Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The English Navy Fiasco Of 992



The reaction of King Æthelred the Unready (r. 978-1016) to Danish invasions of England perfectly matched his lackluster name. In his reign, a new wave of Scandinavian raids and invasions hit the British Isles with a ferocity that had not been seen since the days of King Alfred the Great a century earlier. Unfortunately for England, King Æthelred the Unready was no Alfred the Great, and his reign would be a long, painful story of disappointment and incompetence.

By the year 980, various Viking crews were rampaging in Britain. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported that in England, alone, the regions of Thanet, Cheshire, Padstow, Devonshire, Dorsetshire (and Portland), London, Hampshire (especially Southampton) and Sussex were all ravaged by Vikings between the years 980 and 982. For around a decade, Viking activity seemed more like widespread solitary raids instead of a coordinated invasion by multiple groups, but by 991 the scale of Viking attacks increased dramatically. That year, Æthelred the Unready had the misfortune of facing Olaf Tryggvason of Norway and King Svein Forkbeard of Denmark, who had launched a joint raid of England with over ninety ships. Up to this point, King Æthelred the Unready had apparently taken no personal action against the Vikings, instead deferring the defense of England to the noble ealdormen who administered the regions that were under attack. Therefore, Olaf and Sweyn received fairly light resistance as they raided in Staines, Ipswitch and Maldon.

Ealdorman Brihtnoth attempted to defend Maldon from the Vikings, but he was slain in the ensuing battle. Not long after the ealdorman was defeated, Æthelred the Unready organized his first national response to the Vikings. Yet, it was not a military campaign—instead, Æthelred decided to pay the Vikings monetary tribute. The payment did, however, seem to buy Æthelred a little time, and he spent this period gathering the sea power of England.

With his English navy, King Æthelred the Unready hoped to be able to fight back against the ships mustered by Sweyn Forkbeard and Olaf Tryggvason, or at least to hunt down and deter smaller crews of Viking raiders. At the head of the English fleet, Æthelred placed a trusted ealdorman named Ælfric. Unfortunately, Ælfric would turn out not to be worth Æthelred’s trust.

According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, the English fleet was able to track down one of the large Viking fleets, and the Englishmen planned to attack the next day. Yet, Ealdorman Ælfric was apparently not confident in the strength of the English navy and doubted that King Æthelred could overcome the Vikings. Instead of leading the English fleet into battle, Ealdorman Ælfric reportedly deserted during the night and defected to the side of the Vikings.

With Ælfric’s help, the Viking fleet was able to evade the English navy and escape. Frustrated both figuratively and literally, the English fleet evidently disbanded and the different ships began sailing back to their home regions. Adding insult to injury, before the year 992 ended, the Vikings ambushed the isolated branch of the English navy that had been mustered from the regions of East Anglia and London, inflicting a great slaughter on the Englishmen.

The naval defeat in 992, combined with more horrific raids in 993 (in Lindsey and Northumbria), as well as the reappearance of Svein Forkbeard and Olaf Tryggvason in 994, compelled King Æthelred the Unready to revert to his previous tactic—monetary tribute. The payment sated Olaf Tryggvason, who went on to become king of Norway in 995 and reportedly never returned to England. Yet, the money was not a long-term solution to King Sweyn of Denmark. In fact, by 1013, Sweyn would force Æthelred to flee to Normandy, leaving England to be overrun by the Danes.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Ethelred the Unready Embarking for Normandy, Illustration By Ernest Prater, c. 1920, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018. 
  • https://books.google.com/books?id=f8B4NAl2r48C&pg=PA126&lpg=PA126&dq=anglo+saxon+chronicle+992&source=bl&ots=zzboc8pNlw&sig=ACfU3U3iUdla55DExLPhRzmcj8tzhf1gMA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwivwP2nv_PfAhVimuAKHfB1AL4Q6AEwD3oECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=anglo%20saxon%20chronicle%20992&f=false 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ethelred-the-Unready 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Olaf-Tryggvason 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sweyn-I  

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The Scandalous Downfall of King Li of Qi



Around 133 or 132 BCE, King Yi of Qi died and his son by Queen Ji succeeded to the throne. Queen Dowager Ji quickly started to pressure her newly crowned son, King Li (also known as Liu Cijing), to bring more members of the Ji family to prominence. One of the first steps the queen dowager took to further her goal was to arrange for her niece to become King Li’s consort. The king, however, did not favor the woman, so the niece was given no more prominence than any of the other concubines in the palace. In an attempt to remedy the issue, Queen Dowager Ji sent her eldest daughter, known as Princess Ji, into the palace to become head of the women’s quarters. Princess Ji’s job was to sabotage the other concubines in the palace and to give only the queen dowager’s niece access to the emperor. Yet, the plan went horribly awry—in fact, the introduction of the princess into the palace led to the downfall of the king.

According to Grand Historian Sima Qian (r. 145-90), Princess Ji utterly failed in her mission; instead of making King Li fall for the queen dowager’s niece, the king instead fell in love with Princess Ji, who was his own sister (Shi Ji 52). The affection was apparently mutual, for brother and sister began having an affair that was reportedly noticed by several members of the court of Qi. This may have been mere rumor and gossip, but even so, such charges could be deadly—a certain King Liu Dingguo of Yan was executed in 128 BCE because of similar accusations of immorality.

Around the time that Liu Dingguo was being investigated and executed, Empress Dowager Wang (mother of Emperor Wu, r. 141-87 BCE) was attempting to arrange a marriage between her granddaughter and King Li of Qi. The empress dowager sent a eunuch named Xu Jia to negotiate the marriage with the king. Before Xu Jia reached the palace of Qi, he was pulled aside by a man named Zhufu Yan, a rising star in Han Dynasty politics who was in Qi at the time. The two worked out some kind of agreement, and Xu Jia reportedly promised to help Zhufu Yan’s daughter enter the palace of Qi as a lady-in-waiting to the empress dowager’s granddaughter if she succeeded in becoming the queen of Qi.

According to Sima Qian, Xu Jia was intercepted by Queen Dowager Ji before he could speak to the king of Qi. The queen dowager was still trying to arrange for her niece to become the queen of Qi, so she was felt threatened and outraged by Empress Dowager Wang’s offer. Queen Dowager Ji dryly told the eunuch that the king already had a consort and that his household was full. Later, however, Xu Jia was finally able to obtain an audience with King Li and the ruler of Qi was less hasty to send the eunuch away. To the dismay of Queen Dowager Ji, the king voiced a willingness to marry the empress dowager’s granddaughter. Despite the king’s interest in the arrangement, King Li’s mother was relentless in sabotaging the negotiations. In the end, Xu Jia left from Qi with no definitive answer on the marriage of King Li to the empress dowager’s granddaughter and he had even less luck on possibly introducing Zhufu Yan’s daughter to the king’s palace.

Even though Xu Jia could not accomplish his missions, he did not leave Qi empty handed—he had heard the troubling rumors concerning King Li and Princess Ji. When the eunuch reported the gossip to Empress Dowager Wang, she decided to immediately cease any further negotiations for the arranged marriage. Interestingly, the empress dowager also supposedly decided to keep secret the gossip that she received from the eunuch, for if the tales reached the wrong ears, there would be dire consequences.

Even though the empress dowager chose to take no action on the gossip, another person who knew about the affair decided to talk. It was none other than Zhufu Yan—even though he failed to have his daughter become a lady-in-waiting within the palace of Qi, he had found other ways to advance in social circles. He eventually became an associate of Emperor Wu. While in that role, Zhufu Yan had not forgotten or forgiven King Li for not accepting his daughter into the palace. Zhufu Yan went to the emperor and made a formal complaint that King Li of Qi was having immoral relations with his sister, Princess Ji. The emperor responded to the claim by appointing Zhufu Yan as the prime minister of Qi and tasked him with investigating the matter.

When Zhufu Yan arrived in Qi, he began bringing everyone in for questioning. Concubines and eunuchs from the palace were interrogated and the prime minister made sure that their testimony all incriminated King Li. Even the Grand Historian, Sima Qian, assessed that Zhufu Yan was more interested in destroying the king of Qi than in determining the truth of the gossip. In the end, it all became too much for King Li—he committed suicide by drinking poison. Interestingly, he did not die too long after the earlier execution of Liu Dingguo in 128 BCE. King Li committed suicide in only his fifth year on the throne.

Emperor Wu profited greatly from the death of the king of Qi and likely cared little about the truth of the rumors. When King Li committed suicide, he had no legitimate heirs. As there was no one to succeed him, the kingdom of Qi was disbanded and came under the direct control of Emperor Wu’s central government.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (painting by Liu Jun (Chinese, active c. 1475–1505) Ming dynasty (1368–1644), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and picryl.com).

Sources:

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Massacre Of Scione During The Peloponnesian War Truce



Between 423 and 422 BCE, the warring coalitions of Athens and Sparta began negotiating a truce after nine years of warfare. Around this time, the people of Scione, who had hitherto been on the Athenian side of the war, fatefully made the decision to defect to the Peloponnesian League, which was led by Sparta. Scione was actually one of a several cities in northern Greece that changed its allegiance from Athens to Sparta—at the time, a Spartan general named Brasidas was causing endless trouble for Athens by igniting such revolts in the northern cities. Brasidas even visited Scione, welcoming them to the alliance and praising their bravery. Some Peloponnesian forces were left behind in Scione, but these were not enough to press back an Athenian army that arrived on the outskirts of the city before the end of 423 BCE. Unfortunately for the people of Scione, the Athenian siege of their city was still ongoing when the Peace of Nicias was reached in 422 BCE.

One of the effects of the peace was an elaborate prisoner exchange between the Spartan and Athenian factions. As Scione was still under siege, and had not yet won its independence, the city was not included in the truce. Athens considered the city to be in rebellion and labeled the Peloponnesians trapped inside the siege as prisoners of war. During the truce negotiations, Sparta was able to arrange for any Peloponnesian League members in Scione to be given safe passage out of the besieged city, as well as freedom for these warriors to return home. The native citizens of Scione, however, still faced an ongoing siege and now they would face the wrath of Athens without any Peloponnesian support.

The siege of Scione lasted until 421 BCE. When the Athenians finally forced their way inside the forsaken city, they showed no mercy. According to the Athenian general and historian, Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE), the men of Scione were massacred and the women and children were sold into slavery. Athens then made a gift of the bloodied land to refugees of Plataea, a pro-Athenian city that had been massacred in a similar way by the Peloponnesians in 427 BCE.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Black-figure "Mastos" with Combat Scenes, c. 530 BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • History of the Peloponnesian War (Book IV) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Centuries Before The Viking Age, A Scandinavian Fleet Raided The Merovingian Frankish Empire



King Clovis of the Franks died in 511, and the Frankish empire was divided between his four sons: Theuderic, Chlodomer, Childebert and Lothar. According to Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), the first challenge that the Frankish brothers faced was an attack that came out of 6th-century Denmark, a world described with legendary and mythological embellishments in the epic poem, Beowulf, and the Saga of King Hrolf Kraki.

In the chronology provided by Gregory of Tours, the Scandinavian raid seemingly occurred after Clovis’ death in 511 and before the ascendance of Sigismund of Burgundy in 516. The fleet of raiders reportedly landed near the Rhine Delta and began pillaging the lands of the Franks and the Frisians. The proto-Vikings (the true Viking Age would not begin until the late 8th century) grabbed as much loot and captives as they could carry and hauled the spoils back to their ships. So much loot was brought back to the beaches that it would take a long period of loading before the fleet could set sail.

Unfortunately for the raiders, it did not take long for King Theuderic to hear of the attack. He gave his son, Theudebert, control of an army and a fleet to defend the realm and push back the invaders. The raiders were not prepared for the quick response—at the time, their fleet was divided, with some ships at sea and others still being loaded on shore. While the raiding forces were in disarray, Theudebert arrived with an army of Franks and, likely helped by regional allies, slew the Scandinavian king who had led the invasion. The Frankish fleet also intercepted the foreign ships that were at sea and evidently captured the vessels, for Theudebert’s forces supposedly retrieved all of the looted wealth that had been taken by the raiders.

Gregory of Tours identified the slain leader of the raid as a certain King Chlochilaich, who ruled a piece of Denmark. Many scholars believe this king was the historical inspiration behind the character, King Hygelac of Geatland, from Beowulf.  Of Hygelac’s death, the poem stated:

“The war-hatred waxed warm ‘gainst the Hugmen,
When Hygelac came with an army of vessels
Faring to Friesland, where the Frankmen in battle
Humbled him and bravely with overmight ‘complished
That the mail-clad warrior must sink in the battle,
Fell ‘mid his folk-troop.”
(Beowulf, chapter XL, line 22-27)

The 6th-century raid of King Chlochilaich/Hygelac turned out to be a dismal failure, yet the man was more than two centuries ahead of his time. Although the Scandinavian fleet was too slow and unorganized to get away from the Franks on this occasion, the countrymen of Chlochilaich/Hygelac would continue to hone their craft over generations to become fine-tuned raiding machines by the late 8th-century.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A scene from Beowulf by J. R. Skelton (c. 1908), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
  • The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, written by an anonymous Icelander in the 14th century, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 1998. 
  • https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16328/16328-h/16328-h.htm#L.XXXI.56 (Beowulf text)
  • https://www.britannica.com/place/France/The-sons-of-Clovis/media/215768/1628   

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Fake Gold Axes Of The Juan De Grijalva Expedition To Mexico



Juan de Grijalva (or Grijalba) set out from Cuba on April 8, 1518, with four ships and explored the Yucatan Peninsula and the Aztec shores of Mexico. He made one of the first sizable gold hauls from Mexican soil, which unfortunately made Spaniards like Harnán Cortés insatiably hungry for more. According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, an eyewitness who was present on the Juan de Grijalva expedition, the explorers bartered enough beads and cut glass to accumulate a cargo of gold that was worth more than 20,000 16th-century silver pesos.

Although the Spaniards loved gold, they were also incredibly excited about a peculiar orangey-gold item that they had bought in bulk from the natives. According to Bernal Díaz, the members of the Juan de Grijalva expedition were enthralled with some ornate axes that the locals were wearing. The handles of these tools were ornately painted and the polished metal of the axe heads was a bright yellowish-orange color. In their gold-fever, the Spaniards immediately assumed that the natives were wielding pricey golden axes.

Believing that they had found veritable ingots of sharpened gold on sticks, the Spaniards began bartering their beads, cut glass, and Spanish-style shirts for the axes. By the time the expedition was heading back to Cuba, they had collected more than 600 of the shiny axe heads. The sailors reportedly stowed them away securely and did not look at the axes until they anchored in Cuba.

Unfortunately, when the sailors unveiled their prized golden axes, something was immediately amiss. While the axes had been stowed away, the once gleaming metal had become unmistakably tarnished. Instead of gold, the axes had been made of polished copper, and with the fresh layer of tarnish, the mistake was now very, very obvious. While the axes were still worth some money, the Spaniards understandably felt devastated by the discovery. When news of the axe mix-up spread through Cuba, other Spanish notables on the island teased Juan de Grijalva to no end.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Mesoamerican copper axe, c. 1300 - 1599, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and picryl.com).

Sources:
  • The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Juan-de-Grijalba 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bernal-Diaz-del-Castillo  

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Tragic Reign Of King Edward The Martyr



England was left shocked when King Edgar the Peaceful died suddenly on July 8, 975, at the young age of only about thirty-two years old. As the late king, himself, was a youthful man, the two living sons that he left behind were also young. The eldest son, Edward, was reportedly thirteen years old at the time of his father’s death. Although Edgar had named Edward as his heir, the boy’s claim to the throne was not absolute. King Edgar had divorced Edward’s mother, Æthelflæd, and married a new queen, named Ælfthryth (also known as Elfrida). Queen Ælfthryth was the mother of King Edgar’s other living son, Æthelred, who was reportedly seven years old at the time of his father’s death in 975. As both potential claimants to the throne of England were children, the nobles of the country split into rival camps, backing either Edward or Æthelred. To Queen Ælfthryth’s annoyance, Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury and the faction backing the eldest son moved quickest and successfully placed King Edward I on the throne.

Despite being described as a saintly young man, the teenage King Edward did not have fate on his side.  Edward was a magnet for unlucky natural disasters and phenomena. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, a comet appeared in the autumn of 975, a sign that was often considered a bad omen in the superstitious Middle Ages. His luck worsened in 976, when a great famine struck England, further destabilizing the realm. Additionally, Edgar was faced by a slew of disgruntled nobles who had not supported his claim to the throne—among the worst was Ealdorman Ælfhere of Mercia, a particularly insubordinate noble, who began seizing monastic lands without the king’s permission.

Although Edward had already faced incredibly rough years during his short reign, 978 would be the worst. To start the year off, the Witan—a counsel of the king’s powerful advisors—met at Calne for deliberations in an upper floor of a building. Adding to the odd disasters that plagued Edward’s period of rule, the floor upon which the members of the Witan were standing suddenly gave way, sending most of the king’s counselors free-falling to the ground. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, only Archbishop Dunstan was spared the fall, as he had unknowingly been standing atop a sturdy support beam that withstood the collapse. The other members of the Witan, however, did not fare so well. Many were reportedly injured and a few died from the incident.

Despite the drama between the rival political factions that supported Edward and Æthelred, the two young half-brothers reportedly had a warm sibling relationship. In fact, on March 18, 978, King Edward was in Corfe to spend some time with his brother. Yet, the youthful king did not enjoy any family fun on that visit. Instead, the fifteen-year-old king was intercepted and violently murdered by assassins. The slain king was eventually remembered as Edward the Martyr, but his death likely was not perpetrated for religious reasons. Although no evidence was found, many people, both medieval and modern, believe that the assassins were working for Queen Ælfthryth. After the murder of King Edward, his approximately ten-year-old brother, Æthelred, became the new king.  He would be remembered infamously as Æthelred the Unready, the king who could not stop a new wave of Vikings from occupying England.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image depicting the assassination of Edward the Martyr, by Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810–1896), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edward-king-of-England-circa-963-978 
  • https://www.britroyals.com/kings.asp?id=edwardmartyr 
  • http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/saxon_13.htm 
  • http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/saxon_12.htm 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edgar-king-of-England
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ethelred-the-Unready
  • https://www.britroyals.com/kings.asp?id=edgar
  • http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-8915
  • https://www.britroyals.com/kings.asp?id=ethelred2 
  • http://enacademic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/7254545          

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Emperor Wen's Path To Power Was Greatly Helped By His Mother’s Unambitious Lifestyle



King Liu Heng of Dai was the son of Lady Bo and the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, Gaozu (king of Han 206-202 BCE, emperor 202-195 BCE). According to the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c.145-90 BCE), Liu Heng was appointed as king of Dai by Emperor Gaozu in 196 BCE. After Gaozu’s death in 195 BCE, the heir of the empire, Emperor Hui, ascended to the throne and his mother, Empress Dowager Lü, became the power behind the throne. Once in power, the Empress Dowager began terrorizing the other concubines of the late emperor and undermining the sons of these rival women. Many concubines were imprisoned or executed and Empress Dowager Lü directly had Gaozu’s sons, Liu Ruyi and Liu You, killed by poison and starvation, respectively. Furthermore, the empress dowager tried to increase the power of her Lü family at the expense of the imperial Liu clan, especially after Emperor Hui’s death in 188 BCE left her position vulnerable.

Fortunately, the king of Dai and his mother, Lady Bo, were spared from the wrath of Empress Dowager Lü. Lady Bo was apparently able to escape imprisonment and execution because she was not one of Gaozu’s favorite concubines and he saw her rarely during his time as emperor. As for Lady Bo’s son, the king of Dai, he stayed alive largely because he could keep a low profile. He kept his criticism and outrage to himself while his half-brothers were being assassinated and his clan was being stripped of power, and instead focused on cultivating a reputation of kindness and generosity.

When Empress Dowager Lü died in 180 BCE, the Liu clan rallied their allies in the government and the military to launch a purge of the Lü clan.  Two of the most prominent leaders in the overthrow of the Lü were Zhao Bo (brother of Lady Bo), who brought the garrison of Chang’an, the capital city, over to the Liu side, and King Ai of Qi (Gaozu’s grandson), who mustered a multi-kingdom army against the enemies of the Liu. After Liu loyalists were sent out “to arrest the men and women of the Lü family and, without distinction of age or youth, to behead them all,” the kings of Dai and Qi became the most likely successors to the throne (Sima Qian, Shi Ji 9 (Empress Lü)).

Both claimants had a good argument. King Ai of Qi had been a leader of the Liu rebellion against the Lü and was the heir of Emperor Gaozu’s oldest son.  It also didn’t hurt that King Ai had a large army in the field.  The other claimant, the king of Dai, was the oldest living son of the late Emperor Gaozu. Though he had developed a widespread reputation for kindness and generosity, he did not attempt to halt or criticize the massacre of the Lü family. In addition, he had the support of Zhou Bo—the uncle of the king of Dai—who held the empire’s capital city of Chang’an, as well as the forces garrisoned inside. In picking which of these two men they wanted to support, the great ministers of the empire had a difficult decision to make.

The debate over who should be the next emperor was apparently so fierce, argument among the ministers even shifted to the topic of the mothers of the claimants. After surviving the reign of Empress Dowager Lü, the ministers were loath to give support to a man who had an overly ambitious and conniving mother.  Considering this angle, the ministers decided that Lady Bo, the mother of the king of Dai, would be the safer choice for a future Empress Dowager. Of course, Zhou Bo’s presence at the head of the forces in Chang’an, the city in which this debate was taking place, may have swayed a few ministers into siding with Lady Bo and the king of Dai. Whatever the case, the ministers threw their support behind the king of Dai, prompting King AI of Qi to disband his army and return home. To the relief of the ministers, when the king of Dai became Emperor Wen in 180 BCE, his mother, Empress Dowager Bo, dabbled very little in politics besides encouraging her son to incorporate Daoism into his rule.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Chinese painting The Nymph of the Lo River, Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, 12th-century copy of a painting traditionally attributed to the 4th-century artist Gu Kaizhi, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.