (Bolshevik) Russian government would conclude a very separate peace, but that was not an option for a nation with ‘honour’, the noun that had propelled Britain to war. It is possible, therefore, to imagine the war entering 1915 with a return to the Elder Moltke’s view of the two-front problem: stay on the defensive against France, check the Russians by a paralysing stroke (another Tannenberg, perhaps), and then turn westward to counter-attack when the inevitable allied offensive came – the aim being, since outright victory was no longer possible, to cripple both opponents and thereby bring about a favourable peace.

But the allies would have been in a vastly superior strategic position to that in which they actually found themselves in 1915. The possession of most of Belgium would have been significant in terms of the extra men and materiel available. And the failure of Germany to achieve victory would not have been lost on the neutrals. It was almost certainly impossible that Britain could have avoided war with Turkey, but if it were possible in May 1915 to persuade Italy, who in August 1914 had been in alliance with Germany and Austria, to enter the war on the allies’ side – as she did, against Austria-Hungary on 23 May, and Germany on 28 August – it should also have been possible to persuade the Dutch and the Danes to consider their position too. The Dutch obligation to defend Belgian neutrality under the Treaty of London was sufficiently vague to permit the application of diplomatic pressure, especially once the Germans had been removed from the southern Dutch border. It seems likely at least that some way would have been found to open the Scheldt to allied shipping, and to close the ‘breathing line’ to Germany. The Danes were in just as ambiguous a position, if for different reasons. They had no connection with any treaty, only a pragmatic decision to make: which side would win? Or rather, how might the peace terms work to their advantage? Their neutrality was weighted towards Germany, but a Germany fighting defensively on the Meuse would not have been the same as a Germany in possession of almost all of Belgium and a large slice of northern France. There was Danish territory to recover in Jutland, and although in the event the Treaty of Versailles would restore a large part of Schleswig to Denmark (and, indeed, would have given her all of it, and Holstein, had the Danes not feared German irredentism), Copenhagen could not have counted on it. There was, again, room for the diplomats to work.

At the very least the BEF counter-stroke, forcing the Germans back into Belgium, perhaps as far as the Meuse, would have given the allies far better ground on which to fight – and with a strong Belgian army, and a much shorter front (and therefore more reserves). At the very best, an offensive by British, French and Belgian armies on the Meuse in the spring of 1915, perhaps being allowed to use the Maastricht corridor, with Dutch–Danish action directed against the Kiel Canal and Heligoland, could have ended the war that summer.

That said, the German army’s (the German nation’s) visceral ability to fight on, despite all logic, was formidable, as the rest of the war demonstrated. However, the ground on which the allies fought need not have been the same; and the war was not immutably programmed to run until November 1918. At best the Dardanelles campaign to circumvent the deadlock on the Western Front need not have been attempted. The 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland might not have taken place, or at least might not have taken the same embittering course, for Britain would not have appeared to be on the ropes (there was more than a little opportunism in the IRA’s decision to ‘declare war’); and with some sensible concession to home rule the Union might still today have been of Great Britain and Ireland (always assuming, of course, that Ulster could have been placated – a big ‘if’). Perhaps the greatest bounties, however, would have been the failure of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia before it even started, and a Germany in which fascism did not take hold.

Is this all too fanciful?

Three decades on, in the summer of 1943, after he had been exerting his indomitable will on the nation and its armed forces for three years of war, Churchill startled a group of his close associates by remarking that ‘whoever had been in power – Chamberlain, Churchill, Eden, anyone you liked to mention – the military position would now be exactly the same. Wars had their own rules, politicians didn’t alter them, the armies would be in the same position to a mile.’ This ‘Tolstoyan summary’, as one of Churchill’s biographers, Ronald Lewin, puts it, was surely ‘Winnie’ at his most perverse, fuelled perhaps by a little brandy and post-Alamein relief, and masked by cigar smoke – Winnie the soldier still, defiantly growling from some long-remembered battlefield. He was forgetting, perhaps even conveniently, his own politician’s part in the bloody fiasco of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli. For just as wars have consequences, so do battles – which is why they are fought – and likewise the operational plans which determine in large measure where and how those battles are fought. And the principal assumptions on which plans are made are primarily political, not military; hence Asquith’s assertion at the CID meeting in August 1911 that ‘the expediency of sending a military force abroad or of relying on naval means alone is a matter of policy which can only be determined when the occasion arises by the Government of the day.’ The fact was, however, that the politicians had lost control of military strategy (and in this, of course, British politicians were not alone), their failure to show effective interest allowing a momentum to develop in the staff conversations whose outcome then became the strategy because once revealed, during the crisis, there seemed to be no alternative.

By refusing to recognize what this implied – a decision deferred indefinitely – and instead basing all its plans on the assumption of simultaneous mobilization with the French and the incorporation of the BEF into the deployment plans of the French general staff, the War Office failed both the army and the country. Since the War Office was both a department of state and a military headquarters, this was both a political and a military failure – and, since the secretary of state for war was a member of the cabinet, ultimately a failure of cabinet government.

However the war began – by German design, by the negligence of statesmen, by the purblindness of generals – there was nothing inevitable about its course. Churchill said memorably, before the great clash of dreadnoughts at Jutland in 1916, that the Royal Navy – in particular the admiral commanding the Grand Fleet, Sir John Jellicoe – could lose the war in an afternoon. In August 1914, however, the decisive ground was not the North Sea but the Franco-Belgian border. And though government and the War Office may have failed them, the men of the BEF, the ‘Old Contemptibles’, paid the price of honour on that decisive ground, and paid it scarcely flinching – in honour, as they had been variously exhorted, of the King, the nation, the British army, or the regiment. They fought what they knew was the good fight because, as Sir John French had told them, ‘Our cause is just.’ And despite the shortcomings in planning and preparation over the years, the pride and prejudice in the senior echelons as the nation went to war, and the mistakes by commanders and staff in the first encounter battles, they fought a good fight – because, when all else is going wrong, that is what professionals did (and do).

These, in the day when heaven was falling,

The hour when earth’s foundations fled,

Followed their mercenary calling

And took their wages and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;

They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;

What God abandoned, these defended,

And saved the sum of things for pay.

Further Reading

Farrar-Hockley, Anthony. Death of an Army. New York: Morrow, 1968.

Herwig, Holger H. The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary, 1914–1918. New York: Arnold, 1997.

Neiberg, Michael S. The Western Front, 1914–1916. London: Amber, 2012.

Strachan, Hew. The First World War, Vol. 1, To Arms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Frederick the Great and Berlin

August Niegelssohn – View of the Schlossplatz in the Era of Frederick the Great, 1787

August Niegelssohn – View of Berlin in the Era of Frederick the Great, 1787

Death wields his scythe in every corner of the globe. Cannae, the Somme and Stalingrad claimed him as their own. Hiroshima gave him his busiest single day. Siberia’s gulags provided him with decades of regular employment. Both Genghis Khan and Mao Zedong worked him to the bone for a generation all across Asia. But over the centuries it is to Berlin that he has most often returned.

He was present in its earliest days when waves of Teutons, Huns and Slavs fought each other on the marshy plains. He picked them off one by one along with the Wends, the Slavic people who settled on the sandy riverbank in the seventh century, and who named it Berl after the Polabian word for swamp. He stalked their heathen wilderness as it resisted Holy Roman emperors and later Polish kings, making the Mark Brandenburg – das Land in der Mitte – one of the last parts of Europe to be Christianised.

Year after year Death visited through famine, plague and robber barons who tormented the provincial backwater until it all but drained away into the poor, unproductive soil. He marched alongside the Habsburg and Swedish armies as they scattered dismembered bodies on its muddy streets during the Thirty Years’ War. Over those heinous decades, he saw more than half the settlement’s population burnt alive, boiled in oil or simply bound with willow switches and tossed into the river. Thousands were lost to typhoid, their nostrils filled with the stench of their own rotting flesh. By 1638 Berlin had been reduced to only 845 houses, less than half the previous number. Old Cölln was totally destroyed. Death gathered up the broken settlers and abandoned souls, held them as they wept, and heard them cry out in despair for a strong leader.

In 1640 their prayers were answered with the accession of an austere and ambitious despot. Frederick William, a Hohenzollern elector and descendant of the wealthy burgrave of Nuremberg, was determined that Brandenburg-Prussia would never again be devastated by marauding armies. He harnessed its survivors’ fear to transform the devastated borderland. He built massive new fortifications around their hungry hovels and branded Berlin with his Calvinist industry. The city expanded to the south and west, spartan Friedrichstadt rising on stilts and stakes on the boggy ground, with 300 uniform, two-storey houses completed in its first year. Within two decades the neighbourhood boasted 12,000 souls. Along Wilhelmstraße aristocrats and royal ministers like Samuel von Marschall, a descendant of Scottish nobles, sited their palatial manor houses.

In return for growth and stability, the Hohenzollerns demanded total deference to their authority, and the still-traumatised Berliners whispered not a word of complaint. They devoted themselves to duty – without question, with tireless labour – and were forged into a disciplined people at arms.

‘A ruler is of no consideration if he does not have adequate means and forces of his own,’ the Great Elector wrote in his Political Testament. ‘That alone has made me – thank God for it – a force to be reckoned with.’

By the start of the eighteenth century Berlin – now ruled by Frederick William’s fanatic grandson, the ‘Soldier King’ – had grown into a great garrison. It was the capital of Prussia, the state built by an army. Its youth were conscripted, issued with uniforms, marched in step to cutting-edge weaponry factories over the now solid-stone Langebrücke. Eighty per cent of the kingdom’s revenue was spent on its fighting men and armouries. The Soldier King also reformed the civil service along military lines, prescribing the exact duties of public servants with minute precision. A minister who failed to attend a committee meeting lost six months’ pay. If he absented himself a second time, he was discharged from service. Absolute obedience was demanded of every man.

Along pristine, battalion-wide avenues soldiers saluted baton-wielding officers, trooped across cobbled parade grounds, breathed in air which reeked of gunpowder and discipline. Martial music echoed down the orderly lanes, into ranked houses scrubbed and cleaned as if for morning inspection. Every noon on Schlossplatz a bizarre troop of giant Potsdam Grenadiers – recruited or kidnapped from across Europe for their size – drilled for the Soldier King’s pleasure. ‘The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me but tall soldiers, they are my weakness,’ he told the French ambassador.

He never started a war, but war – and the phobic preparation for it – became the obsession of his dutiful and brutish capital of absolutism.


The Soldier King’s three sons were to be raised as soldiers, awoken at dawn by cannon fire, trained in the fifty-four movements of the Prussian drill code. The first boy died at his christening when a crown was forced on his oversized head. The second child had life shocked out of him by the roar of guns fired too close to his cradle. The only surviving son was a thin and delicate rebel.

Prince Frederick had enormous blue eyes and a sensitive disposition, to his father’s despair. To toughen him up, the king knocked him about. He beat him for jumping off a bolting horse. He whipped him for wearing gloves in wet weather. One wild winter night, when the wind howled in from Russia and a pitcher of drinking water froze at the dinner table, he ordered him to stand guard outside the palace. The child took to hiding under his mother’s bed.

Young Frederick’s education was strict and unimaginative, focused on mathematics, politics and warfare, bereft of literature and Latin. Why study the ancients, barked the Soldier King, as the Romans had been beaten by the Germanic race?

‘The Prince is to rise at six,’ dictated the king. ‘As soon as he has his slippers on he shall kneel at the bed and say a short prayer to God loud enough for all present to hear. Then speedily and with all dispatch he shall dress and wash himself, be queued and powdered; and getting dressed as well as breakfast – tea, which is to be taken while the valet is making his queue and powdering him – shall be finished and done in a quarter of an hour, that is, by a quarter past six.’

To instil in him love for the military, the Soldier King gave Frederick – at the age of six – a regiment of 131 children to drill. The Crown Prince Cadets were reviewed by the visiting Russian Tsar and the King of England. When he was fourteen years old, he was put in charge of the giant Potsdam Grenadiers.

Frederick called his uniform his shroud. He craved a world beyond the parade ground yet conformed for fear of unleashing his father’s rages. On clear summer nights he escaped into the palace gardens and lay on his back on the damp grass beneath the stars. Once he spotted the Great Bear and, taking aim with a pistol, fired at the beast in his fury, imagining the shot travelling across the Milky Way to strike its flank.

Frederick began to find other worlds through books. With his tutor’s help he assembled in secret his own Wunderkammer, a rich library almost wholly in French. He sat for hours in his window seat memorising Aristotle, Rabelais and Bossuet. He lingered over a thin folio of courtly lyrics, written three centuries earlier by an unknown hand, and revelled in the literary joys of summer, love and young voices rising in song. He composed poetry as well as copious letters to family and friends. While overlooking the parading officers’ plumes and the Marienkirche, he also penned essays on armed aggression and the state of Europe. Germany was fatally divided into small states, he observed; the Thirty Years’ War had been its weakest moment; Russia was in perpetual chaos; England – though rich and happy – had produced no notable painter, sculptor or musician.

As the Soldier King shamed condemned prisoners by dressing them in French clothes at the gallows, his son dreamt of being a poet in Paris or a troubadour. Young Frederick hid away his love of the arts, marching to drum beats by day, practising the flute in his locked room at night.

At the age of fifteen he was deeply confused and frustrated. His heart burst with desire, his mind sparked with curiosity, yet his life was shaped by violence, rigidity and duty. His first foreign trip fed his hunger. He travelled with his father to Saxony, the wealthiest and most scandalous German state at the time. In Dresden Frederick enjoyed plays, opera and a woman. He became infatuated with the Countess Anna Karolina, who was both a daughter and a lover of their host Augustus the Strong. Augustus – who had no aversion to incest – collected beautiful women much as the Soldier King amassed marching giants. Over the course of his life he sired 355 children.

Augustus could not resist tempting the Soldier King and his love-struck son. During a tour of the palace, a curtain was drawn aside to reveal a waiting, naked courtesan. The Prussian King puffed and fussed and excused himself from the bedroom so Augustus, having observed the Crown Prince’s reaction, offered him the woman – in place of the Countess. Frederick may or may not have accepted the offer, but he did not give up Anna Karolina – at first.

On his return to Berlin Frederick found love of another kind. Hans Hermann von Katte was a young aristocrat, charming and handsome with high forehead and smooth, blond hair tied with a black bow. The two young men became inseparable and, like star-crossed lovers, hatched a plan to flee the barrack room for England. On the eve of their flight Katte stood on the threshold of Frederick’s bedchamber, his foot against the door as if to hold it open, their faces so close that they felt the other’s breath on their cheeks.

A wild white moon rode in the sky that night and the air felt fresh and free. But the young men were betrayed. In his fury the Soldier King imprisoned his son, and forced him to watch his friend beheaded. Death plucked love away and Frederick collapsed into a two-day faint, his soul seared by the trauma, empathy driven from his heart.


Frederick was said to like women only while taking his pleasure, afterwards he despised them. In 1733 he married Elisabeth-Christine of Brunswick-Bevern, a Protestant relative of the Habsburgs. He ‘paid his tribute to Hymen’ and then – with no heir forthcoming – detached himself from his wife, making only a single formal visit to her each year, for coffee.

All his closest confidants were male. After Katte’s execution he embraced his soldier servant Fredersdorf, who would serve him until his death. He befriended a debauched Scot named Keith, an Englishman called Guy Dickens and the flautist Quantz. The Venetian coxcomb Francesco Algarotti was an especial favourite. After his wedding Frederick had written to him, ‘My fate has changed – I await you with impatience – don’t leave me to languish.’ In private the Crown Prince draped himself in an embroidered velvet robe, ruffled his hair like a Gallic dilettante and played his flute for friends with tears in his eyes. None were blind to his need to be noticed, to his appetite for fame.

In a report to London the British ambassador called Frederick’s friends ‘the he-muses’, noting that females were banned from approaching his court. One night the Soldier King swooped on the clubby boys like a black bear, throwing their robes and volumes of romantic poetry onto the fire.

Music became Frederick’s other means of escape, enabling him to hold back the shadows, helping to fill the bitter emptiness in his heart. It also thawed his icy self-control and brought solace from his father’s unpredictable temper. The Soldier King’s disregard for the arts appalled him. Before his birth, court intellectuals had been dubbed ‘dog food’. A jester had been appointed to run the Berlin Academy, which was then closed to save money.

In 1740, when his father died, Frederick set about making Berlin a cockpit of ideas and music. He reopened the Academy, inviting the French philosopher Maupertuis to be its president. He extended the old Schloss to rival Versailles. He built an Opera House, redesigned the Tiergarten, ejecting its last squatters, and modelled the Gendarmenmarkt on Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, flanked by the graceful French and German cathedrals.

His crowning construction was Sanssouci, an intimate, pink and white rococo pleasure palace above Potsdam’s cascading terraces. He filled its colonnades and gilded halls with books, artefacts, dancers and thinkers. He walked his beloved Italian greyhounds in its stately grounds, seemingly at peace with the world. Every night at 10 p.m. there was a concert in the Round Room. One evening he and Bach made music together, the king giving him a theme and asking for its composition into a fugue in six parts. He invited Voltaire to take up residence in the study.

Voltaire was the master wit of the century. Since childhood Frederick had admired him, claiming to champion his humanist ideals, devouring his plays, novels and essays. The two men became correspondents. Frederick asked him to review his essays and erotic poems (‘The love which joins them heats their kisses,/And leaves them ever closer entwined./Heavenly lust! Ruler of the world!’). He tried to lure him to Berlin for more than a decade. In 1750 his persistence paid off, helped by the offer of an annual salary of 20,000 francs.

In the years before the French Revolution Voltaire believed that only an enlightened monarch could bring social change to Europe. His distrust of democracy, which he saw as propagating the idiocy of the masses, pleased his all-powerful host. Both men considered plebeians to be ‘crows’ that pecked at patrician ‘eagles’, to borrow from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. The common man needed to be kept in his place. Voltaire invested his political hopes in Frederick, moving to the capital, editing the king’s six-volume Art de la Guerre, dazzling Berlin’s dinner table conversation, debating questions of civil liberties late into the night.

Prussians looked forward to a new, enlightened age. They believed that Frederick was a man of peace, an intellectual, a lover of music and poetry. ‘Peace cannot fail to make art and science flourish’, he assured them. On his grand European tour Boswell wrote that Berlin ‘was the most beautiful city I have seen’.

But the capital was already a place where true identities were hidden behind masks. The young king was determined to use his inheritance ‘to acquire a reputation’, as he put it. His father had bequeathed him both a robust military and a cold, calculating heart. In his most ruthless and creative moment, he marched the country to war.


In those years Germany – ‘the battlefield on which the struggle for mastery of Europe is fought’, according to the philosopher Leibniz – was still a mishmash of more than 300 divided states and principalities. Prussia and Austria were its biggest rivals. When the old Habsburg emperor died leaving no male heir, Frederick spurred Berlin’s metamorphosis from prey to predator.

‘Having, as is well known, interests in Silesia, I propose to take charge of it and keep it for the rightful owner,’ he announced. He took Austria’s wealthiest province in seven weeks, twisting Prussia’s neurotic defensiveness into naked aggression. He seized its mines and wheat fields, abandoned his allies, shocked Europe with his gall.

He learnt the art of warfare on the hoof, leading brazen attacks, earning a reputation as the most fearless commander of the age. Risk-taking made up for his inexperience, as did his care for no one. Frederick was ‘full of fire … quick to pounce and take advantage of foibles … with no heart whatever,’ bemoaned a defeated general. ‘Your Majesty, do you want to take that battery on your own?’ an aide called to him as he led yet another cavalry charge, fighting as if he had nothing to lose.

On sleepless nights before an attack, for over twenty embattled years, Frederick soothed himself by composing poetry and reading Racine.

In 1756 the Austrians – joined by Russia and France – sought revenge and attempted to squash the treacherous upstart. Frederick answered them by seizing fickle Saxony and laying siege to Prague. He was beaten back, retreated to his books, then advanced again to Rossbach near Leipzig, where he inflicted another humiliating defeat on his enemies.

For a year the tide turned against him. Silesia changed hands, a vital convoy of 4,000 supply wagons was captured and Frederick had to borrow money from England (London wanted to keep the Continentals fighting among themselves to check French ambitions in North America). Tens of thousands of his troops were butchered on the battlefields, paying for his cold ambition with their limbs and lives. Advancing Russians terrorised East Prussia, tales of their appalling atrocities preceding them to the capital as they would at the end of the Second World War.

But in 1762 the Russian Tsarina died and – in what became known as a Miracle of the House of Brandenburg – her successor, mad Peter III, ordered his troops to change sides and put themselves under Frederick’s command. The Austrian alliance collapsed. The Habsburgs would never regain their lost territories. France surrendered the Rhineland to Frederick and Quebec to the British. Prussia, alone on the Continent, emerged victorious. As Voltaire wrote, the audacious Berliner changed the destiny of Europe.

On horseback Frederick circled the old walls, reluctant to enter the city, mortified by its ruin again. He skirted the deserted cattle market – once Berlin’s Tyburn and ‘devil’s pleasure park’, soon to be renamed Alexanderplatz after the Tsar’s grandson – and the walled gardens of Friedrichstadt. Along its wrecked streets he found only wretched orphans and gutted buildings. In the broad Achteck parade ground at the Potsdam Gate – where Potsdamer Platz would rise one day – a lone, pony-tailed, temple-shaved fire juggler spat plumes of flame into the air and begged for coins. ‘More fire, my lord?’ he called through blackened hands on seeing the king. ‘Do you want more fire?’

Frederick spiralled around the Fischerkiez’s broken boats and trampled gardens, by his dark Court Opera and the baroque Zeughaus artillery armoury, with its stone busts of agonised warriors, and into the Schloss courtyard, hardly lifting his head. War was ‘a cruel thing’, he wrote by candlelight in the cursed and battered palace. ‘Nobody who has not seen it with his own eyes can have any idea of it. I believe now that the only happy people on earth are those who love nobody.’

But what are the tears of heart-sick kings and widows if the state has been saved? he then asked in his essay Discours sur la Guerre. Frederick set about rebuilding his capital and nation. He gave 35,000 army horses to peasant farmers. He enticed skilled refugees to settle in the restored neighbourhoods. He commissioned new buildings with straight lines and in pure tones to emphasise order, precision and strength. To feed the growing population he encouraged the cultivation of potatoes, ordering that selected fields be planted with them, and sentries stationed around the perimeter. Word was spread that the potatoes were for the king’s table only, but the guards were told to ‘look through their fingers’ and not apprehend trespassers. With their hard-earned instinct for survival, his hungry, plebeian ‘crows’ stole into the fields, unearthed the royal tubers and replanted them on their own land.

Finally in league with Russia, Frederick resumed making war, pushing his territory beyond Silesia into Poland, eating its undefended provinces ‘like an artichoke, leaf by leaf’. By 1786 he linked Prussia’s scattered, conquered parts together into a unified state.

At the end of his life, with his tattered uniform patched and stained by snuff, Old Fritz was feared more than loved. Neither thunderstorm nor hailstorm was said to be as terrifying as the ‘honour’ of the king’s visit. He was isolated, alone and friendless, and no longer bothered with the pretence of humanism. Yet in their dread of disorder, in their fear of ever again being sucked into the vortex, Berliners allowed him – as other leaders before and after him – to direct and dominate their lives.


In 1806 – two decades after Frederick’s death – Napoleon captured Prussia’s capital, having destroyed its army at Jena and Auerstedt. Astride his white charger, the new emperor rode through the Brandenburg Gate, glowering from under his hat at the defeated Berliners. At the Garrison Church, he stood beside Frederick’s tomb. ‘Hats off, gentlemen,’ Napoleon told his fellow officers. ‘If he were still alive, we would not be here.’

The French Revolution had shattered the old hierarchical ways. The Ancien Régime had collapsed and its King Louis XVI had been executed. In most of Europe and America, citizens had rejected authoritarianism and put their faith in reason and progress.

But not in Berlin. German obedience – as well as faith in absolutism – had been fixed by the trauma of the Thirty Years’ War and by the egotistical Hohenzollerns. For all his learning and debates with Voltaire, and his lip-service to radical ideas, Frederick had isolated his country from the full flowering of the Enlightenment.

Frederick had created Prussia by binding together the disconnected Hohenzollern lands. As Napoleon’s troops stripped his palaces of their wealth, carrying away sculptures, paintings and a folio of medieval songs, passers-by heard the airs of a flute echo over Schlossplatz. Berliners remembered the lost king’s music and – humiliated by the French occupation – grew nostalgic for the old certainties. Then, instead of embracing tolerance and universal brotherhood, they filled the vacuum in their lives with nationalism. Frederick wrote:

Tadelt nie die Taten der Soldaten,

Leuten, die da sterben sollen,

Sollt ihr geben was sie wollen,

Lasst sie trinken, lasst sie küssen,

Denn wer weiß, wie bald sie sterben müssen.

Never criticise the acts of soldiers,

Those men who are destined to die,

Give them all that they wish,

Let them drink, let them kiss,

For who knows how soon they must die.

Poland – Fourteenth Century Reunification

Poland under Casimir the Great (1333–70)

The Polish duchies were able by and large to resist efforts to impose the vassalage and dependency that successive German emperors had tried to impose on the Polish lands – lands whose rulers had often welcomed that overlordship to advance their own interests. With the disintegration of political authority after the death of the emperor Henry VI in 1197, Germany began to slide into the same sort of fragmentation as Poland. When, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, bishop Vincent of Kraków was chronicling the mythical successes of the ancient Poles against the Roman emperors, he was not simply engaged in a flight of whimsy: he was asserting the independence of the Polish duchies, no matter how weak they may have been, against the claims of the ideological successors to the mantle of Roman imperial authority, the emperors of the German lands.

The road to even partial reunification was a tortuous one. In 1289, the nobles, knights and the bishop of Kraków chose as princeps Duke Bolesław II of Płock, in Masovia. Bolesław transferred his rights over the principate to his cousin, Władysław ‘the Short’ (Łokietek, literally ‘Elbow-High’), ruler of the little duchies of Łęczyca, Kujawy and Sieradz. This princely thug found that his penchant for brigandage won much support among knights and squires on the up. He was quite unacceptable in Kraków, whose townsmen handed over the capital to Henry IV Probus, the Honourable, duke of Wrocław/Breslau. It was Henry who took the first serious steps towards what would be so symbolically important for any reunification of the Polish lands. He began to negotiate with the papacy and with his patron, the emperor-elect Rudolf, for agreement to his coronation. Just before his childless death in June 1290 he bequeathed the duchy of Kraków to Duke Przemysł II of Wielkopolska. Przemysł was already suzerain of the port of Gdansk and of eastern Pomerania. On paper, he had a stronger territorial power-base than any of his predecessors for over a century. The idea of a crowned head was much more attractive to a more latinized Poland than it had been in the early Piast state. Archbishop Świnka was all in favour: the canonization in 1253 of Bishop Stanisław of Kraków, whose dismembered body had undergone a miraculous regrowth, provided an irresistible metaphor for Świnka’s aspirations. Przemysł’s only serious Polish rival was Łokietek, clinging on in the duchy of Sandomierz. Both men were, however, overshadowed by an ambitious and powerful foreign ruler, Vaclav II of Bohemia.

Vaclav was one of the Middle Ages’ most successful territorial stamp-collectors. His father, Přemysl Otakar II (1253–78) – Přemysl to his Slav subjects, Otakar to his Germans – had built up a glittering court at Prague. Bohemia’s mineral, commercial and agricultural wealth enabled him to support an ambitious programme of expansion, until his bid for leadership of the German Empire came to an abrupt end when he fell at the battle of Durnkrütt on 26 August 1278, against the closest he had to a German rival, Rudolf of Habsburg. The petty rulers of the dis-integrating Piast lands looked abroad for protection: one such focus of attraction was the Přemyslid court of Bohemia; the other was its rival, the Arpad court of Hungary. After the death of Henry Probus, Vaclav’s own ambition to acquire Kraków was abetted by the local barons and patricians. In terms of security, prestige and economic prospects, he offered far more than either Przemysł or Łokietek. Vaclav secured the crucial support of Małopolska by the Privilege of Litomyšl of 1291. He promised its clergy, knights, lords and towns the preservation of all their existing rights, immunities and jurisdictions; he would impose no new taxes on them and fill all existing offices from their ranks. Łokietek’s position collapsed. His unruly soldiery and knightly followers spread alienation everywhere they went. By 1294, he had not only to sue for peace but to receive his own remaining lands back from Vaclav as a fief. It may have been to pre-empt the almost certain coronation of Vaclav that Archbishop Świnka persuaded the pope to consent to Przemysł II’s coronation in Gniezno cathedral on 26 June 1295. The machinations behind this decision are as obscure as anything in Polish history; nor is it clear whether Przemysł regarded himself as ruler of the whole of Poland, or just of Wielkopolska and eastern Pomerania. He did not survive long enough to test his real support. In February 1296 he was murdered, almost certainly on the orders of the margraves of Brandenburg, whose territorial ambitions were blocked by the new king’s lands. He left Poland one enduring bequest, in the shape of the crowned eagle which he adopted as the emblem of his new state.

The nobles of Wielkopolska opted at first for Łokietek as his successor – but his continued inability to control his own men, his readiness to carve up Przemysł’s kingdom with other petty dukes, and a military offensive from Brandenburg drastically eroded his support. In 1299, he once again acknowledged Vaclav as overlord. Even Archbishop Świnka, conscious that the Kraków clergy were behind Vaclav, accepted the inevitable. In September 1300 he crowned him king – although he could not refrain from complaining at the ‘doghead’ of a priest who delivered the coronation sermon in German.

Unity, of a kind, was restored. Łokietek was forced into exile. His quest for support took him as far as Rome, where he won the backing of Pope Boniface VIII, hostile to the Přemyslids. Vaclav’s last serious opponent, Henry, duke of Głogów/Glogau (1273–1309), nephew of Henry Probus, recognized his suzerainty in 1303. Much of Poland, however, remained under the rule of territorial dukes. Vaclav’s direct authority covered mainly Kraków–Sandomierz, Wielkopolska and eastern Pomerania. He left an enduring administrative legacy in the office of starosta (literally ‘elder’). Its holders acted as viceroys in and administrators of royal estates, although his preference for Czechs in this role provoked growing resentment. To Vaclav, of course, the Polish lands were simply a subordinate part of a greater Přemyslid monarchy. Polish reunification for its own sake was of little interest to him.

In January 1301, King Andrew III of Hungary died, leaving no male heirs. Vaclav found the temptation irresistible. His attempts to impose his 11-year-old son, another Vaclav, on Hungary and, in the process, massively expand Přemyslid power, were too much for the Hungarians, the papacy, Albrecht of Habsburg and the rulers of south Germany. By 1304 a Hungarian–German coalition had been formed. To gain the support of the margraves of Brandenburg, Vaclav promised to hand over to them eastern Pomerania and the port city of Gdańsk. His supporters in Wielkopolska, already seething at the harsh rule of Czech starostowie, could not accept this. Early in 1305, revolt shook the southern part of the province. Those not reconciled to Czech rule would have preferred to turn to Henry, duke of Głogów. Vaclav’s Hungarian and German enemies declared for his exiled rival, Łokietek. Hungarian forces supporting Charles Robert of Anjou’s bid for their throne helped Łokietek seize control of almost all the territories of Małopolska, except for Kraków itself. Vaclav II made peace with the coalition, just before he died on 21 June 1305. He agreed to withdraw from Hungary. But to keep the margraves of Brandenburg on his side, the young Vaclav III renewed his father’s undertaking to cede Gdańsk and Pomerania and prepared to enter Poland at the head of an army. If Vaclav had not been murdered at the instigation of discontented Czech lords on 4 August 1306, he and Łokietek might well have divided the Polish territories between themselves. Instead, Bohemia was plunged into rivalries over the succession, until the election of John of Luxemburg in 1310. In Poland, although the townsmen of Kraków reconciled themselves to Łokietek, most of Wielkopolska preferred to recognize Henry of Głogów.

In 1307, disaster struck Łokietek in Pomerania. The German patriciates of the two chief towns, Tczew and Gdańsk, gravitated towards the margraves of Brandenburg; the Polish knighthood of the countryside remained loyal to Łokietek. In August 1308, the castle of Gdańsk was besieged by the troops of margraves Otto and Waldemar. Łokietek called on the help of the Teutonic Knights. The arrival of their forces lifted the siege of the castle – which on the night of 14 November they proceeded to seize for themselves, massacring Łokietek’s men in the process. By the end of 1311, most of Polish Pomerania was in the Knights’ hands.

Founded in the late twelfth century as an offshoot of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, just in time to be forced out by Islam’s counter-attack against the Crusader states of the Middle East, the Teutonic Knights had relocated their military-proselytizing operations to Hungary and Transylvania. King Andrew II threw them out once their ambitions to carve out their own independent state revealed themselves. In 1227, Conrad I, duke of Masovia, settled them in the county of Chełmno on the Vistula in order to defend his eastern borders against the pagan tribes of Prussia, while he devoted himself to feuding with his Piast relatives and meddling in the politics of the Rus’ principalities. Backed by emperors and popes (the Knights proved adept at playing one off against the other), patronized by the rulers and knighthood of Christian Europe (not least by individual Piast princes), they built up a de facto independence. Their most enthusiastic supporters included Přemysl Otakar II (in whose honour they named the new port of Königsberg in 1255), Vaclav II and John of Bohemia. By the late 1270s, they had subdued the Prussian tribes; they could embark on the process of colonization which gave the area its Germanic character for almost 700 years. The Order was also able – precisely because it was a religious organization, bound by a rule, dedicated to the higher goal of the spread of the Catholic faith and the conversion of the heathen – to organize its territories on lines very different from those of contemporary medieval territories. The Order represented the impersonal state – something higher than a dynastic or patrimonial entity. The command structures of what has come to be known as the Ordensstaat were less subject to the whims and favouritisms of individual monarchs. Its Grand Masters were elected from the tried and the tested by an inner circle of superiors who had shown how to combine prayer and aggression, faith and brutality. They and their fellow northern-Crusaders, the Knights of the Sword further along the Baltic coast, in what are now Latvia and Estonia, could suffer setbacks, but, constantly renewed by fresh recruits and enthusiastic part-timers, they could always rise above them. The actual fighting monks, the German Knights of the Blessed Virgin, were, however, few in numbers – this was their weakness. Control of Gdańsk and its hinterland permitted a steady flow of settlers, soldiers, recruits and allies from the German lands. In 1309 the Grand Master, Conrad von Feuchtwangen, moved his principal headquarters from Venice to Marienburg (now Malbork) on the lower Vistula. This was the Ordensstaat’s new capital, rapidly built up into one of the most formidable fortified complexes of medieval Europe, a mirror of the Knights’ power and pride. The fragile entity ruled by Łokietek and his successors could do little more than rail and complain at the Order’s perfidy and brutality – but its rulers could not subdue what they had nurtured.

Łokietek had no realistic hopes of recovering Pomerania. Most of Wielkopolska remained alienated. The dukes of Masovia mistrusted him. In May 1311, only Hungarian help enabled him to subdue a major revolt of German townsfolk in Kraków. Poles replaced Germans in key positions on the town council, Latin replaced German as the official language of town records. True, it was not many years before German burghers and merchants regained their old influence, but the town itself ceased to be the political force it once had been. The repression did little to enhance Łokietek’s appeal to townsmen elsewhere.

In 1309, his rival in Wielkopolska, Duke Henry of Głogów died, leaving five young sons, all more German than Polish. The knights preferred Łokietek to fragmentation and German rule, but it was not until the submission of the town of Poznań in November 1314 that serious opposition was eliminated. In control of Wielkopolska and Kraków, Łokietek could realistically aspire to the royal dignity – were it not for the rival claims of the new king of Bohemia, John of Luxemburg, who had cheerfully taken over the claims of his Přemyslid predecessors. Most of the Silesian and Masovian dukes looked to him. Brandenburg and the Teutonic Knights endorsed him as the supposed heir of the Vaclavs in Poland, in the expectation of satisfying their own titles and claims. Pope John XXII, whose approval was necessary to a coronation in what was technically a papal fief, was reluctant to offend either party. He gave his consent in terms so ambiguous as to suggest that he considered both men to have a legitimate royal title. When Łokietek’s coronation did finally take place on 20 January 1320, it was not in Gniezno but, for the first time, in Kraków. The new venue was dictated not only by a recognition of the greater economic importance of the southern provinces but by a tacit acknowledgement of the still limited extent of Łokietek’s territorial support. He controlled less than half of the territory which Bolesław Wrymouth had ruled: Wielkopolska in the west, Kraków and Sandomierz in the south, the two regions linked in the central Polish lands by his own duchies of Łęczyca and Sieradz. Łokietek was more king of Kraków than king of Poland. He was fortunate that John of Bohemia had his own difficulties with the Czech nobility.

Łokietek sought security through marriage alliances: in 1320, he cemented his long-standing alliance with the Angevins of Hungary when his daughter Elizabeth (1305–80) married King Charles Robert (1308–42). In 1325, the king secured his son’s marriage to Aldona (d. 1339), daughter of the Lithuanian prince Gediminas – at the cost of driving the Masovian dukes, perpetually feuding over their eastern borderlands with the Lithuanians, into an alliance with the Ordensstaat. His only recourse against the Knights lay in persuading the papacy to issue legal pronouncements enjoining them to restore Pomerania. Such pronouncements (never definitive) were indeed made, but the Knights paid no attention. John of Bohemia prepared, in 1327, to attack Kraków – and had he not been kept in check by Charles Robert from Hungary, Łokietek’s monarchy might not have survived. Most of the dukes of southern Silesia declared themselves John’s vassals. Łokietek’s offensive against Duke Wacław (1313–36) of Płock only precipitated incursions by his allies, Brandenburg and the Knights. Łokietek bought Brandenburg off in 1329 with the county of Lubusz (Lebus), at the confluence of the Warta and the Oder. In the winter of 1328–9, John of Luxemburg and the Knights undertook a ‘crusade’ against Łokietek’s Lithuanian allies. The Polish military diversion into the county of Chełmno backfired: John and the Knights conquered the northern Polish territory of Dobrzyń, which John, by virtue of his claims to the Polish throne, generously awarded to the Knights. Duke Wacław of Płock declared himself to be his vassal. So did most of the remaining Silesian dukes.

The Knights followed up with an offensive into Wielkopolska in July 1331. They comprehensively sacked Gniezno, although, as a religious order, they felt it politic to spare the cathedral. On 27 September, the Polish and Teutonic armies met at Płowce. The battle lasted most of the day; if, on balance, this pyrrhic encounter was a Polish victory, it resolved nothing. It marked the limit of Łokietek’s military endeavour. The king could raid, but not reconquer; above all, he lacked the resources and the organization to take on the Knights’ strongholds. Had John of Luxemburg also invaded – as he had promised the Knights – Płowce might have been even more irrelevant than it was. In 1332, the Knights more than made up for Płowce by occupying Łokietek’s old patrimonial duchy of Kujawy. In August, he had to agree to a truce which left them in possession of all their recent gains. Through sheer, murderous persistence, he had semi-reunited Poland. But at his death, on 2 March 1333, he left an even smaller kingdom than the one which had acknowledged him at his coronation in 1320. His successor, Casimir III, began his reign by renewing the truce with the Teutonic Knights.

Domestically, Poland needed stability, which could only come about by strengthening royal authority. Externally, the new king had not only to resolve relations with the Ordensstaat and the House of Luxemburg, he had to deal with a power vacuum on Poland’s south-east borders, which threatened to embroil him with the Tatars and with Lithuania. Poland continued to lie in the shadow of the Hungarian Angevins, first, of Casimir’s brother-in-law, Charles I Robert, and then his nephew Louis the Great (1342–82), both of whom had their own designs on the Polish throne. The realm, the ‘Crown’ as it was styled by his jurists – Corona Regni Poloniae – that Casimir ruled, a narrow and irregular lozenge of territory, spilled from north-west to south-east on either side of the Vistula; with probably fewer than 800,000 inhabitants, it contained less than half the territories and population that might plausibly have been called Polish. Against the Knights, Casimir was largely on his own. The Angevins wanted good relations with them in their own struggles against the Wittelsbachs and the Luxemburgs. Poland was to be kept in its subordinate place. The treaty of Kalisz of 8 July 1343 was a ‘compromise’ which benefited the Knights. They restored the vulnerable border territories of Dobrzyń and Kujawy lost by Łokietek, but kept what they really wanted – Gdańsk and Pomerania. Casimir also had to face up to the loss of Silesia. In 1348, John of Bohemia’s successor and heir-elect to the Empire (he was to succeed Louis the Bavarian in 1349), Charles IV, decreed its incorporation into the kingdom of Bohemia. He even contemplated the incorporation of the duchies of Płock and Masovia, by virtue of the claims he had inherited from the Vaclavs and his father. With only faltering support from Louis of Hungary and with a storm brewing in the south-east, Casimir resigned himself. By the treaty of Namysłów (Namslau) of 22 November 1348, he abandoned his claims to the Silesian principalities. There was some consolation in the north-east, where in 1355, Duke Ziemowit III (1341–70), who succeeded in reuniting (albeit briefly) most of the Masovian lands, acknowledged Casimir’s overlordship. He stipulated, however, that the preservation of the relationship after Casimir’s death was contingent on the king’s siring a legitimate male heir.

The troubled situation in the south-east, in the lands of Rus’, helps explain Casimir’s retreat in the west. After the reign of Yaroslav I the Wise (1019–54), the once-great principality of Kiev had undergone its own dynastic fragmentation. The Mongol onslaughts of 1237–40 had savaged these lands far more viciously than Poland. The successor-states of Kievan Rus’ were largely reduced to tributaries of the Golden Horde, established in the Eurasian steppes. The continued raids of the Mongols, or Tatars as they were widely known, carried them periodically into Polish territory. In 1340, Bolesław-Iurii, the childless ruler of the two westernmost principalities of Halych and Vladimir, and a scion of the Masovian Piasts, was poisoned by his leading boyar-advisers, thoroughly alienated by his open contempt for them and his over-enthusiastic support for Roman Catholicism.

No credible claimant to Halych-Vladimir emerged from among the other Rus’ princes. Casimir seized the moment. These fertile Rus’ principalities, straddling the great east–west overland trade route from Germany to the Black Sea, offered pleasing prospects of enriching both the nobility of southern Poland and the merchants of Kraków. They could serve as a buffer zone against Tatar raids. They offered some compensation for the lands renounced in the west and north. They also aroused the appetite of Lithuania and the Hungarian Angevins. If Casimir did not annex them, others would. His invasion of 1340 may have been prompted by the very real fear that the Tatars would impose their direct rule in the ‘regnum Galiciae et Lodomeriae’, the ‘kingdom of Halych and Vladimir’.

It took twenty years of intermittent struggle to impose even partial Polish authority. The Lithuanians established themselves in the north. Casimir satisfied himself with acknowledgement of his suzerainty by Lithuanian princelings. Casimir held the south, centred on the town of L’viv (Lwów/Lvov/Lemberg). But even here he owed his position to Hungarian support. Poland’s Rus’ lands remained separate from the rest of the Crown: in return for Louis of Hungary’s assistance in their subjugation, Casimir agreed in 1350 that they would pass to him on his demise. Divisions in Lithuania, where Duke Gediminas’ seven sons quarrelled among themselves after his death in 1341, worked to Casimir’s advantage. Even the Black Death helped: it left a sparsely populated Poland largely unscathed, but in 1346 it devastated the Golden Horde. Despite all this, the venture cost Casimir dear. In 1352, to raise money for his war effort, he plundered the archiepiscopal treasury in Gniezno. He borrowed from all and sundry, even from the Teutonic Knights, to whom he assigned the county of Dobrzyń as security. Impoverished Dobrzyń could scarcely begin to compare with Rus’ potential prosperity.

Casimir’s principal achievement was to restore strong monarchic rule at home, within the narrow limits open to any medieval ruler. His deliberate patronage of talented lay and ecclesiastical advisers from southern Poland, the advancement of their careers by service on the royal council, created a generation of new men, ready to aid and abet fresh fiscal and administrative initiatives. The king was more aware than his predecessors of the value of more formal means of government. In 1364, he set up, in Kraków, a partial university or studium generale, teaching mainly law, with some medicine and astronomy (the papacy would not agree to instruction in theology). The new institution above all aimed at producing the jurists and lawyers increasingly indispensable to the government of a self-respecting monarchy. Casimir introduced written regulation of judicial procedure and criminal law. In the 1360s, he began to widen the bases of his support to Wielkopolska. He never sought to put an end to the established divisions and differences between his two chief provinces, but instead played their elites off against each other. An extensive programme of revindication of usurped royal lands, often by arbitrary royal fiat, recovered hundreds of properties, though it led to revolt in Wielkopolska in 1352. Casimir made some tactical concessions. In 1360, after the troubles had died down, the revolt’s leader, Maćko Borkowic, was arrested, chained in a dungeon and starved to death, though it seems that his involvement with local brigandage rather than his political past was more responsible – not so much a royal act of revenge as a warning to powerful men not to get above themselves.

It may be that Casimir wished to build up new elements on which he could base royal power. For the first time, the non-knightly administrators of peasant villages, the wójtowie and sołtysi, were expected to turn out in their own right on military campaigns. His confiscational programme was matched by an extensive settlement of peasants under ‘German law’ on royal domain. The king encouraged Jewish settlement, mainly of Ashkenazim from the Empire. While the same baggage of prejudices and misconceptions found across Christendom was reflected in Poland, it was clearly not enough to put a stop to such immigration. He took a Jewish mistress. And although the merchants and guilds of many towns, fearful of competition, secured bans on Jewish residence inside the town walls, they were almost invariably able to settle in the suburbs or in privileged enclaves beyond municipal jurisdiction. Whatever reservations his Christian subjects had about them (and there were occasional anti-Jewish riots), Casimir appreciated that they represented an invaluable asset. The 1338 coinage reform helped boost the circulation of small-denominational silver monies. All this, combined with a flourishing north–south and west–east trade, with Kraków at its crossroads, enabled Casimir successfully to pursue a harsh fiscality. He subjected peasant holdings on lay and ecclesiastical estates to an annual land (‘plough’, poradlne) tax of 12 groszy per łan (about 18.5 hectares). Only land worked directly for the lords was exempt. Such taxation, combined with a reform of the administration of the lucrative royal salt-mines at Bochnia and Wieliczka, first exploited in 1251, enabled him to finance a major defence and reconstruction programme. He built some fifty castles across Poland, and provided twenty-seven towns with new curtain walls (or, rather, they did so on his orders). It was enough to contain the incursions of the Tatars and the ever more frequent raids of the Lithuanians; but none of Casimir’s new fortresses could match the Teutonic Knights’ defensive marvel at Marienburg. The Kraków patriciate was kept sweet by the king’s successful commercial policies and by the enhanced prestige it enjoyed from his ban on all municipal appeals to Magdeburg: two appellate urban courts were set up in the capital.

For all the difficulties that Casimir experienced in Halych-Rus’, it was in his reign that the processes took off which were to give the area its variegated ethnic character for almost the next six centuries. The campaigning devastated the countryside; but the area’s fertility made it a magnet for the dispossessed, impoverished and adventurous from all over Poland and beyond. The boyar aristocrats of the area either died out during the wars or preferred to migrate to Rus’ lands under Lithuanian lordship: the surviving lesser nobility was in no shape to stand up to the influx of immigrants. The great trading centre of L’viv continued to attract a vigorous mix of settlers. Germans formed the largest number of incomers, then Poles and Czechs – though by the end of the fifteenth century, most of these elements were to be polonized and L’viv/Lwów itself became something of a Polish island in a sea of Rus’, Orthodox peasantry. The first Jews established themselves in 1356, alongside a thriving Armenian community. During Casimir’s last years and over the next decades, petty and not-so-petty Polish nobles were granted extensive land rights in the area. Casimir and his successors preferred to govern through an alien, non-boyar, non-Orthodox class on whose loyalty they could rely. The process was made easier in that even the Rurikid princes of Halych-Rus’ had shown considerable interest in accepting union with the Latin Church, as a channel for securing help against the Mongols. The petty Orthodox boyars who clung on, loaded with service obligations, uncompensated by any rights or liberties on the Polish or Hungarian models, found that polonization and Catholicization offered the easiest route to preserving and advancing their status and fortunes. It was in these lands of western Rus’ that the process of the separation and alienation of the elites from the mass of the local population first began and proceeded furthest.

Casimir’s greatest failing was dynastic. He had four wives: the first, Aldona-Anna of Lithuania, produced two daughters. The second, Adelaide of Hesse, was pious, unexciting and possibly barren. Casimir despised her and ensured that she spent a miserable marriage confined in remote castles until a divorce came through around 1356 – in scandalous circumstances. The king’s lust for Krystyna, the widow of a patrician of Prague, got the better of him. He contracted a bigamous marriage with her even before his divorce from poor Adelaide. No children were produced. In a race against time, he put Krystyna aside to marry, in 1363, Jadwiga, daughter of Duke Henry of Żagań Four children followed – all girls. Casimir could not produce legitimate sons. He may, nevertheless, have had second thoughts about letting the Angevins get their hands on his lands. In 1368 he adopted as his heir his grandson Kaźko, heir to the duchy of Słupsk in Pomerania. Days before his death on 5 November 1370, he bequeathed his patrimony of Łęczyca, Sieradz and Kujawy to Kaźko. The Rus’ lands, Wielkopolska and the territories around Kraków and Sandomierz were to pass to Louis of Hungary. Casimir had clearly not shaken off the sense that this was a family, patrimonial monarchy, ultimately his and his alone to dispose of. But this was not a view shared by the lawyers, clergy and barons who had helped him rule. His thirtyseven-year reign had persuaded them that their political arena was more than a local or regional one: that the ‘Crown’, the Corona Regni Poloniae, was a real political entity that had to be preserved. A freshly divided Poland was unlikely to hold on to the potential riches of the hard-won Rus’ lands. At the same time these notables had an unmissable opportunity to return to the politics their predecessors had practised at the height of Poland’s fragmentation, of playing off one potential ruler against another, albeit now on a scale that went beyond Poland’s borders. The county court of Sandomierz ruled the will invalid. Kaźko settled for compensation in the shape of the county of Dobrzyń, to be redeemed from the Knights, as a fief to be held of Louis of Hungary, who was to inherit the Crown.

Even in his own lifetime, Casimir III’s attainment of a relative peace and prosperity, his legal and administrative reforms earned him the title ‘the Great’ (the only Polish monarch so honoured). Yet Poland remained a lesser power, too weak to assert its claims to its old territories in the west and north. Casimir probably did as much as could have been done with some unpromising materials. For better or worse, he paved the way for a new course of eastwards expansion. He restored strong monarchic rule, although nothing that he did could compensate for the lack of a legitimate son.

Whatever the vagaries of Casimir’s policies, he had been a strong, at times even brutal, ruler. The nobility had good reasons for welcoming Louis’ accession. An absentee king (he ruled in Poland largely through his mother, Casimir’s sister, Elizabeth) would almost inevitably be less demanding. He had made promising concessions in return for acceptance of his succession. In 1355, by the Privilege of Buda, Louis had solemnly assured the nobility and clergy that he would exempt them from any new taxation. His uncertain health, and the gratifying inability he shared with Casimir to father sons, opened up even more favourable prospects. In 1374, the nobility agreed that he could designate one of his three daughters as successor in Poland. In return, from Košice in northern Hungary, Louis promulgated a Privilege, reducing in perpetuity the poradlne tax paid by peasants on noble and knightly estates from 12 to 2 groszy per łan. He went on to promise that he would pay his knights for any military service beyond Poland’s borders. In 1381, he extended these provisions to the clergy.

In retrospect, these concessions can be viewed as the beginning of a linear process which was to give the nobility a dominant and domineering position within the state. At the time, they were more an attempt to secure protection against royal fiscal arbitrariness. The ‘nobility’ were the beneficiaries because they held a nearmonopoly of military force. But the Polish ‘nobles’ at this time were simply all those who held land carrying the obligation – even if it was in many cases notional, rather than real – of performing military service. Those affected ranged from lords of the royal council to backwoods squires barely able to afford a horse and military accoutrement. The driving force consisted of a core of some twenty families, most of whom had risen under Casimir III and were determined not to lose their standing in the state. These were the primary beneficiaries of the Privileges of Buda and Kosice. That their lesser fellow-rycerze also gained was a useful bonus which enabled the great families to build up followings and clienteles – it was to be at least another century before these junior knights/nobles became a serious political force in their own right. Louis’ Privileges also applied to the townsmen – their existing rights were confirmed – but they enjoyed only local and ad hoc concessions, grants and favours. The towns, divided by commercial rivalries, failed to show a common front. Members of the Kraków patriciate, who might even sit on the royal council, were concerned only with the well-being of their own city, not that of other towns; in any case, they could reasonably aspire to a niche among the aristocratic core. The clergy followed on the coat-tails of the ‘communitas nobilium’.

While Louis accepted that he had to make concessions in order to secure the throne for his daughters, like Vaclav II barely two generations previously, he felt no compunction at truncating Polish territory. In 1377 he incorporated Polish Rus’ into Hungary, a step already agreed on with Casimir and made easier by its separate status of a royal dominium. He confirmed the cession of Silesia to the Luxemburgs. He transferred disputed border territories to Brandenburg. These measures and the behaviour of Hungarian officials caused immense resentment, culminating in the massacre of dozens of Hungarian courtiers during riots in Kraków in 1376. In 1380, Louis judged it prudent to relinquish rule in Poland to a caucus of Małopolska potentates, which did nothing for his wavering support in Wielkopolska. When he died, in September 1382, the question of the succession was almost as vexed as ever. The Polish elites had promised to accept his daughter, Maria – but jibbed when Louis, in an attempt to unite the Angevin and Luxemburg houses, insisted that she should marry the unpopular Sigismund of Luxemburg. The Hungarians compromised and suggested that a younger daughter, Jadwiga (she was barely 10 years old), could be substituted. Małopolska agreed, but Wielkopolska wanted Duke Ziemowit IV of Płock as king. Angevin support in the south proved too strong for him. The entry of pro-Jadwiga troops obliged Ziemowit to withdraw.

Wielkopolska’s leaders were prepared to accept Jadwiga if her long-standing betrothal to Wilhelm of Habsburg could be broken off in favour of Ziemowit. She was crowned ‘king’ (this was not an age which discarded law and custom lightly) in Kraków on 15 October 1384. The southern lords had little truck with Wielkopolska’s provincialism. They, too, could play the dynastic card as well as any Luxemburg or Angevin. Jadwiga’s engagement was broken off – not in favour of Ziemowit, but of the illiterate heathen, Jogaila, ruler of Lithuania. At Kreva, in Lithuania, on 14 August 1385, Jogaila confirmed a deal his representatives had struck with Louis’ widow, the queen-dowager Elizabeth, and with Małopolska’s lords: he and his Lithuanian subjects would convert to Catholicism; he would marry Jadwiga, provide money to pay off the disappointed Wilhelm of Habsburg and annex to Poland his vast principality, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Małopolska’s elite had embarked on a spectacular exercise in corporate dynasticism, well worth the price of a 12-year-old’s feelings. Former Piast Poland stood on the threshold of a bizarre and unexpected new career.

The Magnificent Devil – Richard III – first attempt at a Norman conquest

The death of a medieval ruler was always an invitation to chaos, but Richard had made excellent preparations for his succession. There was no shortage of available heirs to choose from since the late duke had two brothers and five sons. The eldest son, Richard III, was the obvious choice, and was groomed from the start. When his father died, he was thirty years old, popular, battle-tested, and, most importantly, he already had a son to ensure the next generation of dukes. The various other uncles and siblings were bought off with extensive states around Normandy, and everybody was perfectly content to settle down and enjoy their new arrangements.  

The only one unhappy with the new situation was Richard III’s younger brother, Robert, who, at seventeen was cocky, energetic, and absolutely convinced that he should be the one in charge. His share of the inheritance was an estate in central Normandy focused around a castle in Falaise, and from the security of these walls he loudly announced his fitness to rule to anyone that would listen. When neither of his uncles showed the slightest interest in backing him, he decided to revolt anyway, and started ravaging his way through the countryside.  

Richard III was in no mood to take any abuse from his little brother and he swept into Falaise at the head of his army, forcing Robert to go scampering back to his castle. To the latter’s horror, Richard then produced siege engines and methodically reduced its defenses. Robert was forced to make a humiliating public act of submission, and returned chastened to Falaise to rebuild his favorite castle.  

Richard’s triumph over his brother set the stage for an even greater diplomatic coup. The king of France had an infant daughter, and as a mark of Richard’s preeminent status, she was betrothed to him, but just as the young duke was making preparations for his wedding, he fell ill and died. Poison was immediately suspected as the cause of his death, and, although no one was foolish enough to say it to his face, everyone suspected Robert. His aspirations were well known, and his behavior hardly broadcast innocence. Almost before his brother’s body was cold, Robert had moved into the palace and shipped Richard’s young son off to a monastery to keep him safely out of the way.  

The incident (not altogether fairly) earned the new duke the nickname Robert the Devil. Medieval society was notoriously susceptible to diseases, any number of which could strike without warning, but to the medieval mind, sudden death was among the most terrifying of fates. A sudden death meant that there was no time for preparations, confession, or ritual, leaving the victim unprepared for the terrible Day of Judgment. So awful was this demise that a particularly vicious medieval curse was ‘May you die without warning!’ When one of the powerful met their end unexpectedly, the suspicion was that such a thing couldn’t have occurred naturally. The explanation usually depended on an individual’s popularity. Corrupt or wicked rulers were struck low by the divine hand, while the promising were invariably poisoned.  

Robert may have stood to benefit the most from his brother’s death, perhaps he even wanted him dead, but that’s hardly an airtight case for poisoning. His actions in seizing the duchy could be attributed to ambition and pragmatism as much as guilt, and by moving quickly and firmly he had undoubtedly prevented further bloodshed. Furthermore, although his reputation was certainly damaged, and rumors of his use of poison dogged him for the rest of his life, no one – not even Richard III’s cloistered son Nicholas – seemed to have a problem with Robert taking control. As a later Norman historian blandly summed it up ‘Robert was given the duchy by hereditary right’.  

It was one thing to gain power, however, and quite another to rule. Robert had taken every opportunity he could to encourage the aristocracy to stir up trouble against his brother, and now he was plagued by rebellious nobles. Unauthorized castles started popping up and church lands were confiscated, but he was too busy punishing those who had failed to support him from the start to do anything about it. His uncle, who also happened to be the archbishop of Rouen, had failed to rush to his side in his first revolt and now the time had come for a little payback. Marching into his protesting uncle’s territory, the duke unceremoniously expelled him from Normandy, and confiscated his property. Encouraged by this easy victory, Robert next turned on his cousin, the Bishop of Bayeux, sending another hapless relative into exile.  

This seizure of Church property didn’t go unnoticed by the pope in Rome, where Robert’s banished uncle, the archbishop, was arguing for all of Normandy to be put under interdict, a case that was strengthened by the duke’s behavior. Protesting clergy were continually ignored and sent packing, and word of their suffering eventually trickled down to Rome. Finally the pope acted and Robert was excommunicated. 

The duke was cut off from the sacrament, forbidden from receiving remission of his sins. If he died under the sentence he would be prohibited from being buried in consecrated land, and his bones would be doomed to molder outside the blessings of the church. The excommunicate was an outcast from society; all feudal bonds of loyalty were dissolved. Nobles no longer needed to obey the command of an outcast duke, and any that gave him shelter ran the risk of bringing the church’s condemnation upon themselves. 

News of the dreadful sentence was brought to the duke in Falaise where he was staying in his favorite castle, but he was too distracted to pay much attention. He had just met an extraordinary woman named Herlève.  

The daughter of a tanner, Herlève was spotted by Robert while he was walking on the roof of his castle. Legend has it that she was assisting her father by walking barefoot on the garments that were being dyed, holding her dress up to keep it clean. When she noticed the duke’s attention she coyly lifted her skirts a bit higher, dazzling Robert with a view of her legs. Smitten, the duke ordered one of his men to quietly fetch her, instructing him to bring her through the back door directly to his chambers. Herlève, however, announced that she would either come proudly through the front gate or not at all. The obsessed duke caved in and Herlève rode proudly up to the castle on a white horse, dressed in her finest clothes. If she was going to be the duke’s mistress, then she would be his only one, and make sure that everyone knew it. Nine months later she presented Robert with a son, and the pleased father named him William after the second duke of Normandy.  

The difference in their social status made a marriage impossible, and Robert soon found himself under enormous pressure to marry her off to someone else and cease his association with her. A century earlier, a mistress wouldn’t have been a problem, but the slow reform of the Church that his father and grandfather had encouraged had begun to reshape the morals of Normandy. Even more serious than this, however, was Robert’s excommunication. Every day that passed endangered his mortal soul and even the hotheaded duke couldn’t shrug off such pressure forever. Swallowing his pride, he recalled his uncle, the archbishop, and restored his property and land.  

The move was the great turning point of his reign. Like Shakespeare’s young Prince Hal, his reckless days were over, and he was determined to acquit himself as a proper duke. Herlève was provided with a husband, Church property that had been seized was returned, and an attempt was made to force various lawless magnates to do likewise. The great religious houses in Normandy, especially Fécamp, were endowed at his personal expense, and placed under his protection.  

The nobility resisted any attempts at centralization, but Robert kept them occupied by a vigorous foreign policy. When the Count of Flanders was exiled by his own son, Robert took advantage of the chaos to invade his neighbor, ostensibly to restore the old count, but in reality to extend his influence. The following year, Brittany threatened Mont St-Michel and Robert repeated the same tactics, forcing Brittany’s count to publicly acknowledge his vassal status. In 1033 a palace coup sent the young French king, Henry I, into exile and handed Robert a golden opportunity to extend Normandy’s reach. Henry fled to Fécamp, home of his most robust supporter, and requested the duke’s help. An army was quickly mobilized and Robert swept towards Paris, crushing the rebel forces and restoring Henry to his throne.  

The same year that saw Robert play kingmaker on the continent also brought opportunities across the English Channel. The duke had close ties with the Anglo-Saxon royal family; his aunt Emma had married the English king, and her two sons, Alfred and Edward, were just slightly older than Robert. During Duke Richard II’s reign, a Viking named Cnut had seized the kingdom, sending the three royals into exile in Normandy. They weren’t together for long. Emma, ever the survivor, had returned to England to marry Cnut, abandoning her two sons to survive as best they could.  

Duke Robert’s cautious father had been somewhat indifferent to his English nephew’s fate, but Robert was closer in age and moved by his cousin’s plight. With his characteristic flair he began to refer to the older sibling Edward as ‘King of the English’, and made the awkward demand that Cnut provide money for their upkeep. When Cnut laughed it off – he was hardly going to provide accommodations for a rival to his own throne – Robert followed up his threat by launching an invasion fleet.  

This first attempt at a Norman conquest was more ad hoc than carefully executed. The fleet set sail in 1033 but ran into a storm and was quickly blown off course, landing further along the French coast in the middle of Brittany. Not one to waste the opportunity, Robert disembarked and led a quick raid through his neighbor’s territory.  

By the winter of 1034, Robert was twenty-five-years old and the most powerful magnate in France. He had corralled his vassals, dominated his neighbors, threatened one king and placed another on his throne – quite an accomplishment for a reckless younger son. He was at the height of his powers and appeared poised to become one of Normandy’s strongest dukes. Then, at his Christmas court, he shocked everyone by naming his eight-year-old illegitimate son, William, as his heir, and announcing that he was leaving for Jerusalem.  

There were the inevitable scandalized rumors, whispers that it was his guilty conscience that was spurring him to go, and that this was dramatic confirmation that he had poisoned his brother after all. In any event, whether it was guilt, adventure, or fatigue that drove Robert, he was determined to go. In a way, the destination was more astonishing than the idea of a pilgrimage itself. The more popular sites were Rome or Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and the road to Jerusalem was not only more expensive but far more dangerous, passing as it did through hostile Muslim lands. In 1027, however, a Byzantine emperor had reached an agreement with the Fatimid ruler of Jerusalem guaranteeing the pilgrim routes and access to Christian shrines. As a result, traffic to the Holy Land had boomed, crowding the roads with the faithful who wanted to arrive just in time for the thousandth anniversary of the Crucifixion. 

Robert had probably been thinking about the pilgrimage for some time. Leaving the duchy in the hands of a child was hardly the most responsible thing to do, but he had decided to go nevertheless, and made what arrangements he could. He had been slowly easing his son, William, into the role of heir, granting gifts and signing documents in his name. Now, at the Christmas court in Fécamp, he required his magnates to swear an oath of loyalty, something which they all did without exception or objection. Satisfied that he had fulfilled his obligations, Robert emptied his treasury and left Normandy forever.  

He crossed the Alps and first headed for Rome, distributing so much gold to churches along the way that he was soon being called Robert the Magnificent. Had he gone just a bit further south he would have come across the first Normans who were trickling into the heel of Italy, but he most likely headed for the coast instead and took a ship for the east. He arrived in Constantinople some time early in 1035, making the most of his time by taking a tour of the city and even meeting the emperor who – in a bit of vanity on the part of Norman chroniclers – was supposedly impressed with his wealth. After mingling with the imperial court, the duke continued to Jerusalem, which he reached in time to celebrate Holy Week.  

The city had plenty of ways for a pilgrim to spend money, and Robert took in all the sights, praying in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and retracing the route Jesus walked on his way to the Crucifixion. His return trip was by all accounts equally pleasant. When he reached the Bosphorus in early summer, he paused at the charming little city of Nicaea. There he unexpectedly fell ill, and on July 2, 1035 he died. In a nod to his refurbished reputation a rumor started that he had been poisoned, and one Norman chronicler piously argued that God took him because he was ‘too good for this world’.  

His body was buried in Nicaea, where it was left until 1085 when a Norman delegation arrived to take it back home. They had only made it as far as Apulia, however, when word reached them that their current duke had also died, so they reinterred the body in Italy where it remains to this day.  

Robert’s brief reign had been a mixed success, and his wildly irresponsible departure for the east had virtually ensured civil war back home. Even worse, his failure to bring the powerful nobility to heel with anything more than a naïve oath had left his eight-year-old son William terribly alone, vulnerable to the far more experienced men around him. After nearly a decade of strong leadership, Normandy tipped back into chaos.