Tag Archives: English History

Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen


Today’s tale starts with a meeting at Greenwich palace, a now demolished royal residence – the date, September 1593. The ‘fairy Queen’ of England, Elizabeth I, awaits the arrival of a rival monarch. The two queens have been at loggerheads since 1574; since Elizabeth laid claim to the other’s land. One wonders just what was going through Elizabeth’s mind, in anticipation of this meeting. It’s easy to write these two off as an odd couple, one cultured and erudite, the other a swashbuckling adventurer – a warlord from beyond the pale. But it is also very wrong to do so. Were you to judge these two ladies by their professions, they weren’t at all dissimilar. To borrow from Ralph Waldo Emerson – quote.

“Piracy and war gave place to trade, politics and letters; the war-lord to the law-lord; the privilege was kept, whilst the means of obtaining it were changed”

Elizabeth, of course, was very much the law lord. She didn’t need to engage in piracy and war herself. Earlier, rougher ancestors had been the warlord – thuggishly climbing the crooked ladder. From child of warlords, to law-lord, Elizabeth I had no need to murder, and plunder personally – but through her edicts, a lot of blood was on her hands. Our protagonist? Well, the daughter of a warlord, she too had taken on her father’s mantle. From a wild, feudal land which required her lordship to be an enforcer at times – she had far less time for banquets, pleasantries and dressing in posh frocks while someone painted your face with Venetian ceruse. She was lord, enforcer, protector and occasionally, conqueror.

And, of course, it would turn out they had considerably more in common besides. But more on that later.

On this day Queen Elizabeth I was to meet with Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen of Connaught.

Grace O’Malley, aka Grainne Mhaille, was born around 1530 to Eoghan and Maeve Mhaille – or ‘John and Margaret’. Eoghan was the lord of Umhaill, in Connaught – now County Cork – Ireland. As lord he gave protection to his locals, for which he taxed them; and earned as a privateer and occasional merchant. Much of the family’s wealth came from being men of violence.
In the West of Ireland, they were well beyond the pale – the Dublin region‘s outer border – controlled by England. In his lifetime though, Eoghan saw Elizabeth’s father – Henry VIII – take more and more Irish land – till he had enough land to crown himself King of Ireland in 1542. Grace grew up a witness to the aggressive imperialism of the English – and a few changes of monarch. Henry VIII died in 1547. His crown passed, first to his 9 year old son Edward VI, who died in 1553. From there it passed to Lady Jane Grey, a grasping cousin once removed, for nine days, before she was arrested and locked up in the tower of London. The crown then passed to Henry’s eldest daughter, Mary I, known as ‘Bloody Mary’ for her persecution of the protestants. When she died of ovarian or uterine cancer in 1558, the crown of both nations passed to Elizabeth.

Queen Elizabeth I


Grace’s rise to power is quite different from Elizabeth’s. Eoghan had an elder son from a previous relationship, Donal na Piopa. As he was the bastard son, the title was destined to pass to Grace. No doubt this suited Donal just fine. Far from a man of violence, Donal was a well liked musician who loved nothing more than a sing-along in a local tavern. Grace, on the other hand, lived for adventure. From childhood she wanted nothing more than to be a pirate like her father. Legend has it young Grace once plead to join the crew on a mercantile trip to Spain, only to be told her long hair would get caught in the ropes by Eoghan’s bemused sailors. She cut her hair off, embarrassing her father, but leaving no excuses. As it turned out, she was a natural. and from then on would regularly sail with her father, learning the art of piracy from a master.

Aged 16 Grace married Donal O’Flaherty, the son of another chieftain. They had their first child together within a year. Compare and contrast to Elizabeth: she may have found love- for one she was probably lovers with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and son of the guy who put Lady Jane Grey on the throne for nine days – but she faced such a tangle of competing factions at the court, it was politically difficult, if not outright dangerous for Elizabeth to ever marry – at least without sparking an insurrection. Grace’s marriage was, of course, political – it was intended to be a consolidation of two feudal regions as the old chieftains passed.

Grace had two sons and a daughter with Donal, and retired from swashbuckling for a while. Her life was soon thrown into chaos – however – when Donal was killed fighting the neighboring Joyce clan over a disputed castle. A distraught Grace took revenge on the Joyces, invading the castle, on the shores of Lough Corrib, and ousting the clan. In spite of Grace‘s children, or immense talent as a military leader, Donal’s titles and land were taken from her, and passed to a male cousin of Donal’s. She returned to her family with a small militia in tow, and set up a base on nearby Clare Island. Grace O’Malley returned to piracy – something she later described to Elizabeth as ‘maintenance by land and sea’.



Grace’s following years were busy, and profitable. She grew her army to 200 fighters, who she put to work fighting both neighboring chieftains, and raiding towns along Scotland’s coast. She transported ‘Gallowglasses’, Scottish mercenaries, to Ireland when allied chieftains needed extra muscle in their blood feuds. Grace O’Malley was also involved in the resistance movement who were fighting further English encroachment on Irish lands. One story which makes it’s way to us – In 1565, a ship ran aground on nearby Achill Head, in a particularly wicked storm. Though the texts I read didn’t state if Grace was acting as a wrecker – having caused the wreck by leaving a horse near the rocks with a lantern around it’s neck (to fool the sailors into thinking they had entered a safe harbour) – or showed up as an opportunist – Grace was soon at the scene, looking to salvage whatever she could.
She found one Hugh De Lacey, shipwrecked sailor and son of a Wexford merchant. Grace took Hugh as a lover, but didn’t have him long. Hugh was murdered by the McMahon clan. Enraged, Grace took her bloody revenge on the McMahons, murdering the perpetrators and taking over their castle, Doona, on the coast of Erris. Twice unlucky in love, she was at least lucky in piracy – now controlling a choke point, from which she could control all passing ships – she was soon both extremely well known; and extremely wealthy.

Another tale tells how Grace chased one rival chieftain to a small island containing just a church, and a hermit. When the chieftain took refuge in the church, Grace besieged him, threatening to stay there till he starved to death if need be. The chief dug a tunnel to safety.

In another tale, Grace was returning from a raid one night – when she moored up for a breather at the town of Howth, near Dublin. Running low on provisions and in need of water, she called upon the local lord, St Lawrence Earl of Howth. Finding the castle gates locked, and sent packing by the porter with the message the Earl is dining and not to be disturbed – Grace left, dejected. On her way back to her ship, she come across the Earl’s grandson, and on a whim, kidnapped the boy. Days later, the distraught Earl arrived in Connaught- willing to pay any price for the boy’s return. Grace returned the child, not for money, but a promise the Earl would always leave his castle gates open to visitors. When he dined he was to always keep a chair free, for any passing travellers. His descendants continue this tradition to this day.

In 1566 she remarried, to the chieftain, Richard ‘Iron Dick’ – (he owned an ironworks, not for the other thing) – Bourke. While married to Bourke she continued to plunder and freeboot. They soon divorced, but did have a child together – known as Toby of the Ships, as he was born while Grace was at sea. The legend states a day after giving birth, their ship was boarded by Barbary pirates. These picaroons were shocked to find themselves greeted by an angry, half naked lady with a musket. It was bad enough they had the audacity to attack her ship at all, but interrupt her while she was breastfeeding? The interlopers fled for their lives.

1576

Grace O’Malley’s life, and the lives of the other chieftains, took a turn for the worse in 1576. While Henry VIII laid claim to Ireland in 1542, this was largely a nominal act. At the time, he was far too busy bringing Wales, newly acquired, to heel. Henry planned to turn his attentions to Scotland next, but a costly war with France broke out in 1544. Henry put his local ambitions on the back burner, then he died. Elizabeth I allowed English expansion, into Ireland – but only made it a necessity in the wake of a threatening letter from the pope in 1570. The letter, Pope Pius V’s ‘bull Regnans in Excelsis’ excommunicated the queen, and urged her peoples to overthrow her – a Protestant – for a God-fearing Catholic. The ’Bull’ was, essentially, a call to whack the queen.

Elizabeth I started to worry a Catholic nation like Spain could capture Ireland, use the country as a base of operations, then invade England. The court discussed this as early as 1565, as war raged between Spain, and the then breakaway state of the Netherlands. Many English mercenaries were involved in the ’80 years war’. For this alone, England was on the radar of the mighty Spanish empire. Not having the cash to mount an invasion of Ireland, Elizabeth allowed takeover by mass immigration. Many arrivals were just the kind of tough guys you want to repel a Spanish Invasion, but this also meant Ireland was also overrun by a whole new class of heavies, happy to run amok and seize whatever land they wanted. In 1569 England sent military Governor – Sir Edward Fitton- to Connaught. The chieftains opposed his arrival – imported thugs were one thing, an occupying force allegedly there to bring troublemakers in line seemed the bigger threat by far. Fitton had a counterpart in Munster, Sir John Perot. The governors made plans to carve up Grace’s kingdom.

Many chieftains resisted. The MacWilliam of Mayo (the chief of chiefs), the O’Flaherty’s, Richard Bourke, and the O’Malley’s included. The MacWilliam died in 1570, and much of Connaught was lost. In 1576, the chieftains all but defeated, English Lord Deputy, Sir Henry Sidney, arrived in Connaught to make them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Stop fighting. Pledge allegiance to the crown. Pay tax to the queen. Abide by English laws. Return the Gallowglasses to Scotland. Establish an Irish contingent of soldiers, just in case Spain attacks. If the chieftains did all this, they could keep their titles, and some of your land would be returned. Anyone who kept fighting would be erased.
Grace met with Henry Sidney In 1577, and pledged her allegiance to Elizabeth. She also spent some time speaking with Henry’s son, the poet Sir Philip Sidney. I couldn’t say what she thought of the poet, but Philip thought Grace a remarkable figure.

Almost immediately afterward, Grace broke the law, launching a raid on the Earl of Desmond, a rival chief who sold out early to the English. This raid went badly, and Grace was consequently jailed for 18 months. In 1581 both she and Richard Bourke officially pledged fealty to Elizabeth in a ceremony, and were rewarded with British titles. This may have been the end of our tale, but for the 1584 arrival of a new, and particularly sadistic governor. Sir Richard Bingham – yes the ancestor of both June’s You Choose contestant John Bingham, Lord Lucan – and the officer responsible for the charge of the Light Brigade. Richard Bingham was determined to eradicate all opposition whatsoever. He saw Grace O’Malley as especially dangerous.

The villianous Sir Richard Bingham.



Bingham first stripped Grace of her title. Bourke died in 1583, leaving Grace, technically, a widow. English law stripped widows of their titles in favour of their children. He then went after her children – murdering her eldest son Owen, and executing two of Richard Bourke’s sons from his previous marriage for treason. He then kidnapped her beloved youngest child, Toby of the ships. Bingham Finally had Grace arrested and charged with treason. Grace’s son in law offered himself up in Grace’s place, which Bingham allowed.

Seizing the opportunity, Grace O’Malley loaded up a ship, and sailed for London. She no longer had an army to fight Bingham – but she knew Bingham had a boss – a lady who, like her had made it to the top of the ladder in a system which heavily favoured men. They were of a similar age. For their warlord- law lord divide they must have experienced similar trials and tribulations. She might just be willing to talk queen to queen.

Which brings us back to that meeting at Greenwich palace, September 1593. We don’t know the specifics of their conversation, though we know Grace spoke no English, Elizabeth no Gaelic- so the two queens spoke at length in Latin. We know Grace arrived dressed up to the nines in a gown worthy of a queen, She caused a scandal when she refused to bow to Elizabeth, and a knife was found on her ‘for her protection’. Elizabeth’s court Was horrified when she took a lace handkerchief from a lady in waiting to blow her nose -then disposed of the handkerchief in a lit fireplace.

We know she convinced Elizabeth she was a loyal subject who was being terrorized by Bingham. He murdered her family, robbed her of her title, lands, even her extensive herd of cattle. She convincingly argued Bingham was stopping the pursuit of legitimate maritime business, and holding her son captive. Elizabeth sided with Grace, ordering Bingham to reinstate Grace’s lands and title – and release Toby of the ships immediately. Grace, now well into her 60s, did return to piracy – leading to further conflict with Sir Richard Bingham. Again Grace returned to see Queen Elizabeth, in 1595. This time Elizabeth removed Bingham from his post. This was far from a happily ever after for Connaught – Bingham eventually regained his title. Things would only go from bad to worse for the Irish. Grace O’Malley, However – a warrior pirate queen who lived by the sword lived to the ripe old age – for those times – of 72, and died of natural causes in 1603 – the same year that Elizabeth I passed on.

Sophxit

(Originally titled The Deadly Sophxit of Count Konigsmarck and Princess Sophia Dorothea.)

Sophxit! – The Tale of Count Konigsmarck and Princess Sophia Dorothea Tales of History and Imagination

Hi all the following tale is something I’ve had rattling round for a little while now. I have taken a few shots at writing it under the auspices of a whodunit, but I don’t think there’s any doubt who the murderers are. I then had another run – this time as a faux fairytale, an OG soap opera? I had a line from John Wilmott, Earl of Rochester kicking round in my head about his patron Charles II, and thought what about riffing off that; this is an example of what a crazy, swinging place Europe’s courts were in the late 17th Century after all… but I abandoned all of these.

Then Megxit happened; The Sussexes – Harry and Meghan – announced they were leaving ‘the firm’. In some quarters there was shock, and I understand there was an urgent family meeting. Harry didn’t get thrown into a cell in the Tower of London. There was no clandestine dash for the English channel (like the aforementioned Charles II after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651). No disguising himself as a servant. No hiding in oak trees for Harry. Public discourse re-centred on whether you wished them well, or thought them a pair of spoilt brats. This brought me back round to this tale again… Imagine you’re a deeply unhappy royal, but it is 1694. Does Sophxit play out any differently?


This tale begins on the evening of July 1st 1694. The setting, Hanover – a Germanic Duchy which would eventually be subsumed into a larger German nation, and whose first family would go on to be kind of a big deal. A handsome young man, aided only by moonlight, sails along the Leine river till he reaches the Leineschloss – the palatial riverside home of the duke and his family. He moors his boat, then cautiously enters the property. The man is Phillipp Christoph, Count Konigsmarck – an aristocratic German born Swede from a long line of mercenaries. His father had served King Gustav II Adolph in the 30 Years War, rising through the ranks to Field Marshall. Phillipp himself had fought the Turks for Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. At this point in the tale however, he was under the employ of the Elector of Saxony. Tonight he’s been summoned to met his paramour – Sophia Dorothea, princess of Celle – the very unhappy wife of Duke Georg Ludwig.


Sophia, though surprised- she never summoned him – is ecstatic over his arrival. They haven’t seen each other for weeks. She is also a little perturbed and angered at ‘that woman’s’ gall. “Well, clearly she’s still spying on us” I imagine one saying “Never mind, in a day we’ll be out of this nightmare” the other may have replied. With rather less poetic license you can imagine the rest of their night – Konigsmarck had not come to play solitaire after all, nor Sophia to play old maid. I like to imagine Sophia enfolding the count in her arms as he left and whispering “keep safe, hell hath no fury and all” but that is a little anachronistic – Congreve would not publish ‘The Mourning Bride’ till 1697.
This is the last time Sophia Dorothea would see Count Konigsmarck – in the following hours he would disappear from the face of the Earth, never to be seen again.


Joining ‘The Firm’.

To explain how Sophia Dorothea found herself in an unhappy marriage, I need to take us back a generation. The first fact worth knowing is there was no German nation in the modern sense until January 1871. People could be ethnically Germanic, but Germany was a collection of feudal states for most of it’s history. Until 1806, they were also overseen by a ‘Holy Roman Emperor’. From 1346 the Emperor was elected by a council from the Elector states – This is important to know later. The second fact is marriages of convenience were very much a thing in the 17th Century, particularly among the aristocrats. Third, this tale concerns two duchies, Brunswick- Celle and Brunswick- Luneberg, afterwards known simply as ‘Hanover’. These duchies were ruled over by two brothers. Fourth their leading citizens of the duchies wanted to see the two areas reunited one day. Now that is out of the way…

Sophia Dorothea’s father was a man named Duke Georg Wilhelm of Brunswick- Celle. Georg W had been engaged to a princess from the neighboring duchy of Rhineland Palatinate (her name was also Sophia, though she hardly gets a mention beyond this point), but he was desperate to stay a bachelor a little longer. He cancelled the engagement – passing her on to his brother, Ernst August, Duke of Brunswick Luneberg. The leading figures of Georg W’s duchy were furious, but when Georg signed a legal agreement stating he would never marry – and would pass his duchy to Ernst, (merging the duchies) on his death, all was forgiven. Georg was not exactly out of the firm, but was free to enjoy his newly acquired freedom. The problem was Cupid laid Georg W low after he crossed paths with the beautiful Frenchwoman Eleonore d’Olbreuse.

Georg immediately knew they must marry and start a family. His own duchy and brother Ernst were unimpressed, so Georg W approached Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor for permission to marry Eleonore. Leopold gave his blessing, but many years after the fact– at this stage Georg and Eleonore had a child, Sophia Dorothea, now 10 years old. There was a caveat to Leopold’s blessing – Georg W had a daughter, Ernst a son (Georg L) – the two cousins would marry, uniting the duchies. This suited all, but the two cousins themselves, who detested each other.


Complicating matters further, both Georg L and his father Ernst were openly having affairs outside of their marriages. Given what transpires it is worth mentioning Georg L’s double standards with affairs. The key fact to take on however is Ernst, Sophia’s uncle-stepdad, was involved with a lady named Countess Platen.

Countess Platen

The Konigsmarck brothers.
We’ll come back to this lot in a second, but first let’s discuss Count Konigsmarck. He has quite a fraught backstory too.
Konigsmarck was brought up at court, and knew the rest of this cast well. Both he and his brother, Karl, were sent to England in their mid teens, around 1680. They were sent off to learn courtly skills and mingle, but both brothers soon got into trouble. Phillipp’s trouble involved losing huge sums of money through gambling. Karl’s trouble was on a whole other level.
The two brothers began associating with several high society Britons- including Charles II. Karl had become smitten with Elizabeth Seymour, Duchess of Somerset. Elizabeth was – you guessed it – caught in a loveless, arranged marriage to a wealthy, cheating husband – the wealthy landowner and MP Thomas Thynne. On 12th February 1682, Thynne was travelling in a carriage through Pall Mall, when three men with pistols – Christopher Vratz, John Stern and George Borosky gunned him down. The three men were captured, and named Karl Konigsmarck as the man who hired them to make the hit. The assassins would hang, Karl walked free – but both young men were outcasts in England from this point on. Both returned to Europe and joined Leopold’s army.
Karl would be killed in action fighting the Turks in Greece in 1686. As an aside, not long after Thomas Thynne’s murder, a poem circulated through London.

Here lies Tom Thynne of Longleat Hall
Who ne’er would have miscarried;
Had he married the woman he slept withal

Or slept with the woman he married.”

Let the Dangerous Liaisons begin.
In 1688, after eight years service in the wars with the Turks, Phillipp Konigsmarck returned to the court of what was then Hanover. The ladies of the court fell for this dashing, young soldier. He became a close friend and confidant of Sophia Dorothea – a sympathetic ear who would keep tales of Sophia’s horrible husband, hideous uncle/stepdad, and terrifying mistress of uncle/stepdad – Countess Platen, confidential. Konigsmarck also began an ill advised affair with Countess Platen himself.

The young count soon realized; one, he had fallen in love with princess Sophia – and two, Countess Platen is a dangerous lunatic he should have never become involved with. He took on a new military commission and left Hanover, hoping the countess would forget about him.

On his return to the court in the spring of 1690 he began wooing the princess. The countess, meanwhile resumed her wooing of the count. When left unrequited she hired spies to follow the couple, and intercept their letters. By 1693 Countess Platen stopped even attempting to repair the broken seals on the couple’s love letters. Phillipp resumed his affair with the countess, hoping to placate her; at the very least to stop her from spilling the beans on them. Phillipp and Sophia make the decision to run away together; to start a new life elsewhere- far away from courtly life. This presented a problem for the two. Phillipp was lousy with money, and currently broke – he had not been working, while wooing two ladies. Sophia, upon marrying Georg L, ceded all her possessions to her husband.

Phillipp took a commission with the elector of Saxony, in Dresden in May 1694. Sophia sat tight and waited for Phillipp to make some money. 1st July, at the urging of a counterfeit letter, Phillipp returned to Hanover. Possibly aware it was a trap, Phillipp had saved a month’s worth of wages. Most of the court were away at their summer house at the time – Georg. L included. Tomorrow morning they would run away – and begin a new, happier life together.
The following day Count Konigsmarck was nowhere to be found. A distraught Sophia Dorothea eventually hears the scuttlebutt from the markets “the witches of Dresden…” lured Phillipp away.

So…. what happened?
Let’s work through the facts – and suppositions – of the case. There are at least five possibilities. It’s generally accepted the counterfeit letter came from the countess. She had spies watching the couple, who reported to her that the couple were planning to abscond the following day. It is established fact also that Countess Platen informed her other lover, the uncle/stepdad Ernst, of the two lovers’ plan. Ernst ordered four cavaliers to arrest Count Konigsmarck immediately. The four men caught him outside the palace, swords were drawn. When the men eventually faced trial they claimed the count had drawn his sword, a fight broke out, and the count got stabbed to death in the melee.

What happened to the body? Who the hell knows? That is the real mystery. The four suspects were never on record on this matter. One theory has his body thrown into the Leine river, or immolated, or buried on the property. There was excitement in 2016 when bones were dug up on the site, but DNA proved the bones belonged to five separate men (none Phillipp) and a selection of animals.

Possibility one is simple as this, manslaughter. Count Konigsmarck, the battle hardened soldier of fortune thought he could fight his way out of an awkward situation and the four men got the better of him. It was, at most, a case of manslaughter.

Two, when Ernst August sent the cavaliers out to stop Konigsmarck, did he give the order to murder him before the elopement uncovered his dalliances, causing him embarrassment? He may have wanted him out of the way for this reason. Besides personal embarrassment, Hanover had only just been appointed an elector state, who help choose the Holy Roman Emperor. A scandal involving their royals may have jeopardized that position.

Three, well that ‘hell hath no fury’ motive is also out there. Countess Platen was jealous, and involved in high level stalking behaviour. She had laid this trap for the couple, does it not make sense to go that one step further. Did she kill Count Konigsmarck, solipsisticly to say ‘if I can’t have him, no-one can’?

Four, did Georg Ludwig know of the affair, and order the assassination? An elopement certainly would have left him a cuckold. Working counter to this, Georg L seemed unaware of the affair till after the affair was exposed. As soon as he heard, he divorced Sophia Dorothea. He exiled her to house arrest in Ahlden Castle, another family possession. She was kept prisoner until her death 32 years later. Here’s my reason to doubt Georg as the mastermind – he divorced and imprisoned her six months after Count Konigsmarck disappeared. Perhaps Georg was an endlessly patient man? I doubt it.

Now, I want to put a fifth suspect on the table – I said I would not mention her again – but I need to in order to tie this to the Sussexes at the very least. Ernst August’s wife, Sophia the elder, scorned by Georg W, and in what one would imagine as unhappy a marriage as anyone else in this tale – Her husband was cheating on her with Countess Platen after all – well she had a dream.

Discontent with her lot in life, married to a petty duke of a tiny duchy, she daydreamed of a time when herself, or her son would run the larger archipelago to the north-west. This did not seem such a crazy daydream. Her grandfather had been James I of England. In 1685 Charles II died leaving 14 illegitimate children, but no heirs. The crown passed to his brother James II, who was deposed in the ‘Glorious Rebellion’ of 1688. This saw a joint rule by James II’s daughter Mary, and the Dutch Import William of Orange. The line of succession had gotten a little complicated of late, and Sophia the elder’s daydream was seeming less and less blue sky thinking, more a genuine possibility – just so long as a giant scandal didn’t break out about her cheating husband, cheating daughter in law, and surrounding rogues gallery. I can’t count her in, but I certainly can’t ignore she too has a motive.

By 1702 both Mary and William of Orange had died. The crown passed to Mary’s sister – Anne. Anne fell pregnant 18 times – and suffered six miscarriages, five stillbirths, and none of her remaining children lived beyond two years of age. When Anne died on August 1st 1714, the crown passed to one Georg Ludwig, of an obscure German duchy, henceforth known as George I of England, whose family sit on the throne of England to this day.

How do I feel about the Sussexes and Megxit? Well, I am glad for the couple that it is 2020, not 1694 – and I wish them well.

Adrian Carton de Wiart

This Tale was a script for the ill-fated first attempt at a podcast. I may revise and redo some time. It was also originally a two parter – since combined into one post. Scroll to the bottom of the page, hit the 2 for part two.

Hi folks I’m starting today’s tale on 18th November 1914. The setting Shimber Berris, the tallest mountain in Somaliland – a state often lumped in with Somalia in general, but who had it’s own self determination – and who were damn well going to keep it that way, regardless of what the British, Italians or Ethiopians said. Our hero tells us the Kharif, “a hot labouring wind heavy with sand” was in full force, but up in the hills the air was quite pleasant. All the same he was at the head of a group of soldiers sent up to capture Shimber Berris. Up the steep, rocky hills with little more than a few shrubs to cover their ascent.

Since 1899 the British had Somaliland in their sights, and had been at war with the local Dervishes, led by a man they called ‘The Mad Mullah’. The sources point out Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, a Sufi poet, turned freedom fighter, turned General was neither mad nor a Mullah- but a man who was willing to stand up for his people for decade after decade, because he believed their way of life was worth defending. Our hero himself writes somewhat respectfully of them and expresses regret that they finally lost out to the invaders when they brought planes in, in 1920. The job of him and his men today though is to take over a stone blockhouse which looks out over the valley, thus making it harder for the Mullah’s soldiers to launch guerrilla attacks on the British below.
As they got closer, within 400 yards of the building, the dervishes from inside the blockhouse began taking pot shots at the British. The shots fall well short – from how our hero describes the scene, particularly that they were mixing their powder low to conserve resources- I presume the Dervishes are firing with muskets rather than rifles. The British fire back at the stone building. The Dervishes return fire with cutting comments on the British soldiers parentage. Our hero turns to his commander, Lord Ismay and begs to be the one to charge the defences – All we have to do is cover the 400 yards, make a 3 foot jump across a deep embankment, then in the front door. Once we breach the front door it is all over for them. Ismay lets his eager second in charge lead the assault. Our hero, Adrian Carton de Wiart would write years later how they charged the enemy – returning a volley of bullets with their own volley. They were quickly up the hill and within feet of the target, when he catches a bullet to the face. To quote

“By this time I was seething with excitement. I got a glancing blow in my eye, but I was too wound up to stop – I had to go on trying to get in.”

Following the bullet to the eye, Carton de Wiart gets hit with a ricochet, striking him in the elbow. Frenetically he returns fire. Another bullet hits him, this time glancing along the side of his head and going through his ear. Our hero steps back from the melee long enough to have his ear sewed back up, then re-joins the fray. This time a second bullet ricochets, catching him again in his damaged eye – so close to his target, yet so far. Adrian Carton de Wiart is taken away from the front line. His men relieved for a while by an Indian battalion, who similarly cannot make their way to the front door, and eventually have to give up. The next day they ascend Shimber Berris, only to find the Dervishes have scarpered. I imagine to the defenders this experience birthed tales of noble defence akin to the siege of Saragarthi, or Rorkes Drift – what we have though is a chapter in the life of the unkillable, Adrian Carton de Wiart – often his tale was of insane misadventure, when compared to, say Mad Jack Churchill or Audie Murphy – but it is far too crazy a tale not to share. Welcome folks to Tales of History and Imagination Season 1 Episode 7, The Unstoppable Adrian Carton de Wiart.


(Theme music- Ishtar ‘The Enemy Within’)

Adrian Carton de Wiart was a lifelong, professional soldier who saw action in many, many theatres of war. He served for many years as a British officer, spent some of his life as a mercenary in the employ of Poland, then returned to the British when World War Two broke out. His career spanned from the 2nd Boer war in 1899, till just after World War Two ended in 1945. You just don’t see that kind of longevity, and normally when you do – like in the case of Baron Edmund Ironside – the model for novelist John Buchan’s Richard Hannay – well, his short stint in World War Two was a desk job. Another thing which makes Adrian Carton de Wiart so remarkable is the number of scrapes he survived, and the number of serious injuries he shook off. At least eleven serious gunshot wounds, including multiple shots to the head, over two occasions. Shots to the stomach, leg, groin, hand and ankle. He survived two plane crashes, being shot at by planes while driving at dangerous speeds down winding country roads; survived trenches, revolutions, and mad mullahs, dug his way out of a prisoner of war camp- literally single-handed at an age where many would be collecting their pension. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s cover a little early biographical information.

Lieutenant General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart was born 5th May 1880 to an aristocratic Belgian family in Brussels. Whether true or not there is a rumour he was the illegitimate son of King Leopold II. Regardless of this his father, his family were noteworthy – his father Leon being a well to do international lawyer . He grew up in Belgium, after the early death of his mother Ernestine, Egypt, then on to private schooling in Britain – first a posh prep school then Oxford University’s Baliol college, to study law. While he enjoyed the company at Oxford, he was a terrible student, and in 1899, seized upon the 2nd Boer war in South Africa as a means of escape. At this point he was still a year too young to enlist, and being a Belgian citizen (his mother was part Irish being the only tie to the country) ineligible to serve for the British – so he changed his surname to Carton, got hold of some fake documents, and enlisted under phony details.

Adrian, at this time a bottom of the rung grunt in Paget’s Horse, Yeomanry regiment fell in love with soldiering. His stories in South Africa at this time are nothing special. Not long after arriving, and acclimatizing, and before he’d seen any significant action he was ambushed by a couple of Boer soldiers while crossing a river. He was shot in the stomach and groin and sent home – His dishonesty was uncovered, and his father, Leon was furious at Adrian for enlisting. Once recovered he would beg his father to allow him to re-enlist – he was just wasting his time at Oxford after all, and had found his niche in the army. Leon relented. Adrian Carton de Wiart became a naturalized British citizen and re-enlisted, being sent back to South Africa, with the Imperial Light Horse Brigade. The remainder of his time there would consist of drudgery – next to no action, a lot of aimless wandering from one post to another. In 1902 he took his first commission as an officer, and tried to get himself sent to Somaliland – remember the war there started in 1899 – but got sent to India to serve with the 4th Dragoon guards.

Most of his next 12 years was more or less free of conflict – and full of sports, hunting – a lot of killing animals for sport – the kind of hi-jinks you imagine when talking of upper crust Brits and use the word Hi-jinks really. Drinking, gambling, party tricks. In 1904 he was sent to Pretoria for more of the same – loved playing polo there. In 1908 he was sent back to serve in Britain, and only decided to look for an overseas posting when, on 3rd January 1914 his father sent him the message he had gone bust playing the stock market, and the allowance he got, which propped up his gambling, horses, sports and hi-jinks – would cease immediately. Needing the money Adrian signed up to fight in Somaliland, not knowing World War One was only around the corner – something which made him sad to hear, as for now he was trapped in an obscure country on the horn of Africa fighting in a sideshow to a sideshow, while all the big action was going on, on the continent.

Now, back to the aftermath of Shimber Barris, where Adrian had been shot – technically twice – in the left eye. The field surgeons could do nothing for him, and sent him to Egypt. The Egyptian doctors wanted to remove his eye, but Adrian refused – he had a reason for this. Now, while his autobiography does give an indication he was far more upset by this twist in the tale than most of the articles do, he knew if he was fixed up in Egypt he would be sent back to Somaliland – If he is sent to London, he would be, if found fit for duty after the surgery – sent to Europe to fight in the main event. Back in England his eye was removed. He is declared fit for service so long as he wore a glass eye (he didn’t) and sent him to France.

he got his wish redeploying in France and Belgium, where he saw action at the battles of the Somme, Passchendaele, Cambrai, 2nd battle of Ypres and Arras among others. In February 1915 he sailed for France with his own infantry battalion, later on commanding a whole brigade. Adrian Carton de Wiart would win much praise for his soldiering and leadership, and he would also pick up several injuries. On arriving at the 2nd Battle of Ypres his battalion was sent out to relieve a previous battalion. On getting to the site he wandered ahead with a small group to meet the staff officer, only to be greeted by a pile of dead- mostly German bodies. Out of nowhere a volley of fire came their way, Carton de Wiart catching a shot to the hand which sent his watch out as shrapnel – embedding into the wound further. His hand badly mangled, Carton de Wiart got back on his feet and pursued his attackers, who fled. He then turned around and headed back to base. The terms in which he described his injuries are probably gory enough that I could get the podcast marked explicit, but will say he had all but lost two fingers and a whole lot more besides. He was sent back to London to recuperate – doctors trying, for the rest of 1915 to save his hand, and removing a little more at a time as it went bad. Eventually they amputated the hand, and three weeks later Adrian Carton de Wiart was on a boat headed back to the continent.

There is a tale, soon after returning and being posted to the Somme, Adrian Carton de Wiart is called on to clear the Germans out of the village of La Boiselle, France. They had tried twice before, both times leading to a bloody defeat. This was confirmed on their arrival, by large piles of dead British bodies in the middle of no man’s land. In a particularly tough battle three unit commanders were killed, and things had taken a dire turn. Carton de Wiart, through force of personality, and tactical smarts, took command of all 3 battalions and rallied the troops, winning the battle. This was a hard won battle with many casualties but it highlights why he was so highly regarded.

The Somme laid waste to whole stretches of forest, and over 1,000,000 soldiers lost their lives.


Later, In the battle of the Somme he was shot, again, through the skull, and ankle. The head injury is particularly shocking. Sent out at night to capture a particularly dangerous wooded area, high wood – named the Devil’s wood by some, Carton de Wiart was surprised by a sudden attack from out of nowhere. Carton de Wiart, quote

“We were still moving up when suddenly I found myself flat on my face, with the sensation that the whole of the back of my head had been blown off”

Holmes, his servant, managed to get him to shelter and they sat the battle out, before attempting to get medical help. He had been struck by a machine gun bullet at the back of the skull – which had gone clean through the back of his skull – managing to avoid anything necessary for life. This wound did not keep him off the battlefield for long. That night though he was one of a very few survivors of the botched attack.

On the eleventh hour on the eleventh day on the eleventh month of 1918 Armistice was signed and the First World War all but ended. Adrian Carton De Wiart summed up his wartime experience simply “Frankly I had enjoyed the war”. When I say the war was all but finished – in an effort to rearrange post World War One Europe several new conflicts broke out. Take Poland as an example. We’ll take a quick break here, and return to discuss the next chapter in the life of Adrian Carton De Wiart

Charles Lennox Richardson and The Namamugi Incident

Hey everyone just a quick foreword. The blog and podcast are going to slightly different places over the next month, as, in an effort to buy myself a little free time to work on polishing the podcast up a little I am running shows on Altamont and Spring Heeled Jack – two topics I have blogged about earlier. For the next few weeks I am going to blog a few short tales which interest me but are mostly too short to make into a podcast episode.

Today’s tale owes a huge debt of gratitude to New Zealand singer songwriter Emma G. Back in August she posted a meme to her personal Facebook profile along the lines of some text “So in the middle of the Civil War someone was like “You know what this country needs? A delicious steak sauce” followed by a close up on a bottle of A1 steak sauce, est. 1862. This did catch my imagination for a second, for what little I did know about this – and I started to wonder, like seriously.

I knew that pre Civil war, America’s favourite meat was pork, post war it became steak. Much of this did come down to the very land that the union and confederate states were arguing over in the lead up to the war. To simplify, many confederates felt they should have the option to settle in the land the union had acquired through land purchases, war and genocide… and bring their slaves with them. The union wanted these states not to be slave states. After the war of course much of the land got seized at way more than the 160 acres per person guaranteed by Abraham Lincoln’s Homestead act… coincidentally also of 1862… by the ‘Beef Barons’.
Please note I am glossing over something here with way more moving parts than I make it out to have… But I wondered was there some underlying political motive? Some social phenomenon I had not come across before? Some eminent historian I had not even heard of before with a book about how the war was fought over cattle, not slavery?

Well…. Before too long I found that was the wrong question. A1 Sauce was invented in Britain. What was happening in Britain in 1862 you might ask? I did. Quite a bit, but today I want to look at the story I had never heard of before. Thanks Emma for leading me towards it – That of Charles Lennox Richardson and the Namamugi Incident.


When in Rome…
“When in Rome do as the Romans do”. If anyone has ever wondered where the old proverb comes from, it came from the pen of 4th Century AD ‘Doctor of the Catholic church’ St Augustine, recalling the advice of the older priest St Ambrose- probably some time around 387AD. It’s origins are nothing earth shattering.
He arrived at a new job, teaching rhetoric to the wealthy kids of Milan. When he observed to Ambrose how odd it was in Rome they fasted on a Saturday, but in Milan they didn’t Ambrose uttered something similar to the proverb. It changed wording slightly over hundreds of years, till, in 1777 a book of letters by Pope Clement XIV were published with the exact phrase ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’. I think we all understand what it means right? If you’re holidaying in Amsterdam it is OK to partake in a little weed at a cafe. If in Tehran, say, sorry women, headscarves and cover those pins out in public. Be like the locals, for their joyous excesses or for their bronze age prudishness. Be a respectful guest. I think most travellers do their best on this count… but then we also get our share of Westerners- these days often social media influencers are the ones we hear of – who fail at this in a major way. The first thing I should say is if Charles Lennox Richardson was around in 2019 I think he may well have been a Logan Paul type character.

So… who was Charles Lennox Richardson?


I really couldn’t find much on our protagonist, but all sources say Charles Lennox Richardson was born in London, England on 16th April 1834. He came from enough money to launch a career for himself as a merchant in his late teens, and in 1853 he moved to Shanghai, China. His product of choice was Chinese export ceramics. The Chinese had been exporting their porcelain for hundreds of years, largely with Central Asia and the Near East, before Europeans discovered their intricate – extraordinarily difficult to imitate pottery – the first pieces to reach Europe having first come to Europe via Istanbul in the 15th Century. In the 17th century it was in hot demand in Europe – the Dutch East India Company – the VOC- brought in an estimated 35 million pieces between 1600 and 1685. In Richardson’s time it was still crazy popular and in 1862, a 28 year old Richardson announced he had made his fortune, was retiring and would be headed back to England with his takings. On the way back he planned to stop in Yokohama, Japan.


Now it should be pointed out that Yokohama was a ‘Treaty Port’ in 1862. One way of describing a treaty port is to say they were cities who were open to trade with the ‘Occidental’ nations of the west. Another way of putting it is to say they were bullied into ‘unequal treaties’ with occidental powers; the victims of ‘gunboat diplomacy’. In other words the Chinese and Japanese had seen it in their best interests to let European powers establish little enclaves on their land and trade largely by their terms because option B would have been a hiding from the better armed Europeans. Treaty ports had sizeable enclaves for the Occidentals too, little slices of European life for them too – European looking buildings, clubs, churches, restaurants… race courses even. The occidentals had an easy life in these ports in many respects…Even people who would have been doing modestly in Europe could afford comfy lodgings, and servants to look after their every need. Inside the treaty port ‘When in Rome…” did not apply. You were governed by European rules, and no expectation existed to not treat the locals like garbage. Rules outside the treaty port? Well we’ll come to that. Japan did finally shake off the burden of treaty ports in 1899, after an incredibly fast modernization process meant they no longer had to put up with them.


Sowhen outside Yokohama?


Well, let’s say Charles Lennox Richardson did not get much of a chance to reflect on the words of St Ambrose.
On 14th September 1862, Richardson, alongside three other British subjects; Woodthorpe Charles Clark, William Marshall and Margaret Borradaile, rented some horses and went sightseeing. Their intended destination was the temple of Kawasaki Daishi. While picking up the horses the party was instructed that things were different outside the treaty port, and to ‘do as the Romans do’. In 1862, at the tail end of the Tokugawa Shogunate (please check out my blog on Yasuke the African samurai for more on earlier in the shogunate here), local warlords – Daimyo – ruled, in a feudal system with similarities to medieval Europe. The local daimyo was one Shimazu Hisamitsu. It was made very clear to the party, should you meet the Daimyo, you get off your horse and bow to the man.


The party were travelling along the Tokaido road, through the village of Namamugi, when they met the Daimyo coming the other way – carried on a palanquin (a litter carried by several men) and surrounded by a bodyguard of samurai. At this point Richardson could have been like St Augustine among the people of Milan… of he could have been like Czech fitness models Soloina Dolezalova and Zdenk Slouka- who disrespected a Hindu temple in Ubud, Indonesia in 2019 after ‘frolicking’ in the holy water. Dolezalova and Slouka did get away with a public apology, and having to attend and pray at the purification ceremony. Richardson wasn’t so lucky. In spite of repeated warnings he rode towards the palanquin, some reports stated boasting he had lived for years among the Chinese and he ‘knew how to deal with these people’ He was cut to shreds by the bodyguards. Marshall and Clark were also seriously injured in the incident.

So…. What happened next?


Well… his body was recovered, and brought back to Yokohama to be buried. In spite of word having preceded his arrival among the enclave of his arrogance, and mistreatment of the Chinese in Shanghai, and word his own uncle allegedly (I could only find this statement in Wikipedia, not other sources and well… Wikipedia… take it with a grain of salt) laying the blame for the incident squarely on Richardson’s foolhardiness and arrogance, the British needed to demand restitution. If you have bullied your way into ports all around the region you cannot be seen to do nothing over a challenge to your authority. The traders got this, they had been bastards to the locals, and the locals have yet to revolt because Britain carried a big stick. Not to act put their lives in danger.

Britain demanded a huge settlement (of which £25,000 would eventually be paid) and the arrest and prosecution of the killers (which never did). The daimyo stalled, so Britain, in August 1863, sent in a squadron of warships, to Kagoshima, the Daimyo’s capital, and proceeded to bomb the living daylights out of the place. Now if you were looking at casualties, the death count in what they called the Kagoshima bombardment, and the Japanese called the Anglo- Satsuma war, they were small. The Japanese had time to move the civilians out, leaving several men to fire back at them from their boats, equipped with around 80 cannons. All up 3 British warships were damaged, 3 Japanese ships sunk. British casualties ran to 20 with a further 53 wounded, while the Daimyo lost 5 men with 20 more injured. The British inflicted heavy property damage to the capital however, destroying 500 buildings. So much destruction arose out of the arrogance of one young English merchant.


And…. there we have it. Probably safe to file this one under ‘Tales of History and Imagination are all around us’ one of those odd tales you come upon by happenstance. Please feel free to drop a comment, maybe a like? What do you think? – should we ‘do as the Romans’? Would Charles Lennox Richardson have been a star of Instagram if he were around in 2019? Were some Japanese right to be angry over the ‘Treaty ports’ they had forced upon them since Commodore Perry’s famed arrival and Convention of Kanagawa in 1854?


I’ll be back next week, this time looking at something which happened in Central Asia several centuries earlier. Keep an eye out for new posts and stuff on our Facebook page.
Simone.