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Archive for the tag “18th century”

How expansive ambitions led to revolution

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAToday, I have the honour of being visited by Paul Bennett, who not only maintains an excellent review site, Hoover Book Reviews, but also writes books about set in the Americas during the decades leading up to the War of Independence. An interesting and not so often depicted period, IMO, which is why I felt it important to highlight Paul’s writing. It is also a complicated period to depict, with global alliances affecting the events on North American soil which is why I am so grateful to Paul for writing this guest post and shedding some light on this whole mess.


The mid-18th century was a time of turmoil and change in colonial America. The British colonies, being hemmed in between the Atlantic Ocean and the Appalachian Mountains sought to expand their territories west of the mountains that run from Maine in the north to Georgia in the south, despite the fact that there were already many native tribes living or hunting in these lands. Many of the tribes were being pushed further and further west; a movement that exacerbated the already volatile situation existing between traditional enemies. The Iroquois Confederacy, a powerful collection of tribes were in almost constant conflict with the Huron, Shawnee and Delaware tribes being displaced by British settlers. Despite this, the lure of fertile farmland and the lucrative fur trade were too promising to pass up and soon there were settlements dotting the landscape in what is now central and western Pennsylvania and upstate New York.

The French, meanwhile, were also laying claim to the western frontier, but not with an aim to colonize. Rather it was the major waterways, and consequently the fur trade that they sought to control with a string of forts and trading posts that stretched from Montreal to St. Louis following the St. Lawrence River through to the great lakes surrounding Michigan. They also constructed Fort Duquesne (modern day Pittsburgh) thereby controlling the Ohio River and the wealth derived from the abundance of fur bearing critters. In June of 1749 a French patrol was sent into the disputed area around the Ohio bearing to bury lead plates emblazoned with the royal French crest, thereby claiming the land for France. The patrol’s other missions were to round up and remove any English hunters and trappers they encountered, and to further ally themselves with the Indians in the area.

Paul Washington_1772

Young George

In 1754, Virginia colony dispatched a party of Virginia Militia to investigate French activity around the Fort Duquesne area led by Lieutenant Colonel George Washington. He had learned from a Seneca Chief, Tanaghrisson, that thirty-five French troops were camped in a nearby ravine. Washington decided to investigate; while his troops surrounded the unguarded camp, a shot was fired. The plan to talk to the French quickly became an inadvertent but deadly ambush. This ‘shot heard round the world’ resulted in a massacre that saw French commander Jumonville dead, along with 10 of his troops.

Many of the French were captured; however, at least one French soldier escaped, and made his way back to Fort Duquesne to report the incident. Washington, knowing that a reprisal was coming, returned to his base camp to strengthen the recently constructed Fort Necessity.

On the third of July, six hundred French – accompanied by one hundred Indian allies – began their assault against Washington and his 293 men. Faced with these odds, a truce was called which led to Washington surrendering Fort Necessity to the French. While war between England and France was not officially declared for another two years, these events initiated what could be called the real first world war, which engaged the governments and people of most of Europe, eastern Canada, and the British colonies in America. The French and Indian War raged from 1756-1763 and was known as The Seven Years’ War in Europe.

Paul Braddock's_death_at_the_Battle_of_Monongahela_9-July-1755

Braddock, mortally wounded at the Battle of the Wilderness

The strategy for the British was to seize control of the French forts, the first to be attempted was Fort Duquesne. The Battle of the Wilderness was a thoroughly humiliating defeat at the hands of an outnumbered and outgunned French and Indian force. The expedition was led by General John Braddock and included such illustrious personages as Colonel Thomas Gage, who later became one of the British commanders in the early goings of the Revolutionary War; George Washington, who had resigned his commission after the Fort Necessity debacle and was with Braddock only as an advisor; and a young Daniel Boone, a teamster and hunter for the army.

After Braddock’s defeat, the British government went all in on defeating the French, calling upon King George’s Hessian cousins to take care of Europe thereby freeing up men, material, and money for the North American effort. The French could not match the British and gradually, fort by fort, they were defeated; losing not only the Ohio River area but all holdings in North America except for the southern Mississippi posts.

This change in governance was a drastic change in fortune for the various tribes. Those who were French allies had grown accustomed to the largesse of the French in terms of gifts and trade. However, the British governor, Jeffrey Amherst, was not as generous. Even the tribes who sided with the British would soon feel colonials breathing down their necks as more and more settled across the mountains. A tribal confederation under the leadership of the Odawa chief, Pontiac laid siege to Fort Detroit, beginning a short lived rebellion that wreaked havoc on new settlements and small outposts.

In conclusion, Britain defeated the French, gaining Canada and the promising Ohio frontier, but victory would not come cheap. The British government soon determined to levy the American colonies, to help pay the costs of the war. The cries of ‘no taxation without representation’ and ‘give me liberty or give me death’ were responses to this decision, which fed the flames of rebellion, leading to the birth of the country twenty years later on July 4, 1776.

paul clash_coverIt is in this historical setting that I chose to place my fictional family and thus began Clash of Empires the first book of The Mallory Saga. With the hope and promise of a new life, the Mallory clan move to the frontier establishing a trading post at the junction of the Kiskiminetas and Allegheny Rivers, a mere 40 miles from Fort Duquesne. When war is finally declared, the Mallory’s are caught up in the ensuing struggle, serving as militia scouts for the British. Book 2 of The Mallory Saga, Paths to Freedom, follows the exploits of the family as events unfold leading to the Battle of Lexington and Concord; thus starting The American Revolution.

Available on Kindle, paperback.

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The good, the bad and the ugly – a smorgasbord of pirates

hh-pirates-whole-series-2016Today, I’ve invited Helen Hollick to join me here on Stolen Moments. Helen is the author of many, many books, among which her books about Emma of Normandy and Harold II of England deserve a special mention. As do her wonderful books about the dashing pirate Jesamiah Acorne and his adventures in the early 18th century. I must admit to being somewhat addicted to the Seawitch series – and Jesamiah. Now, in difference to real pirates, Jesamiah is a “good” pirate. So far, he hasn’t tortured, raped, terrorised or otherwise intimidated his fellow men. Thank heavens for that!

hh-2-helen-mediumObviously, to write books about an imaginary pirate requires that you do your research. It is therefore not exactly surprising that Helen knows A LOT about pirates. So much, in fact, that she has now written a non-fiction book, Pirates: Truth and Tales, about these maritime bandits – most of them anything but good!

So, I now turn you over to Helen and her post about some not-so-nice men.


Were there any good pirates? They might be a tad difficult to find, unless you go back as far as Ancient Greece when a pirate was respected and admired as a warrior figure; the word pirate comes from the Greek verb, peiran: to attack.

There’s no denying that pirates were thieves, murderers and rapists – the terrorists of their time, although during the seventeenth and earlier eighteenth century they were tolerated, even encouraged, by various Kings, Queens and Governments of England because they plundered the ships of countries which were enemies. Spain mostly.


Favourite hunting grounds of the pirates

The handful of years between 1700-1722 was the Golden Age for these scurvy knaves of the sea. They might be dashing heroes in the eyes of Errol Flynn and Johnny Depp fans, but were darn nuisances to the Spanish and merchant traders. Funny how piracy, under the guise of legal privateering, was acceptable when it involved English ships with mostly English crews plundering Spanish treasure for the benefit of King and Country, but as soon as their deeds started hitting the pockets of merchants back home in England, the pirates had to go.

To be fair, trade between England and the American Colonies, pre 1700, was only on the cusp of exploding into Big Profit Territory – ergo uninteresting to those of piratical inclinations. Land such as Florida and the Carolinas had nothing to offer. Virginia beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains was unknown territory. The few plantations along the coast, Chesapeake Bay, easy-access rivers and on the islands of the Caribbean and Bahamas, yielded some profit, but not much.

To earn income from land, labour was needed. This was supplied by indentured servants – on the surface mostly (but not all) willing men and women who traded several years of their lives in return for the promise of land or payment; in reality, slaves, because the majority never received any reward except cruelty, poverty, and all too often, death.


A Buccaneer (Howard Pyle)

Then, the wars with Spain, more or less, ended and for landowners and merchants, tobacco crops became a high source of income, along with sugar and cotton. Vessels carrying these products were just what a pirate wanted. These crops were highly lucrative but required cheap labour to tend them. Forget those poor indentured fools who succumbed to illness and heatstroke. They were replaced by black African slaves. And captured slave ships, for many a pirate, were wonderful because the cargo brought in a lot of money, and once the captured ship itself was cleaned and scrubbed – inside and out – it made a good pirate vessel, for slavers were usually designed for speed. The quicker the Atlantic crossing, the less likely the ‘livestock’ would die in transit.

The most famous ‘bad’ pirate, Blackbeard, had, for a short while, a splendid flagship which he renamed Queen Anne’s Revenge. He had ‘acquired’ her in November 1717 while she was being used as a French Slaver. We don’t know what happened to her cargo, but we do know the ship’s fate. Blackbeard ran her aground in 1718 off the coast of North Carolina, where her wreck was found many decades later in 1996.

Stede Bonnet was known as the ‘Gentleman Pirate’, so was he perhaps the ‘good one’? I personally am curious whether his name was Bonnet as in a lady’s hat, or Bonnay with a French-sounding twist to it? We will never know, except Bonnet (as in hat) doesn’t sound very piratical does it? Nor was he successful as a pirate. After messing things up several times, he was eventually captured and hanged. He had only turned to piracy to escape his nagging wife. Divorce, I feel, would have been an easier option.

Several notorious pirates fitted the category of ‘ugly’ – as in temperament rather than looks. (Although I would wager they were not especially handsome!)


More Howard Pyle – pirates fighting

Among the worst was Edward ‘Ned’ Lowe. Born in London in 1690, he was a known thief. His younger brother was hanged for burglary, and Lowe himself fled to the Caribbean in 1710, probably to avoid a similar fate. He met a girl, married, had a child, the wife dying in childbirth. He tried to hold down a legitimate job, but losing his temper he killed a man, commandeered a ship and turned to piracy. He seems to have respected marriage and women, though, for when capturing ships and forcing men to join his crew, he never insisted that married men should join him. A ‘good’ man after all? Ha! Read on.

Lowe captured more than one hundred vessels and became feared for his cruelty and liking for torture. His favoured method of discovering where valuable cargo was stashed, or punishing someone who crossed him, or who had a face he didn’t like, was to place a slow-match (a rope fuse) between the fingers of bound hands and set light to the rope, which would burn slowly, roasting the flesh to the bone. Another favourite was to suspend his victims by the ankles from a yardarm and drop them to the deck, repeating the process until they died.

As an early form of bungee-jumping, this particular style is not to be recommended.

Then Lowe captured a Portuguese ship, the Nostra Seigniora de Victoria. She was carrying 11,000 gold Portuguese moidores, worth at the time around £15,000 (you can add at least one more zero to that today,) but rather than the treasure falling into pirate hands the ship’s captain heaved it all into the sea. In fury Lowe cut off the man’s lips and boiled them in water, then forced the unfortunate victim to eat them. Lowe then murdered him along with the rest of the crew. He was also said to have burned a Frenchman alive. Definitely not a nice man.

In 1723 he sailed to the coast of Guinea where he met up with a previous partner. The partnership lasted two days, Lowe was abandoned by his friend and most of his crew – they’d had enough of his ugly nastiness. He sailed off due south and was never heard of again.

I doubt many shed tears over his loss!


Ugh! That Lowe character seems like someone best avoided at all costs. Thank you, Helen, for sharing his story with us. Too bad he sort of sailed off and disappeared – although I’ve heard there is an alternative version of his fate, whereby he was captured by the French and hanged. Good riddance, I say.

hh-piratesAs to Pirates: Truth and Tales, it has already received some great reviews. Like this one:

In this informative and comprehensive book, the author takes the idea of pirates and piracy. Interspersed throughout is the author’s impressive knowledge of historical detail and it is obvious that a great deal of research has gone into bringing this piratical guide to life. Skilfully blending historical facts with literary fiction, sometimes, the book reads as lightly as a novel, at other times, we come sharply back to reality with daring tales of mischance and menace, of lives ruined by too much grog and too many loose women, and which ended, all too often, dangled at the end of a hangman’s rope. Throughout the book, the author’s real life buccaneers nestle comfortably alongside their more colourful literary counterparts. I especially enjoyed seeing the author’s own pirate creation, Jesamiah Acorne, from The Sea Witch Voyages, come to vibrant life in his own much deserved chapter. However you like your pirates, be they real or imaginary, there is no doubt that Pirates: Truth and Tales, is a great dip in and out of kind of book and whichever page the book falls open at, you are guaranteed to find a fascinating snippet into the life and times of these colourful, and it must be said, decidedly, dangerous characters. (Jaffa Reads Too)

Should you want to know more about Helen and her books, I recommend you stop by her website or her blog, or on twitter, or on FB. See? Helen’s all over the place!


Running for the finishing line

HNSIndieFinalist2016Time to present yet another of the finalists in this year’s Historical Novel Society‘s Indie Award. And as this book feaures a Bow Street runner, obviously the author is hurtling towards the finishing line, head to head with her three competitors.This is yet another excellent read – but then, as I’ve said before, the one thing that was a given regarding the four finalists for the HNS Indie Award was that quality would be consistently high.

HNS Blog pic smallToday, it is Lucienne Boyce’s turn to clamber atop the hot seat. Lucienne is a lady not much given to flamboyance, neither in real life nor in her writing. Instead, in Bloodie Bones she presents us with a sparse, elegant prose, where every word has been carefully chosen so as to convey a very precise meaning – or so, at least, it seems to me as I read. Bloodie Bones is a book about justice – not necessarily as per the letter of the law. It is a story of what happens when those that have choose to ignore the few rights of those that do not have, especially in an 18th century society where new laws benefit the rich. One man is given the difficult task of seeing justice done, a balancing act in which the engaging Dan Foster must not only follow the law but also his conscience.

Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your book
I’ve always been interested in radical history, and especially in the relationship between justice and law – the point at which people are prepared to break the law to fight for their rights. That’s what links my non-fiction work, which is on the suffragettes, with my fiction. In Bloodie Bones Dan Foster, a Bow Street Runner who is also an amateur pugilist, is sent to investigate the murder of a gamekeeper which is connected with local protest about a recent land enclosure. By focussing on a character whose job is to uphold the law, I can reflect the theme of the boundaries between lawlessness and protest, especially as Dan himself often recognises that the law is not always just. I also wanted to write about the enclosure movement which is often skirted over by historians as if it was an inevitable “progression”, when in fact it brought with it much suffering and injustice. One of the most important literary inspirations for the book was John Clare’s beautiful poem The Mores, which brings home the impact of enclosures on the working people affected by them.

Did you know already from the beginning how the plot would progress, or did “things happen” as the story trundled along?
Yes, I knew from the beginning how the plot would progress. I plan my stories in advance, though I do leave some detail to be worked out along the way. It’s good too to leave space for the story and characters to develop.

For me, it is with the re-write of the first draft that the story goes from black and white to technicolour – i.e. this is my favourite part of the writing process. Which is yours?
Difficult question. I love it all: the research, the drafting, the redrafting, redrafting and redrafting…

What was the most difficult scene to write in your novel?
The scene where the boy, Walter Halling, meets Lord Oldfield and his gamekeeper in the woods. Lord Oldfield commits an act of terrible cruelty, which is based on real incidents. As I was writing it I was not only imagining but also commemorating the suffering inflicted on the weak and helpless then and now – I couldn’t help crying. If there is to be anything remotely resembling “progress”, then I want it to be to a stage where want, cruelty and suffering are no longer tolerated. (“Hear, hear,” Anna says!)

Describe your protagonist in maximum five words.
A man of disguises & secrets.

Are you planning any sequels to your book?
Yes, Bloodie Bones is the first in a proposed series of Dan Foster Mysteries. I’ve just finished drafting the second and sent it off to its first editor.

What were your main reasons for going down the indie route with this book?
I’d already self-published one novel with SilverWood Books (To The Fair Land), and was impressed with their service, so I went with them again.

Going forward, do you see yourself as remaining an indie author? Which are the pros and cons?
I think ideally I’d see myself as a “hybrid”. For example, I’m currently writing a biography of a suffragette, and I’d like to find a mainstream publisher for that if at all possible.

The pros of being an indie are that you are in control of the project – you don’t, for example, have to accept cover designs you don’t like. It also takes a long time to bring a book out in the mainstream – you can wait six months or more for a response to your submission, and then if you’re accepted it can be two or more years before the book appears. This was the experience I had with To The Fair Land: I went through a long period of making submissions, got a lot of interest and a number of those “nearly made its” familiar to so many of us, until eventually the book was accepted by an independent publisher. I can’t tell you how thrilled I was – but three years later the book still hadn’t appeared. No one’s to blame for this, things were tough in publishing, but from my point of view I just felt as if my life was on hold while I waited for something Out There to change. The decision to withdraw the novel and publish it myself was a difficult one, but in the end it was the right decision. Now I feel as if I’m moving forward in so many ways, with lots of projects on the go, and plans for more books, and being part of a fabulous indie community…I only wish I’d had the courage to do it sooner.

But there are cons, not least the cost. On the other hand, if you aren’t prepared to invest in your own work why should you expect someone else to do so?

Finally, what does it mean to be a finalist for the HNS Indie Award 2016?
Whether you’re mainstream or indie, you’ll always be haunted by anxiety about whether or not your work is good enough. So it’s a tremendous encouragement to me that Bloodie Bones has been read, enjoyed, and judged good enough, particularly by people who are experienced readers of historical fiction. It gives me hope that I’m doing something right. I don’t think the nagging doubts ever go away , and in many ways I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing – complacency is no spur to achievement – but the thought that there are people who actually like my work is tremendously uplifting. And it’s given me a good excuse to crack open a bottle of bubbly!

Thank you, Lucienne – and I hope you’ve enjoyed the bubbly 🙂 For those eager to know more about Lucienne and her books, I suggest you pop by her website. And as to Bloodie Bones, here’s the blurb:

BloodieBonesCover-198x300“Parsons and tyrants friends take note. We have born your oppreshuns long enough. We will have our parish rights or else Bloodie Bones will drink your blood.”

When Lord Oldfield encloses Barcombe Wood, depriving the people of their ancient rights to gather food and fuel, the villagers retaliate with vandalism, arson and riot. Then Lord Oldfield’s gamekeeper, Josh Castle, is murdered during a poaching raid. Dan Foster, Bow Street Runner and amateur pugilist, is sent to investigate.

Dan’s job is to infiltrate the poaching gang and bring the killers to justice. But there’s more to Castle’s death than at first sight appears. What is the secret of the gamekeeper’s past and does it have any connection with his murder? What is Lord Oldfield concealing? And did someone beside the poachers have a reason to want Josh Castle dead?

As tensions in Barcombe build to a thrilling climax, Dan will need all his wits and his fighting skills to stay alive and get to the truth.

On Amazon UK
On Amazon US

The other finalists are Barbara Sjoholm, Maria Dziedzan and Alison Morton

UPDATE! Lucienne was one of the joint winners CONGRATULATIONS!

I believe I can fly

Life was not a walk in the park in previous centuries. Unless you were born into the landed & wealthy classes, chances are you’d spend most of your life hand-to-mouth, earning today what you needed to survive today – and maybe half of tomorrow. Those of us enamoured of history tend to forget this, seeing as most historical reading focusses on those who did have, such as kings and nobles. Why? Because we know more about them than we do about little Dan who lived and died in the muddy alleys of medieval London, or Carmen who died at fifty-two after spending her entire life washing the rich folks’ linen in the scummy waters of the Guadalquivir.

Anyway; if you were poor and aspired to more, you had to be creative. If you dreamed of laying the world at your feet, you had to live on the razor’s edge, adding a titillating whiff of risk to your life. One such dreamer was Robert Cadman, born at the beginning of the 18th century. Our Robert was not among the poorer of his time. He had a profession – he was a steeplejack – and brought in good money when he was working. For those who don’t know, a steeplejack is a person who does not suffer from vertigo, seeing as these intrepid men clamber about on spires, towers – well, any buildings that rise towards lofty heights – to repair them or construct them.

Icarus images (2)

A not so tight rope…

People don’t build spires all the time, nor is there always a tower in need of maintenance and repair, so in between doing his real trade, Robert also did some rope-sliding, eg he was an early form of tight-rope artist, walking on a rope and performing various tricks several metres above the ground. By all accounts, he was good at this, earning good money with his shows, thereby supplementing his income.

Now, as any good entertainer will tell you, the crowds are a demanding task master. What had them going “ooo” and “aaa” one day, will have them yawning a few weeks down the line, so our Robert was always working on improving his show, a fine balancing act (see what I did here?) between adding more titillating risk without actually breaking his neck.

Icarus TurkRobert lived in Shrewsbury. In Shrewsbury there was a church with an impressively high spire, named St Mary. Robert was well acquainted with this spire, having been involved in repairs at some point or other. Now, if you were up on St Mary’s spire, you could see straight across the Severn to the meadows on the other side, and one day Robert had this great idea. He would tie one end of a rope to the top of St Mary’s spire, the other he would anchor to the ground on the meadows, and then he’d perform by walking up the rope – across the river. No one had ever done anything like this before in Shrewsbury, and people were suitably impressed when he carefully walked up the sloping rope, all the way to the top.

Mind you, he did this not only in Shrewsbury, but also in other towns he visited to repair a steeple or two. To vary his act, he did odd things like hanging from his feet (I imagine he flexed them) while talking to people twenty odd metres below him. A good act, was Robert Cadman, but after he’d done that like five times, people wanted more.

Icarus 1948_St-Moritz_b (Irish bobsleigh and skeleton federation)

Skeleton – a man w a deathwish? (1948, pic from Irish bobsleigh & skeleton foundation)

Robert thought about it for a while and ended up constructing something that looked like a wooden breastplate with a deep groove in it. Once he got to the top of the spire, he slotted the rope into the groove, placed himself on his belly, and proceeded to “fly” downwards along the rope. Sort of like airborne skeleton… (and as an aside, I simply cannot consider it a sport to lie down, head first, and throw yourself down icy slopes on a little sleigh. It’s more of a suicide mission.) Not only did this require quite some balancing so as not to fall off, but there was also the added risk of fire – the friction between rope and wooden breastplate generated quite some heat.

Robert was not the only man to do a flying act. There was a gentleman who performed in Hereford despite having a wooden leg, and stunts like these were popular on the continent as well. In fact, in Venice they’d been doing “spire climbing” since the 16th century, so nothing of what Robert did was truly innovative – but people loved it anyway.

Icarus flyingmachine2

“I can do it, I can do it”

You see, earthbound man has always wanted to fly, so the audience expressing their delight with a sequence of “ooo”s and “aaa”s – no matter that they’d seen him do it before. Plus there was that titillating fact that Robert was risking his neck every time he did this (he refused a safety rope). I imagine Robert’s wife did not find it titillating – rather the reverse. Our steeplejack chuckled and told his wife not to worry. He knew exactly what he was doing, and while it looked dangerous, it wasn’t, seeing as the deep groove held the breastplate very steady. Besides, he added, they were raking in money. Yes, yes, they were, wife said, but she didn’t like it. “What if…”
“Shhh,” Robert said, placing a firm finger over her mouth. “No need to tempt fate, sweetheart.”

On a February day, 1739, Robert yet again affixed his ropes. His wife wove in and out of the assembled people, cap in hand to collect whatever coins they thought it worth to see a man defy death by hurtling towards the ground along a tautened rope. Robert was probably enough of a showman to take his time getting up to the spire, building some tension along the way, I imagine, by pretending to slip on the rope or something. The odd female spectator squeaked and hid her face against whatever male chest was available. The men laughed. Robert Cadman had done this before, they told their lady companions. Likely he’d go on doing it many years more, a man lucky enough – and brave enough – to experience some seconds of exhilirating flight.

At long last, Robert had reached the spire. I imagine him waving to the crowd below. Maybe he blew a kiss to his wife. Maybe. (I must learn to curb this romantic streak in me! Most probably he did not blow her a kiss. He was concentrating on his upcoming flight number.) As he had done numerous times before, he settled himself on the rope, ensuring the groove in the breastplate was properly in place before sliding off, downwards, towards the distant Gaye Meadows.

Icarus Gowy-icaro-prado

Icarus tumbling from the skies (J P Gowy)

People cheered, Robert spread his arms for balance, looking verily like a bird. And then the rope snapped, and for some instants Robert did truly fly, soaring upwards for some instants before plunging helplessly towards the ground – and his death. As per early depictions of this tragedy he was “dashed to pieces” and his distraught wife rushed towards the heap of tangled, bloodied limbs that some seconds ago had been her breathing, living man. Now he was neither alive or breathing. Now he was dead, and she must have fallen to her knees beside him, not knowing quite where to touch him. His body would still have been warm. Maybe he twitched, and then he was truly gone, and his widow knelt beside him and wept, while the recently so rowdy crowd fell silent, the only sound that of more coins joining what Robert’s wife had already collected.

What became of Robert’s wife and children, we do not know. How they survived – if they survived -without his income, we do not know. All we know is that once upon a time, a young man dazzled his contemporaries with his daredevil ropesliding. Like Icarus, he aimed too high. Like Icarus, he plummeted to the ground and was no more.

On St Mary’s church in Shrewsbury there’s a commemorative plaque:

Let this small Monument record the name
of Cadman, and to future time proclaim
How by’n attempt to fly from this high spire
across the Sabrine stream he did acquire
His fatal end. ‘Twas not for want of skill
Or courage to perform the task he fell,
No, no, a faulty Cord being drawn too tight
Harried his Soul on high to take her flight
Which bid the Body here beneath good Night
Feb.ry 2nd 1739 aged 28

Had it not been for that plaque, I would never have heard of Robert Cadman. In fact, had he not died as spectacularly as he did, we would never have known he existed, he’d just have been one among the many, many anonymous people who were born, lived, and died without leaving any trace behind – beyond their offspring. I’m thinking his wife would have preferred that scenario.

When the king’s physician became the queen’s…umm…

CM familyToday, I thought we could spend some time with Caroline Matilda, princess of England and queen of Denmark. She was born in 1751, daughter to Frederick, Prince of Wales and his wife Princess Augusta of Saxe-Coburg. By the time of her birth, her father was already dead, and as per her mother’s wishes she was brought up far from the corrupting influences of court life, the cosseted youngest sister of the future George III.

However protected her upbringing, Caroline Matilda was a princess, and as such she was expected to marry as it benefited her brother’s kingdom. To ensure the young princess was a credit to her future husband, she was given an excellent education, and by the time she was a teenager she spoke not only English, but also Italian, French and German.

CM w sister

Caroline Matilda to the right

In October of 1766, the fifteen-year-old Caroline Matilda was married by proxy to her cousin, Christian VII of Denmark. There were rumours surrounding the Danish king, mutterings that all was not well in the state of Denmark – or at least not in the head of its royal ruler – but for all George III’s concerns, he still chose to send his little sister off into the unknown. As to the Danish, it was all perfectly simple: “Avec un Coeur bon, une humeur douce (…) et une envie de plaire au roi son epoux, elle peut s’attendre à une sitiation très heureuse.” In other words, smile and please your king and all will be well.

Not so simple as it turned out, seeing as the young Danish king didn’t want a wife; just seventeen, he had hoped to enjoy some more years of carousing and whoring before he was forced into a marriage bed. Carolina Matilda was no more enthusiastic, but she knew where her duty lay, and so tried to make the best of things. Difficult to do, when she was a stranger in a country, doubly difficult when the king began to lavish all his attention and affection on a much admired prostitute.

Further to Christian’s womanizing, Carolina Matilda quickly realised her new husband was not all there. Given to panic attacks, to severe mood swings and a marked lack of concentration, the young king was restless and unhappy – and very much under the thumb of his formidable step-mother, Juliane Marie, and her cronies.

CM Christian_VII_1772_by_RoslinChristian seems to have been born with certain mental weaknesses – and things were not made better by the rather terrifying methods used to instill discipline in the young prince. He was often severely beaten and subjected to being submerged in ice cold water when he threw “tantrums”. His father was not all that interested in his son – he was more interested in women and spirits – and so little Christian had no one to look out for him. His step-mother most certainly did not: she had a son of her own to promote, and driving Christian over the edge would have been a perfect stepping stone for the oh, so eager mama to get her own baby into the ermine.

One therefore imagines that Juliane Marie was less than thrilled by Christian’s marriage to a potentially fertile wife. I imagine she did little to encourage the newly married couple to conceive, and must have been quite devastated when Christian’s reluctant visits to his wife’s bedchamber resulted in a little prince, born 15 months after the wedding.

CM babyThe birth of an heir did not improve the relationship between the young king and queen. He remained as distant as ever, she submerged herself in the care of her son. Now that he’d done his duty and fathered a son, Christian VII decided he needed to see the world, and  in May of 1768 he set off on a grand tour, planned to take at least two years. Caroline Matilda heaved a sigh of relief. Christian did too, sitting back in his gilded carriage after waving goodbye to his assembled family.

A king on a grand tour didn’t exactly ride around unaccompanied. With Christian went a group of people numbering close to fifty, and among his inner circle was one Johan Friedrich Struensee, hired as his personal physician. Struensee was a highly educated man, a proponent of the Enlightenment. He was also a kindly and patient man, and for the first time ever Christian found a person who took his panic attacks and mental ghosts seriously. In a matter of months, Struensee had become the king’s confidante, his pillar of strength, and when the king’s mental collapse in Paris forced the royal party to return home much earlier than planned, Struensee returned with them.

CM Struensee


I imagine Caroline Matilda was less than happy to welcome her husband home – things had been nice and calm during his absence. And he was as vile as ever, his impervious, near on cruel, behaviour towards Carolina Matilda upon his return left her humiliated – and ill. Seriously ill.

The king proposed that his new doctor examine her – no, he insisted that the queen allow Struensee to do so. Caroline Matilda was sceptical. Struensee was the king’s man, and she had no reason to trust him. However, after a further few weeks of feeling ill, she reluctantly agreed to do as the king suggested. The progressive doctor did a thorough examination and concluded there was nothing physically wrong with the queen, she suffered from melancholia brought on by her obvious unhappiness. Struensee ordinated exercise, such as riding, and some months later the queen had clearly recovered, riding through Copenhagen in men’s clothes, her cheeks rosy, her eyes glittering.

While it is a fact very many young women adore horses, it wasn’t only the riding that had Caroline Matilda all starry-eyed and rosy. No, the queen had fallen in love – most unfortunately – with her husband’s physician. Struensee performed an elegant balancing act, tending to the king’s needs and anguishes during the day, to the queen’s rather more carnal desires at night. The man was as besotted as the queen, finding in Carolina Matilda an intelligent companion, a woman who applauded his progressive ideas and was willing to support him on various issues.

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The king, his parrot, the queen and Struensee

The king may have been mad as a hatter, but he was no fool. He was well aware of Struensee’s nightly visits to his queen, and he doesn’t seem to have cared. If anything, the addition of Struensee to the household had resulted in something approaching domestic bliss for both the king and queen, and for the first time ever, the king voluntarily spent time both with his wife and his son.

If the king had no issue with his present unorthodox marital situation, his court most certainly did. The immorality had to be stopped, someone should cane the queen for riding about in breeches, and as to Struensee’s visits to her bedchamber, well, really! The king shrugged and intensified his relationship with Struensee, appointing him his chief minister.

Struensee was a man of vision. He wanted to reform society, to break away the government from the stranglehold of the prim and conservative Danish church. In less than a year, Struensee pushed through more than a thousand new laws, notable among them a law that forbade torture. The king happily went along with all this, while in the wings his former advisors gnashed their teeth and howled in frustrated rage. A mere doctor, a foreigner (Struensee was German) to usurp their power and change their world – no, this was unacceptable.

While discontent brewed, the king, the queen and Struensee continued to play happy families. The king was given a Moorish boy as his personal page, and spent his days romping about with his new playmate. The queen was pregnant and even if the king now and then graced her bed with his presence, it was the opinion of the court that the expected child was Struensee’s, not the king’s. Whatever the case, once the child was born, the king claimed the new-born princess as his.

CM Princess_Louise_Augusta_by_Sturz_1771The summer when little Louise Augusta was born was the high point in Caroline Matilda’s life. A new child, a lover she admired and lusted for, a husband who seemed happy enough with his games, and a son she doted upon. All was well in her little world, and she probably dreamed of many future years like this, years in which Struensee would rule, the king would play, and she would raise the future king to be a man of ideals.

Unfortunately, the Danish nobility had other plans. Ably captained by Juliane Marie, the ousted former ministers performed a coup in January of 1772. After a night of festivities, a masquerade ball no less, Juliane Marie and her men paid the king a nightly visit, scaring him into signing two arrest orders, one for Struensee, one for the adulterous queen.

At dawn, January 17 1772, Carolina Matilda was wakened by her terrified maid, who handed her a note from the king telling her she was to be arrested and taken to Kronborg. Carolina Matilda first thoughts were for Struensee and she rushed through the secret passage to her lover’s room. It was filled with grim soldiers going through his papers. The queen rushed back and tried to get access to the king, to plead her case. Not to be, and an hour or so later the queen was bundled off to captivity, holding her little daughter. Her son she was forced to leave behind.

CM older

Caroline Matilda

Initially, Caroline Matilda denied her affair with Struensee, hoping thereby to save her lover. But there were too many witnesses, and under substantial pressure, Carolina Matilda finally admitted to her adultery. He did the same, and in April of 1772, Johan Friedrich Struensee was beheaded before a huge crowd. It is said he kept on hoping for a reprieve… His mistress, the disgraced queen, signed the divorce papers that same month. Little Louise Augusta was taken from her once she was weaned, and in May of 1772, Carolina Matilda was exiled from Denmark – brother George III had sent envoys to negotiate for her release.

Caroline Matilda was never to see her children again. In June of 1775 she died, some months shy of her twenty-fourth birthday. It is said she died of scarlet fever – but some whisper she died of a broken heart.

Her cuckolded husband was to live for very many more years, at first as the unhappy and frightened puppet of Juliane Marie and her son, but from his son’s 18th birthday under Crown Prince Fredrick’s regency. Caroline Matilda’s son was to prove himself a most capable leader, both as regent and king, a man of vision and reform. And as to Louise Augusta, she would become her brother’s most trusted confidante and quite the darling of the Danish court.

(This post was originally posted on English Historical Fiction Authors blog – albeit that the above had been reworked.)


So fell the mighty warrior…

On the last day of November 1718, the Swedish Empire hit the dust, crumbling into non-existence with the death of Karl XII. This our last warrior king was out inspecting his positions in Norway when an unidentified object hit him in the temple and killed him. Since then, debate has raged as to whether it was the Norwegians who killed him or one of his own: Karl XII at the time was not a popular king, his bellicose policy having more or less ruined his homeland.


Karl XII, at fifteen

Karl XII became king at the tender age of fifteen. His father Karl XI died in 1697, and it had been his wish that the country he left to his underage son be ruled by a council until little Karl came of age. Not to be, as the proposed members of the council were rather unpopular among the higher levels of nobility. Instead, one of these sleazy counts suggested at the next Parliament that the king was wise enough to rule on his own. Acclamation followed (clearly carefully planted) and the young king, flushed with pride, saw no reason not to accept. Out went the council, in came a fifteen-year-old absolute monarch.

That Karl had every intention of ruling on his own was made imminently clear at his coronation. Not for him a stately ceremony where he entered bareheaded into the church, there to swear his coronation oaths and bend his head as the archbishop anointed him before settling the crown on his head. Karl decided all this was unnecessary. Instead he rode to church, already with the crown on his head. Once there, he hopped off his mount, lifted the crown aside so as to allow the anointment, and then replaced the crown – him crowning himself, if you like. Once done, he sat up, the crown slipped off and hit the ground but was retrieved and handed to the king who laughed and put it back on before riding off to the waiting party.

No sooner had the old king expired, but Sweden was invaded by a veritable deluge of ambitious mamas towing their various princess daughters along. The young king needed a wife, right? Nope. Karl was totally uninterested in all these girls paraded before him – he preferred other pursuits such as going wild and crazy and demolishing furniture, throwing chairs through the windows or riding half-naked through the streets of Stockholm. In this, he was always accompanied by his brother-in-law Frederick of Holstein-Gottorp, a man who clearly shared the king’s love of these bracing pursuits.

Not only did our young king party, he also spent a lot of time beheading calves so as to immune himself to the sight of blood, and then of course there was his predilection for hunting bears with a cudgel. Yup, you heard: the king would dispatch these poor creatures with various blows to their head. Not as dangerous as it sounds, as the king always ensured there was a net between him and the poor animal – just in case.

To give him his due, Karl XII also worked quite hard, spending substantial hours with his principal advisor as he managed his extensive realm. A teenager with a worth-ethics, coupled with a penchant for blood-sports – here we had a warrior king in the making! Karl XII couldn’t have agreed more – all he needed was a reason to go to war.

Soon enough, King Augustus (Frederick to his friends) gave him such a reason. Augustus was the Elector of Saxony, and since 1697 he was also King of Poland. Colluding with the Danish king and the as yet rather young Peter I of Russia, he attempted to take a big chunk out of the Swedish pie. So began the Great Northern War.

Karl xii Victory_at_Narva

Narva – the capitulation of the Russians

In 1700, our young king set off to teach upstart Augustus a lesson, and along the way he casually won one of Sweden’s largest ever victories, when his army of 8 000 defeated Tsar Peter’s 80 000 (although some say they were only 40 000) at Narva. The Swedish forces took so many prisoners they did not have the men with whom to guard them, so instead they disarmed them and sent them off to survive as well as they could in the icy November weather before throwing themselves at the huge amounts of vodka they’d captured with the Russian baggage train. At eighteen, the Swedish lion had roared – loud enough that all the rest of Europe sat up straight.

To Karl, the victory at Narva proved that Tsar Peter was an inconsequential nobody – well, beyond being extraordinarily tall. Augustus, however, needed to be brought to heel. Karl won one victory after the other, and at one point Augustus even dispatched his Swedish mistress, the beautiful Aurora Köningsmarck to plead his case. (Read more about Aurora here) Karl remained uninterested in women, so that didn’t help much, and instead Augustus had to make a most abject and humiliating submission. He was dethroned in Poland, crawled and wept, and Karl was satisfied – for now.

Karl XII 800px-Peter_I_by_Kneller

Tsar Peter embracing his medieval side

All this took a couple of years, and that inconsequential chappie, Tsar Peter (and you can read more about him here), had not exactly spent all that time lying in bed and staring at the ceiling. All too late, Karl realised that this Russian bear was impervious to Swedish cudgels, annexing one piece after the other of Swedish territory round Neva. As you all may know, Peter was presently busy building himself a glorious modern city on the Neva – the soon-to-be Russian capital St Petersburg.

Karl did a u-turn with his army and marched east, this time to once and for all whack Peter over the head. He decided to march on Moscow. Like so many have learnt at their peril since, marching on Moscow is never a good idea.

Initially, things went well for the disciplined Swedish army. In the marshy terrain round an obscure place called Holowczyn, the Swedes carried the day, this because the king ordered them to wade through the swollen waters to attack their enemies where they least expected it. Karl went first. The water reached them well over their waist, and seeing as none of these gents knew how to swim one must either applaud them for their bravery or sigh at their recklessness. (As an aside, army rules dictated that any Swedish soldier who indulged in outdoors bathing was to be flogged. No idea why…)

An immediate result of all that water wading was that the gunpowder became damp, and so the Swedish troops jumped the Russians with sword in hand rather than loaded muskets. The king was a big fan of sword in hand – all those beheaded calves had given him ample practise in how to dispatch his enemies.

Karl_XII_1706The victory at Holowczyn proved hollow. While the road to Moscow now lay open, the Russians had (as they’ve done on so many occasions since) burnt the land, leaving a barren waste. Karl XII was also still waiting for his reinforcements – not only more men, but also food and ammunition and all that other stuff an army needed. When they finally arrived, they were much depleted, having had to fight their own battles to reach the king. The food had been abandoned along the way, and it was a hungry Swedish army that settled down in Ukraine to survive the winter of 1708.

It was the winter of all winters. The Baltic sea froze, as did the straits between Sweden and Denmark. In Russia, it was so cold people froze to death while out walking or riding, and the poor Swedish soldiers saw their own share of such deaths – as described in the surviving diaries. It was cold, there was not enough food, and there was no way of returning home – not when venturing outside was the equivalent of risking death through exposure.

Finally, spring came, and Karl emerged from his winter quarters as aggravated as a newly-awakened hibernating bear. After feeding his men as well as he could, Karl XII turned his attention to Poltava, a Russian fortress in a crucial position. Karl XII wanted the fortress and laid siege. Tsar Peter set himself at the front of a gigantic army and came to the rescue of his beleaguered garrison.

The Battle of Poltava took place in June of 1709. At the time Karl XII was sunk in a fever, having been shot in the foot with a subsequent infection, and so the command of the Swedish troops went to Field Marshal Rehnsköld who unfortunately was at loggerheads with all the other Swedish officers.

Had things ended differently had Karl XII been hale? We don’t know, but whatever the case, the Russian army more of less annihilated the Swedish infantry, who suffered from lack of gunpowder. The Swedish cavalry was forced to retreat, making for the river Dnepr. Once there, Karl XII and four hundred of his men forded the river and made for Turkey, hoping to find reinforcements. The rest of the Swedish army was preparing to cross the river when the advancing Russian army caught up with them. There was no hope of winning a confrontation, so the officer in charge saw no choice but to capitulate. Eighteen thousand Swedish soldiers were taken prisoner. Very few were ever to see their homeland again, and the majority would die toiling in Russian mines or Russian fields.

By now, it was close to a decade since Karl XII had set foot in Sweden. One would have thought he wanted nothing as much as to return home, especially as Sweden was losing territories right left and centre to Denmark and various principalities. Augustus was back as king of Poland, and in Sweden people were becoming more than upset by this sequence of losses.

The king, however, did not return home. Instead, for the coming five years he remained as a “guest” of the Turkish Sultan, whom he managed to convince to declare war on Tsar Peter – three times!

Karl XII Battle_of_Bender_1713

The Skirmish in Bender

After the third time, the Sultan wanted nothing as much as to oust this unwelcome guest. Karl XII was having none of it, and so the Sultan was obliged to set his army on him. The resulting event is known as the “Skirmish at Bender”. On the one side, approximately 50 Swedish soldiers led by the king. On the other, 10 000 Ottoman soldiers. The king barricaded himself in his house, and the fighting raged for over seven hours, at which point the Ottomans launched fire arrows, setting the house ablaze. The king exited in haste, still with sword in hand, but unfortunately he tripped over his spurs and so the Ottoman soldiers could finally overcome him. Karl, it is said, was happier than he’d been in years, feeling more invigorated by the fighting. The Sultan was less so, and Karl XII was now effectively a prisoner.

From a cultural perspective, one could argue that this extended stay in Turkey was about the only thing Karl XII contributed to his country, as when he finally returned to Sweden he brought along not only a number of Turkish merchants and money-lenders (the king owed them astronomical sums) but also a fondness for Turkish design and refinement as well as for a Turkish dish called dolma – these days, the Swedish “kåldolme” is a descendant of that Turkish delicacy.

Anyway: the Sultan and Tsar Peter negotiated yet another treaty, according to which Karl XII was allowed to ride through Russian territory to go back to Sweden. And once back home, Karl XII was to discover he was now at war not only with Denmark and Russia (things had not really been sorted with the tsar) but also with Prussia and Hannover. Even worse, that Hannoverian shmuck of a prince had recently become the king of England, previously a valuable Swedish ally. Things were, putting it mildly, not good.


George I, at the time of his ascension

A meeting was set up in Copenhagen: the Danish king, George I of England and Tsar Peter were to sit in the same room and discuss just how to destroy what remained of the Swedish Empire. Peter came with close to 20 000 men, making the Danish king understandably nervous. After all, what was to stop Peter from invading Denmark once he’d dealt with Sweden? Even better – from a Swedish perspective – George and Peter detested each other. The planned coalition fell apart before it even started, so to say, and Sweden could exhale in relief.

Fortunately for Karl XII, he had a couple of very able men at his side, and in particular a certain diplomat called Görtz, who more or less singlehandedly manged to negotiate his way through the labyrinthic mess of all these ongoing conflicts.


James Francis Edward, the Old Pretender

Not so fortunately for Görtz, Karl was a creative king, and after casting about for ways to truly annoy Georgie-porgie, he decided to finance James Francis Edward Stuart’s attempt to regain his crown. A Catholic pretender bankrolled by a most Protestant king – although devout, Karl XII does not seem to have bothered overmuch with religious differences. Or women. The man was as yet unmarried, and showed no inclination to do anything about it, repeating ad nauseam that he was married to his army. There are no indications he ever had a mistress, nor are there whispers of intimacies with men. The king, it seemed, was uninterested in all things sexual.

The Jacobean rebellion failed, and poor Görtz ended up imprisoned in Holland on George’s orders. The king already had his attention focussed elsewhere: he was going after Norway, at the time part of the Danish kingdom. His people groaned under ever heavier taxes. They were sick of war and strife – far too many had lost sons and fathers, men and brothers in the king’s various conflicts. Careful suggestions were made that maybe the king should desists from all this war, settle down and go back to simple pursuits such as bear-bashing.

Rather harshly, the king reminded his council that Sweden was an absolute monarchy, and so when he said jump, people had best jump – or be prepared to bear the consequences. The result: in 1718 Karl XII and his army went to Norway, while at home opposition grew, to a large extent headed by Frederick of Hessen, Karl XII’s brother-in-law, married to Ulrika Eleonora. (Not the same Frederick Karl went carousing with in his younger years. This Frederick was much savvier and would, once his dear wife became queen, cunningly edge himself into the seat of power and have himself proclaimed king…)

1280px-GustaKarl XII f_Cederström_-_Bringing_Home_the_Body_of_King_Karl_XII_of_Sweden_-_Google_Art_Project

The dead Karl XII being carried home to Sweden

The king returned from Norway in a coffin. So what happened in Fredrikshald, Norway? Was the king the victim of enemy fire, or was he murdered by one of his own men? Various historians have pondered this over the intervening centuries, and these days the general opinion seems to be that the king was shot by a Norwegian musketeer. Personally, I still find it plausible that some Swede or other thought “Enough!” and shot the man who single-handedly had brought about so much suffering for the Swedish people.

Karl_(Charles)_XII_of_SwedenKarl was the last absolute monarch to govern Sweden. During his twenty years as king, he caused more Swedish deaths than all other Swedish kings put together. Actually, he caused a lot of death elsewhere as well, having little consideration for the civilians who suffered as his army rode back and forth. Undoubtedly, he was a brilliant military commander and his exploits led to Voltaire writing a biography that reads more like a panegyric than a balanced assessment. For very many years, Karl XII was hailed as a hero, our last true Swedish warrior king. These days, the jury is out.

The king himself has little to say for himself. He has left very little behind in the form of personal letters or notes – this was a man of action rather than reflection, and so we will never know what he thought or felt at the more decisive moments in his life. An enigma, this boy who became a king and led the Swedish army to glory and ruin before dying, most ingloriously, on the 30th of November, 1718.

The royal impediment – of a king and his heir


Gustav III by Roslin

Most people know very little about Swedish history – and that comment is valid for most Swedish people as well. If people know anything at all, they may have heard of Queen Kristina (because she abdicated and converted to Catholicism) or her bellicose father (Gustav II Adolf, for modernising warfare and pillaging the European continent). Some have heard of Karl XII, that warrior king of ours who supposedly was shot to death with a button. (Hmm. Will revert on that one) And then, of course, there’s the king of operatic fame, that graceful dandy who did everything he could to yank his backward, rustic kingdom into more sophisticated times. So, ladies and gents, today I give you Gustav III, the man who gave the elegant flourish a face in Sweden. Well, he gave Sweden a lot more than that, including the the Royal Opera, the Royal Ballet, the Royal Theatre and the Royal Swedish Academy (of Nobel prize fame) as well as a couple of fantastic theatres and a number of beautiful buildings. But what he’s famous for is his death, shot in the back while enjoying his Masquerade Ball. Oh yes; and then there’s the matter of his son…

Gustav was the son of Adolf Fredrik – the dude who ate himself to death, see here for more about him. Maybe his father’s early demise made Gustav more than aware of the dangers of excesses – at least when it came to food – and he remained slender and in good shape throughout his life. The clothes he was wearing when he was shot indicate a man we would consider slight, a tight fit to both the coats and trousers that would display an agile and wiry physique. Didn’t help much…

Our young hero was in Paris, imbibing the sophistication of  all things French when his father died. He hastened home immediately, and a year or so later he pulled off a bloodless coup that effectively muzzled parliament, making Gustav III an absolute monarch. Ultimately, this high-handed behaviour would cost him his life. Many were the men who were more than upset at seeing a return to a form of government based on the divine rights of the king – no matter how enlightened a despot Gustav III might be.

This little coup of his is considered one of the better examples of a well-planned hostile take-over. Even historians who have little fondness for Gustav III, can’t but admire just how elegantly he played the masses on that sunny day in August of 1772 when he effectively deposed parliament and replaced it with himself. Not, Gustav III hastened to assure the confounded spectators, out of any genuine desire to rule, but because he felt it necessary to defend “our common Swedish liberties”. People hear what they want to hear, and Gustav III was handsome and gracious, a man who happily paraded himself before his subjects, more than aware of the importance of good PR.


Gustav III

Of course the man wanted to rule! He wanted to sink his hands into the rustic mess that was Sweden and shake it into appropriate Continental shape. Gustav III wanted glitter and glamour, he wanted French fashion and French food, Italian statues and architecture. His passion in life was the theatre, and to this day, two of the theatres he built remain in existence. The king himself was no mean actor and an even better director, filling his court with masques and operas, with emotional tragedies and lighthearted comedies, with dancers that capered about like fauns, with handsome men and delightful ladies.

The Swedes were okay with the theatrics, and they liked the delightful ladies part. A lot. The rest, they were less enthusiastic about. The King himself was not a ladies’ man. In fact, he seems to have been rather uninterested in the more erotic aspects of life, this due to a “physical impediment” that had his lady mother quite convinced her precious Gustav would never sire any children.


Three brothers: Gustav to the left

Fortunately for Sweden, Gustav had two younger brothers who more than made up for his deficiencies in the erotic areas, lining up an impressive collection of mistresses.  It was to Duke Carl and Duke Fredrik Adolf that Dowager Queen Louisa Ulrika set her hope when it came to grandchildren, but for all their enthusiastic bedding, neither of these two gentlemen left any legitimate children. Their older brother, however, did – despite the impediment. Or did he?

Sofia Magdalena by Roslin

Sofia Magdalena by Roslin

Let us backtrack a bit: In 1766, the then twenty-year-old Gustav had informed his mother that he intended to go through with the planned marriage to Sofia Magdalena, Danish princess. Gustav’s mother was not pleased. Her future daughter-in-law was not her choice. As to the princess herself, she wasn’t given any choice, and arrived in Sweden in November of 1766.

Where Gustav was outgoing and energetic, Sofia Magdalena was shy and phlegmatic. Where he was a man with a genuine appreciation of the arts, she was deeply religious and somewhat staid. He was happiest in front of an audience. She preferred being alone. In Gustav’s own words, he perceived his bride as being “ice cold”. She, apparently, never expressed an opinion. With so little in common, it is no surprise the newlyweds were far from happy.  They lived separate lives, had as little as possible to do with each other, and where Gustav lived his life in the public eye, his wife preferred to melt into the background. So incompatible were they, that the marriage was not consummated. Not something anyone found particularly strange, given that little impediment.

By the late 1770s, Gustav had begun to realise his brothers weren’t about to fill a nursery. The royal line was threatened by extinction, so Gustav took a deep breath, downed a cup or two of fortifying wine, and … turned to his stable master for help. Said stable master was a Finnish gentleman named Adolf Munck, who, by all accounts, was well endowed and more than experienced in bedsport. In fact, Munck had the reputation of being a major rake, quite an achievement in an environment as libertine as that of Gustav III’s court.

Claiming “inexperience”, the king demanded Munck’s assistance in the royal bedchamber. And here I must just stop and take a breath, wondering how on earth this played out and just what poor Sofia Magdalena might have thought of all this. It’s not as she could close her eyes and think of England…

As per Munck’s memoirs, he was obliged to “physically touch and guide” so as to ensure consummation took place. His contemporaries were far more crude, as can be seen in this caricature.  The Dowager Queen was more inclined to believe the artist than her son’s version – especially given the very expensive watch Sofia Magdalena presented Munck with. When the court announced the Queen was expecting, the Dowager Queen called a meeting with her younger sons, explained that she wasn’t about to let the bastard of an up-and-coming Finn usurp their royal rights, and actively went about spreading the rumours that her eldest son, the king, was a cuckold and the expected child a bastard. After all, she added sadly, she knew for a fact her eldest son was incapable of ever fathering a child. Nice lady…


Louisa Ulrika – not a nice lady

Predictably, Gustav III flew into a rage.He banished his mother from Sweden, but was convinced to allow her to stay if she issued a writ, stating all her previous statements had been malicious gossip, which she did. Except, of course, that when some months later, a little prince saw the light of the day, the Dowager Queen sent Gustav III a letter in which she expressed she was happy for him but hoped that the scales would soon drop from his eyes and have him realise the baby was no prince. This time, the rift between mother and son became permanent. Only when Louisa Ulrika lay on her deathbed were they reconciled – ironically with the then four-year-old crown prince present…

By all accounts, Gustav was fond of his son, little Gustav Adolf. He was even more fond of son number two, born four years later, but this child was not destined to live. Gustav took his death very hard – so hard some of the more cold-hearted among his companions took it for an indirect admission that only the youngest boy was Gustav’s true-born son. Gustav recovered from the loss of his son and went back to his life of arts and theatre, of planned spectacles and lavish parties. And to ruling his nation, of course.

Gustav III was in many ways a competent ruler. Influenced by the Enlightenment, he revised the judicial system, restricted the use of the death penalty, advocated religious liberty (to a point), implemented laws to protect the poor, promoted free trade in some areas, reviewed fiscal policy and even allowed a certain freedom of press. In 1778, he presented all his achievements to Parliament and was hailed and lauded by its members. Some of the savvier members, however, noted that the king repeatedly drove home that it was he, not Parliament, that held the power. These savvier members were less than happy with the development, and when next the king called a Parliament, in 1786, his opponents had prepared themselves. This time, each and every one of the king’s suggestions were either rejected or so modified the king himself retracted them. Gustav’s solution to the dilemma posed by the uncooperative Parliament was simple: he ignored them.

In 1788, Gustav resorted to that most ancient of distracting devices, he declared war on Russia. Some of his more level-headed aristocratic officers were appalled, and mutinied. This gave Gustav just the excuse he needed. Swiftly, he squashed the mutiny and called a Parliament, explaining that in the present circumstances the future of Sweden was at stake unless he was given unlimited (well, more or less) powers. These hot-blooded aristocrats needed to be brought to heel, he added, throwing an elegant sop at the feet of the other three Estates (The Swedish Parliament consisted of four Estates: The aristocracy, the clergy, the burghers and the farmers) Parliament agreed – or at least three of the Estates did – and the act of Union and Security was passed, whereby the king was given almost unrestricted executive powers. Parliament, however, wisely chose to remain in control of the purse strings.

Gustav III won his war with Russia. Life, in his opinion, was pretty good, albeit that he was very concerned about the development in France. He should have been as concerned about certain events in his own country. The disgruntled aristocrats had had enough, and under Gustav III’s very nose, a conspiracy grew. It is said that the conspiracy numbered close to 3 000 people. “Never has a conspiracy had so many members, never has the vows of secrecy been so carefully kept.” At some point, the more daring among the conspirators decided the king had to die. That caused a couple of swallows: regicide is never pretty, and as most of the leading conspirators were aristocrats, they definitely didn’t want to inspire something similar to the bloodbath presently drenching France. Still, at some point they nodded solemnly and agreed: the king must die.


The clothes Gustav III was shot in

On March 16, 1792, Gustav III held a magnificent Masquerade Ball at the Royal Opera House. Everyone was there – including a number of the men charged with the task to kill him. One of the involved men suffered a case of cold feet and sent the king a warning, but Gustav III did not take it seriously – he received such warnings too often to do so. No sooner did he enter the large ballroom but he was surrounded by a group of men in black masks and black cloaks. Moments later, a shot went off, and the king cried out “Je suis blessé, tirez-moi d’ici et arrêtez-le!” (I am hurt, carry me away from here and arrest him).

The king was immediately transported to a separate room and placed on a sofa. All other exits to the Opera were sealed. Meanwhile, the king was doing his best to make light of things, conversing with the few people allowed in to see him, joking about the spreading stain of blood on his cloak and the sofa. At long last, arrangements were made to carry him back to the palace. He is said to have laughed – if weakly – when lifted, saying that here he was, being carried about like the pope.

By the morning, the man who had fired the gun, a certain Anckarström, was under arrest. He had actually managed to flee the Opera, but his gun was left behind, and a gunsmith recognised it. Anckarström immediately confessed to murder, but denied the existence of any conspiracy. However, other people were arrested, and pretty soon the extent of the conspiracy became clear, even if most of those arrested refused to name anyone.

The king, however, still lived. The shot had hit him in the lower back, to the side, and the physicians were hopeful of saving his life – at least initially. But when infection set in, it became apparent to all that the king would die, and a slow painful death it was, until at last, on March 29, he expired. So died a king who lived and breathed art, whose love of song and language left behind a legacy of poets and composers. So died a king who insisted on his divine right to rule, yet applauded the birth of the United States of America (Sweden was one of the first nations to recognise the fledgling state, the king having expressed that were it not for the fact that he was a king, he’d be more than happy to join the courageous effort to create a new country). An enigma in some ways, a sunny extrovert in others. A man who always knew that the world it is a stage, and a king must live and die, forever in the public eye.


Anckarström being flogged

Anckarström was executed. For three days, he was whipped publicly before being beheaded before a huge and silent crowd. The rest of the conspirators went back to their normal lives, and the fourteen-year-old Gustav Adolf was crowned as king. But was he truly the son of Gustav III? Wasn’t there an uncanny resemblance to Adolf Munck? Gossip flew unhindered now that Gustav III was dead, and among those who spread the rumours about the new little king’s parentage were his uncles and aunt.


Gustav IV Adolf

When, in 1809, Gustav Adolf was forced to abdicate (he was blamed – to some extent deservedly – for the loss of Finland), he did so to safeguard the crown for his own little son. Parliament was having none of it, barring Gustav Adolf’s children from the succession. Yet again, that infamous little impediment came into play, and instead of the ten-year-old potential grandson of Gustav III, Parliament chose to give the crown to Gustav’s senile brother, Duke Carl, who ascended the throne as Carl XIII. Gustav Adolf and his family were sent off to exile, and instead of a true-born heir to the Swedish throne, a certain French marshal, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, was adopted by Carl XIII.

Many years later, in 1882, Gustav Bernadotte (soon to be Gustav V of Sweden)  was to marry the great-granddaughter of Gustav IV Adolf, Victoria of Baden. A vindication of sorts, even if by then the man who lived his life in the shadow of his father’s impediment had been dead for fifty years. As a consequence of this wedding, Gustav Adolf’s remains were brought back to Sweden, together with those of his son and his baby grandson, and re-interred. Somehow, I think they were beyond caring by then.

It’s a man’s world

…or so, at least, Ulrika Eleonora Stålhammar must have reasoned when she decided to leave her feminine self behind and instead become a man. And not any old man, either, no Ulrika Eleonora decided to go all in and become a soldier.

Okay, so none of the above is truly remarkable in this day and age, but rewind the clock (drastically) to the first few decades in the 18th century, and we are looking at a scandal in the making. You see, it was a crime for a woman to don menswear. And as to impersonate a man, well an adequate response would be a shrill “off with her head” – except that this was no make believe world starring a Mad Hatter, a lost girl and a rabbit hole.

Ulrika Eleonora madame-de-pompadour2

What an 18th century noblewoman should look like (Mme Pompadour herself…)

Ulrika Eleonora had an impeccable pedigree: she was of noble birth, her father was an officer, her grandfather had been an officer, her older brothers were officers, and her sisters were nice and ladylike the lot of them. Unfortunately, while Ulrika Eleonora’s father seems to have been a capable officer, he was less than successful when it came to managing his financial situation, and when he died, Ulrika Eleonora and her five sisters found themselves in the unenviable situation of being poor as church mice and dependent on the goodwill of their relations to survive.

For a young, destitute noblewoman, the only solution was marriage – often to someone “beneath” her. In the early 18th century, the young destitute noblewomen rarely got a say in who they were married to, and Ulrika Eleonora watched one sister after the other end up in unhappy marriages, at the beck and call of their spouses. Not a fate Ulrika Eleonora wanted to share, and besides, time was passing and men weren’t exactly queuing up to marry this young woman who rode and shot better than most men, and who was unfashionably loud and borderline long in the tooth (after all, the lady was going on thirty, almost ancient…)

Ulrika Eleonora svensk soldat

What an 18th century woman should NOT aspire to

We don’t know what incident pushed Ulrika Eleonora to act, but in the spring of 1713, she requested her papers from the local priest (one couldn’t travel without papers confirming your identity), bid her sisters farewell, and set off for Stockholm in search of a better life. Her sisters were mildly scandalised: a young woman travelling alone was not the done thing. Imagine just how shocked they would have been had they known that no sooner had Ulrika Eleonora waved them goodbye, but she took off for a secluded spot where she exchanged skirts and petticoats for men’s breeches, a coat and  sturdy shoes. Ulrika Eleonora was no more: instead, here was young Wilhelm Edstedt – carrying papers identifying him as Miss Stålhammar…

No one asked to see the papers. Wilhelm arrived safe and sound in Stockholm and quickly sank to the bottom of the social pecking order. Miss Stålhammar was a someone – however impoverished. Wilhelm was a nobody, with no contacts, no previous work experience – and the added disadvantage of lacking a male member, which required circumspection. How Wilhelm managed to survive is an open question, but at some point his/her good breeding paid off, and Wilhelm was employed as a footman. Not the future Wilhelm had envisaged, but at least it gave him room and board.

Ulrika Eleonora Regementets_Kalk

How many of these were undercover women?

One employment led to another, and in 1715, Wilhelm was at last able to achieve his dream. He joined an artillery regiment in Kalmar, a small city well to the south of Stockholm. Wilhelm was to serve with his regiment for eleven years, and I wonder just how he/she could keep his/her real identity a secret for so long. After all, soldiers tend to live cheek to jowl, and at some point even Wilhelm would have needed to relieve himself…

Even more reckless was Wilhelm’s decision to marry. In 1715, he met a young maid called Maria Lönman, and whether or not it was true love from Wilhelm’s side, he/she set out to woo Maria. Maybe it started as an attempt to act like a “normal” man, but as the months went by, Wilhelm seems to have developed feelings for Maria. He wrote her letters, he courted her assiduously, and in 1716 Wilhelm proposed, was accepted, and married his Maria.

Umm…Did Maria know she was marrying a man in disguise? According to what she said later, she didn’t. If so, how was Wilhelm planning on addressing the whole issue of taking his new bride to bed? Turns out Maria had been brutally assaulted some years back, so when Wilhelm expressed a certain reluctance vis-a-vis intimacy, she was mostly relieved. And curious, one imagines, so curious that Wilhelm some weeks after the marriage, broke down and told Maria the truth.

His wife heard him out, did some hand-twisting and pondering, and decided the best course of action was to do nothing – she liked her “husband” well enough, and I also suspect she found it more than embarrassing to explain to her relatives that her wedding had been a farce.

For ten years, Wilhelm and Maria lived in apparent harmony. Their pastor was later to say that rarely had he encountered such a devout and virtuous couple, and both Maria and Wilhelm vehemently denied ever having had carnal knowledge of each other. Whether this was true or not, I have no idea –  but it was probably a wise move to deny it.

Ulrika Eleonora 800px-Gustaf_Cederström_-_David_och_GoliathBack in 1713, Ulrika Eleonora had written one of his sisters. Elisabet Katarina,  and told her she was living as Wilhelm Edstedt. There seems to have been no contact between the sisters after that date, but sometime 1725 or so, Wilhelm received a letter. He recognised the handwriting, and in my mind’s eye, I see him turning it over, one part of him wanting to tear it open, the other not sure if he should read it at all. Curiosity won out, and with some trepidation, Wilhelm settled down to read Elisabet’s letter.

Somehow, Elisabet Katarina had found out that Wilhelm had married, and she was beyond livid: how could her irresponsible sister drag an innocent woman into the mess she’d made of her life? What did Ulrika Eleonora think would happen if they were found out? And how could she be so selfish as to condemn Maria to a life of pretense?

The letter was like a festering boil. Wilhelm tossed and turned through the nights, he decided to resign from the army, did some more tossing and turning, and sometime later, Wilhelm came to the conclusion it was time to revert to being Ulrika Eleonora – with the picturesque addition of a wife. Major problem number one…

Major problem number two was that Ulrika Eleonora had – in the eyes of her contemporaries – committed a heinous crime. As per the law, there was only one punishment possible. Death. Not, I suppose, an entirely palatable alternative for ex-Wilhelm, now firmly back in skirts.

Fortunately, Ulrika Eleonora had an aunt. This aunt with the rather impressive name Sofia Drake (eg Sofia Dragon) had a vested interest in keeping the name Stålhammar unsoiled – for the sake of her dead husband and her own children. Reluctantly, she offered to help – not only Ulrika Eleonora, but also Maria, who by all accounts received a much warmer welcome than her erstwhile “husband”. Consensus was that Maria had been sinned against – the sinner being that irresponsible and head-strong Ulrika Eleonora. In fact, Lady Sofia went out of her way to help Maria find a position as a housekeeper, while it seems she had major problems offering her niece anything but a dutiful and decidedly cool welcome.

Ulrika Eleonora Frederick_I_of_Sweden

Fredrik I

Sofia Drake advised Ulrika Eleonora to go to Denmark and write a grovelling letter to the king, Fredrik I, begging forgiveness for the sins she’d committed in “youthful despair”. Hmm. she was pushing thirty at the time of her original transformation into Wilhelm…However, grovelling letters tend to help, and Ulrika Eleonora was invited back to Sweden and allowed to stay with her aunt while waiting for her day in court.

Being of noble birth, Ulrika Eleonora had assumed her case would be fast-tracked to the higher courts, bypassing local magistrates. Not so. Instead, Ulrika Eleonora and Maria were brought before the magistrates in Kalmar. Six days of intrusive question – and at one point Ulrika Eleonora was subjected to a thorough physical examination to ensure she was a woman. The midwives charged with verifying her gender also confirmed she had never given birth. Neither had Maria…

After these initial formalities, the trial focused on Ulrika Eleonora and Maria’s sexlife. At the time, homosexuality was a crime (labelled sodomy, which didn’t quite apply in this case, but even 18th century judges had enough imagination to visualise two women in bed), so maybe it is no wonder that the ladies repeated over and over that yes, they loved each other deeply, but that their feelings were platonic. In fact, neither of them had ever felt any desire to engage in sexual acts. The court was not entirely convinced, but there was nothing to prove, and what witnesses were found generally agreed that Ulrika Eleonora a.kl.a. Wilhelm and Maria had had a loving but virtuous relationship.

The Kalmar magistrates came to the conclusion the two women had committed a crime and should be punished – but they couldn’t find any guidance as to how they should be punished, and so they turned the whole case over to the educated lawmen of Göta Hovrätt – the next judicial level.

The lawmen didn’t take all that long to make up their minds:the crime was punishable by death, as supported by Deuteronomy 22:5:
The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the LORD thy God.
I dare say Ulrika Eleonora swallowed repeatedly. Many, many times.

However, the lawmen in their mercy decided to commute the punishment to 30 days on bread and water, to be followed by public penance at Church before being exiled from the town of Kalmar. Well, compared to being hanged, this seems a walk in the park, but Ulrika Eleonora was not happy. 30 days on only bread and water equaled borderline starvation. Yet another letter was sent off to the king, who decided to allow Ulrika Eleonora full prison rations (woo hoo!) while reducing Maria’s sentence to 8 days – after all, the poor girl had been tricked…

After their respective punishments in 1730, Maria and Ulrika Eleonora parted ways. Maria was to become a much appreciated servant in Lady Sofia’s household, while Ulrika Eleonora was given little choice in her future life – she was hastily passed off to an elderly female relative who lived as a recluse out in the woods. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.

At the time, Ulrika Eleonora was pushing fifty, with no income, no assets – nothing but the permanent stain of shame that marked her in the eyes of her exasperated family. None of her sisters seem to have offered to take her home – but then, that may have been all those obnoxious husbands who put their feet down. And as to her brothers, imagine the horror with which they learnt that their sister had dragged the family name through the mud – by impersonating a man and becoming a petty officer, no less.

Ulrika Eleonora died three years later. In the intervening period, she had not been allowed to see Maria, and we don’t know if this caused her sorrow. I would assume it did – in hindsight those ten years and more she lived as Wilhelm with Maria at her side must have seemed the happiest in her life. After all, Ulrika Eleonora did inhabit a man’s world – a society in which women were, by law, reduced to being nothing more than their closest male relative’s burden and chattel.

Ulrika Eleonora is not the only woman to dress up as a man and go to war. There are plenty of other examples in Sweden – and in England, Ireland, well, a bit all over. Many of these women were executed – dear old Moses had made it quite, quite clear that cross-dressing was a major no-no. Many more were probably never discovered, and their stories will never be heard, their names by now forgotten – a fate they share with like 99,9% of all those that went before us…

Sleeping your way to the top…

… is not a recommended approach to career building. But it has proven itself quite effective through history, and in societies where talented and intelligent women were restricted by their gender from pursuing a career under their own steam, what was a young girl to do? After all, if you can’t be the power on the throne, second best is being the power behind the throne, right?


A rococo beauty, plump and rosy

Mind you, in some cases this sleeping-your-way-to-the-top thing happened quite without premeditation. The lady in question had no desire to end up at the top, things just sort of developed in that direction. Like if you were living in the 18th century and had plump white thighs that just drove men crazy. Even more so if you were considered spoils of war by said men, so those plump white thighs of yours were essentially your only asset. What was a girl to do? Rephrase: what COULD a girl do? It’s not as if her captors were about to take “no” for an answer.

Let me introduce you to the lady with the delicious thighs. These days, of course, this her main point of attraction would be dismissed as being “fat”. Not so in the first years of the 18th century, when Marja Skavronska had the misfortune (or not) of becoming a Russian prisoner of war. Marja was married to a Swedish soldier, but she was from Livonia (an area  settled by Finns in present day Estonia/Latvia). At the time of her capture, she was about seventeen, and the area she lived in was being fought over by the Russians and the Swedes in the so called Great Northern War.

Russians capitulating at Narva

Russians capitulating at Narva

Russia under its expansive Tsar, Peter the Great, was flexing its muscles, while Sweden under Charles XII was defending its crumbling empire. Two talented generals, two very stubborn men, and the Russians and Swedes clashed over and over again. In 1700, 10 000 Swedes defeated 32 000 Russians at Narva, leaving a battlefield strewn with (mostly) Russian dead (12 000 Russians died. 600 Swedes hit the dust) This was not a humiliation Peter the Great had any intention of forgiving. Ever. Back and forth, the fortunes of war went, and so it was that in 1703 Marja ended up as war booty.

Sources disagree as to  what Marja looked like. Some say she was an exceedingly beautiful girl – but uneducated and illiterate. Others say she was quite ordinary – and uneducated and illiterate. Whatever the case, sources agree that she had delicious thighs and a generous bosom, but more importantly she was a cheerful young woman with the capacity of seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty. A valuable characteristic when one was bartered as cattle between one general and the other… Yet again, here some sources describe a young Marja being pushed half naked into the bedroom where a Russian general lay waiting, while other sources don’t mention this incident at all.


Peter the Great

What is beyond dispute, however, is that she ended up in the household of the Russian prince and general Alexander Menshikov, a close friend to Peter the Great. And when the Tsar visited, he was offered the company of buxom Marja, an offer the Tsar jumped at. A night or two of bedsport followed. The Tsar enjoyed the company of this young woman who aspired to little beyond ensuring her own safety and comfort. Plus, she had the most soothing manner, her generous breasts just the pillow he needed when his head ached and throbbed after one of his recurring rages or epileptic fits.

The Tsar decided to keep Marja (I know! How does that sound to a modern woman?). He ensured she received training in basic comportment, he urged her to convert to the Russian Orthodox faith, and some years after their first meeting, he secretly married little Marja – now baptised Catherine. Where the Tsar went, there went Catherine, always with welcoming arms, always with that round bosom for him to rest his weary head upon. Should he need variation in bed, Catherine wisely did not object. If he required counsel, she would offer it, and while Catherine was uneducated she was far from unintelligent – plus she had a huge amount of common sense.

The Tsar was happy, Catherine was happy. While St Petersburg was being built, they lived a simple life in a three room cottage, with Peter gardening while Catherine cooked and had babies. (In this department, they were dogged by misfortune: she gave Peter twelve children, of which only two survived beyond childhood) When Peter rode off for yet another major encounter with the Swedes, Catherine came along, and at the battle of Poltava in 1709 she was right in the midst of things, cheering the Russian soldiers on while offering them vodka and bread.

K XII Mazepa2

After Poltava: a vanquished Charles XII and the Cossack leader Mazepa

Poltava is one of those words Swedish children grow up hearing a lot. It is the place where the dream of a permanent Swedish Empire burst apart, where the flower of an entire generation of Swedish soldiers and noblemen met their death or were whisked away into humiliating Russian captivity. It is the battle at which Peter the Great once and for all made it clear to the world that Russia was a power to reckon with – so powerful, in fact, that it crushed the hitherto victorious Swedish army under its heel. Charles XII was forced to flee to Turkey – without a pair of welcoming arms in which to drown his sorrows. But then, Charles XII showed markedly little interest in such pleasures, he was all about war (and so the defeat at Poltava was all the heavier…but we can return to Charles XII in a later post) But I guess Peter and Catherine met somewhere on the battlefield and  did some adequate happy dancing.


Marja a.k.a. Catherine

Some years later, Catherine was credited with saving Peters life. She downplayed the whole thing, he most definitely didn’t. In fact, so grateful was he to his little wife for buying their way out of a tight spot with her jewelry that he married her again. Openly. Extravagantly. Plus she was now officially the Tsarina. And just like that, Catherine had gone from being a potentially pretty but unimportant young woman, to being the second most important person in Russia – such was her influence over her husband. Not bad, for a girl who mostly had her thighs going for her. And her breasts. And her soothing bedside manner. And the fact that she loved her man for who he was, despite him being the Tsar.

Eating yourself to death

Back in the good old times, the possibility of eating so much you would actually die was restricted to the upper classes. The common folk never got the chance of overindulging in anything much, and as a consequence obesity was often a sign of wealth. In some cultures, to this day obesity is used as a class marker, dividing the have-a-lot’s from the have-not’s. I guess these cultures haven’t bought into the beautiful=skinny notions that predominate in the Western world. (As an aside, beauty has very little to do with weight: it has much more to do with the light from within that some people have and others don’t)

Henry_I_-_British_Library_Royal_20_A_ii_f6v_(detail)Anyway, if we leap back in time to the early 12th century when Henry I supposedly died due to a surfeit of lampreys, obesity was not a problem. (And I do find it difficult to comprehend why someone would choose to stuff themselves with lampreys – but as the 12th century is sadly lacking when it comes to chocolate and ice cream, maybe poor Henry I settled for what he could get hold of to soothe his nerves. The man was in the midst of putting down his rebellious daughter and her even more rebellious and ambitious husband) Actually, Henry I is never referred to as being anything but healthy and ruddy, so maybe he was just unlucky in his choice of comfort food.

lampreys Tacuinum_Sanitatis-fishing_lamprey

Fishing lampreys

In the following centuries, the majority of the population had to make do with a restricted diet. Barley seems to have been a staple throughout Europe – in Sweden most people lived off barley porridge, bread and cabbage. Full stop. Oh, for Christmas, there might be a knob of butter in the porridge, but that was splurging madly in a world where food – as a general rule –  was scarce.

The higher up the income ladder one went, however, the better the diet got, but even then we’re talking about a world where food was not as readily available as it is now. We rarely consider just how easy our life is in some aspects. We want milk, we drive to the nearby store and buy a litre. The medieval mother wants milk, she has to go to the cow (and boy is she lucky if she has a cow) milk it, decide if she really can afford to drink the milk instead of making cheese from it, strain it and drink it. And those of you who have drunk milk directly from the cow will know it is warm – an interesting experience…

Now, if you were a king, food was not an issue. There was plenty of it – all the time. Most necessary, given the size of the average court, so it wasn’t as if people went about bloated. The economically minded king went on progress and visited his nobles, thereby forcing them to foot the food bill. Of course, in return the selected noble had the pleasure of the king’s company, and if he was (un)lucky the king might be so pleased with his host and fare that he extended his stay, thereby leaving a household scraped bare of anything edible when he left. One can imagine just how happy they were to see the king leave…

Fast forward to the 18th century. Things were picking up, the average man now could add potatoes to his thrilling diet of cabbage and barley gruel. Now and then, there was meat on the table, quite often salted. The not so average noble consumed venison and partridge, quails and pigeons. Rich sauces, flaky pastry and a lot of wine complemented all this meat. Meals among the wealthy consisted of up to nine types of meat. Kings and queens, of course, had access to the best of the best, and in some cases these royal personages were quite the gluttons. Like Adolf Fredrik.

Adolf_Frederick,_King_of_Sweden_-_WGA13779Adolf Fredrik was the king of Sweden from 1751 to 1771. By all accounts he was not the brightest or most confident of men, and other than being a loving husband and father, he expended most of his time on making snuffboxes. And, apparently, swooning with joy over food. As can be seen from his portrait, this was a somewhat plump man (and he does look rather sweet, doesn’t he? That armour he’s wearing is only for show). Other than the fact that he was Gustav III’s father – the king who was so famously shot at a Masquerade Ball, thereby inspiring a number of books, plays and an opera – Adolf Fredrik is remembered for only one thing: his last meal.

Maybe things would have gone differently if it hadn’t been Lent. Lent, you ask, recalling that Sweden is a Protestant country, so surely Lent is no big thing up there, is it? Too right, it isn’t – except for the tradition of eating a certain type of pastry during the Lent period, a soft bun filled with whipped cream and almond paste and generally served in a bowl with hot milk. This is called a semla, and in general, one of these delicacies leaves you quite, quite stuffed. In the 18th century, eating a semla was a once in a year experience for most people – this was a luxury product, what with the wheat flour bun, the cream and the almond paste.


Semla88 by einarspetz

Adolf Fredrik was very fond of semla. It was with enthusiasm he approached his meal on February 12, 1771. Lobster, sauerkraut (!), caviar, and smoked herring was washed down with plenty of champagne, and Adolf Fredrik rubbed his hands together in expectation as the dessert was presented. A huge tray, full of semlas. Adolf Fredrik ate one. Two. He reached for a third.
LuiseUlrikevonPreußen01“Really, Adolf Fredrik?” said Queen Louise Ulrika, frowning slightly. (Now this was one bright lady, tough as old boots and with a fine grasp of politics – and not, as far as I know, all that much into food. Takes all kinds…)
“One more, my little pigeon,” Adolf Fredrik replied, and because he smiled so sweetly, she smiled back. She wasn’t smiling when he bit into the tenth. Or the eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth… And there, dear people, Adolf Fredrik had reached his limit. So much so, in fact, that he died that same night.

And so, Adolf Fredrik is recorded as the king who ate himself to death – an honour he potentially shares with only one other that I know of, namely Henry I with the lampreys. Except, of course, that Adolf Fredrik did in fact eat so much he killed his digestive system, while Henry seems to have chosen the wrong dish – one hopes. Because seriously, to eat lampreys until one bursts a gut? Yuck!

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