February 25

1534 Death of Count Wallenstein

The Thirty Years War (1618-48) is a phenomenon not nearly as well-known as it ought to be. It was the last of the great European religious wars and the Treaty of Westphalia which brought it to a close marked the beginning of the age of nation-states.

One of the most significant figures of this conflict was the champion of the Catholic cause, Count Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein who rose from being a mercenary captain to be an Imperial generalissimo, a prince, and one of the richest men in Europe.  He was successful in all but one of his battles but was suspected (quite rightly) of overweening ambition and treachery, suspicions which led to his assassination.

I had long been aware of Wallenstein’s military genius but not until reading this passage in Chambers’ Book of Days did I learn of the man’s astonishing grandiosity.

Born of high rank in 1583, Wallenstein found himself at forty chief of the imperial armies, and the possessor of immense wealth. Concentrating a powerful mind on one object, the gratification of his ambition, he attained it to a remarkable degree, and was for some time beyond doubt the greatest subject in Europe. In managing troops by a merciless discipline, in making rapid marches, in the fiery energy of his attacks upon the enemy, he was unrivalled. In but one battle, that of Lützen, where he met the Protestant army under Gustavus of Sweden, was he unsuccessful.

Wallenstein’s immense riches, his profound reserve, and theatrical manners, were the principal means he employed to exalt the imagination of the masses. He always appeared in public surrounded by extraordinary pomp, and allowed all those attached to his house to share in his luxury. His officers lived sumptuously at his table, where never less than one hundred dishes were served. As he rewarded with excessive liberality, not only the multitude but the greatest personages were dazzled by this Asiatic splendour. Six gates gave entrance to his palace at Prague, to make room for which he had pulled down one hundred houses. Similar chateaux were erected by his orders on all his numerous estates. Twenty-four chamberlains, sprung from the most noble families, disputed the honour of serving him, and some sent back the golden key, emblem of their grade, to the Emperor, in order that they might wait on Wallenstein.

He educated sixty pages, dressed in blue velvet and gold, to whom he gave the first masters; fifty truants guarded his ante-chamber night and day; six barons and the same number of chevaliers were constantly within call to bear his orders. His maître-d’hôtel was a person of distinction. A thousand persons usually formed his household, and about one thousand horses filled his stables, where they fed from marble mangers. When he set out on his travels, a hundred carriages, drawn by four or six horses, convoyed his servants and baggage; sixty carriages and fifty led horses carried the people of his suite; ten trumpeters with silver bugles preceded the procession. The richness of his liveries, the pomp of his equipages, and the decoration of his apartments, were in harmony with all the rest. In a hall of his palace at Prague he had himself painted in a triumphal car, with a wreath of laurels round his head, and a star above him. [See above for a mural from his palace.]

Wallenstein’s appearance was enough in itself to inspire fear and respect. His tall thin figure, his haughty attitude, the stern expression of his pale face, his wide forehead, that seemed formed to command, his black hair, close-shorn and harsh, his little dark eyes, in which the flame of authority shone, his haughty and suspicious look, his thick moustaches and tufted beard, produced, at the first glance, a startling sensation. His usual dress consisted of a justaucorps of elk skin, covered by a white doublet and cloak; round his neck he wore a Spanish ruff; in his hat fluttered a large red plume, while scarlet pantaloons and boots of Cordova leather, carefully padded on account of the gout, completed his ordinary attire. While his army devoted itself to pleasure, the deepest silence reigned around the general. He could not endure the rumbling of carts, loud conversations, or even simple sounds.

One of his chamberlains was hanged for waking him without orders, and an officer secretly put to death because his spurs had clanked when he came to the general. His servants glided about the rooms like phantoms, and a dozen patrols incessantly moved round his tent or palace to maintain perpetual tranquillity. Chains were also stretched across the streets, in order to guard him against any sound. Wallenstein was ever absorbed in himself, ever engaged with his plans and designs. He was never seen to smile, and his pride rendered him inaccessible to sensual pleasures. His only fanaticism was ambition. This strange chief meditated and acted incessantly, only taking counsel of himself, and disdaining strange advice and inspirations. When he gave any orders or explanations, he could not bear to be looked at curiously; when he crossed the camp, the soldiers were obliged to pretend that they did not see him. Yet they experienced an involuntary shudder when they saw him pass like a super-natural being. There was something about him mysterious, solemn, and awe-inspiring. He walked alone, surrounded by this magic influence, like a saddening halo.

The end of Wallenstein was such as might have been anticipated. Becoming too formidable for a subject, he was denounced to the Emperor by Piccolomini, who obtained a commission to take the great general dead or alive. On the 25th of February 1634, he was assailed in the Castle of Eger by a band, in which were included one Gordon, a Scotsman, and one Butler, an Irishman, and fell under a single stroke of a partizan, dying in proud silence, as he had lived.


February 24



The proclamation of the Gregorian calendar

Computing the length of the solar year is a tricky proposition for any civilization but especially for those without any of the astronomical tools we possess today. In 46 BC Julius Caesar reformed the calendar by decreeing a year of 365 days with a leap year every fourth year. This was an improvement but resulted in a difference of 3 days every four centuries between the calendar and the solar year. By the 16th century the slippage was notable, causing Easter to be divorced from the spring equinox and disrupting traditional agricultural practices which were based on saints’ days.

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII, after taking advice from leading astronomers, added a further reform to the Julian calendar:

Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. (This meant that 1900 was not a leap year but the year 2000 was.)

In addition, the Pope decreed, in order to make up for the 1,600 years of accumulated error, that 10 days would be skipped. The Julian calendar day Thursday, 4 October 1582 was followed by the first day of the Gregorian calendar, Friday, 15 October 1582. This caused considerable popular discontent as many of the mathematically-challenged peasantry felt they had been robbed of a chunk of their life. It has caused head scratching for historians as well because much of Europe — those parts with Protestant and Orthodox churches — did not adopt the Catholic pontiff’s decision, making dating documents troublesome in retrospect. This is why readers will sometimes see some early-modern British dates referred to as “O.S.” (Old Style) and “N.S. (“New Style”). Britain do not switch until 1752 and it was not until the 20th century that Greece, Turkey and the Soviet Union adopted the Gregorian calendar. The Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar which will explain Western Canadians referring to “Ukrainian Christmas” occurring on January 7th.

February 23


The battle of the Alamo begins

For years American migrants had been arriving in the north of the new Mexican Republic, in the  province of Texas. These colonists remained a largely foreign element, making little effort to adapt to the local culture and resentful of Mexican decrees that outlawed slavery. In 1835 war broke out between the Texians (English-speaking immigrants) and Mexican troops. At first the Texians were successful in driving out the Mexican army but it returned in strength under President Santa Ana.

Santa Ana had declared that the rebels would be treated as pirates and subject to immediate execution — there would be no prisoners of war. On February 23, 1836 2,000 Mexican troops surrounded a makeshift fort that had been constructed around an old Spanish mission near San Antonio, called the Alamo. It was garrisoned by around 200 Texians who had unwisely decided to stay and fight. Their ranks include newly arrived volunteers from the United States, among them famed Indian-fighter and Tennessee congressman Davy Crockett.

The Mexicans began the siege by raising a blood-red flag indicating that no quarter would be given in battle. The Texans tried to negotiate an honourable surrender but were told that only an unconditional surrender and no promise of safety was on the table. The fighting lasted for ten days during which time the defenders appealed urgently for help. The commander William Travis sent out a letter, addressed “to the people of Texas and all Americans in the world”:

To the People of Texas & All Americans in the World:

Fellow citizens & compatriots—I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna—I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man. The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken—I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls. I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch—The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country—Victory or Death.

William Barret Travis

On March 6 a Mexican assault overwhelmed the defenders and all of them, except black slaves, women and children, were killed.

The defeat at the Alamo turned into a propaganda victory and in less than two months Santa Ana’s army had been defeated and an independent Texas Republic had been secured.

Despite Travis’s talk of Liberty, the new republic decreed:

  • Persons of colour who had been servants for life under Mexican law would become property.
  • Congress should pass no law restricting emigrants from bring their slaves into Texas.
  • Congress shall not have the power to emancipate slaves.
  • Slaveowners may not free their slaves without Congressional approval unless the freed slaves leave Texas.
  • Free persons of African descent were required to petition the Texas Congress for permission to continue living in the country.
  • Africans and the descendants of Africans and Indians were excluded from the class of ‘persons’ having rights.

February 22


St Margaret of Cortona

How does one get to be the patron saint of hoboes, the homeless, the mentally ill, the falsely accused, midwives, reformed prostitutes, penitent women, unmarried women and those ridiculed for their piety, as well as the saint to be called up on by those suffering sexual temptation? The life of St Margaret of Cortona will tell you.

Margaret (1247-1297) was an attractive young Italian woman who ran off with a lover and bore his child. When he was murdered she had a crisis of conscience and tried to return to a decent life but was rebuffed by her family. She joined an order of Franciscan nuns and spent the rest of her life in service to the sick. She was a mystic who communed with the spirit of Jesus, as well as a founder of hospitals and an order of women dedicated to helping the poor. Despite her piety, she was always dogged by the memory of her earlier unsanctified way of life.

February 21


The publication of The Communist Manifesto

1848 was the Year of Revolutions. All across Europe rebellions of national and liberal varieties broke out against the monarchies and multinational empires of the Continent. All of these flared up and failed, but one little revolutionary publication, scarcely noticed at the time, survived to become one of the most influential political tracts ever written.

The Communist League (born a decade earlier as the League of the Just) was a little-regarded, loosely-connected potpourri of socialist malcontents, one of a myriad of left-wing collectives, much better at philosophizing and arguing with each other than they were at bringing down the established powers. Among its members were two German exiles, the journalist Karl Marx and the rich man’s son Friedrich Engels, who had pledged to draw up a statement of the League’s beliefs. After many false starts and much procrastination, The Communist Manifesto arrived just in time to have no influence whatsoever on the revolutions of that year.

The little book’s great impact was to occur in the decades to come as it inspired revolutionaries with its claims of a truly scientific analysis of human history. The present economic state of a mass of underpaid labourers oppressed by the great industrialists was soon to be over. The dialectic of history had been decoded by Marx and Engels who predicted that the proletariat would soon overcome the bourgeoisie and usher in a classless state of equality and freedom from want or alienation. Despite numerous  attempts at producing such a heaven on earth on the national level, Marxism has been successful only in winning over academics in the social sciences and Grievance Studies.

February 20


Cancellation of the Avro Arrow

Want to get a Canadian historian all teary-eyed and remorseful? Want to see him clench his fists and trouble deaf heaven with his bootless cries? If so, just sidle up to him and whisper “Diefenbaker canceled the Arrow”, but step back quickly lest you be caught in the sudden outburst of mingled lachrymosity and rage.

The CF-105, Avro Arrow, was surely the most beautiful fighter aircraft ever built. It was also the most advanced interceptor of its era, designed to counter the threat of Soviet bomber attacks on North America. Capable of Mach 2 performance and armed with nuclear missiles that could destroy whole waves of attackers, the Arrow was far superior to its predecessor, the CF-100 Canuck, and other fighters of the time such as the Delta Dart, the Voodoo, and the Mig-21.

In February 1959 the Diefenbaker government abruptly cancelled the Arrow program and ordered all prototypes, plans, and parts destroyed. This decision crippled the Canadian aerospace industry, and resulted in tens of thousands of lost jobs and a brain drain of engineers and scientists to the USA and Britain. One of the big winners was NASA which scooped up dozens of Arrow technicians for its missile and moon mission projects.

A cold calculus might back the government’s decision. The Arrow was an enormously expensive programme and the development of Russian ICBMs meant that a bomber threat was less likely. Canadian counter-intelligence suspected a Soviet mole at work in the project and it was they who demanded the destruction of the aircraft. (Parts of the plane and its plans were, nonetheless, smuggled out by workers for preservation.) The money that was to be saved by cancelling the Arrow was spent on the ultimately useless Bomarc anti-aircraft missile, dubbed “the world’s most expensive lawn dart”.

The Arrow lives in in Canadian mythology as a lost moment, a bit of greatness that might have been but never was.


February 19


1594 Birth of Henry Prince of Wales

Henry Frederick Stuart was the oldest son of King James VI of Scotland who in 1603 became James I of England. His death in 1612 left second son Charles as the heir. It was the fate of Charles to prompt the English Civil War and be executed for  treason in 1649, prompting the founding of an English republic. Chambers in his Book of Days laments the death by typhoid of Henry and the course that English history might have taken:

It is blessed to die in promise, rather than after all the blots and mischances of performance. We naturally credit the young dead with much which might never have been realized. Nevertheless, in the early death of Henry Prince of Wales there is no room to doubt that the national bewailment was just. All accounts concur in representing him as a youth of bright talents, most generous dispositions, and the noblest aspirations. At sixteen, he had the figure, the proportions, and the sentiments of a full-grown man. With the love of study which belonged to his father, he possessed what his father entirely lacked, a love of manly military exercises. In riding, in archery, in the use of arms, he was without a superior. He studied shipbuilding and the whole art of war with as much zeal as if he had had no taste for elegant learning. When, at Christmas 1609, the romantic spectacle called his Barriers was presented in the Banqueting House at Whitehall,—when he and six other youths met each in succession eight others, at pike and sword play,—all clad in the beautiful armour of the period,—Henry was remarked, to the surprise of all, to have given and received thirty-two pushes of pike and about three hundred and sixty strokes of sword, in one evening.

It was in the midst of active study and exercise, and while the nation was becoming fully aware of the promise he gave as their future ruler, that this accomplished prince was seized with a fever, the consequence, apparently, of the too violent fatigues to which he occasionally subjected himself. What immediately affected him to a fatal illness, seems to have been his playing at tennis one evening without his coat. In the simple act of stripping off and laying aside that coat, was involved an incalculable change of the current of English history; for, had Henry survived and reigned, the country would probably have escaped a civil war—and who can say, in that event, how much our national destinies might have been changed, for good or evil? During the twelve days of the prince’s illness, the public mind was wrought up to a pitch of intense anxiety regarding him: and when, on one occasion, he was thought to have yielded up the ghost, the cry of grief went out from St. James’s Palace into the street, and was there repeated and spread by the sympathising multitude. All that the medical skill of that age could do was done to save so valuable a life, including some applications that sound strangely in our ears: for example, pigeons applied to the head, and a split cock to the feet. Sir Walter Raleigh sent from his prison in the Tower a ‘quinteseence’ which he believed to be of wonderful power: and it did give the prince the only approach to a restoring perspiration which he had had. But all was in vain. Henry died on the 6th of November 1612, when three months less than nineteen years of age. As a historical event, his death ranks with a very small class in which deceased royalty has been mourned by the nation’s heart.

The national admiration of this young prince is shown in some quaint lines, hitherto inedited, in the Burleigh MSS.:

Loa where he shineth yonder, 
A fixed star in heaven:
Whose motion heere came under 
None of your planets heaven.
if that the moone should tender 
The sunne her love, and marry, 
They both would not engender
Soe great a star as Harry.

February 18

1478 The death of the Duke of Clarence

Second murderer: Take him [the Duke of Clarence] on the costard with the hilts of thy sword, and then throw him into the malmsey-butt in the next room.

First Murderer [to the Duke of Clarence, stabbing him]: Take that, and that. If all this will not do, I’ll drown you in the malmsey-butt within.

This is how Shakespeare treats the death of George, Duke of Clarence, brother to King Edward IV and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III. Before and after the Bard’s version, historians have debated how Clarence died and who was responsible for his death. In the sixteenth century it was widely believed that Gloucester had ordered the execution while more recent historians have expressed the possibility that Gloucester opposed his brother’s death.

By the standards of the time, Clarence certainly deserved to get the chop. He had betrayed his brothers and allied himself with this family’s dynastic rivals, Henry VI and the Lancastrian faction, but eventually deserted them to rejoin his Yorkist siblings. Never quite stable, mentally, he then seems to have again aroused suspicions of disloyalty in Edward’s mind and he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death.

His two surviving children who lived into the 16th century were both murdered on the orders of Henry VIII, whose Tudor father Henry VII had usurped the throne from Richard III.

February 17


1600 The burning of Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was a multifaceted genius unfortunate enough to be born in the age of the Inquisition and foolish enough to be careless in his utterances.

Born in southern Italy he joined the Dominican order and became a priest in 1572. He achieved fame as a scholar, particularly in the arts of memory at a time when studies in classical mnemonics were being revived in Renaissance. His unorthodox dabbling (he mused on Arianism and Erasmus) came to the attention of the authorities and he fled north, wandering to Naples, Genoa, Venice and for a time in Calvinist Geneva, though he seems not to have found Protestantism to his liking. Moving to France, he took his doctorate in theology at Toulouse and then moved to Paris where he dazzled the French court with his mastery of memory. He found powerful patrons there and in England but the unorthodoxy of his ideas was always peeping through. He championed Copernican theory before its wide acceptance and his attacks on Aristotle were not always well received, causing him to move about Europe from one teaching post to another. He had a great gift for making enemies out of friends.

In 1592 he was denounced to the Venetian Inquisition and he spent the last seven years of his life in jail defending his positions. Aside from his offensive cosmography — he suggested that there were multiple worlds in space where other life-forms might exist — he was deemed to have advanced heretical ideas on the Trinity, the Incarnation, the nature of the Eucharist, the transmigration of souls and the Catholic Church. He was found guilty and burnt at the stake in Rome’s Campo di’ Fiori where a statue to him now stands.

In modern times Bruno has been hailed as a martyr of science at the hands of an obscurantist church but it seems that he was most likely executed for his pantheism rather than his ideas on planetary forms.

February 16


1804 Americans burn the USS Philadelphia

The civilized world was plagued for centuries by the pirates of the Barbary Coast of North Africa. They terrorized the shores of the Christian Mediterranean and sailed into the Atlantic as far north as Iceland to take slaves — over a million Europeans were taken captive from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Countries either paid protection money or suffered the constant assaults on their shipping and coastal towns. The newly-independent United States began by paying the extortion — amounting to 16% of the American federal budget — but finally, under Thomas Jefferson, the USA had had enough. The officials with whom the Americans had negotiated told them their piracy was a religious duty:

“It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.”

So in 1801 began The First Barbary War against these pirate nests. In October 1803 the frigate USS Philadelphia while engaging in this campaign went aground near the city of Tripoli and its crew taken prisoner by the local Muslim pirate king. The ship was too dangerous a prize to be left in the hands of the Bey of Tripoli, so Commodore Edward Preble ordered Lieutenant Stephen Decatur to try and repossess the ship or destroy it.

Sir, you are hereby ordered to take command of the prize ketch Intrepid. It is my order that you proceed to Tripoli, enter the harbor in the night, board the Philadelphia, burn her and make good your retreat … The destruction of the Philadelphia is an object of great importance. I rely with confidence on your intrepidity and enterprise to effect it.

The Intrepid, previously named Mastico, had been captured from the Tripolitans, and Decatur disguised the ship as a merchant vessel run by a small Arab-speaking crew; Decatur and most of the men hid below deck. Under the ruse that the ship had lost its anchor, permission was sought to tie up to the Philadelphia. When the two ships were aside one another, Decatur and the other men burst out and onto the Philadelphia, easily overcoming the crew aboard. In a matter of minutes, 20 of the enemy were dead and others had jumped ship. The Americans then proceeded to send the ship up in flames and quickly retreat to the Intrepid.

British Admiral Horatio Nelson called it “the most bold and daring act of the age.”