March 24

An eventful date in church history

  • 1603 James VI of Scotland (1566-1625) succeeds Queen Elizabeth as ruler of England. Despite hopes by English Catholics that James, the son of Mary Queen of Scots, would relax laws against their religion the new king maintained that legislation, prompting young Catholic conspirators to plan his assassination in the Gunpowder Plot. He similarly disappointed the Puritan element who hoped that James, raised a Calvinist, would favour them and abolish the episcopacy. Perhaps the greatest achievement of his reign was the 1611 production of the Authorized (or “King James”) Version of the English Bible.
  • 1820 Birth of Fanny Crosby (1820-1915), prolific hymn writer. Though blind since shortly after birth Crosby wrote 8,000 songs under 200 different pseudonyms. Among her compositions were “Blessed Assurance”, “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Saviour”, “To God Be the Glory” and “Saved By Grace.”
  • 1829 The Roman Catholic Relief Act is passed by the British Parliament part of a series of legal moves allowing Catholics to vote, serve in Parliament, attend university and enter the professions. These restrictions dated from the 17th century and were particularly important in suppressing the majority aspirations in Ireland.
  • 1832 Mormon leader Joseph Smith (1805-44) is tarred and feathered by a mob in Hiram, Ohio. Smith’s decision to establish a new religion and community in Ohio outraged local residents who responded violently. Eventually Smith would be murdered and his followers would migrate to the West and settle in great numbers in Utah.
  • 1980 Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-80) is gunned down while celebrating Mass in San Salvador. Though a theological conservative, Romero spoke out repeatedly against the human rights abuses of the military government earning him the hatred of the ruling classes. While no one has ever been convicted of his murder, it is universally attributed to a military death squad sanctioned by the authorities of the time. In 2018 he was canonized by Pope Francis, thus recognizing him as a saint.

March 23

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1540

Waltham Abbey, the last English monastery, is dissolved

The English Reformation was a piecemeal process, directed from the top and often taking sinister turns. One such regrettable misstep was the epic looting known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Though Henry VIII had begun the process of creating a Protestant England by removing the national church from the pope’s control, he still fancied himself a good Catholic theologically. Nonetheless, his chief adviser and evil genius Thomas Cromwell advanced the reform of religion by sanctioning an English translation of the Bible, arranging a (disastrous) Protestant marriage partner for Henry, and persuading the king that the monastic system which had endured in England for a thousand years be abolished.

Cromwell sent out commissioners to catalogue the wealth of the monasteries, priories, chantries and nunneries as well as investigators to take the spiritual temperature of the religious houses. Unsurprisingly, they reported to their master what he wanted to hear — that the monasteries were very rich and corrupt: indolent, sexually incontinent and parasites on the realm. The Henrician regime then embarked on a policy of suppressing this ancient system by buying out the abbots and priors with handsome pensions, booting the vast majority of the monks and nuns on to the street with little compensation, and judicially murdering those who opposed these acts. What resulted was one of the biggest involuntary transfers of wealth in history, on a par with the sack of Constantinople in 1204, the looting of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, and the British destruction of the Chinese Summer Palace in 1860.

Henry VIII did not really benefit from the seizure of these rich properties; most lands went to his supporters and vast sums were wasted on wars with France. The charities and schools that the monasteries had supported were often ignored by the lords who seized the revenues and the north of the country rose in a rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. The remains of these once-great institutions are evoked by Shakespeare who spoke of the “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang”.

March 22

1930 Birth of Pat Robertson

The son of a Democratic United States senator from Virginia, Pat Robertson turned from a career in the law to one in religion and made himself one of the most influential and enigmatic leaders of the so-called Christian Right during the Reagan era of the 1980s and beyond. As president of the Christian Coalition, which he founded, from 1989 to 1997, Robertson helped galvanize millions of evangelical Christians toward greater participation in the political process, and has himself considered running for the White House.

Raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, Robertson graduated magna cum laude from Washington and Lee University in 1950. After serving as a Marine Corps officer during the Korean conflict he returned to his education, receiving a J.D. from Yale Law School in 1955. Failures in an early business venture, and his attempts to pass the New York bar exam helped steer him back toward his religious roots. He attended a theological seminary, graduating with a B.Div., and worked for a time with the mostly black inner-city poor in Brooklyn before returning to Virginia where he was ordained a Southern Baptist minister in 1960.

Robertson demonstrated the intensely entrepreneurial side of his character in 1961 when he started operating WYAH, a television station in Virginia that became the first in the nation devoted to primarily religious programming. From this single station Robertson launched what would become a veritable communications empire: the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), offshoots of which grew to include a relief agency, cable television holdings, the American Center for Law and Justice, which specializes in First Amendment cases, and Regent University, which came to call itself “America’s premier Christian graduate school.”

The flagship program of his network was The 700 Club, which Robertson hosted from 1966. His success both behind and before the camera led many conservative Christians to promote Robertson’s involvement in U.S. politics. Though he at first thought political organizing was inconsistent with his clerical calling, he had a change of heart by the 1980s, when he began to organize mobilization efforts such as a 1980 “Washington for Jesus” rally and his own Freedom Council (1981-86). In 1984 he changed his party affiliation to Republican. When presented in 1987 with what was purported to be a petition of some 3.3 million names urging him to run for office, he resigned his church offices and launched a campaign for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination. Despite early successes in some primaries, Robertson’s candidacy had been decisively rejected by “Super Tuesday” in March of that year, even by many members of conservative Christian churches.

Undaunted by his electoral failure Robertson returned to the idea of grassroots organizing. In 1989 he founded and became the first president of the Christian Coalition, an organization whose mission was to represent evangelical opinion to government bodies, protest anti-Christian bias in public life, train leaders, and develop policies–all while being careful not to lose its tax-exempt status by supporting partisan candidates. The Christian Coalition proved very successful in enunciating the social agenda of the religious right in the United States. With a national membership well in excess of a million, the group raised the political profile of a hitherto-marginalized section of the population. Mirroring the Republican Party’s “Contract with America,” the Coalition advanced its “Contract with the American Family,” which was trumpeted as “A Bold Plan to Strengthen the Family and Restore Common-Sense Values.” Many attributed the G.O.P’s triumphs in 1996 Congressional races to the efforts of Robertson and his branch of the religious right.

Robertson astonished the media world in 1997 when, on the same day he resigned the presidency of the Christian Coalition, he sold his International Family Entertainment corporation to Rupert Murdoch, a media mogul whose television and newspaper holdings had often been criticized for taking the low moral road. Robertson tried to assuage criticism by promising that the hundreds of millions of dollars the sale had generated would go toward a new global television evangelism campaign as well as to enhance the endowment of Regent University. Part of the deal with Murdoch’s Fox Kids Worldwide Inc. was that The 700 Club would continue to be aired by the new entity and that CBN itself would remain independent.

Robertson remains a figure who defies easy characterization. For many on the political left, Robertson is, as described by Robert Boston, “the most dangerous man in America” due to his stances on social issues like homosexuality and the role of women. Those who valued the country’s multicultural heritage reacted with horror to Robertson’s suggestion that only devout Christians and Jews were fit to hold public office. Other liberals decried his proposals to abolish the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. Robertson’s hopes of restoring prayer to public schools and re-establishing the United States as a “Christian nation” seemed an affront to the constitutional separation of church and state and drew the ire of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League.

His capacity for stirring outrage continues to attract media attention. He seemed to attribute the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005 as divine retribution against Americans for their permissive lifestyles; he blamed the 2010 Haiti earthquakes on a 1791 pact with the devil. He offended many fellow Christians with the suggestion that it was morally permissible to divorce a spouse with Alzheimer’s Disease and with revelations of financial dealings with African dictator Charles Taylor of Liberia. His frequent predictions of cataclysmic events that never ensue have grown tiresome.

Robertson is neither a backwoods fundamentalist nor a one-dimensional Elmer Gantry. He is well educated, well off, and well connected, with two American presidents on his family tree, and his pragmatism has made him an enormously successful businessman. His particular brand of charismatic theology, moreover, is opposed by many right-wing Christians who are uneasy about his claim to receiving divinely inspired “words of knowledge” and his belief that even the faithful will suffer from a pre-millennial period of tribulation before the final coming of Christ. During the 1988 primaries, for example, Robertson’s bid for the Republican nomination drew less support from members attending conservative Baptist churches than it did from other white voters. Despite the criticism he has received from some American Jewish groups, he is a leading defender of the state of Israel, which he sees in the context of Biblical end-times prophecies. Robertson, for a time, resumed the presidency of the Christian Coalition after the departure of Ralph Reed, and presided over the reorganization of the group into two entities–Christian Coalition International and Christian Coalition of America–in the wake of a 1999 IRS ruling that revoked its tax-exempt status. A supporter of Donald Trump, he continues to be active in business, media and social advocacy of issues favoured by the Christian right.

 

March 21

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The Emperor Heraclius returns the True Cross to Jerusalem

The cross on which Jesus was crucified was for almost a thousand years the most valued of all Christian relics. It had been lost to history until being rediscovered by St Helena in 326 and enshrined in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. During an invasion of the Byzantine empire in 614, the Cross was looted and taken to Persia. After Heraclius had defeated the Sassanid armies at the Battle of Nineveh, the relic was returned to Christian control, first in Constantinople and then, on this date in 630, to Jerusalem. Though fragments of the Cross are claimed to be held in numerous churches the major part of it was lost after the Battle of Hattin in 1187 when the Kingdom of Jerusalem was defeated by the Turks.

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1556 The execution of Thomas Cranmer

Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) was the leading Protestant churchman of the English Reformation and a brilliant prose stylist whose writings have deeply influenced the language. As Archbishop of Canterbury he helped engineer the divorce of Henry VIII from Katherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Cranmer was foremost in the king’s decision to wrench the Church of England from its obedience to the Pope but revealed himself to be a hotter sort of gospeller under Edward VI where he supervised the writing of two Books of Common Prayer and led the Church toward a unique kind of Protestantism that would be known as Anglicanism. He was arrested by Queen Mary following her accession and, in order to save his life, attempted to shape his beliefs to her resurgent Catholicism, writing recantations of his Protestantism.

This would have been a splendid propaganda coup for the Marian regime but the Queen who hated him for his part in the treatment of her mother Katharine insisted that he be executed despite his paper conversion. Learning he was to die anyway, Cranmer recanted his recantations and went to the stake in a brave way that moved even a Catholic bystander:

I would not at this time have written to you the unfortunate end, and doubtful tragedy, of Thomas Cranmer late bishop of Canterbury: because I little pleasure take in beholding of such heavy sights. And, when they are once overpassed, I like not to rehearse them again; being but a renewing of my woe, and doubling my grief. For although his former, and wretched end, deserves a greater misery, (if any greater might have chanced than chanced unto him), yet, setting aside his offenses to God and his country, and beholding the man without his faults, I think there was none that pitied not his case, and bewailed not his fortune, and feared not his own chance, to see so noble a prelate, so grave a counsellor, of so long continued honor, after so many dignities, in his old years to be deprived of his estate, adjudged to die, and in so painful a death to end his life. I have no delight to increase it. Alas, it is too much of itself, that ever so heavy a case should betide to man, and man to deserve it.

But to come to the matter: on Saturday last, being 21 of March, was his day appointed to die. And because the morning was much rainy, the sermon appointed by Mr Dr Cole to be made at the stake, was made in St Mary’s church: whither Dr Cranmer was brought by the mayor and aldermen, and my lord Williams: with whom came divers gentlemen of the shire, sir T A Bridges, sir John Browne, and others. Where was prepared, over against the pulpit, a high place for him, that all the people might see him. And, when he had ascended it, he kneeled him down and prayed, weeping tenderly: which moved a great number to tears, that had conceived an assured hope of his conversion and repentance….

When praying was done, he stood up, and, having leave to speak, said, ‘Good people, I had intended indeed to desire you to pray for me; which because Mr Doctor hath desired, and you have done already, I thank you most heartily for it. And now will I pray for myself, as I could best devise for mine own comfort, and say the prayer, word for word, as I have here written it.’ And he read it standing: and after kneeled down, and said the Lord’s Prayer; and all the people on their knees devoutly praying with him….

And then rising, he said, ‘Every man desireth, good people, at the time of their deaths, to give some good exhortation, that other may remember after their deaths, and be the better thereby. So I beseech God grant me grace, that I may speak something, at this my departing, whereby God may be glorified, and you edified….

And now I come to the great thing that troubleth my conscience more than nay other thing that ever I said or did in my life: and that is, the setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth. Which here now I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand, contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart, and written for fear of death, and to save my life, if it might be: and that is, all such bills, which I have written or signed with mine own hand since my degradation: wherein I have written many things untrue. And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, therefore my hand shall first be punished: for if I may come to the fire, it shall be first burned. And as for the pope, I refuse him, as Christ’s enemy and antichrist, with all his false doctrine.’

And here, being admonished of his recantation and dissembling, he said, ‘Alas, my lord, I have been a man that all my life loved plainness, and never dissembled till now against the truth; which I am most sorry for it.’ He added hereunto, that, for the sacrament, he believed as he had taught in his book against the bishop of Winchester. And here he was suffered to speak no more….

Then was he carried away; and a great number, that did run to see him go so wickedly to his death, ran after him, exhorting him, while time was, to remember himself. And one Friar John, a godly and well learned man, all the way traveled with him to reduce him. But it would not be. What they said in particular I cannot tell, but the effect appeared in the end: for at the stake he professed, that he died in all such opinions as he had taught, and oft repented him of his recantation.

Coming to the stake with a cheerful countenance and willing mind, he put off his garments with haste, and stood upright in his shirt: and bachelor of divinity, named Elye, of Brazen-nose college, labored to convert him to his former recantation, with the two Spanish friars. And when the friars saw his constancy, they said in Latin to one another ‘Let us go from him: we ought not to be nigh him: for the devil is with him.’ But the bachelor of divinity was more earnest with him: unto whom he answered, that, as concerning his recantation, he repented it right sore, because he knew it was against the truth; with other words more. Whereby the Lord Williams cried, ‘Make short, make short.’ Then the bishop took certain of his friends by the hand. But the bachelor of divinity refused to take him by the hand, and blamed all the others that so did, and said, he was sorry that ever he came in his company. And yet again he required him to agree to his former recantation. And the bishop answered, (showing his hand), ‘This was the hand that wrote it, and therefore shall it suffer first punishment.’

Fire being now put to him, he stretched out his right hand, and thrust it into the flame, and held it there a good space, before the fire came to any other part of his body; where his hand was seen of every man sensibly burning, crying with a loud voice, ‘This hand hath offended.’ As soon as the fire got up, he was very soon dead, never stirring or crying all the while.

His patience in the torment, his courage in dying, if it had been taken either for the glory of God, the wealth of his country, or the testimony of truth, as it was for a pernicious error, and subversion of true religion, I could worthily have commended the example, and matched it with the fame of any father of ancient time: but, seeing that not the death, but cause and quarrel thereof, commendeth the sufferer, I cannot but much dispraise his obstinate stubbornness and sturdiness in dying, and specially in so evil a cause. Surely his death much grieved every man; but not after one sort. Some pitied to see his body so tormented with the fire raging upon the silly carcass, that counted not of the folly. Other that passed not much of the body, lamented to see him spill his soul, wretchedly, without redemption, to be plagued for ever. His friends sorrowed for love; his enemies for pity; strangers for a common kind of humanity, whereby we are bound one to another.

March 20

1413 The Death of Henry IV

Henry IV of England(1367-1413)  was a usurper who assumed the throne after the deposition of Richard II. His claim was not as good as that of the Earl of March but, as the latter was too young, Henry succeeded and is considered the founder of the Lancastrian dynasty.

The focus of today’s entry is the prophecy that Henry would die in Jerusalem (and other predictions).

Robert Fabian was the first to relate the since often-quoted account of the circumstances attending the death of the fourth Henry:

‘In this year’ [1412], says the worthy citizen, ‘and twentieth day of the month of November, was a great council holden at the Whitefriars of London, by the which it was, among other things, concluded, that for the King’s great journey he intended to take in visiting the Holy Sepulchre of our Lord, certain galleys of war should be made, and other purveyance concerning the same journey.

Whereupon, all hasty and possible speed was made, but after the feast of Christmas, while he was making his prayers at St. Edward’s shrine, to take there his leave, and so to speed him on his journey, he became so sick, that such as were about him feared that he would have died right there: wherefore they, for his comfort, bore him into the Abbot’s place, and lodged him in a chamber; and there, upon a pallet, laid him before the fire, where he lay in great agony a certain of time.’

‘At length, when he was come to himself, not knowing where he was, freyned [inquired] of such as then were about him, what place that was: the which shewed to him, that it belonged unto the Abbot of Westminster: and for he felt himself so sick, he commanded to ask if that chamber had any special name. Whereunto it was answered, that it was named Jerusalem. Then said the king—”Loving be to the Father of Heaven, for now I know I shall die in this chamber, according to the prophecy of me before said that I should die in Jerusalem:” and so after, he made himself ready, and died shortly after, upon the day of St. Cuthbert, or the twentieth day of March 1413.’

This story has been frequently told with variations of places and persons; among the rest, of Gerbert, Pope Sylvester II, who died in 1003. Gerbert was a native of France, but, being imbued with a strong thirst for knowledge, he pursued his studies at Seville, then the great seat of learning among the Moors of Spain. Becoming an eminent mathematician and astronomer, he introduced the use of the Arabic numerals to the Christian nations of Europe; and, in consequence, acquired the name and fame of a most potent necromancer. So, as the tale is told, Gerbert, being very anxious to inquire into the future, but at the same time determined not to be cheated, by what Macbeth terms the juggling fiends, long considered how he could effect his purpose.

At last he hit upon a plan, which he put into execution by making, under certain favourable planetary conjunctions, a brazen head, and endowing it with speech. But still dreading diabolical deception, he gave the head power to utter only two words—plain ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ Now, there were two all-important questions, to which Gerbert anxiously desired responses. The first, prompted by ambition, regarded his advancement to the papal chair: the second referred to the length of his life,—for Gerbert, in his pursuit of magical knowledge, had entered into certain engagements with a certain party who shall be nameless: which rendered it very desirable that his life should reach to the longest possible span, the reversion, so to speak, being a very uncomfortable prospect. 

Accordingly Gerbert asked the head, ‘Shall I become Pope? ‘The head replied, ‘Yes!’ The next question was, ‘Shall I die before I chant mass in Jerusalem?’ The answer was, `No!’ Of course, Gerbert had previously determined, that if the answer should be in the negative, he would take good care never to go to Jerusalem. But the certain party, previously hinted at, is not so easily cheated. Gerbert became Pope Sylvester, and one day while chanting mass in a church at Rome found himself suddenly very ill. On making inquiry, he learned that the church he was then in was named Jerusalem. At once, knowing his fate, he made preparations for his approaching end, which took place in a very short time.

Malispini relates in his Florentine history that the Emperor Frederick II had been warned, by a soothsayer, that he would die a violent death in Firenze (Florence). So Frederick avoided Firenze, and, that there might be no mistake about the matter, he shunned the town of Faenza also. But he thought there was no danger in visiting Firenzuolo, in the Appenines. There he was treacherously murdered in 1250, by his illegitimate son Manfred [No, he wasn’t; he died of dysentery. – GQB] Thus, says Malispini, he was unable to prevent the fulfilment of the prophecy.

The old English chroniclers tell a somewhat similar story of an Earl of Pembroke, who, being informed that he would be slain at Warwick, solicited and obtained the governorship of Berwick-upon-Tweed; to the end that he might not have an opportunity of even approaching the fatal district of Warwickshire. But a short time afterwards, the Earl being killed in repelling an invasion of the Scots, it was discovered that Barwick, as it was then pronounced, was the place meant by the quibbling prophet.

The period of the death of Henry IV was one of great political excitement, and consequently highly favourable to the propagation of prophecies of all kinds. The deposition of Richard and usurpation of Henry were said to have been foretold, many centuries previous, by the enchanter Merlin; and both parties, during the desolating civil wars that ensued, invented prophecies whenever it suited their purpose. Two prophecies of the ambiguous kind, ‘equivocations of the fiend that lies like truth,’ are recorded by the historians of the wars of the roses, and noticed by Shakspeare.

William de la Pole, first Duke of Suffolk, had been warned by a wizard, to beware of water and avoid the tower. So when his fall came, and he was ordered to leave England in three days, he made all haste from London, on his way to France, naturally supposing that the Tower of London, to which traitors were conveyed by water, was the place of danger indicated. On his passage across the Channel, however, he was captured by a ship named Nicholas of the Tower, commanded by a man surnamed Walter. 

The other instance refers to Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, who is said to have consulted Margery Jourdemayne, the celebrated witch of Eye, with respect to his conduct and fate during the impending conflicts. She told him that he would be defeated and slain at a castle: but as long as he arrayed his forces and fought in the open field, he would be victorious and safe from harm. Shakspeare represents her familiar spirit saying:

‘Let him shun castles.
Safer shall he be on the sandy plain
Than where castles mounted stand.’

After the first battle of St. Albans, when the trembling monks crept from their cells to succour the wounded and inter the slain, they found the dead body of Somerset lying at the threshold of a mean alehouse, the sign of which was a castle. And thus,

‘Underneath an alehouse’ paltry sign,
The Castle, in St. Albans, Somerset
Hath made the wizard famous in his death.’

Cardinal Wolsey, it is said, had been warned to beware of Kingston. And supposing that the town of Kingston was indicated by the person who gave the warning, the cardinal took care never to pass through that town: preferring to go many miles about, though it lay in the direct road between his palaces of Esher and Hampton Court. But after his fall, when arrested by Sir William Kingston, and taken to the Abbey of Leicester, he said, ‘Father Abbot, I am come to leave my bones among you,’ for he knew that his end was at hand.

March 19

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St Joseph’s Day

You might think that the earthly father of Our Lord would get a little more attention but the general attitude toward him is shown by the Nativity icon above — Joseph is old, bewildered and remote from the action.

Joseph appears first in the gospels as the betrothed of Mary. When he learns she is pregnant he is dissuaded from abandoning her by an angelic visit that tells him the child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. He takes Mary, late in her pregnancy, to Bethlehem to be enumerated and there she gives birth to Jesus. Warned in a vision to flee Herod he takes his wife and child to Egypt and then back to Nazareth. The last glimpse we have of him in the canonical scriptures is on a visit to Jerusalem when Jesus was twelve and eluded his anxious parents to stay and talk with learned men in the Temple.

Legend and apocryphal scripture treat Joseph in much more detail. There he is always depicted as an older man, a widower with sons, who won Mary as a bride after supernatural intervention. In Nativity art he appears in depictions of his encounters with the angels, the Journey to Bethlehem, the manger scene and the Flight Into Egypt. In these settings he is often portrayed somewhat apart from Jesus — as a sign that he is not the child’s true father — and often looking bemused or thoughtful at the amazing turn of events.

Joseph is patron of the universal Church, Austria, Belgium, Canada, fathers, carpenters, house hunters and social justice. In the West his feast is on March 19 and in the Eastern churches it is the first Sunday after Christmas. As Joseph the Worker he is also celebrated on May 1. Because the Holy Family were in need of shelter both in Bethlehem and on the Flight to Egypt some homeowners today wishing to sell their house bury a statue of St Joseph upside down in the yard. A detailed discussion of this superstition with helpful tips for placement of the image may be found here: http://saint-josephstatue.com/Where_to_bury_a_St_Joseph_statue.html

March 18

1940 Hitler and Mussolini meet at the Brenner Pass

By March 1940 the Second World War was six months old. Hitler’s armies had conquered Poland but had not faced much resistance from Britain and France: this was the period of the so-called sitzkrieg or “Phoney War”. Italy, though sympathetic to German aims, had remained on the sidelines. On this date the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini met the train carrying Hitler and the German foreign minister von Ribbentrop at a station in the Alps.

Both countries were intent on war with Britain and France but Mussolini entered the conference reluctant to act quickly. His war aims were to drive Britain from its Mediterranean possessions such as Malta and Gibraltar and to recover Corsica and Nice from the French.

Mussolini’s son-in-law Gian Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian foreign minister (whom Mussolini will later order executed), kept notes of the encounter:

The Hitler meeting is very cordial on both sides. The conference … is more a monologue than anything else. Hitler talks all the time, but is less agitated than usual. He makes few gestures and speaks in a quiet tone. He looks physically fit. Mussolini listens to him with interest and with deference. He speaks little and confirms his intention to move with Germany. He reserves to himself only the choice of the right moment . .. The conference ends with a short meal.

Later Mussolini gives me his impressions. He did not find in Hitler that uncompromising attitude which von Ribbentrop had led him to suspect. Yesterday, as well, von Ribbentrop only opened his mouth to harp on Hitler’s intransigency. Mussolini believes that Hitler will think twice before he begins an offensive on land.

The meeting has not substantially changed our position.

The Italians seem to have been deceived about Hitler’s plans because within weeks German armies were rolling in the west, invading Belgium, the Netherlands and France. At the point where the French were sure to lose, Mussolini joined in and attacked them from the south.

March 17

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The Battle of Los Alporchones

In 711 Muslim Arab and Berber raiders from North Africa crossed the straits to Spain where they conquered the Christian Visigoth kingdom and occupied all of the Iberian peninsula except for a small part of the mountainous northwest. Islamic armies took the religion of Muhammed across the Pyrenees and got as far north as Tours in France before being pushed back. Moorish Spain with its capital in Cordoba became an ornament of civilization but it could never eradicate the independent Christian states who began a 700-year fight-back known as the Reconquisita. After the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 Muslim power was gradually reduced to the emirate of Granada in southeastern Spain.

The history of Spain in the late Middle Ages is often told as the tale of an inevitable decline in the presence of Islam. Though Granada paid a monetary tribute to the Kingdom of Castile it remained independent and prosperous, a thriving trade link between Africa and Europe. The glorious Alhambra Palace was built for the last dynasty of Granadan emirs. Granada also continued to conduct aggressive wars against its Christian neighbours, raiding for slaves and loot in Murcia and Castile.

During one such incursion in 1452 a Christian army ambushed the raiders who were returning home. In the subsequent battle, the Grenadans suffered heavy losses and the emirate would never again venture across the border. In honour of the saint on whose day the battle was fought the city of Murcia named Patrick their patron and built the church of San Patricio. 

In a scarcely related note, a unit of Irish-American deserters and immigrants fighting on the side of Mexico in the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 called themselves the San Patricios or St Patrick Battalion. They had a distinguished combat record but, after the American victory, 50 of them were hanged for desertion. In Mexico, they are still regarded as patriotic volunteers.

March 16

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St Jean Brébeuf Day

Jean de Brébeuf (1593-1649) was a Norman who entered the Society of Jesus in 1617 and, like all Jesuits of the time, was trained to expect torture and death in the mission fields. The evangelization of Canadian natives had been entrusted to the Récollet order but when they gave up in frustration at their lack of success, the Jesuits took up the challenge. Brébeuf was sent to Quebec in 1625 and he would spend the rest of his life there, except for the four years from 1629-33 when the English occupied the colony.

Despite enormous hardships Brébeuf was an effective missionary to the Huron people in the area of Georgian Bay. He compiled a Huron dictionary and grammar and wrote the continent’s first Christmas carol in order to teach his flock the meaning of the nativity. Part of the Jesuit approach to missions has always been cultural sensitivity so Brébeuf set the story of the birth of Jesus in terms the Hurons could understand. Here is an English translation of the original “Ehstehn yayau deh tsaun we yisus ahattonnia”:

Have courage, you who are human beings: Jesus, he is born

The okie spirit who enslaved us has fled

Don’t listen to him for he corrupts the spirits of our thoughts

Jesus, he is born

The okie spirits who live in the sky are coming with a message

They’re coming to say, “Rejoice!

Mary has given birth. Rejoice!”

Jesus, he is born

Three men of great authority have left for the place of his birth

Tiscient, the star appearing over the horizon leads them there

That star will walk first on the bath to guide them

Jesus, he is born

The star stopped not far from where Jesus was born

Having found the place it said,

“Come this way”

Jesus, he is born

As they entered and saw Jesus they praised his name

They oiled his scalp many times, anointing his head

with the oil of the sunflower

Jesus, he is born

They say, “Let us place his name in a position of honour

Let us act reverently towards him for he comes to show us mercy

It is the will of the spirits that you love us, Jesus,

and we wish that we may be adopted into your family

Jesus, he is born

The 1926 English version by Jesse Edgar Middleton which begins “‘Twas in the moon of winter-time” is now loved around the world.

In 1649 the Iroquois waged genocidal war on the Huron Brébeuf and other Jesuits captive. The Catholic Encyclopedia recounts his sufferings:

On entering the village, they were met with a shower of stones, cruelly beaten with clubs, and then tied to posts to be burned to death. Brébeuf is said to have kissed the stake to which he was bound. The fire was lighted under them, and their bodies slashed with knives. Brébeuf had scalding water poured on his head in mockery of baptism, a collar of red-hot tomahawk-heads placed around his neck, a red-hot iron thrust down his throat, and when he expired his heart was cut out and eaten. Through all the torture he never uttered a groan.

Brébeuf was canonized in 1930 along with the other Jesuits murdered by the Iroquois during those years; they are known collectively as The Martyrs of Canada and are among the patron saints of that country.

March 15

44 BC The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Tullius seized his toga with both hands and pulled it down from his neck. This was the signal for the assault. It was Casca who gave him the first blow with his dagger, in the neck, not a mortal wound, nor even a deep one, for which he was too much confused, as was natural at the beginning of a deed of great daring; so that Caesar turned about, grasped the knife, and held it fast.  At almost the same instant both cried out, the smitten man in Latin: “Accursed Casca, what does thou?” and the smiter, in Greek, to his brother: “Brother, help!”

So the affair began, and those who were not privy to the plot were filled with consternation and horror at what was going on; they dared not fly, nor go to Caesar’s help, nay, nor even utter a word. But those who had prepared themselves for the murder bared each of them his dagger, and Caesar, hemmed in on all sides, whichever way he turned confronting blows of weapons aimed at his face and eyes, driven hither and thither like a wild beast, was entangled in the hands of all; for all had to take part in the sacrifice and taste of the slaughter. Therefore Brutus also gave him one blow in the groin.  And it is said by some writers that although Caesar defended himself against the rest and darted this way and that and cried aloud, when he saw that Brutus had drawn his dagger, he pulled his toga down over his head and sank, either by chance or because pushed there by his murderers, against the pedestal on which the statue of Pompey stood.

And the pedestal was drenched with his blood, so that one might have thought that Pompey himself was presiding over this vengeance upon his enemy, who now lay prostrate at his feet, quivering from a multitude of wounds. For it is said that he received twenty-three; and many of the conspirators were wounded by one another, as they struggled to plant all those blows in one body.

Thus the account of the death of the Roman dictator by Plutarch. Julius Caesar was a monster and had it coming but his death, which was supposed to save the aristocratic republic, led quickly to its demise and the beginning of imperial rule.