Friday, 24 October 2014

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

October 24 
[with apologies for the slight lateness of publication]

On 24 October 1360, the Treaty of Brétigny, between King Edward III of England and King John II (John the Good) of France, finally hit the statute book, thus bringing to an end the Hundred Years’ War, which had raged since 1337. All well and good, until somebody happened to point out that they were actually in Calais at the time and that the said conflict still had another ninety three years left to run. The Treaty itself had been signed, actually in Brétigny, near Chartres, way back on 25 May but, even in those unenlightened times, the powers-that-be were still capable of acting like consummate politicians so, having pretty much worked up a sweat getting that far, they decided that it was high time for a spot of feasting and for taking the entire of the rest of the summer off, before finally coming together again, in Calais this time, to ratify the whole thing as the Treaty of Calais.

As you’ll no doubt recall, the Hundred Years’ War was basically a protracted bout of scrapping between, on the one hand, the English under Edward III (the suspiciously French-sounding and even more suspiciously French-speaking Plantagenet monarch who reckoned he was rightfully King of France) and, on the other, the French proper (inasmuch as they actually lived there) under John II. Quite why John II should be known as the Good is veiled in some mystery, seeing he had a vile temper and was given to outbursts of spontaneous violence, his reign was blighted by the Black Death and by marauding bands of routiers bent on pillage and plunder (the word comes from the German for rotten, making them a bunch of rotters), and he simply wasn’t any good at all when it came to war, though he did marry a certain Bonne of Bohemia when he was thirteen, so maybe that was it. Philip the Fair was also his granduncle, so at least he didn’t get stuck with John the Bit of an Improvement. Anyhow, pretty much right from the kick-off, the French had been having the worst of it results wise. And it had been them who started it in the first place, with Phil the Fair being not quite so fair after all when he decided that he was going to confiscate Aquitaine from Edward because he hadn’t paid homage to him, in order to show just who was feudal overlord around here. In actual fact, in 1329, the seventeen year old Edward had done his duty in that respect, though it was whilst still wearing his crown and sword, which the French found a tad unacceptable (a kind of medieval “dissing”) and, in 1337 (when it all officially got going), Philip refused to meet the English delegation altogether, which is when he went in for his landgrab. By the time John the Good got to be King in 1350, the French had already lost the Battles of Cadzand (1337), Sluys (1340), Brest (1342), Auberoche (1345) and Caen and Blanchetaque (both 1346), followed swiftly by the worst thraping of the entire lot, inflicted by the new English secret weapon, the longbow, at Crecy, on 26 August that same year.

What John really needed was a plan, a cunning and devious one. And, boy, did he live up to his name now. Knowing that the English would be all out to try and capture the French sovereign at some point during the forthcoming must-not-lose fixture of Poitiers (19 September 1356), what he did was to dress nineteen knights from his personal guard in identical outfits to his own so the English wouldn’t have a clue what was going on. They simply knocked his helmet off and captured him. He surrendered by handing over his glove. Apparently, “the gloves are off” meant something rather different back in those chivalric days. John was carted off to imprisonment in England and, with Poitiers being pretty much bang in the middle of France, this involved quite some trek, during which not a soul attempted to rescue him. Perhaps he was still wearing his disguise so folk just didn’t recognise him, especially without his glove.

All of which is how the Treaty of Calais came into being, John’s son wishing to get his dad back, by ransom if needs be. Which was set at a staggering three million gold crowns, John to be released once the first million had been handed over. It was in order to pay this ransom that the franc was first coined. As guarantee that he would come up with the outstanding amount, John handed over hostages that included several princes and nobles and two of his own sons, the deal being signed and sealed on 24 October 1360. Two years later, one of those sons, Louis I, Duke of Anjou, escaped from captivity, at which point John finally lived up to his name by doing the honourable thing and turning himself in instead. He would die in imprisonment in 1364.

This day in 1593 was a fairly quiet one, at least as far as Gil Perez was concerned, doing his duties as guard at the Governor’s palace in Manila. Mind you, only the night before, Chinese pirates had assassinated the governor but that was no reason not to keep an eye on the palace until a new one could be elected. Poor old Gil found himself a bit tuckered out after all the excitement of the previous evening and so he leant against the wall for a moment and let his eyes slowly close – resting them, you understand, not sleeping on duty – and, when he opened them again, he found himself somewhere that he’d never ever seen before. But, being conscientious, he went right on guarding, until someone finally came up and asked him what in tarnation he thought he was doing dressed in a Philippine uniform and standing about in Mexico City’s Plaza Mayor. Naturally enough, Gil gave the only answer that any sane man could have given in the circumstances: that he’d been teleported there in the blinking of an eye. And, in the same blinking of the same eye, they flung him in jail as a servant of the devil. By happy chance, a ship from Manila turned up only two months later, confirming Gil’s stories about the governor’s death, so they had to let him go. It was also quite a happy coincidence that he happened to turn up somewhere that spoke Spanish for a start off (¿Has estado teletransportado?) and that he didn’t end up in some altogether less desirable location, such as in the ocean, up a mountain, or anywhere in the thickets of the Essex hinterland.

On 24 October 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia was signed, thus bringing an end to not only the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) but also the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) between Spain and the Dutch Republic, which got a lot of loose ends tied up all in one go, not to mention making 24 October an all-round good day for signing treaties. Things hadn’t been going so well in Bohemia and, by 1617, it was apparent that the Holy Roman Emperor and King of said realm – that’s Matthias, of course – was going to peg out without having provided the obligatory heir, which would mean that his nearest male relative would then get the job, no questions asked, and that was Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria. And, if history has taught us two things, they are: that the battle of Agincourt was fought in 1415; and that if an Archduke Ferdinand happens to show up anywhere in the vicinity, then it’s bad news and trouble can’t be very far behind. One big problem was that Ferdinand was a staunch Catholic deadset on imposing his religious views with rigid uniformity on all of his subjects, which didn’t go down at all well in Protestant Bohemia. Still, what could they do? Ferdinand was King and they would just have to jolly well tug the old forelock until their eyes watered, which was pretty much how the King himself viewed matters.

It seems that Matthias, the bod behind all the trouble in the first place, had sent the Bohemians a letter declaring what a bad lot (not to mention Protestant) they all were and that, therefore, all their lives and honour were already forfeit, which didn’t please the said Bohemians all that much, who then decided they weren’t going to stand for any such caper. When, on 23 May 1618, Matthias then sent four Catholic Lords Regent to the Bohemian Chancellory to get the Bohemians to bend the knee in the customary manner, the less-than-grateful Protestants had the nerve to read the letter back to the Lords, before asking, “Know ye anything about this at all?” Which seems reasonable enough. Though the answer from the Catholics could well have been a little better thought out, because they said, “Aye, my lord, twas indeed us. What’re ye going to do about it?” Arrogant posturing isn’t always the best policy, as the Lords Regent were about to find out, and they may even have been regretting their ill-chosen words as they found themselves promptly being evicted from the premises and plummeting rapidly earthward, the Bohemians seeming to believe this summary ejection would best be achieved via the window and a seventy foot drop. Miraculously, they survived, the Catholics claiming that the Virgin Mary had caught them, the Protestants that they had landed on a dunghill.
In order to coat the whole affair in an entirely unmerited veneer of respectability, the incident became known as the Defenestration of Prague, which makes it sound quite dignified and even a little cuddly, doesn’t it? And yet, it is the most staggering piece of disingenuousness, seeing that the citizens of Prague already had something of a history when it came to tossing their guests out of upstairs windows. For a start off, there was something similar on 30 July 1419, when a priest led his congregation to the Town Hall, out of which someone threw a stone at them, instantly turning procession into enraged mob. They rushed upstairs and flung out the judge, burgomaster and thirteen members of the town council, using the window method and either killing them in the fall or leaving the mob below to finish them off. Now, that’s democracy in action. This was known as the First Defenestration of Prague. Which should have been clue enough, especially to those strutting Lords Regent of 1618 when they were invited up into the offices on the top floor to “talk things over.”

The next one wasn’t long in coming along, turning up on 24 September 1483, when the portreeve and seven aldermen met an identical fate, this one being sometimes known, for some obscure reason, as the One-and-a-Halfth Defenestration. The last recorded one was on 10 March 1948, Jan Masaryk, murdered either by the Communist government or else Soviet secret services but, whichever, it goes to show that dabbling in Bohemian politics just ain’t worth it.
Fast forward now to 24 October 1851, which was the day on which William Lassell discovered Ariel and Umbriel, two of the twenty seven moons of Uranus, all of which have names from Pope or Shakespeare, neither of whom ever went anywhere near the place. Lassell was a Lancashire lad, born in Bolton and educated in Rochdale, meaning he had the sort of booklearning you could fry an egg on, so it was bit surprising then when he went on to make his fortune brewing beer. But he did have the right knack when it came to uncovering celestial bodies (luckily, there seems to have been no Mrs Lassells to catch him at it), seeing he discovered Triton in 1846, the largest of Neptune’s moons, (and that within seventeen days of Johann Gottfried Galle having found Neptune itself), followed in 1848 by Hyperion, one of Saturn’s moons. So, when Queen Victoria visited Liverpool, Lassells was the only celebrity Northerner she specifically asked to meet. Well, you never know: perhaps he told a darn good knock-knock joke?

Just time to mention, before we close, the tale of Annie Edson Taylor, who was actually born this day in 1838 in New York, though it would be some sixty three years later exactly when she would take her fifteen minutes in the limelight. She had enjoyed a comfortable living when younger but her fortunes had declined as the years progressed and so she decided she wanted to make her final years somewhat more secure financially but, rather than invest in a retirement portfolio, she came to the conclusion that the best way to achieve this was by becoming the first person go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. So she had one specially made (or coopered, should we say?) from oak and iron, and then padded with a mattress, though things then hit something of a snag when people proved remarkably reluctant to involve themselves in what could be a potential suicide. To set their callow minds at rest, Taylor first put a cat into the barrel and sent it over the Horseshoe Falls, “to test its strength,” though it isn’t clear whether this meant barrel or moggie, and the cat never said. Though it did survive, albeit with a bleeding head, and was happy enough to pose for photos afterwards.

Come the great day and in climbs our plucky heroine, complete with lucky heartshaped pillow, for the lid to be screwed down and then a bicycle pump used to compress the air inside, after which a cork was used to plug the hole and the entire thing set adrift south of Goat Island. After a trip of less than twenty minutes, she was picked up safe, though with her head gashed too (bet the cat was dying to say, Told You So) and a statement for the press:

“If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat... I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.”

Sadly, all did not end on a happy note. For one thing, her manager, Frank M. Russell, made off with her barrel and she used up most of her savings hiring private detectives to get it back. Which they eventually did, when it turned up in Chicago, but then it disappeared for good and all some while later. She ended up working as, amongst other things, a clairvoyant, though she couldn’t have been much good at that lark, otherwise she would have seen Frank M. Russell coming, wouldn’t she?

By Anonymous (Paris) Formerly attributed to Girard d'Orléans ( Home - info - pic) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Treaty of Westphalia: After Gerard ter Borch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Defenestration: Matthäus Merian the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 
Edward III: 
King Matthias: Lucas van Valckenborch (1535 or later–1597) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Queen of the Mist: By GG Bain News Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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