Count Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737 – 1772) Lèse Majesté

We got a copy of A Royal Affair the other week, drawn in mostly on the basis of the costume drama appeal.  It’s good stuff, and the more I watched it, the more I  wondered how much the film makers had fiddled with the truth.  I mean to say,  American movies that tear their stories from yesterday’s headlines are almost invariably poppycock.

The Danes, as it turns out, are a bit better at the whole thing, and if you want to avoid spoilers, stop now and get yourself the video. This post isn’t going anywhere.

So – Struensee was a precocious son of a German superintendent (much like a bishop) of Schleswig-Holstein.   He trained in medicine, getting degreed at a young age, and spent his off hours rebelling against the stodgy doctrines of his elders. Continue reading

Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, 1746- 1819: Lord of Alaska

I’ve heard it suggested that America could pay off its debt to China by giving them Alaska.

There’s a nice symmetry to this idea.  After all, before the U.S. showed up, the place was part of the Russian Empire.  In large part, this is thanks to A. A. Baranov.

Alaska was known to Europeans, vaguely, as far back as 1741 when Vitus Bering of Denmark made a note of the strait that bears his name.  Captain Cook had a look-see, as did others (George Vancouver), but in general it was too far away from the world’s cash centers to garner much sustained interest.

This changed when the locals began offering passers by the local specialty.  The entire coastline, it turned out, was crawling with fur covered critters,  whose pelts were of a great deal of interest to colder cash centers.  The market was insatiable, the supply seemingly inexhaustible.  Ruble signs lit up in the eyes of the ambitious and there was, in effect,  a fur rush.

Which is where Baranov comes in. Continue reading

Jean François Jacqueminot, Viscount of Ham 1787-1865; Mentioned in Dispatches

© Jimmy NICOLLE, CC-BY-SA, Wikimedia Commons

Previously Mrs Allen the resident perfume-head noted the rose perfume created by Francois Coty called La Rose Jacqueminot.   For those with no particular interest in perfume, the question arises, who was Jacqueminot, and why did Coty name a perfume after him?

The rose itself is a classic red number, the standby for generations of stage door johnnies and penitent husbands. The fellow it was named after was the very opposite of moonstruck.

He was one of Bonaparte’s boys, a dragoon who saw serious action at Austerlitz, Essling, and Wagram, seven times wounded and frequently mentioned in dispatches, usually next to the word “brave”   He rose quickly through the ranks – Napoleon believed in rewarding excellence – and eventually found himself in the 1812 Russian campaign, where he was charged with commanding the vanguard during that ghastly retreat.  His most notable performance was on the banks of the Berezina. Continue reading

Francois Coty, 1874-1934: Taking Care of Business

Francois Coty is known for the cosmetics giant he created, and less happily for his politics, which in the France of the 1930s leaned considerably to the Right.  But his real legacy may not be his political bent, nor yet his fabulous success in the world of cosmetics, but his innovations in the field of business.

For political historians Coty is the man who bought newspapers in France during the waning of the Third Republic, including the right wing L’Ami du Peuple, and who also flirted with Mussolini and his Fascist regime.  The Manichean politics of the 30s have cast a long shadow over the rest of his life, and perhaps that is a shame, because the Ligurian Corsican from Ajaccio, was a great businessman.  He became a multi-millionaire in a matter of two years after creating his first real perfume: La Rose Jacqueminot, and never looked back.  Continue reading

Sweyn Asleifsson, 1116 – 1171: The Ultimate Viking

He was born in Caithness, son of Olaf, who was murdered in 1135 by Olvir Rosta, who a year previously had lost a minor sea battle and carried a grudge.  Olvir’s method of restoring his self esteem was the burning Olaf’s house down while Olaf was still in it.  This is how cycles of violence start, and neglecting to take out the nineteen year old Sweyn was an oversight that was going to cost Olvir.

That would come later.  In the meantime, the boy (who, curiously, took his surname from his mother Aslief) gets his first mention at the 1135 yuletide revels at the household of the earl of Orkney.  It seem the Earl’s cup-bearer had grabbed some of Sweyn’s holiday grog, an act that Sweyn did not take in the spirit of the season. He  stewed for a day or so, then brained the fellow. Continue reading

Pierre Poivre, 1719 – 1786: Nutmeg and Spice

Really, you couldn’t make up a name like that and even if you did, no fiction editor worth his salt would let it pass.   So, truth must step up where fiction dares not tread.

Poivre  was the son of a Lyon merchant and was heading towards a religious career when the Society of Foreign Missions, impressed with a native talent of languages,  sent him to China and Indochina to get his feet wet with a little evangelical work.  Reports of his time there get somewhat murky (mysterious east and all that), a curious mixture of amusing anecdote and utter silence. One story goes that he  landed in a Chinese jail through a misunderstanding with a local mandarin but learned enough Chinese while incarcerated to talk himself out of it.

On the utter silent part (or at least the Not-In-Front-Of-The-Servants part), is the fact that he was encouraged to leave the mission and indeed, from China altogether.  Certainly he gave up the path towards the church.    Continue reading

Alfonso León Fernando María Jaime Isidro Pascual Antonio de Borbón y Austria-Lorena, (1886-1941): Gesundheit

A name fit for a king, and so he was.  A king, that is. His father King Alfonso XII died before he was born, which gave him the rare distinction of being king right out the starting gate, though technically his mother Maria Christina of Austria was regent for his first sixteen years,  a time that saw the loss to Spain of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to Teddy Roosevelt and President McKinley.

Married one of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg (1887–1969),  kept Spain out of the First World War, left Spain in 1931 and never quite made it back, dying in Rome in 1941.

Why am I on about this?  Because as of Friday, I’ve been enduring the ‘flu (yes, yes, I know. Vaccination.  I know.  I was busy, and  besides probably some geriatric or tot needed it more). With little else to do but sneeze, shiver, and cough, I began to wonder, why was the 1918-19 pandemic called the Spanish ‘Flu?  One of those bigoted we-didn’t-start-it monikers, like the French calling syphilis the Italian disease and the Italians calling it the French?  Was Spain being made to pay for avoiding the mass slaughter of the trenches? Continue reading

James Swan, 1754-1831: “A Corrupt Unprincipalled Rascal”

There’s gratitude for you!  Colonel Swan had been one of the original Tea Partiers  (the early iteration, the ones who dressed as Indians and got on the boats),  a veteran of Bunker Hill and other life threatening engagements during the revolution, a firm revolutionary from the beginning.  Once in the money, he acted as surety for privateers,  doing well by doing good.  And for this James Monroe calls him a rascal?

Swan was born in Scotland and came to Boston at age eleven.   He worked in an accounting house.  He was diligent and studious and even principled;  at eighteen, he wrote A Discussion of Great Britain and Her Colonies from the Slave Trade.  (He was against it.)  Continue reading

Sampiero Corso,1498 – 1569: ‘The Most Corsican of Corsicans’

I once had a French teacher whose family was Corsican.  Among the family possessions was a dagger, on one side of which blade was engraved “Vendetta”, on the other, “Morte”.

Hardboiled, the Corsicans. Perhaps no surprise that a Napoleon could come out of there.  For overall toughness and misfortune in love, however, we can argue that Sampiero has the marshal beat.

He was born a commoner and a reduced lower aristocratic mother.  With a background like that, the military was a natural. He apprenticed as a soldier at age fourteen.

He was good at it, too.  He led Corsican mercenaries for France’s house of Valois during the Italian wars and was more successful than not.  The money was good, too.  By 1547, he was a colonel and rich enough to marry Vanina D’Ornano. He was forty nine.  She was fifteen. Continue reading

John Elwes, 1714 – 1789: Bah, Humbug

The man was said to be the template for Ebenezer Scrooge, and superficially there seems something of a case to be made.  In the end, however, he was far stranger than that, and one wonders that Dickens could not have done more with him.

He was born John Meggot (or Meggott) to a prosperous brewer who died when John was four years old, leaving a fortune of over £150,000.   Bereaved by her loss and presumably terrified of going into principle, Mom died of starvation.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man man possessed of a good fortune (and unencumbered by parents)  must be in want of a good time.  He had been a scholar at Westminster, liked high society, and liked riding. He liked travel as well, and spent some time in  Switzerland.  (Voltaire was supposedly the main attraction- Elwes preferred the horses.)  Continue reading