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Peter Cowlam

Thomas Müntzer

Miniatures Posted on Thu, March 14, 2019 11:16:46

The Thomas Müntzer inner light

Has over three centuries and one half

Cast the shadow of revolt in the name

Of the modern Romantic Marx.

Thomas Müntzer (c1489–1525) was a leading German activist during the Reformation, whose oratory was fiery and prophetic. In 1524–25 he took part in the abortive Peasants’ Revolt in Thuringia, and is now seen as a major force in the religious and social history of modern Europe. In the twentieth century Marxists came to characterise him as an early agitator in the struggle against feudalism and for a classless society.

He was, initially, an advocate of Lutheran theology, yet soon opposed the Lutheran idea of ‘justification’ – i.e. justification by faith alone, with authority vested in Scripture. Müntzer instead vested supremacy in the inner light of the Holy Spirit. That in turn led to a call for the conquest of anti-Christian earthly government. In his view the common people, as the instruments of God, would have to perform that conquest themselves. Müntzer professed that the commoners, lacking property and unspoiled by worldly sophistication, were God’s elect through whom God’s will was manifest. As God’s elect it was for the peasants to lead the eschatological process against all enemies of the Holy Spirit.

Through his preaching Müntzer gathered disciples to his cause, and produced important religious, liturgical, and theological writings, including German Church Office, German-Protestant Mass, Of Written Faith, and Precise Exposure of False Belief. He tried, unsuccessfully, to urge on Saxon rulers the task of restoring Christendom to its biblical resplendence.

He was involved in the abortive revolt of 1524–25, with grievances against, among other things, rising taxes. Mühlhausen was at the centre of the uprising in central Germany, where Müntzer took command of local troops. He stressed his belief that only if the common people identified the law of God within themselves, and placed group above individual interests, would society be transformed, promising a future without social and legal discrimination. During the rebellion, possibly seen by him as the last struggle between cosmic good and evil, Müntzer equated the lot of peasant, tradesman, and commoner with the liberation of Christendom. The revolt collapsed and Müntzer was taken prisoner, tortured, tried and executed.

Maria Vetsera

Miniatures Posted on Sun, February 10, 2019 14:16:19

You see,

It’s all a decree,

An ideology,

When the prince and his mistress

Are a mote in the eye.

The imperium says they must die.

According to standard encyclopaedia entries, Baroness Maria Vetsera, a girl of seventeen, began relations with Rudolf, Archduke and Crown Prince of Austria, in October 1887, and for reasons still to be puzzled on accepted his offer of a suicide pact. The official story is that Rudolf had ideas for himself as a future King of Hungary, who in that role would resuscitate a Kingdom of Poland. But there were forces against him, and he was frustrated in these efforts, and furthermore was unhappy in his marriage – hence his mistress Maria Vetsera.

On the morning of the 30th of January 1889, he and Maria were found shot dead in the hunting lodge at Mayerling. The emperor and his advisers in attempting to disguise the facts only provoked rumours, though depression resulting from his political isolation is recorded as the best explanation of Rudolf’s suicide.

Now for the unofficial story—

We begin in the crags and bluffs of a landscape brooding under a leaden sky, and a filthy night of rain. A coachman hunched in the folds of his coat moaned at his secret mission, and paused mid-oath when a reddish-looking ember streaked across his horizon. He watched through the slits of his eyes as it gently arced to earth, and in a pirouette of orange flames cratered the hillside. There it fizzed out abruptly – two intertwining twists of smoke under an icy sheet of rain.

His coach had been newly retouched, and gleamed in the violet zigzags of light forking through the valley. He thundered on, through the mud and ruts, almost overturning where two enormous boulders – grey, sluggish shapes – loomed from nowhere through the rain. Abruptly the road twisted and rose, fell and rose again, then plunged finally into the forest. He lashed at the horses, and had as his sole thought his destination – only his destination – and how to accomplish that without mishap.

Borne along with him were two passengers, their embassy the cargo propped precariously between them. They were brothers – merchant bankers both – who despite the wrap of expensive furs shivered uncontrollably. That was because the little flakes of frost that chilled their blood was fear, a new pang for a pair more accustomed to life in the rococo drawing rooms their leisured clientele inhabited. That lumpy sack of cargo wedged between them, all too ghoulish, and greatly inconvenient, was a cadaver – in fact their dead niece, who at seventeen had been pretty, vivacious, and a baroness. Her name was Maria Vetsera, too young and good-looking to die. Nevertheless that loll of her head, as the coach clattered on through all those spooky rain-dark pines, told you she was dead.

The coachman’s task was to deliver his two bankers and one deadweight to the monastery of Heiligenkreuz, under whose bell tower a sexton and his mate had already knocked the soil from their shovels, and stood waiting by the grave they’d dug. They like the brothers couldn’t guess at what it was, this prologue all four mummered in – or that the drama was destined to repeat itself twenty-five years later.

But now to Vienna. The year 1889. At that time southern Europe was dominated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, under its emperor Franz Joseph, in extents oppressive to some. In its favour there was breadth of religion, language, culture and economics – those four monsters hard to tame or control. By contrast, other countries the emperor ruled had an unhappy knack of self-mutilation, for even then intractable contours rumpled the cloth, such as the Balkans. We shall also see there were things the emperor didn’t find amusing. A case in point was the one thumbprint grazing his escutcheon, in the person of his son, the Crown Prince Rudolf, whose fads he sought effective means of dealing with, by excluding him from all functions or fiascos grounded in affairs of state. You couldn’t be surprised at Rudolf’s reaction against this, whose interests were counter to the military education his father had set out for him. His preferences were natural history and literature. One sultry afternoon – or so we come to imagine it – Rudolf was thinking of how best to resist his father’s proscriptions. Activism was one thing, and required effort, while a life wrapped in cotton wool was a misfortune reserved for the effortless. With these two at odds, Rudolf gazed into just that limbo where nothing much of consequence could ever be achieved by him.

Our own historical moment must have taught us something of everlasting monarchs, whose longevity their heirs have to suffer in finding a role for themselves. That conundrum, when it visited the Habsburgs, did so on a late January morning in 1889. The emperor had spent tranquil moments unrolling the scrolls of his signature onto one of his crested documents, and had planned for an hour with one of his ladies. Alas that wasn’t to be. The shrill of voices, then the sudden sweep of his padded doors, shattered that illusion. His wife thundered in, and had in train the royal physician – a sombre, spindly man whose coat tails flew up behind him. The emperor, who paused to catch his breath, nevertheless had to deal instantly with marital torpedoes fired across his blotting pad.

‘Rudolf is dead. Rudolf has shot himself.’

The emperor put away his pen, and was staggered.

Earlier that morning, Rudolf’s body had been found in the bedroom of his hunting lodge, in the leafless Vienna woods. To complicate things the prince had not been there alone. In the same deadly pact the corpse of Baroness Maria Vetsera rumpled and bloodied the bedding too – for they’d both been shot.

‘Then it’s clear,’ the emperor said. That vixen, in a fit of God knew what, had murdered his son.

His court physician begged to differ, though trembled as he did so. He’d examined, he said, both bodies, and had no doubt that the prince had shot the baroness, then trained the revolver on himself.

‘My son is not a murderer,’ the sad-eyed king decreed, and that was true – the emperor’s son was not a murderer.

We pause for the official course of action, when rumours in Vienna invaded every drawing room. The emperor’s next instructions were categorical: to prepare the family vault for the prince’s body. This was at the Church of Capuchin Friars. The hunting lodge would close, and re-open as a shrine, with a service. After that came the official investigation, which the emperor ensured was headed by Baron Krauss, the top man at that time in the Vienna police. Krauss would report to the emperor, and reporting to Krauss was Baron Friedrich d’Oc.

Krauss took immediate action over the Vetsera burial, which went ahead, symbolically, under an angry, swollen sky, and was veiled in secrecy. It was, potentially, the biggest scandal of European society – just that sort of state dilemma the d’Ocs, with their wealth, connections, and more important a centuries-old diplomacy, were trusted to dampen down. Therefore what history fails to record is Friedrich’s velvet glove, and the iron claw that drew it on. Gathered in its grip were members of the press, whose hold on things correspondingly diminished. Even Moritz Szeps, a close friend of Rudolf’s, and proprietor of the Neues Wiener Tagblatt, couldn’t do more than mumble into his pocket handkerchief. What paragraphets he manufactured offered nothing conclusive, with the revelation only that Rudolf – or rather he and his ‘paramour’ – had been shot dead at Mayerling, a village on the Schwechat River, about twenty-five kilometres southwest of Vienna. The hunting lodge is now a Carmelite convent.

The barons Krauss and d’Oc did a thorough job, and made sure no one was able to say what had prompted these events. Inextricably bound to them was the emperor’s wife, Elizabeth – Empress of Austria and Bavaria (and also Queen of Hungary).

One person Elizabeth might have trusted was the ambitious Count Andrassy, who as the most powerful man in Hungary sought to extricate its kingdom from the empire. He was backed in this by Bismarck, the German Empire’s first chancellor (1871–90), whose influence on European politics left its mark on the dual murders of Mayerling. Emperor Franz Joseph had too readily bowed to his medic’s opinion, even if it made his son a murderer, or worse than that, guilty of the mortal sin of suicide. Against all, he ordered the crown prince laid to rest in the imperial vault – with no post mortem, and no inquest. There was a token investigation, entrusted to Baron Krauss, whose job included the disposal of Maria Vetsera’s remains, but of course, only the moment’s realpolitik drove these things along. The secret treaty of 1877, between Russia and Germany, amounted to a handshake effectively uniting the emperor’s two biggest enemies.

That was a treaty the crown prince was likely to approve of, and that surely made Rudolf’s suicide unlikely. He’d been eliminated, for fear of what politically he was likely to develop into. Franz Joseph, the prince’s father, saw to his removal, with the barons Krauss and d’Oc trusted to do the work and dust his tracks. The emperor’s motto was: ‘never apologise, never explain’. That served an empire not simply steeped in power and wealth and military might. To Franz Joseph, it was something more ancient and much more permanent than that. It was his on divine trust. If to maintain it meant sacrificing his son, then unlike Abraham his regal hand would not be stayed, and Rudolf had to die.

Rudolf’s successor was his cousin Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose political thinking was more in line with the emperor’s, but whose domestic affairs were not as polished. In opting to marry beneath him, any future offspring couldn’t accede after him. But then on the 28th of June 1914 he and his spouse were shot in Sarajevo – an assassination sparking World War I, and a final confirmation that the archduke wouldn’t succeed to the throne.

More on this in the novel New King Palmers, winner of the 2018 Quagga Prize for Literary Fiction.

Edward II

Miniatures Posted on Fri, January 25, 2019 14:26:08

The painful fact of Edward II

As Simon Schama must have reckoned

Is no amount of calming unguent

Damped that ramrod up his fundament.

Edward II was King of England from 1307 to 1327. Although not over-blessed with leadership talent, he entered a long, hopeless campaign of authority over his powerful barons.

He acceded to the throne in 1307 on the death of his father, Edward I, granting the highest offices to his predecessor’s most active opponents. He was hated by the barons on assigning the earldom of Cornwall to Piers Gaveston, who was possibly his lover. In 1311 a baronial committee drew up a document called the Ordinances. It demanded Gaveston’s banishment and restraint on the king’s powers over finances and appointments. Edward affected to meet these demands, sending Gaveston out of the country, though he was soon allowed to return. The barons reacted by seizing Gaveston and putting him to death, in 1312.

In 1314 Edward led an army into Scotland when the Scottish king Robert the Bruce was agitating against English over-lordship. He was defeated by Bruce at Bannockburn, which secured Scotland’s independence. Now Edward was at the mercy of Thomas Lancaster and his group of barons. By 1315 Lancaster had made himself virtual master of England, but proved to be incompetent. By 1318 Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, with his group of moderates, had assumed arbitration between Lancaster and Edward. Edward found two new favourites, Hugh le Despenser and his son, also Hugh. The king showed his support for the younger Hugh’s ambitions in Wales, at which point Lancaster banished both Despensers. Edward took up arms on their behalf. His opponents fell out among themselves, enabling him to defeat and capture Lancaster, and have him executed.

Free of baronial control, Edward annulled the Ordinances, avenging Gaveston’s death. But too heavy reliance on the Despensers stirred up resentment with his queen, Isabella, who on a mission to Paris became Roger Mortimer’s mistress. Mortimer was one of Edward’s exiled barons. In September 1326 Roger and Isabella invaded England, executed the Despensers, and deposed Edward, whose son, Edward III, was crowned King. Edward II was imprisoned, and according to Simon Schama (and other historians, as well as Christopher Marlowe), was tortured to death, probably with a red-hot poker thrust up his anus.

Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, 8th Baron of Wigmore

Miniatures Posted on Tue, January 15, 2019 14:16:47

Poor Roger Mortimer
As he stood before his slaughterer.
His scrotal sac intact
Was about to be cruelly hacked.

Mortimer, born circa 1287, was the lover of Queen Isabella of France, King Edward II’s queen. Between them, in 1327, Mortimer and Isabella schemed Edward’s deposition and murder. For the next three years Mortimer was virtual King of England, with Edward III still in his minority.

A descendant of Norman knights who had come with William the Conqueror, he inherited wealthy estates, mostly in Wales and Ireland. On the death of his father, the 7th Baron of Wigmore, he became, in 1304, the 8th Baron. He devoted himself to the control of his Irish lordships against the Lacys, his wife’s kinsmen, who called to their aid Edward Bruce, who was fighting to become King of Ireland. In 1316 Mortimer was defeated at Kells and withdrew to England, but afterwards, in Ireland, as lieutenant to Edward II, he was central in overcoming Bruce and in driving the Lacys from Meath.

In 1317 he was associated with the Earl of Pembroke’s ‘middle party’, but in 1321 distrust of the Despensers drove him and other marcher lords into conflict with those in South Wales. He got no help from Edward II’s other enemies, and in January 1322 Roger and his uncle Roger Mortimer of Chirk surrendered. They were imprisoned in the Tower of London. Roger escaped in 1323, fleeing to France. In 1325 he was joined by Queen Isabella, who became his mistress. They invaded England in September 1326, with the fall of the Despensers followed by the deposition and murder (1327) of Edward II. Mortimer was deeply implicated.

As the queen’s paramour, Mortimer virtually ruled England, and using that position furthered his own ends. He was created Earl of March in October 1328. He secured lordships of Denbigh, Oswestry, and Clun, the marcher lordships of the Mortimers of Chirk, and Montgomery. His avarice, arrogance, and unpopular policy towards Scotland inspired his fellow barons to revulsion against him. In October 1330 the young King Edward III had him seized at Nottingham and sent to the Tower. Condemned for crimes by his peers in Parliament, he was hanged at Tyburn as a traitor, where at the point of death he was emasculated, disemboweled, beheaded and quartered. His estates were forfeited to the crown.