Friday, 11 July 2014

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

July 11

As ever, the day we celebrate today begins on the field of conflict, a date that has proven to be especially battle-bespattered down the years. As luck would have it, our ancient ancestors must have decided to have a day off from all that for once, so we have to wait until 1302 and the Battle of Courtrai, in Flanders, an encounter also known as the Battle of the Golden Spurs. Not to be confused, however, with the Battle of the Spurs of 1513, in which the French came up against the forces of Henry VIII and decided that the situation, such as it was, called not so much for the sword as for the spurs, and for running away at the highest velocity their mounts could muster.

Our battle came about when the French, under King Philip IV, thought that the unruly Flemish could do with a touch of subduing, to finally get them to accept centralist French policies, which they were fully determined not to do. Philip IV was also known as Philip the Fair, though this was more to do with his good looks than for any magnanimous deeds that he never quite got round to, preferring instead to concentrate on tasks such as the Expulsion of the Jews and the Suppression of the Knights Templar, to both of whom he was greatly in debt and whose lands and possessions he would then pinch. (By suppression, he meant torturing into confession and then burning at the stake.) Then there was the time when his daughter, Isabella, got disgruntled because her husband, Edward II, apparently preferred Piers Gaveston to her and so, by way of revenge, she snitched on her sisters-in-law for adultery, the brothers d'Aulnoy taking the blame for it, for which Unforgiving Phil condemned them to flaying alive, castrating, beheading and then gibbeting. You can see why the Flemish might not have been that keen on surrendering to him.

Despite the political spin, this was a war all about Wool. In those days, the Bruges bourgeoisie had the exclusive rights to its importation from England but, when knitwear-loving Edward I started dealing directly with suppliers instead, they went whining to Philip to do something about it. So he sent his advisor, accompanied by a large army for good measure, to negotiate with the rebels, most of whom had simply disappeared, so they set about harrying the townsfolk. Bad mistake. On the morning of May 18, the rebels returned to carry out the so-called “Bruges Matins,” (though it was nocturnally done) during which everyone was asked to pronounce “schilt ende vriend” (shield and friend) and anyone who couldn’t, ie the French, getting promptly butchered. By 26 June, they had moved on to Coutrai, eventually meeting an impressive French force on July 11 in an open field nearby, which they had prepared with concealed ditches.
The French infantry led the initial attack and did well, but then Robert II of Artois sent in the cavalry to claim the victory, only for them to get bogged down in the ditches. And lose. Robert II, surrounded, then begged for his life, but was refused on the grounds that the Flemish “couldn’t understand French.” After the battle, large numbers of golden spurs were collected from the fallen French knights, though the French got them back eighty years later following the Battle of Westrozebeke. Coutrai was the first battle in which heavily armoured aristocratic men-at-arms, previously dominant, were defeated by armies of infantry, other instances including Bannockburn, Crecy, Agincourt, and the unlikely sounding Grandson (2 March 1476, should you doubt it.)

This day in 1533, Pope Clement VII may, or may not, have instigated a papal bull threatening Henry VIII with excommunication if he didn’t return to his wife, Catherine of Aragon, by September. The English court, however, realised that Clement, despite being nephew to Lorenzo the Magnificent, was not the most resolute of fellows and so they took absolutely no notice. Henry had earlier petitioned Clement for a divorce, though the Pope was hardly in a position to grant him one, seeing that, since the Sack of Rome on May 6 1627, he had been the virtual prisoner (the actual one for the first six months) of Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (pictured), who just happened to be the nephew of Catherine of Aragon, making his views on the matter slightly one-sided. Clement VII never issued the bull as he remained hopeful that Henry might eventually come to his senses (a bit like hoping a terrier might lose all interest in the postman’s leg), and in the following September he died, to be succeeded by Paul III, who then waited until 1538 to finally send it on its way. Fat lot of good it did, too. A papal bull, by the bye, has nothing to do with being bullish and stepping outside to get things sorted in a man to man kind of way, but comes from the Latin, bulla, meaning bubble, denoting the seal, a lump of clay (later wax or lead) surrounding a cord that would indicate that the contents had not been interfered with.

One thing Clement VII did manage successfully for once was the sporting of a luxuriant beard, grown as a sign of mourning for the Sack of Rome, even though this was a violation of Catholic canon law. Pope Julius II had set the precedent with his nine month version in 1511-12 (he was mourning the loss of Bologna, showing just how capable these medieval priests were at making their point) but Clement hung on to his right up until his death in 1534, thereby unwittingly setting a papal trend to be followed by each of the next twenty three bewhiskered popes, right up until 1700, when Clement XI decided that barefaced was once again best. 

1690, and it’s the field of conflict once more, this time for the Battle of the Boyne. In 1688, William of Orange, the short, pale, ugly, hooknosed, blacktoothed, sickly and asthmatic hunchback – his wife-to-be, Mary, who towered over him, on being told she would have to marry him, cried for days beforehand and during much of the ceremony itself – had led the (oddly named, given all that) Glorious Revolution, a bloodless coup that usurped the crown from the Catholic James II, who did a swift runner (thus he was assumed to have abdicated), stopping only to throw the Great Seal of Parliament petulantly into the Thames. But, by 1690, he had returned and wanted his throne back, the two sides lining up on either side of the River Boyne in predominantly Catholic Ireland (where most of James’ badly trained troops had been recruited), for what would be the last occasion on which two kings of England would meet upon the field (James was William’s uncle and his father-in-law both). By the Julian calendar, it was July 1, which is July 11 to the Gregorians, though the battle itself is nowadays commemorated a day late on July 12, which was actually the date on which the more decisive Battle of Aughrim was fought the following year, and not the Boyne at all. James commanded ineptly, got roundly beaten and, for the last time, swiftly legged it into exile to die in France in 1701. William’s victory ensured Protestant ascendancy in Ireland, his own death coming on March 8 1702 following a fall from his horse, which had stumbled on a molehill, a date on which some unforgiving Catholics there still raise a glass “to the little gentleman in the black velvet suit.”

By this day in 1708, French forces had once again occupied Bruges, still keen to conquer Flanders a good four hundred years after their first failed attempt, this time in the War of the Spanish Succession. In their way stood a single British fortress: Oudenaarde. Taking it would mean the British Army would be cut off from the coast and thus from England. Leading the French was the brilliant military tactician, Marshal Vendôme, with, as monarchical representative and a stay-in-the-background-don’t-get-in-the-way sort of figurehead, the Duke of Burgundy. Unfortunately, the Duke wasn’t settling for that and took command himself, despite the fact that he hadn’t the first idea what he was doing. Not to put too fine a point on it, he completely blew it, failing to take his chances, consistently doing exactly the wrong thing and then looking for the first opportunity to retreat, which the failing daylight eventually provided him with, thus handing Marlborough victory on a plate as the French fled away into the gathering darkness.  

This day in 1754 Thomas Bowdler was born, a man who thought he could improve Shakespeare’s plays for him (“The language is not always faultless”)  by cutting all the smutty jokes (that many of us never realised were there, so thanks for pointing them out, mate), though explicit violence, like Gloucester’s blinding in King Lear, was apparently OK. Not content with that, he then wielded his knife on Gibbon, claiming that, had the celebrated historian seen his version of Decline & Fall, he would “desire nothing more ardently than the laying aside of the former editions of his history.” Thus, to bowdlerise: to act like a pompous ninny. 

In 1801, French astronomer Jean-Louis Pons discovered his first comet today and then went on to discover an unbettered thirty seven of them over the next twenty seven years. Not bad for an uneducated man who started out as porter and doorkeeper at the Marseille Observatory. Meanwhile, by 1804, the “Folks on Capitol Hill” were at it again when Vice President Aaron Burr killed first secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, in a duel, the latter supposedly having expressed “a despicable opinion” of Burr at a dinner party, the blackguard! Whilst Hamilton only managed to graze a tree with his shot, Burr’s bullet hit Hamilton in the abdomen, ricocheting off his ribs, fracturing them, severely damaging his liver and diaphragm before lodging in his vertebra, paralysing him. Hamilton died next day but the fate of the wounded tree is unrecorded.

In 1892, Thomas Edison, the man most famous for having invented the lightbulb, suffered a severe blow when the US Patent Office told him, “sorry, mate, it wasn’t actually you after all but some beardy geezer from Gateshead, England, called J.W. Swan, who’s got his house lit up like a Christmas tree with ‘em. But don’t fret about it: history will erroneously ascribe the credit for it to you forevermore.” Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, to give him his full name, was a man capable of more than just growing a beard of papal proportions and, on December 18 1878, he would demonstrate his new lightbulb, patenting it in 1880, well before Edison ever got a look in.
And finally, this day in 1916 Reg Varney was born, making him only slightly older than some of the material that would later be used in the unparalleled sitcom, On The Buses, which ran from 1969 to 1973 but which is still regularly aired on ITV3, just in case there exists somewhere in the universe someone who has not yet had at least one episode inflicted upon them. Had it ever been dubbed into Lativian, (as Uz Autobusiem - see, you’re laughing already), it would surely have still been every bit as funny. Whilst hyperbole has described it as “ITV's longest running and most unfunny series" and "a byword for sitcom mediocrity," in actual fact, it probably wasn’t quite as good as they are trying to make out …

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