Thursday, 31 October 2013

For Halloween... A Tale of Tyburn

Joseph "Blueskin" Blake (All-Hallows-the-Great, London, England, baptised 31st October 1700 – London, England, 11th November 1724) 

In the spirit of Halloween and all things dark and gruesome, today the salon is visited by a most notorious fellow in the rogueish shape of Joseph "Blueskin" Blake. Highway robber, thief and all-round violent chap, Blake enjoyed a career as a professional criminal before his story reached a violent end.

The Last Scene, George Cruikshank, 1839
No contemporary illustrations of Blake exist though he can be seen in the second panel of George Cruikshank's 1839 engraving, The Last Scene. Blake is cutting Jack Sheppard free of the gallows although in reality, Blake was already dead by the date of Sheppard's execution. 

Born to brandy shop owner Jane Blake and her husband, Nathaniel, Joseph Blake was fortunate enough to undertake some formal education as a boy and during his schooldays he made friends with William Blewitt, who would later introduce him to an influential accomplice in the form of Jonathan Wild, the infamous Thief-Taker General. Wild lived a double life, on one hand a champion of law and order with an enviable arrest record whilst behind the scenes he ran an enormous criminal empire.

Before the age of 18 Blake was already roaming the city as an accomplished pickpocket, known on the streets as Blueskin. The origins of Blake's nickname are lost to history but by 1719 he was terrorising the roads as a highway robber, moving into a street gang three years later and all the time evading any whisper of serious punishment.

However, Blake's run of fortune was to end in the winter of 1722 when Wild's men caught up with the gang. Desperate to escape, Blake sustained a head injury and was laid low enough to be apprehended. With the shadow of the Tyburn Tree casting a long shadow, Blake agreed to give evidence against his partners in crime, including his old school pal, Blewitt. While three of his former gang mates went to the gallows, Blake sat back and waited to receive a financial reward but his hopes were to be crushed when he found himself held in custody. With the risk of transportation ever-present, the shrewd criminal became a model prisoner, winning his release in the summer of 1724. Upon winning his freedom he went straight to the top of the criminal tree, forming a partnership with the legendary escapee, Jack Sheppard, one man who had refused point blank to work with the Thief-Taker General. 

Blake slashes Wild's throat
Blake (second from right) slashes Wild's throat

Within a month of his release from gaol, Blake and Sheppard burgled the house of William Kneebone and took their rich pickings to a fence, William Field. Unfortunately for them, Field was also on Jonathan Wild's payroll and he went straight to the Thief-Taker, taking with him news of the burglary. Sheppard was arrested on 23rd July 1724 and taken to Newgate; his trial was swift and he was convicted three weeks later on the testimony of Wild, Kneebone and Field.

With Sheppard dealt with, Wild turned his attention to Blake, taking him into custody on 2nd October. His trial took place on 15th October and Blake encountered Wild outside the courtroom. Knowing that his former paymaster was due to give evidence, Blake attempted to convince Wild to go easy on him in court and an argument ensued that ended when Blake assaulted Wild, slashing his throat with a concealed pocket knife. News of the the attack caused a spontaneous demonstration in Newgate and the prisoners began to revolt, with Sheppard using the distraction to make yet another of his infamous escapes.

As Wild was taken away for medical attention on the serious but not fatal wound, Blake was convicted and sentenced to death. His date with the hangman was set for 11th November and by the time he reached Tyburn after journeying along packed roads, he was barely coherent with drink. The criminal's attack on the hated Thief-Taker had made him something of an unlikely hero and a crowd gathered to watch his execution, with Blake's short yet eventful career ended by the noose on  cold winter day, his body buried at St Andrew, Holborn.

Recaptured just a day before Blake's date with the gallows, Sheppard was hanged on 16th November, no chance of a final, daring escape. Wild recovered from the throat wound Blake inflicted but the damage to his criminal career and public persona was immense; he too would face the hangman within the year, becoming part of the criminal history of the capital. 

So ends a dark tale of crime, corruption and the Tyburn tree... do enjoy your Halloween!

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Cynicism and Success: Frederick I of Württemberg

Frederick I William Charles of Württemberg (Friedrich I Wilhelm Karl von Württemberg; Treptow an der Rega, Poland, 6th November 1754 – Stuttgart, Germany, 30th October 1816)

Frederick I of Württemberg by Johann Baptist Seele
Frederick I of Württemberg by Johann Baptist Seele
Not so long ago we met Charlotte, Princess Royal, and briefly encountered her husband, Frederick I of Württemberg. A few salon visitors sent me a missive to ask about Frederick so I thought now was the time to reinforce the chaise longue and meet the last Duke of Württemberg, the man whom Napoleon elevated to king. Noted for his enormous bulk, Frederick stood at 6'11" with a weight of approximately 440lbs, so he was certainly not an easy man to miss!

Long before he became the giant of his portraits, Frederick was born the son of Frederick II Eugene, Duke of Württemberg, and Sophia Dorothea of Brandenburg-Schwedt. He was nephew to the ruler of Württemberg, Charles Eugene, and since Charles had no heir, Frederick was prepared from childhood to rule the Duchy. The marriage of Frederick's sister, Sophie Dorothea, and Tsesarevich Paul of Russia strengthened ties between Württemberg and Russia and Empress Catherine II appointed Frederick as Governor-General of Eastern Finland, a valuable grounding for his future role.

Frederick I of Württemberg by Georg Friedrich Erhardt
Frederick I of Württemberg by Georg Friedrich Erhardt 

At the age of 25, Frederick married Duchess Augusta of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Though the couple had four children their marriage was deeply troubled and during a visit to Russia in 1786, Augusta fled from her husband, requesting sanctuary from the Empress. Amid allegations of domestic abuse and rumours that her husband indulged in affairs with young gentlemen at court, Augusta's request for protection was granted by the Empress and Frederick was told to leave Russia. Within two years Augusta would be dead and it was almost a decade before Frederick remarried, taking as his second wife Charlotte, Princess Royal.

In 1797 Frederick became Duke of Württemberg, a role he enjoyed until 1800 when the French army marched in the Duchy and Frederick and Charlotte escaped to Vienna, where they began territorial negotiation with the Duke eventually awarded the title of Elector of Württemberg. Although he and Napoleon were far from fond of one another, Frederick recognised that the Emperor would be a valuable ally and supplied him with troops in return for territory and the title of King of Württemberg, his coronation taking place on 1 January 1806. To further ensure the commitment of both sides, Frederik's daughter married Napoleon's son and the newly-crowned king became a valuable asset to the French, able to broker negotiations with his father-in-law, George III, and an assortment of European leaders.

Frederick I of Württemberg

Mindful of the way the wind was blowing as the years rolled on, in 1813 Frederick abandoned his alliance with Napoleon and joined the allies. At the Congress of Vienna he was confirmed as king and allowed to keep the territories he had gained throughout his years as Napoleon's ally despite the fact that he was far from a popular ruler in many of these lands. His position secure, he remained on the throne until his death the following year, a cynical and successful leader to the end.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

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Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The Premiere of Don Giovanni

On 28th October 1787, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart put the last touches to the score of the now-legendary Don Giovanni, finally declaring the monumental work finished. The notes and directions he added could hardly have come any later in the process and within 24 hours of the composer setting down his pen, the opera was to receive its world premiere at the Stavovské Divaldo (Estates Theatre) in Prague.

Detail of the face of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, 1780
Detail of the face of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, 1780

In truth Mozart was concerned for the opening night of his opera but, having already been postponed twice, there was no way that the performance could be set back again. Frantically making adjustments and amendments right up until the moment that the overture began, even Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto was subject to improvisations, tweaks and changes even as was being performed. The composer struggled with unprepared performers and an orchestra who would not see the full score until the night of the premiere and yet, when it came to the moment of truth, the pieces fell effortlessly into place seemingly effortlessly, giving no hint of the frantic rush to complete the work.

Lorenzo da Ponte by Nathaniel Rogers (engraving by Michele Pekenino)
Lorenzo da Ponte by Nathaniel Rogers (engraving by Michele Pekenino)

Tickets for Il Dissoluto Punito ossia il Don Giovanni (The Rake Punished, or Don Giovanni), were the hottest of the year and anybody who was anybody gathered at theatre on that autumn evening, anticipation at a height for what promised to be a sensational show. With Mozart's composition seemingly all the chattering classes could think about for weeks before curtain, crowds had turned out in force to besiege the box office in the hope of securing one of 800 tickets, creating a tide of people through which those lucky enough to have a seat were forced to pick their way.

Mozart himself was due to conduct the opera and when he took up position in the orchestra pit the cheers went on and on, the composer rapturously received before so much as a note had been played or sung. Eventually the performance began on schedule at 7.00pm amid all the ribaldry and excitement that we Georgians were known for when visiting the theatre, creating what must have been a heady night indeed. The show ended at around 9.30pm to an ovation and the delighted audience went their merry way, some stopping at the box office to purchase a copy of the libretto, a shrewd bit of early merchandising!

The Stavovské Divaldo (Estates Theatre) in Prague
The Stavovské Divaldo (Estates Theatre) in Prague

Reviews for Don Giovanni were rapturous and Mozart was once again the toast of Prague as tickets flew from the box office. Mozart eventually left the city for Vienna and a new project but Prague remained dear to his heart and the city, to this day, celebrates its links with the legendary composer.

To find out more about Mozart's musically talented sister, do click here!

Monday, 28 October 2013

A Regent to be Reckoned With: Marie of Hesse-Kassel

Marie Sophie Frederikke of Hesse-Kassel (Hanau, Germany, 28th October 1767 – Copenhagen, Denmark, 21st March 1852)

Marie of Hesse-Kassel by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg
Marie of Hesse-Kassel by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg
Yesterday I welcomed a guest writer to the salon and was able to spend the day lounging on the chaise longue eating sweetmeats and drinking tea but today I am back at my bureau, quill in hand. Denmark is a land I have visited on a few occasions and the beauty of the land always astounds, so it is a pleasure to tell the tale of a lady of Denmark, Marie of Hesse-Kassel, Queen consort of Denmark and Norway.

Born to Landgrave Charles of Hesse-Kassel and Princess Louise of Denmark, Marie was the great-granddaughter of George II and spent her childhood years in Denmark, where her father held a number of prestigious offices. Marie's place in life was expected to be that of a wife and mother and by the time she was in her early twenties, her cousin, Frederick (later Frederick VI of Denmark) was looking for a suitable spouse.

Determined to choose his own wife and prove to his advisors that he was his own man, Frederick chose to marry Marie and the couple were united in a lavish ceremony that took place in Gottorp on 31st July 1790. Having spent virtually all her life in Denmark, the new bride was welcomed with open arms by the public though at court she found herself playing second fiddle to Princess Louise Auguste, her new sister-in-law and her husband's closest friend. Despite this she settled well into her new life, becoming a popular queen consort of both Denmark and Norway in 1808.

Marie of Hesse-Kassel by Jens Juel, 1790
Marie of Hesse-Kassel by Jens Juel, 1790

Marie found the pressure to produce an heir almost unbearable and she bore her husband eight children, six of whom (including all of their sons) died in infancy. This placed a strain on the royal marriage and Marie's final labour resulted in a serious physical injury that caused her to withdraw from sexual relations with Frederick and he took the far-younger Frederikke Dannemand as a long-term mistress; he would have four children with Frederikke but none of these could be a legitimate heir to the throne.

Despite the trials of her personal life, when the Napoleonic Wars called Frederick away from Denmark, Marie proved herself a more than able regent in his absence, steering the country on a steady and untroubled course When Frederick returned she had more than developed a taste for politics and began to write and publish on issues of political interest, establishing herself as a thinker to be reckoned with and remaining one of her husband's most trusted advisors.

Tomb of Marie of Hesse-Kassel
Marie's Tomb

When her husband died, Marie withdrew from public life and continued to indulge her interests in charitable causes, history and politics. Beloved of the people, she was greatly mourned when she died and was buried amid much ceremony in Roskilde Cathedral.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

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Sunday, 27 October 2013

A Salon Guest... John of the Battles

As I thought might be the case, my piece on John Campbell stirred up quite a bit of comment from salon visitors and the Duke of Argyll has proved to be a somewhat divisive figure! I received a missive via Twitter from Colin MacDonald and our chitchat has resulted in this guest entry, putting a somewhat different view of John of the Battles!


Field Marshal John Campbell by William Aikman, 1710
Field Marshal John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll, 1st Duke of Greenwich KG (Petersham, England, 10th October 1678 – Sudbrook, England, 4th October 1743)

In matters of convention, fashion, language and manners, it was often from royalty that trends were set. When James VI travelled south of the border in 1603 to add the English crown to that of his Scottish crown, he unwittingly began a trend that would characterise the Scottish nobility to the present day, that of the absentee landlord.

Charles I continued his father’s newly established tradition and became Scotland’s first truly absentee king, waiting an astonishing 8 years before he even bothered to come north of the border to accept his Scottish crown after his father died in 1625.

One such pioneering and self-serving member of the ‘Scottish’ nobility operating under the trendsetting guise of the royal family was John Campbell, 2nd Duke of Argyll and later known as John of the Battles. Although born as an heir to one of Scotland’s most powerful Gaelic clans, he was born in Surrey, served in an English Royal Army, died in Greater London and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

By the time of John Campbell’s birth in 1678, Clan Campbell had survived its wobble of the 1640s and was continuing its rise in fortunes. Through carefully arranged marriages, a dependency on the pen rather than the sword and carefully timed alliances, the Campbells had become major contributors to national politics. The Clan’s historic rivals in the highlands, the MacDonald’s, could still count themselves a major military power in the late 17th century, but its strength was beginning to wane. Islay and Kintyre had been lost to the Campbells, the fragmentation of the former Lordship of the Isles continued unabated and by 1688 the ironic loyalty of Clan Donald to the House of Stuart pushed the MacDonald’s even further to the fringe of national authority.

However despite being one of the leading figures of the most powerful families in Argyll, John had little involvement in the politics of the Gaelic world, pursuing a successful career in the military through various overseas postings and playing an active part in the upheavals on the European continent.  In 1703 he succeeded to Dukedom of Clan Campbell, ultimately leading to a decision to shamefully forsake his country’s independence for the sake of personal self advancement.

John Campbell

In 1703, the continued independence of Scotland was becoming a major problem for Queen Anne’s personal rule over Scotland and England. The Scottish Parliament had become frustrated with an absentee London-based monarchy that often pursued policies contrary to Scotland’s national interest. This irritation was significantly magnified when the English Parliament chose childless Queen Anne’s successor without consulting the Scottish Parliament. Concerns had been raised in Scotland over the English Parliament’s choice of the House of Hanover as the successors to the throne, as it was feared Scotland would be unnecessarily dragged into German and continental wars.  The Scottish Parliament was keen to ensure that it was Scotland, and not a London based monarch that had the direct control over whether or not Scottish troops could go into battle.

The Scottish Parliament subsequently introduced The Act of Security (1704) and the Act boldly asserted that unless England’s choice of a royal successor met with various economic, political and religious criteria then Scotland would choose an alternative monarch.

The Scottish Parliament went even further, and outlined that unless the legislation received royal assent, it would refuse to raise taxes for the crown and would withdraw all Scottish soldiers from the Duke of Marlborough’s army fighting in the War of the Spanish Succession.

John Campbell was in fact serving under the Duke of Marlborough at this time and by 1706 he was leading a Scottish brigade in Dutch Service. However, while Campbell was fighting at the Battle of Ramillies, the diplomatic retaliation that followed Scotland’s Act of Security had meant Scotland and England themselves were on the brink of war. Queen Anne was by this time determined to ensure a union between the Scottish and English parliaments and negotiations had begun between the two parliaments to try and reach a compromise.

John Campbell by Thomas Bardwell, 1740

Campbell became a staunch supporter of the union at a time of mass public protest against any moves to forsake Scotland’s independence. Between October 1706 and November 1707, 80 petitions from towns, parishes and burghs were sent to the Scottish Parliament opposing the union. A further 20,000 people signed a petition against the Union, a move which prompted Queen Anne to send troops to the border, all the while English negotiators openly mooted war as a possibility should the Scots refuse to sign up.

Campbell remained a resolute supporter despite the overwhelming popular opposition. The union was in fact so unpopular, it was joked that for once it was possible to find a Kirk Minister, a Catholic Priest and Episcopal Prelate all in agreement.

Inevitably, after quietly bribing enough members of the Scottish Parliament, Queen Anne managed to secure the union. For his loyalty to Anne’s project, John Campbell was given the English titles of Baron Chatham and Earl of Greenwich. Campbell had backed a winner, and his family fortunes were rewarded accordingly.

The signing of the union however led to mass rioting across Scotland and troops were needed to quell the riots. Various attempts at an armed uprising came to nothing and the bells of St Giles Cathedral played ‘Why am I so sad on my wedding day?’ Violent discontent was suppressed, but never totally eliminated and resentment towards the union helped fuel the Jacobite uprisings that were to follow.

John Campbell by Thomas Bardwell, 1740
Field Marshal John Campbell by Thomas Bardwell, 1740

History did however afford John Campbell the opportunity to redeem his name. In 1713, when the London Government imposed the hated malt tax on Scotland, he became one of the most marked supporters of the motion to dissolve the union. The motion itself failed by a mere four votes. However, Campbell’s motivations were not those entirely sympathetic to Clan Campbell’s ancient homeland. He was in fact primarily motivated by the belief that dissolution of the union would be in England’s national interest as much as Scotland’s.

It is important to note that Campbell certainly still continued to think of himself as Scottish at this point in time. Following the failure of the motion to dissolve the union, the Anglo-Irish Lord, Jonathan Swift, wrote a blistering attack on the contemptuous Scots. The Scottish parliamentarians, including Campbell, were so outraged at being spoken about in such language they protested directly to the crown. Swift and Campbell had previously enjoyed warm relations, but their friendship was permanently sundered by these events. Swift dismissed Campbell as an ‘ambitious, covetous, cunning Scot with no principles but his own self interest and greatness.’ This entire episode is evidence enough that Campbell never renounced his ‘Scottishness’ in thought, even if he was to do so in action.

John Campbell

With Queen Anne’s death in 1714, Campbell’s unexpected appearance at the Privy Council helped to ensure the exclusion of the Jacobites and secured the smooth ascension to power of the House of Hannover.  Again, for his loyalty, he secured promotion as a general and commander in chief of George I’s forces in Scotland.  He subsequently checked the 1715 Jacobite uprising at the Battle of Sheriffmuir and by 1719 was again rewarded for his loyalty to the government by being made the Duke of Greenwich. He continued to enjoy promotions throughout the rest of his life and shortly before his death he had risen to be Commander in Chief of the British Army.

John Campbell was able to cultivate a successful and rewarding career at Scotland’s expense. Despite massive public opposition, he had helped to abolish Scotland’s national parliament, he played a pivotal role in securing the English Parliament’s chosen successor to the throne and Campbell had all but ignored his Gaelic heritage to become an anglicised absentee landlord.

It is perhaps fitting that on the Duke of Argyll’s tomb in Westminster Abbey, a figure of liberty is reaching out, clutching a copy of the Magna Carta, the most striking symbol of English liberty. A more fitting epitaph may have come from the words of Campbell’s contemporary Joseph Addison, who is buried alongside Campbell in Westminster Abbey,

“Is there not some chosen curse,
Some hidden thunder in the stores of heaven,
Red with uncommon wrath, to blast the man,
Who owes his greatness to his country’s ruin?”

Colin MacDonald can be found on Twitter, and is well worth gadding about with!

Written content of this post copyright © Colin MacDonald, 2013.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Giuditta Pasta, Opera Diva

Giuditta Angiola Maria Costanza Negri (Saronno, Italy, 26th October 1797 - Blevio, Italy, 1st April 1865)

Giuditta Pasta by Karl Briullov
Giuditta Pasta by Karl Briullov

As is only fitting on a day when I am off on a musical jaunt myself, we return to the stage today to learn more about the life of a famed leading lady of the operatic stage. I found the inspiration for my tale as I browsed my Pinterest boards recently over a cup of tea and a slice of something fruity and came across the very dramatic painting above, depicting opera diva Giuditta Pasta in costume as Anne Boleyn.

Giuditta was born in Italy to Charles Antonio Negri and Rachel Ferranti; she showed an early aptitude for music and song and initially studied music under the tutelage of her mother's brother, Philip. Giuditta had to work hard to harness her talent and find her voice; she struggled with pitch and breath as well as dramatic interpretation yet she was focussed and ambitious, determined to make a career in opera. After years of private study Giuditta enrolled at the Conservatory of Milan at the age of 16, making her debut as a contralto two years later in Scappa's Le Tre Eleonore.

When Giuditta married fellow singer Giuseppe Pasta in 1816, she found herself with not only a regular leading man but also a tireless champion. The couple had one child together and as his wife's career progressed, Giuseppe handled her business affairs and identified likely roles and composers who might wish to work with her. He even visited America to investigate what opportunities existed there, though Giuditta would never cross the Atlantic herself.

Giuditta Pasta

Giudetta's 1817 debut in London was not well received and the singer returned to Italy where she studied tirelessly to improve her dramatic and vocal skills, eventually resulting in a confident, skilful performer who would soon be winning the plaudits of critics and audiences alike. Following successful performances in Milan, Giuditta made her Venice debut to acclaim, going on to a sensational season in Paris in 1821. Once word spread of this remarkable new operatic talent Giuditta never looked back and was the toast of Europe for years to come. On her return visit to England, a passionately performed season of Rossini roles more than erased the memory of her disastrous London debut, earning her even wider acclaim.

As her career progressed, so too did her voice change and contralto became soprano; composers including Donizetti and Bellini wrote roles for her and she was invited to perform in prestigious theatres and European courts. However, her famed range eventually began to weaken and in 1835 she entered semi-retirement after her voice broke during a performance at La Scala, performing only sporadically in the years that followed. Following the death of Giuseppe in 1846, Giuditta devoted herself to a new life as a singing tutor, passing on her knowledge and technique to young performers to ensure a new generation of operatic sensations.

Friday, 25 October 2013

A Routine Trip to the Closet: The Death of George II

George II (George Augustus; Hanover, Electorate of Brunswick-Luneburg, Holy Roman Empire, 9th November 1683 – London, England, 25th October 1760)

George II by Thomas Hudson, 1744
George II  by Thomas Hudson, 1744

Today is a somewhat subdued day in the salon as we mark the anniversary of the death of King George II. My grandmother Gilflurt has oft told a tale of two of this particular monarch but none are really suitable for sharing with our guests, as she can get a little ribald once she's got a gin inside her. Still, it seemed only right the mark the passing of a this long-serving, not always popular, monarch!

In the 33rd year of his reign, the once-lively king had slowed considerably. He had retired from the active political life he had once lived, even his famously hot-temper had perhaps quelled just a little and despite his scandalous love life, more than two decades after the death of his wife, he still mourned her passing. Now in the later years of his life, George's health was failing and he was frustrated by the partial loss of his sign and hearing, though he remained intellectually vibrant.

George II by Charles Jervas, 1727
George II by Charles Jervas, 1727

By the age of 76, George had quite naturally become a creature of habit and on the morning of his death he left his bed in Kensington Palace at six o'clock as was his routine, seeing in the day with his usual cup of chocolate. Suitably refreshed, he retired to perform his toilet and it was then that his valet heard a noise that brought him running to his master's aid. The king had fallen and was prone on the floor, barely alive. As George was carried to bed and settled as well as he could be, Princess Amelia was summoned to her ailing father's side but by the time the princess arrived at Kensington Palace, King George II was dead. George's physician, Frank Nicholls, made preparations to embalm the late monarch and found that the cause of death had been an aortic dissection. 

According to his wishes, George was buried beside his beloved wife, Caroline of Ansbach, at Westminster Abbey on 11th November 1760. As was his wish, the sides of their coffins were removed to allow their bodies to rest together.

George II

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

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Thursday, 24 October 2013

Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and the Court of the Muses

Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (Wolfenbüttel, Germany, 24th October 1739 – Weimar, Germany, 10th April 1807)

Anna Amalia by Angelica Kauffmann, 1788
Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel by Angelica Kauffmann, 1788

Today we meet a royal lady who devoted her life to the arts, changing her court into a centre of cultural excellence and enjoying a career not only as a stateswoman, but also a respected composer in her own right. That lady is Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, a woman to be reckoned with.

Anna Amalia was born into a powerful royal dynasty, daughter of Karl I, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and Princess Philippine Charlotte of Prussia. She was a fiercely intelligent child and dedicated student, well-prepared for her role as a royal wife by the time she married Ernst August II Konstantin, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach on 16th March 1756. The marriage was to be short lived and although the couple had two children, in 1758 the Duchess was left a widow. With her son and heir, Karl August, still in early infancy, Anna Amalia took the role of regent of Saxe-Weimar and Eisenach until the boy reached majority.

Portrait of Anna Amalie von Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach after Johann Ernst Heinsius
Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel after Johann Ernst Heinsius 

Anna Amalia's regency lasted until 1775 and she proved herself a talented ruler. Politically and financially astute, against the challenges of the Seven Years' War she built up the the economy of the Duchy, strengthening its reputation, resources and cultural profile. She reformed the court too, her love of the arts informing the personalities who flocked to the Court of the Muses.

During her regency, Anna Amalia's court became home to artists, writers and composers including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Gottfried Herder. A devotee of literature, in 1766 Anna Amalia established the Duchess Anna Amalia Library. Goethe would be an important figure in the development of this institution and the library stands to this day, home to almost a million volumes. 

Anna Amalia after Johann Georg Ziesenis
Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel after Johann Georg Ziesenis

Not only did Anna Amalia provide a court in which creativity flourished, she proved herself a gifted composer too, writing accomplished operas and symphonies that were performed both at court and beyond. When her son reached majority she retired from the political roles she had known and devoted herself to culture. The Duchess toured Italy in the later part of her life with her good friend Goethe; here she befriended the artist, Angelica Kauffmann, who became a close and valued friend during her visit.

The latter years of Anna Amalia's life were devoted to the pursuit of culture and she remained much loved by the people of Saxe-Weimar. Upon her death in 1807 she was deeply mourned by both public and court alike.

Life in the Georgian Court, true tales of 18th century royalty, is available at the links below.

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Wednesday, 23 October 2013

The Perfect Leading Lady: Anne Oldfield

Anne Oldfield (also known as Ann; London, England, 1683 - London, England, 23rd October 1730)

Ann Oldfield

When the celebrated Sophie Ackermann visited the salon recently, her appearance spurred one or two readers to send me some lovely emails regarding the ladies of the Georgian theatre. Besides the inestimable Mrs Siddons, a name that cropped up frequently was that of Anne Oldfield. Hugely famous in her day, Anne rose from modest beginnings to command the London stage.

Anne was born the daughter of a soldier and, despite an early love of drama, took up work as an apprentice seamstress in London. Her life was to change quite by chance when she visited a tavern owned by a family member and entertained the patrons by reciting some lines from The Scornful Lady. One of the customers in the tavern that night was the celebrated dramatist, George Farquhar, who was caught by the young woman's beauty and her enthusiastic reading, seeing in her a talent to be nurtured. She would go on to be a the lead in many of Farquhar's comedies and he was responsible for her introduction to the theatre, which began with John Rich at Drury Lane, a venue that would eventually become her theatrical home.

Anne Oldfield by John Simon, after Jonathan Richardson mezzotint, circa 1700-1725
Anne Oldfield by John Simon, after Jonathan Richardson mezzotint, circa 1700-1725

By the dawn of the Georgian era, Anne was the first lady of the London stage, noted for her skills in both comedy and tragedy alike. She was famed not only for her acting skills but also her extraordinary beauty and deportment and in her time Anne performed in a number of iconic female roles. Despite her popularity in society, the actress was no stranger to scandal and a relationship with Whig statesman and author Arthur Maynwaring gave her a son and upon his death she used Maynwaring's inheritance to educate their child. She had a second child with Lieutenant General Charles Churchill MP and at her death, Anne divided her substantial worldly goods and property between her two children.

Anne Oldfield by Edward Fisher, after Jonathan Richardson mezzotint, circa 1760-1785
Anne Oldfield by Edward Fisher, after Jonathan Richardson mezzotint, circa 1760-1785

Anne's death threw her fans and society into mourning. Her funeral was a magnificent affair, with the actress buried wearing a gown of fine Brussels lace, much to the waspish amusement of Alexander Pope. Unusually, Anne was buried within Westminster Abbey, though the heartbroken Churchill was refused permission to erect a monument to her memory within the cloisters and her grave is marked with a simple stone, bearing only her name and the date of her death.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The First Parachute Descent

Not so long ago, I told the tale of Jeanne Garnerin, the first woman to make a parachute descent. Her story certainly captured the imagination of salon guests and quite a few got in touch to ask about the first ever descent, which was made by her husband, André-Jacques Garnerin. Since today is the anniversary of that exciting event, it seemed like an excellent time to revisit the moment!

Early flight trading cart

Garnerin initially developed an interest in using balloons for military purposes during his time in the army and, following two years as a prisoner of the English, he returned to France with dreams of flight.  Garnerin devoted his time to pursuing his passion for ballooning and caused a scandal when he appeared before Paris officials to make a case for taking a young woman up for a flight, an utterly unthinkable idea. His wish was eventually granted and Garnerin was propelled into the celebrity sphere, his press not all harmed by the fact that the woman in question, Citoyenne Henri, was young and beautiful. The flight was a success and Garnerin turned his mind to the next escapade, reasoning that he had made a dramatic ascent, so perhaps it was time for an equally dramatic descent!

Early Flight trading card

The balloonist absorbed himself in experiments involving parachutes, eventually ready to make his first public descent. On 22nd October 1797 a crowd gathered at Parc Monceau in Paris to watch the daring feat of aeronautics as Garnerin ascended to a height of more than 3000 feet. Far above the park he cut the ropes that attached balloon to basket and began his descent with the help of a white parachute, 23 feet across and in the shape of an umbrella.

As the basket buffeted and swung the crowd must have wondered if Garnerin would make it safely back to earth but happily, he did just that. Garnerin's reputation and career were set from that moment on and with his wife, Jeanne, he became renowned throughout Europe. Many more parachutists would follow from ever more dizzying heights but for all of that, it was Garnerin who landed first!

Monday, 21 October 2013

"We have lost more than we have gained": The Death of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson

Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, KB (Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, England, 29th September 1758 – Cape Trafalgar, Spain, 21st October 1805)

Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott , 1799
Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson by Lemuel Francis Abbott , 1799

Not a week ago I told of the final hours of an iconic figure of our Georgian age, the doomed Queen Marie Antoinette. Today I find myself bound to relate another sad death, that of our very own Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson at the legendary Battle of Trafalgar.

On 21st October 1805 the Royal Navy fought the combined might of the French and Spanish navies in the most decisive conflict of the War of the Third Coalition, the Battle of Trafalgar. Although the Royal Navy would claim the all-important victory the price was high; Nelson's death plunged the country into deep mourning for its national hero. By the end of the day the French and Spanish fleets would be annihilated, Napoleon's plans for glory lay in tatters and the stage was set for English dominance over the ocean for decades.

The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Denis Dighton, 1825
The Fall of Nelson, Battle of Trafalgar, 21 October 1805 by Denis Dighton, 1825

In the heat of the close-quarters battle Nelson strode the deck of his flagship, HMS Victory, with the ship's captain, Thomas Hardy, by his side. As Victory neared the enemy line officers  implored Nelson to retire to another vessel but the Admiral refused, determined to lead the battle from the front as he stood true to his own famous word that "England expects that every man will do his duty". The fighting was vicious and Nelson's secretary, John Scott, fell victim to a cannonball whilst all around him crewmen were dying or injured. Under fire from the French ships and sharpshooters in their rigging, Nelson and Hardy never left the deck of the Victory, issuing orders and commands to their crew. Clad in a dress uniform coat and proudly displaying his Orders of Knighthood, Nelson was a constant, visible presence on the deck, never taking his eye from the battle.

The Battle of Trafalgar by J. M. W. Turner
The Battle of Trafalgar by J. M. W. Turner

It was after one o'clock when a shot was fired from the French vessel, Redoubtable, and Hardy turned to see Nelson collapsed on the quarter-deck, his hand clutched to a wound in his left shoulder. The ball had struck Nelson and travelled through his torso to smash his spine, leaving the Admiral with no hope of survival. Hardy later reported that Nelson knew precisely what had happened, telling him, "My backbone is shot through.".

Sergeant-Major Robert Adair and two marines carried the mortally wounded Admiral below decks whilst Hardy remained in command. Even then Nelson continued to issue orders to his men and when he was joined by the Victory's surgeon, William Beatty, he told the medic that nothing could be done for him and asked that Beatty tend other men who might still be saved. Made as comfortable as possible, Nelson was kept cool and refreshed and asked to see Hardy, telling Beatty to remember him to those who loved him. Joined by chaplain, Alexander Scott, and other important crewmen, Nelson continually asked for Hardy and eventually, an hour or so after the wound was inflicted, the Captain joined them below decks.

The Death of Lord Nelson in the Cockpit of the Ship 'Victory' by Benjamin West, 1808
The Death of Lord Nelson in the Cockpit of the Ship 'Victory' by Benjamin West, 1808

After listening to a report on the successes of the battle. Nelson told his friend that he knew his time was limited and reminded him to anchor, fearing that a storm was approaching and set on capturing 20 of his opponent's vessels. Fading fast, Nelson asked Hardy to ensure that Lady Hamilton was cared for and then asked, "Kiss me, Hardy". After a kiss to his cheek and forehead, Nelson began to slip into incoherence and finally died at half past four, his last words recorded as, "God and my country".

The Death of Nelson, 21 October 1805 by Arthur Devis, 1807
The Death of Nelson, 21 October 1805 by Arthur Devis, 1807

Nelson's body was stored in a cask of brandy, camphor and myrrh and kept under heavy guard on the mast of the Victory. With her precious cargo aboard, the shop was towed to Gibraltar where the admiral's corpse was placed in a lead-lined coffin filled with spirits of wine. This cask was made from the mast of L’Orient, a French ship destroyed in the Battle of the Nile. As the sad preparations to return were made, a messenger was dispatched to send word to London and Lady Hamilton. She later recalled that she greeted the news of Nelson's death with horrified shock and swiftly slipped into debt and despair, neither she nor her daughter, Horatia, offered any support despite Nelson's express wishes that they be cared for. King George III himself greeted the news of the Admiral's death with horror, supposedly commenting, "We have lost more than we have gained."

HMS Victory

Nelson finally reached England on board his flagship on 23rd December and his coffin was taken to Greenwich Hospital, where it would remain until January 1806. Over the three days in which Nelson's body lay in state, 100,000 people filed through the Hospital to pat their last respects. With the Admiral's death, Britain lost one of the greatest heroes of the Georgian age and his funeral reflected his status in the country he had given his life for. It was a magnificent affair and one that we shall visit on another day.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Capture of Calico Jack

John Rackham (Cuba, 27th December 1682 – Port Royal, Jamaica, 18th November 1720)

John Rackham, Calico Jack

Keep your hand on your reticule today because a thoroughly bad lot is sailing into the salon in the shape of John "Calico Jack" Rackham. Although his career was hardly a long one, Calico Jack certainly had an eye for aesthetics as we'll see in a moment, but that didn't help him evade capture by the British Navy on this day in 1720.

Rackham was a pirate of Cuban-English parentage who earned his nickname by his distinctive clothing. Clearly a man of some visual flare, it was Rackham who first flew the Jolly Roger depicting a skull and crossed swords, which went on to become an iconic design. He also numbered two women amongst his crew, Mary Read and Anne Bonny, Rackham's lover. In fact, on the fateful day in question, Read and Bonny were two of the few who fought for their freedom, the majority of their crewmates in their cups and slumbering below deck.

Rackham had already been pardoned and returned to piracy by the time he sailed in the waters around Jamaica in 1720, leaving local sailors and fishermen terrified of his attacks. By September of that year Governor Nicholas Lawes had had quite enough of the pirate and issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of piracy. Charged by Lawes to track down Calico Jack, Captain Jonathan Barnet happened upon his sloop, the William, at Bry Harbour Bay in Jamaica on 20th October 1720. The ship was at anchor, her crew at rest and vulnerable to boarding.

Commanding two sloops of his own including the heavily armed Tyger, Barnet made his discovery at around ten o'clock in the evening and approached silently. By the time the pirates realised that Barnet was alongside, the pirate hunter had already ordered them to surrender and the William had no choice but to take flight. Of course, it was a pointless effort and the crew of the Tyger boarded their quarry easily despite the fierce defence of Read, Bonny and a crewmate. 

The pirates were taken to trial in Spanish Town, Jamaica, in November 1720. Found guilty, they were hanged and Rackham's body was displayed on the gibbet as a warning to others. Pleading their bellies the women were granted a stay of execution until their pregnancies could be confirmed. Read died of a fever in prison whilst Bonny was pardoned and disappeared from history, passing into the lore of the Golden Age of Piracy.