Thursday, February 7, 2019

Damn, Girl-Mara Branković

Before beginning, it is important to note that there is not a lot written about Mara in English. Most of the scholarship done about her is written in Serbian, and as The Nerd is not familiar with Serbian, translation apps were used to translate web pages and documents. The Nerd apologizes in advance for any mistakes or misrepresentations which may have occurred because of translation errors.


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The only known portrait of Mara.
As far as obscure Slavic princesses go, Mara Branković, eldest daughter of the Serbian Despot¹, Đurađ Branković, is pretty obscure. She has been all but forgotten to the world, yet for several decades she was one of the most important diplomats in Europe, helping to keep a tenuous peace between the Muslim Ottomans, and the Christian everybody else.

Mara was the daughter of Đurađ Branković and his second wife, Irene. Maybe. She may have been the daughter of Đurađ's first, unnamed wife. The documentation is shaky, and it's difficult to know exactly when and to whom Mara was born. What is for sure is that she was the second of five children--two girls and three boys.

Serbia, at the time, was in a shaky spot. Sandwiched between the rapidly growing Ottoman Empire, and the land hungry Hungarian Empire, Serbia was put in the precarious position of having to serve two masters who didn't like each other. Đurađ had been able to gain the position of despot by only the skin of his teeth, after the previous despot died without an heir. he required the approval of the leaders of his powerful neighbors to retain his position. In order to appease the pair, he gave his daughters to them in marriage, Mara to Sultan Murad II, and her sister, Katrina, to the Count of Hungary.

Mara was 21 at the age of her marriage in 1433. The sultan was fifteen years older than her, and already had a wife and an heir. Murad supposedly wasn't initially too keen on marrying the daughter of his lowly client king, but when her father offered most of Serbia as a dowry, Murad seized on the opportunity.

The years of Mara's marriage were fairly quiet. Murad favored Mara, but reportedly never consummated the relationship. Mara got on well with Murad's other wife, and his son. She served as an intermediary between her father and her husband, trusted by both sides to be fair and honest.

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Murad II
There was one major incident during the years of Mara's marriage. In 1438 Đurađ got uppity. Murad really wanted to attack the Hungarian Empire, and while Đurađ promised to remain neutral in the conflict, he refused to allow the Ottoman armies into his territory. Murad wasn't too pleased about this. He started conquering Serbia, taking almost the entire country, and sending Đurađ running to Venice.

Murad wasn't satisfied with taking Serbia. He wanted revenge, and so in 1439 he captured Mara's brother, the heir apparent, Gregory. Gregory joined his brother Stefan, who had been held as a hostage since Mara's marriage six years earlier. Murad made Gregory the governor of several Serbian territories, but in 1440 became suspicious that Gregory was corresponding with his father. Gregory and Stefan were thrown into prison, in May of 1441 the pair were blinded, then released.²

Mara was, reportedly, furious. The Sultan had ordered that she not be told about the deed until after it was done. When she found out she reportedly threw her husband under her feet, screaming at him, making it more than clear that he had gone too far this time. Regretting his actions, Murad ordered that the person who blinded the brothers also be blinded as recompense. Because that would certainly rectify the situation.

This incident gives an interesting insight into Mara's relationship with her husband. It's clear that Murad not only respected Mara, but also considered her to be an equal to him, or at least an almost equal. He was evidently in fear of her wrath, where so many other men of the time had no regard for their wives' feelings on anything. This raises the question of if he considered Mara's political influence too great for him to risk offending her, or if he genuinely cared for her, and valued her good opinion.³

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Mehmed II, later known as 'Mehmed the
Conqueror'
In 1444 the conflict between Serbia, Hungary, and the Ottomans was put to rest, with Mara playing a not insignificant part in the proceedings. After a few months of peace Murad abdicated, leaving his thirteen year old son, Mehmed II, in charge of the country. Murad, Mara, and a few other companions retreated to the countryside, with Murad coming out of retirement every so often to conquer important bits of land for his son. He died of an apoplexy in 1451.

This left the twenty year old Mehmed the sole Sultan in the empire. He and Mara were very close, she had become a sort of surrogate mother to him after his own mother died in 1449. When Mara asked to return to Serbia after her husband's death, Mehmed was more than happy to let her go, taking the extraordinary step of releasing her from the harem.

It must be noted that Mara and Mehmed's relationship would have been vastly different had she had children. Ottoman princes were notoriously fratricidal, with Mehmed himself making it legal to kill a brother who was in line for the throne. Any child of Mara's would have been a threat to Mehmed, and he could not have risked letting Mara or her child out of the country. Fortunately, Mara was childless, and posed very little threat.

Mara returned to her family in Serbia, all of whom were remarkably still alive, if not still in possession of all important organs. With Mara returned the vast swathes of Serbia that had served as her dowry, and Đurađ found himself the happy owner of more land than he had before.

From here, Đurađ did what medieval kings did best, arranged strategic marriages for his daughters to cement alliances between kingdoms. While Mara was getting on a bit, being somewhere between 32 and 39 years of age, she was still a valuable marriage candidate, especially given her Ottoman connections. Đurađ eagerly betrothed her to the last Byzantine Emperor, Emperor Constantine XI⁴

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The Ottoman Empire
Unfortunately for Đurađ, Mara had had it with marriage. After Murad's death she had vowed never to marry again. Remarkably, her father (and later brothers) respected this vow, and she refused not only the Byzantine Emperor, but important Czech nobleman and ally against the Hungarians, Jana Jiskru.

When Đurađ died in 1456 a power struggle between his sons ensued. Gregory, the eldest brother, backed by Mara, Irene, and their powerful uncle Thomas, was challenged by Lazar, the youngest brother, backed by his wife and Stefan. Infighting grew so terrible that Irene died, and Mara returned to the Ottoman Empire.

Mara was welcomed back with open arms. She was given several towns and properties, and retired to Ježevo,⁵ near Mount Athos in modern Greece. It is notable that she retired to this area, as women were, and still are, forbidden to approach Mount Athos. Mara was the second woman ever to enter the area, and had to receive special permission from the monks in the area. However, given that she owned many of the monasteries, getting permission must have been easy enough.

It was, however, less easy for Mara to get her sister, Katrina to Ježevo. When Katrina's husband died in 1456, Katrina divided up his property, and peaced out of Hungary. She appears to have moved with her sister to Macedonia, though if they were in modern Greece Macedonia, or the FYROM is uncertain.

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Monastery of Simonos Petra, located on Mount Athos.
From their home, the sisters played mediator between the powerful Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire during the Venetian-Turkish war of 1463-79. The Venetians sent their emissaries to the sisters, and the sisters would pass on their messages, or accompany the emissaries to Constantinople themselves. They took the further step of using Mount Athos, essentially a neutral ground, for negotiations between the two countries.

Mara's other notable political interventions involved the election of the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In Mehmed's time becoming Patriarch involved paying an obscene amount of money to be appointed by the Sultan. In 1465, Mara convinced Mehemed to appoint her personal priest, Dionysius, as patriarch. Unfortunately, Dionysius didn't last long in the role, but Mara was able to see him peacefully retired to Mount Athos. She tried again with Rafael, a Serbian monk, but he was unable to raise the required funds, and was reduced to begging in the streets of Constantinople.

Mara died peacefully in 1487, and was buried in the Kosinitza monastery. She left behind her a large amount of wealth and religious relics, which was vigorously fought over by her family. She also left behind a legacy of diplomacy and peacemaking. Her advocation for the rights of Christians in the Ottoman Empire lead to some small amount of peace between the groups, and her interventions with the Venetian Republic led to a few decades of tenuous peace.



¹The term 'Despot' is not commentary on Đurađ's ruling skills, but is, instead, the official title of the ruler of Serbia at the time.
²Other stories claim that the Sultan had the brothers blinded over jealousy. The brothers were excellent hunters, and Murat apparently couldn't stand that.
³Or, perhaps, he simply didn't like to be yelled at. That should also be taken into consideration.
⁴For those protesting that the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire are the same thing, it should be known that Istanbul was not always Constantinople. The Ottoman conquest of Byzantium was not complete until 1453.
⁵It has been difficult for this historian to ascertain exactly where and what Ježevo was. There is a city called Ježevo in modern Croatia, but as far as this historian can tell, it is not the city Mara settled in. Given Mara's involvement in Ottoman affairs, it seems unlikely that she would have settled as far away as Croatia. Additionally, Mara was heavily involved with affairs on Mount Athos, a holy mountain near Thessaloniki, Greece. It seems likely that Ježevo was the name of a small village, or even the name of Mara's estate near there.

This article is gratefully dedicated to M. Kellogg, who inspired and encouraged its development. 

More on Similar Topics







Sources
Serbian Ladies and Athonite Monks by V. Demetriades and E. A. Zachariadou
Shedding New Light on the Ties of Mara Branković to the Holy Mountain of Athos and the Translation of Relics by Mihailo St. Popović
The Byzantine Lady: Ten Portraits, 1250-1500 by Donald M. Nicol
Serbia
Mara Brankovic

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Statue of Liberty Was a Completely Useless Lighthouse for Sixteen Years

A gift from the French government to assure the United States that they were, in fact, still friends, the Statue of Liberty was never meant to be a lighthouse. Still, for the first sixteen years of its American life, Liberty Enlightening the People served as a lighthouse, 'helping' to guide sailors into the New York Harbor. Or something like that.

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Statue of Liberty Lighthouse, 1890.
As mentioned, the statue wasn't supposed to be a lighthouse, but when the idea was posed to Frederic Bartholdi, the statue's designer, he seized on the idea with enthusiasm. A statue that not only held a torch, but held a torch that lit up and literally guided people to safety was pretty cool, and everyone else agreed, especially when it was proposed that the statue would be illuminated by the newfangled electric light.

The Statue of Liberty was the first lighthouse in the United States to be lit with electricity, with all other lighthouses running off old fashioned kerosene lamps. However, Bartholdi's original design didn't include any convenient places to shine lights out of, save for the lady's tiara. Bartholdi and his engineers (noted among them, Gustav Eiffel) set to finding a creative solution, or two.

Bartholdi's first idea was to install flood lights along the ledges of the torch. This would cast a bright light out to sea, illuminating the way for passing vessels. This idea, however, worked too well, and was rejected because it was feared that the light would blind sailors, and cause shipwrecks. Instead, windows were cut into the torch, and electric lights were placed inside, lighting the torch from within.

The lights were initially powered by a steam electricity plant and dynamo generator at no cost to the United States government. While the United States were thrilled to have a cool statue, they weren't too keen on paying for the lighting costs. Part of the illumination agreement was that the power plant and first week of illumination would be donated by the American Electric Light Manufacturing Company. The statue was lit up on November 1, 1886. A week later, it was dark again.

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Statue of Liberty today
Soon after going dark, President Grover Cleveland made the Statue of Liberty the problem of the Lighthouse Board. The Lighthouse Board weren't too happy with this assignment, given that the statue was expensive, difficult to light, and did no actual good as a navigational aid. There was no amplifying lense in the torch, which meant that the light was very weak. Proponents of the lighthouse claimed that the light could be seen for 24 miles out to sea. In reality, the light didn't make the 8 miles to Manhattan.¹

The first and only lighthouse keeper, Albert E. Littlefield, was hired in December of 1886. Littlefield was chosen because of his expertise with electricity, and under his care the lights kept shining for sixteen years. Though he made improvements that made the lighthouse less expensive, the Statue of Liberty was still a huge drain on Lighthouse Board resources, and it ceased to serve as a lighthouse on March 1, 1902.



¹For those who aren't lighthouse aficionados, a good lighthouse can be seen 30-40 miles away

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Sources
Statue of Liberty Lighthouse
Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty, NY

Friday, February 1, 2019

Damn, Girl-Ching Shih the Terror of South China

One of the most feared pirates of the nineteenth century, Ching Shih¹ and her Red Flag Fleet terrorized the South China Sea until 1810, when she gracefully retired after having been elevated to the nobility, and negotiating a pardon from the Qing government for herself, her husband, and most of her men. She was one of the most successful pirates of all time, but she's barely known outside of the country of her birth.

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Contemporary depiction of Ching Shih
Probably born in 1775, Ching Shih originally hailed from the Guangdong province in southern China. As is typical for most women of this era, very little is known about Ching Shih's life up until her marriage. All that is known about her is that she was working as a prostitute in a floating brothel when she caught the eye of notorious pirate lord, Zheng Yi.²

There are a couple stories about how these two became a couple. The first one being that Zheng ordered his men to raid the brothel, and spirit Ching Shih away. The other story is that Zheng simply asked her to marry him, and Ching agreed on the condition that she would share in the leadership of the fleet. Whatever the truth, in 1801 Ching and Zheng were married, and they shared in command for several years.

When she was married to Zheng, Ching helped him to unite several small pirate bands into a much larger federation they called the Red Flag Fleet. At their largest, the fleet had more than 70,000 men, and 1,200 ships--significantly more ships than the pitiful Chinese navy.

Unfortunately, Zheng died in 1807, leaving Ching a widow in a precarious position. She was the head of a large fleet of rowdy ne're-do-wells, and she needed to consolidate her power quickly. She did this by recruiting her husband's former advisors, and becoming intimate with her husband's second in command, and adopted son, Cheung Po Tsai.

The relationship between Cheung Po Tsai, Zheng Yi, and Ching Shih is mysterious, complex, and a little headache inducing. Zheng Yi and Cheung Po Tsai were very close, close enough that Zheng  adopted Cheung. They were also lovers. Ching had also adopted Cheung, and they would later marry, and have at least one child. The affair was incestous to say the least, and lecherous imaginations can spend many a happy hour imagining what the trio got up to when all parties were still living.

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Cheung Po Tsai. Like any pirate worth
their salt, it is rumored that he hid large
amounts of treasure in a cave.
With Cheung Po Tsai, Ching really started to consolidate her rule. She brought even more pirates into her fold, and she began to keep 'order' on the seas with a very strict set of rules. Sailors who went ashore without leave had their ears cut off. Pirates caught stealing booty were beheaded.Villages who paid tribute to the fleet were considered under Ching's protection, and anyone who raided or plundered a protected village was beheaded.

Particularly progressive were Ching's rules regarding the treatment of female captives. Men were required to keep all pertinent body parts in their pants on pains of death so far as female captives were concerned. Sexual assault resulted in the man in question being beheaded. Consensual sex resulted in the man being beheaded, and the woman being thrown overboard. Pirates could marry a captive, and the woman would be made a full member of the fleet. Captives nobody wanted to marry were set ashore.

As idyllic as some of her policies were, Ching was still undeniably a pirate, and pirates are notoriously bloodthirsty. In addition to all the beheadings, Ching was noted for giving violent ends to targets who resisted her. Villages that submitted to her fleet immediately, and paid tribute, were spared and protected. Villages that resisted saw their homes burned, their men killed, and the village leader nailed to the dock by his feet, and beaten to death. Sailors on captured ships were given the option to join the fleet, or be beaten to death. More than one captured captain committed suicide rather than have to deal with being captured by the Red Flag Fleet.

Ching was a major shipping disruption in the area, and the Qing government wanted to see her gone. Unfortunately, the Chinese navy of the time was composed of repurposed merchant ships unsuited to combat. They went so far as to enlist the help of their foes, the British and Portuguese, but they were unable to capture Ching.

Come 1810, things were starting to change. While Ching and the Red Flag Fleet were still dominating the seas, there was a new metaphorical sheriff in Beijing, and he was frighteningly competent at hunting pirates. As several big name pirates began to fall, the Imperial government offered amnesty to any pirates who laid down their swords. After watching their friends be captured and executed, Ching and Cheung decided to take them up on the offer.

Cheung was initially sent to handle negotiations, but was unsuccessful. When talks stalled, Ching walked unarmed into the governor's office in Guangdong with a posse of seventeen, also unarmed, pirates. When negotiations where completed, Ching had gained clemency for all but 400 of her pirates, of which only 126 were executed. In addition to keeping their lives, they were also allowed to keep their ill gotten gains. Ching and Cheung retired especially handsomely. Both were raised to the nobility, and Cheung was made an officer in the Chinese navy.

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Chinese junk ships, the type of ship Ching used.
Negotiations almost stalled when the governor required that the pardoned pirates kneel before him in homage. The pirate masses definitely weren't going to kneel in front of the governor, so the governor reduced his requirement to just the leaders, Ching and Cheung. This was a pretty non-negotiable point on the part of the governor, but Ching and Cheung weren't too keen on the humiliation. To satisfy the pride of all parties, they convinced the governor to dissolve the adoption that made Ching Cheung's mother, and had the governor marry them. At the end of the ceremony, the couple traditionally knelt in thanks to the officiant, neatly solving the kneeling problem.

After negotiation her retirement from piracy, Ching returned to Guangdong. She and Cheung had one son, and after Cheung died Ching opened a casino/brothel. She lived to see her son grow up, and her grandchildren be born. She died in 1844 at the age of 69.


¹It should be noted that there are multiple spellings for all of the names mentioned in this narrative.
² Ching Shih was not Ching's birth name, it literally means 'Widow of Cheng' (Zheng).


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Sources
Ching Shih, the Former Prostitute Who Became the Greatest Pirate Who Ever Lived
Meet Ching Shih: the Prostitute Turned Pirate Who Banned Rape in Her 50,000 Man Fleet
Ching Shih Pirate Biography and Facts
Ching Shih
Ching Shih (1775-1844)
Ching Shih: From Prostitute to Pirate Lord
Cheung Po Tsai and Ching Shih: Pirate Monarchs
Cheng I Sao
Cheng I Sao, Female Pirate Extraordinaire

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Bir Tawil Trapezoid--the Geographic, the Adorable, and the Imperialistic

On the border between Egypt and Sudan there are two small areas of land that remain in dispute--the Hala'ib Triangle, and the Bir Tawil Trapezoid. Hala'ib borders the Red Sea, and both countries have been laying claim to it since the 1950s. The Bir Tawil Trapezoid, on the other hand, is a mostly desolate wasteland, and both countries, well...they don't not claim it, but they certainly don't claim it either.

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A scenic stretch of Bir Tawil
Like many of the geographic struggles in Africa, this one dates back to colonial times when both Egypt and Sudan were a part of the British Empire. In 1899, while separating the areas into two distinct administrative districts the border between Sudan and Egypt was drawn at the 22nd parallel. Unfortunately, this border seperated two nomadic tribal groups--the Ababda and the Bisharin--from large sections of their traditional homelands. The Ababda, who's traditional grazing ground includes Bir Tawil, were deemed to have more in common culturally with the Egyptians, and the Bisharin, who sometimes occupy Hala'ib, were deemed to be more Sudanese. Consequently, in 1902 the border was redrawn, and Bir Tawil was incorporated into Egypt, while Hala'ib went to the Sudanese.

Flash forward to 1956, and Sudan has finally kicked their colonial overlords to the curb. Egypt, who had show the English the door in 1922, stood by the 1899 border--straight along the 22nd parallel. This hadn't been a point of friction until Sudan gained independence, and adopted the 1902 border--allotting Bir Tawil to Egypt, and granting themselves Hala'ib.

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Bir Tawil is circled in red.
What follows has been a relatively bloodless game of North African chicken. While neither country would say no to Bir Tawil, claiming Bir Tawil would mean giving up any claim to Hala'ib, which is a much more attractive plot of land. Hala'ib not only has access to the Red Sea, but it also is rich in resources, with substantial manganese deposits. Egypt was eager to start exporting manganese, and it was the Sudanese government allowing a Canadian oil company to do exploration in the triangle that kicked this whole dispute off.

There have been no armed conflicts over the triangle, though Egyptian troops were sent into the region in 1958 after Sudan attempted to hold elections, and remain there to this day. The Sudanese withdrew their troops in 2000, and the area has been under de facto Egyptian control ever since.

All of this leaves Bir Tawil mostly unadministered. It's easy to see why neither government wants to claim the trapezoid--there's little but rocks and desert. As mentioned, the Ababda graze their animals there part of the year, but there are no permanent residents. Bir Tawil has been largely regarded as a no man's land since the 1960s.

There are, however, several individuals who have claimed Bir Tawil, and attempted to create their own sovereign nation. Most famously was Jeremiah Heaton, an American farmer who wanted to make his daughter's dream of becoming a princess a reality. In 2014 he made the treacherous journey through the Egyptian desert to Bir Tawil, and planted a homemade flag in the grounded. He renamed the area North Sudan, and declared himself king, and his daughter a princess.

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Heaton, his daughter, Emily, and their flag.
Once he returned home to Virginia he didn't relinquish his claims. He set about trying to get his territory recognized officially as a country, with the goal of establishing experimental agricultural centers that would research the most effective farming methods for the food unstable region. However, as Sealand could attest, gaining recognition for a new country is no easy feat, no matter how noble the cause.

Not only is Heaton battling with Egypt and Sudan over the area, he's also fighting against an American journalist, an Indian, two Russians, and a whole host of other people who saw Bir Tawil on a map, and decided to make their own country. Every few years another claimant pops up, but none of the claimants actually live in the area.

Which brings us to the people who actually inhabit Bir Tawil--the Ababda people. The Ababda have inhabited southern Egypt, northern Sudan, and parts of Ethiopia since at least Ptolemaic times, possibly earlier. Though they don't live in Bir Tawil year round, the area is an important part of their yearly migration. Amusing and heartwarming as it might be for random foreigners to claim this no man's land, it must be conceded that the trapezoid isn't a no-man's-land, at least not entirely. This brings into the contentious age old question about land ownership between nomadic and settled societies, and how much land nomadic cultures can lay claim to.

However, as far as international land disputes go, Bir Tawil is undoubtedly the most light hearted. No blood has been spilled over the region, there's not even a real occupying force. Sure, there's some random flags scattered over the 2,060 square kilometers in the trapezoid, but that's an eyesore that can be dealt with. Besides, it made one seven year old girl a very happy princess.

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Sources
Virginia Man's Claim on African Land is Unlikely to Pass Test
Welcome to the Land No Country Wants
Bir Tawil
A History of Bir Tawil
Bir Tawil: The Land No Country Wants
The Halayeb Triangle

Friday, January 25, 2019

Damn, Girl-Isabella, Queen of England, 'She-Wolf' of France

Militant and ruthless, Isabella of France was the sort of queen HBO and Starz make television shows about. Married at twelve, Isabella spent the early years of her reign being scorned and passed over for her husband's male favorites. Forced to stand between her husband, his aristocracy, and England, Isabella became a wily diplomat and politician, which later saw her ousting her corrupt and weak husband with the help of her lover. Though she saw real power for only four years, she saw her son onto the throne, and was instrumental in holding England together during the tumultuous years of Edward II. Deemed 'the she-wolf of France'¹, Isabella was a fierce defender of what was hers.

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Our girl Isabella, deciding the fate of her enemies.
Born sometime between 1292 and 1295, Isabella was the sixth child and only surviving daughter of King Philip the Fair of France, and Queen Jeanne of Navarre. Very early in her life Isabella was given into the care of Theophania St. Pierre, who served as her nurse and companion even after her marriage.

Despite being cared for by Theophania, Isabella was, in no way, neglected by her parents. As their only girl she was much indulged, and given several grants of land, making her wealthy even as a child. In addition to being given land, Isabella was also given a rudimentary education,being taught to read even though her father generally held the belief that only nuns should be taught to read. Isabella developed a love of books and learning that would sustain her throughout her life.

It is important to note the sort household that Isabella was raised in. While by no means normal, Isabella's family was idyllic by the standards of the times, and the modern day. Her parents were in love, and it was very likely that their marriage had been a love match. Isabella's mother ran her country, Navarre, independent of Philip's France, and Philip was a strong, if somewhat brutal, king of France. Isabella was raised by exemplary monarchs with strong relationship. This would stand in stark contrast to the men in her own future, and may have contributed to the disillusionment that Isabella would experience later in her life.

At the time of Isabella's birth France and England were, unsurprisingly, at war. Traditional enemies, England and France's latest quarrel was over the regions of Aquitaine and Gascony, regions that the two countries had been fighting over since Eleanor of Aquitaine's marriage to Henry II, and the transfer of her lands to English hands, four generations previous. Philip IV and Edward I were ready to call a temporary truce, and they decided to seal the deal with a double marriage--Philip's sister, Margaret of France, to Edward I, and Edward I's son, Edward of Caernarvon, to Philip's only daughter, Isabella.

The marriage was agreed to in 1298, and Edward pressed for Isabella to marry his son immediately, but an intervention from Pope Boniface VIII, proposing that marrying off a three year old was perhaps a little unethical, delayed the union. The couple were married by proxy when Isabella was seven, then married for real in 1308.
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Edward Caernarvon at his coronation.
Twelve year old Isabella was hailed as a beauty, and was greeted joyously by her new English public. Her husband, Edward, however, wasn't as enthused. It wasn't that he disliked Isabella, it was just that he was enamoured with another man, and he was completely indifferent to the twelve year old he had just vowed to love, honor, and obey. Edward already had someone to love, honor, and obey, his husband favorite, Piers Gaveston.

Piers Gaveston and Edward II went all the way back to 1300, when Edward was 15 (ish). Edward's father, Edward (hereafter referred to as 'Big Daddy Ed'), wasn't too terribly impressed with his son. Big Daddy Ed was a Medieval King's Medieval King. His hobbies included holding tournaments, producing heirs, and warring with the Scots. Edward, on the other hand, liked music, swimming, rowing, and thatching. Big Daddy Ed was disgusted with his son, and so he installed Piers Gaveston, the son of a poor knight, in Edward's household. Piers was the sort of fellow that Big Daddy Ed would have liked to have for a son--athletic, refined, and a great lover of warring with the Scots. He'd hoped that Piers would be an improving influence for his son, unfortunately, Piers was anything but. Piers and Edward fell in love almost immediately, and the pair proceeded to wreak havoc among the nobility and common people.

While Piers doesn't appear to have been present at Edward and Isabella's marriage, he was most notably present at their coronation (Big Daddy Ed having died a few months before). Piers had controversially been raised to the title of Earl of Cornwall², and as such had the right to wear cloth of gold at the coronation. Piers, however, decided to show up in purple silk, essentially claiming status on par with Isabella and Edward. He also proceeded Isabella and Edward in the procession, and was given several other prestigious duties during the ceremony. This infuriated Edward's nobles, as Piers was, outside of his flashy new titles, not particularly blue-blooded.

The real insults came at the banquet succeeding the coronation. Edward had been given substantial sums of money by the French for the coronation, and had spent it on lavish tapestries displaying the arms of himself and Gaveston. Edward took several of the jewels and wedding presents meant for Isabella, and gave them to Gaveston, and spent much of the evening with his husband favorite, instead of with his new bride. The French delegation was outraged, and Isabella wrote to her father that she felt like a nonentity in her own marriage.

For the first few years of her marriage, Isabella had very little political power, and much of the drama and intrigue of this time concerns Edward and Piers. Edward burned through goodwill and money quickly, and had alienated his nobility not long after his coronation. His continued indulgence and promotion of Gavestone, as well as his neglect of the kingdom and ineffectual warring with the Scots, led his barons to draw up the Ordinances of 1311, which severely curtailed his powers. He was forced to banish Gaveston multiple times, but always managed to recall him at a later date. Isabella more or less was dragged along with them, with very little power of her own. However, everything changed when Isabella turned sixteen.

There was no formal agreement about what age Isabella had to reach before she and Edward would consummate their marriage, but even in Medieval times it was generally agreed upon that getting pregnant at twelve was sheer dangerous idiocy. Getting pregnant at sixteen, however, was merely dangerous. Consequently, Isabella was pregnant by 1312.

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Map of the British Isles in 1300. Not
included are the Plantagenet lands in
southern France.
Now, at this time Edward and Gaveston were in the middle of yet another one of their power struggles with the English aristocracy. Gaveston had been exiled again in 1311, and his return to England had ruffled more than a few feathers. Additionally, the Scots were feeling frisky again, and they were making war in Northern England.

Unfortunately, Northern England was where Isabella was, and her husband's war making was so incompetent, that she soon found herself in danger. Edward marched south with his army, leaving Isabella with scant protection from the advancing Scots.

Isabella and Edward both made it safely back to London, but Gaveston was not as fortunate. He had been trapped in Scarborough Castle by his enemies, and executed, leaving Edward bitter and heartbroken. On November 13th Isabella's first child, the future Edward III, was born.

The next four years would be the happiest of Edward and Isabella's marriage. Two of their four living children--John and Eleanor--were born during this period. During this time Edward put significant efforts into repairing his relationships with his subjects, enacting reforms and reassigning lands that had been unfairly given to Gavestone. Edward seemed contrite, and for a time England enjoyed a brittle peace. However, things grew uneasy as another royal boyfriend favorite rose over the horizon.

The Despenser family were related to Edward, and Hugh Despenser the Younger (Hereafter known as 'Horny Hugh') was technically Edward's nephew. In 1318, Horny Hugh was made Edward's royal chamberlain. Horny Hugh Despenser and his father, Hugh Despenser, both had political ambitions. Unlike Gavestone, who was content to be a wealthy, lowborn, nuisance, Horny Hugh wanted to rule. He was given large swathes of the marchlands, angering the Marcherlords³ to whom the land rightfully belonged.

Furthermore, Horny Hugh and Isabella didn't like each other. It's unknown what sort of relationship Isabella had had with Gavestone, but given that Isabella was little more than a child during Gavestone's tenure as royal husband favorite, it seems likely that they didn't have much of a relationship at all.

However, with Horny Hugh, things were different. Isabella was becoming a political person in her own right, and she was painfully aware that Horny Hugh and the Despensers elevation insulted her, her French family, and the realm. She was frequently called upon by the barons to curb the king's worst impulses, and her and Edward's relationship grew increasingly tense. In 1322 Edward asked Isabella to swear an oath of loyalty to the Despensers. When she refused, he took away her lands, and gave custody of their two youngest children--Eleanor and Joan--to Horny Hugh.

Meanwhile, Isabella's brother Charles had become King of France, and he was eyeing Gascony with increasing amounts of lust. Squabbles started popping up in the region, and despite multiple attempts at diplomacy, including sending Edward and Isabella's eldest son to France, war seemed inevitable. In 1325, Edward decided to send Isabella to intercede.

Once back in France, Isabella had very little reason to be loyal to Edward. He had taken her children, confiscated her lands, and reduced her to little more than a pauper. She had been insulted and humiliated for seventeen years, and she was done. Safe at her brother's court in Paris, Isabella declared her contempt for her husband and the Despensers. She took up the garb of a widow, saying, essentially, that her husband was dead to her, and that she considered him unfit for the office he held. With the help of her cousins in the Lowlands, Isabella began plotting to remove Edward from the son in favor of their eldest son.

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Roger speaking with Isabella on a battlefield
Enter Roger Mortimer. He was a young, handsome nobleman with vast estates in Wales and Ireland. He had been exiled from England for his political policies of attempting to overthrow the Despensers, and he had a thirst for vengeance. He and Isabella had met many times before, as Mortimer had been a regular at court, but with Isabella in widow weeds, and Mortimer driven from his home, something had changed. They began to plot together, and that plotting soon moved to the bedchamber, where it is widely assumed that they began plotting Edward's overthrow in a horizontal position.

Roger and Isabella's relationship is an interesting one. It is quite obvious that she was very enamored of him. She was permissive of his bad behavior far beyond what someone using him as a means to an end would have been. However, it is difficult to ascertain Mortimer's feelings. While they had some things in common--love of art, love of Arthurian Romance--he frequently disregarded her wishes concerning their plot, and later the running of the country. After attaining the regency, he used her to gain vast lands and wealth. This may be constructed just as him being the typical medieval man, but there was also the fact that Mortimer was already married to a woman it was widely rumored to be in love with. However, he and his wife had been separated for three years, and it was possible that his ardor towards his wife had cooled, and he truly had feelings for Isabella.

Though they were nowhere near as open about it as Edward and his husbands favorites, it soon became common knowledge that Isabella and Mortimer were lovers. This enraged Edward, who swore that if he saw Isabella again he would kill her. Because of her adultery, Isabella's brother refused to help her with her coup.⁴ Luckily, Isabella's cousins in Hainault⁵ held no such compunctions, and gave them ships and Dutch mercenaries to begin their invasion.

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Berkeley Castle, where Edward died.
Isabella and Mortimer landed in Suffolk in September of 1326. Edward's few allies quickly abandoned him, and England was taken with almost no bloodshed. Horny Hugh was hanged, drawn, and quartered, and Edward was deposed and imprisoned in Berkeley Castle. Isabella and Edward's eldest son, Edward (hereafter referred to as 'Baby Edward'), was placed on the throne.

As Baby Edward was only fourteen, a regency was necessary. As queen, this position was granted to Isabella, and she, along with Mortimer, would serve as regents for about four years.

About a year into their regency, Isabella and Mortimer decided to deal with the problem of the old king. Despite imprisoning him in a dank dungeon, and throwing dead animals and rotting corpses into his cell in hopes he would die of disease, Edward stubbornly remained alive. He remained a rallying point for those who opposed Isabella and Mortimer, and in September of 1327, he mysteriously died.
There are a few stories about how Edward died. Least gruesome is that he was smothered in his sleep. Most popular is that a flaming hot poker was inserted into his anus, and run through his entrails. There are some stories as well that claim he didn't die, but instead escaped, and fled to Italy to live out the rest of his life as a monk.⁶ While neither Isabella nor Mortimer confessed to having ordered or committed the murders, it is widely assumed that they at the very least signed off on the order.

Unfortunately, their regency wasn't entirely popular. Isabella herself remained widely respected, it was Mortimer who was the problem. Like all of the other husbands favorites in Isabella's story, Mortimer was greedy and grasping; sending England to the brink of bankruptcy to enrich himself. He was very unpopular, and Baby Edward grew resentful.

In 1330 Edward had had enough. With support of Henry of Lancaster, Edward staged a dramatic midnight coup, taking a secret passage into the castle where his mother and Mortimer were living, pinning them and their advisors in an enclosed chamber, forcing them to abdicate. Mortimer was hanged a short while later, while Isabella was placed under house arrest.

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Baby Edward
There were several people who called for Isabella's execution, but Edward declined, instead spinning the narrative that she was innocent in the affair, and that the blame rested squarely with Mortimer. Her lands were seized, and she was pensioned off, placed under house arrest at Castle Rising in the Norfolk countryside where she couldn't cause any more problems.

The last years of Isabella's life saw her growing closer to her family, and finding religion. Her daughter, Joan, came to live with her after leaving her husband, and Isabella doted ceaselessly on her grandchildren. Towards the end of her life, she and Baby Edward reconciled. She became a nun in 1358, and died shortly after.

Looking at her life, it can be difficult to determine if Isabella was a plotting villainess or a woman making bloody, bloody lemonade. It is apparent that she struggled for much of her life to become an active agent in her own fate, and was met with mixed success. Today she is mostly forgotten, lost in the blinding glare of her son, Edward III, who is frequently touted as being England's greatest king. However, she should be remembered as a brilliant queen and stateswoman in her own right, who was instrumental in ensuring stability in England, even if she had to do it by force.



¹The title was borrowed from Shakespeare's play Henry IV, Part III. The original title referred to Margaret of Anjou, but has since become a byname for Isabella.
²This caused a major scandal, because the Earldom of Cornwall was then, and now, a royal title. (It's currently held as an auxiliary title of Prince Charles.) While Cornwall is no longer an Earldom but a Dukedom, it is still considered to be the right of the first born son of the monarch.
³A Marcherlord was a nobleman with holdings along the border with Wales, who was expected to defend the border.
⁴Adultery was a major crime for a Medieval noblewoman. Charles' first wife had committed adultery, and Charles had had her lovers beaten to death in a public square. It is unsurprising that he was less than permissive about his sister's liaison with Roger Mortimer.
⁵The aforementioned Lowland cousin. Coincidentally, this same cousin, Joan of Hainault, was responsible for throwing Isabella and Mortimer together.
⁶This story was later used to support the causes of people who would rebel against Baby Edward.

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Sources
The Plantagenets by Dan Jones
Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England by Alison Weir
She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor
Isabella, the 'She-Wolf of France'
Edward II Marries Isabella of France
Isabella of France: Queen of England
Isabella of France
Edward II: King of England
Edward II:1307-1327
Edward II (1284-1327)
Edward II:1307-1327 AD
Piers Gaveston, Hugh Despenser, and the Downfall of Edward II
Roger Mortimer
Edward III

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Dangerous Ground-The Spratly Islands

Located between Vietnam and the Philippines, the Spratly Islands have no native population, yet the area is one of the most disputed regions in the world, with six countries claiming all or part of the archipelago. Largely barren, the islands, many of which are not above water all of the time, cannot sustain human life. Yet, the rich untapped potential of oil and natural gas reserves under the reefs, and their strategic maritime position has made the Spratly Island a point of contention in East Asia since the 1950s.

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Aerial view of an atoll in the archipelago.
The first verified 'discovery' of the Spratly Islands was in 1843 when British whaling captain Richard Spratly spotted a large island. He named it after himself, as one does, and the name was eventually applied to the entire island group. Though this was the era of the British Empire, and the British were well known for claiming any piece of land that stood still, Spratly sailed on, and the English did not attempt to claim the islands. The islands were mostly left alone until the Japanese built an army base on the largest island during WWII.

The Spratly Islands are comprised of various bits of land that sometimes are, and sometimes aren't above water. There are more than 100 of these reefs, shoals, atolls, and islets, with Spratly Island itself being the largest. Though there is no indigenous population, approximately 45 of the islands are occupied by military presence from one of the six countries that lay claim to the area.

While there is sparse vegetation and very little wildlife, there is a huge reserve of untapped natural gas and oil under the reefs. These resources are very useful to the rapidly developing nations that claim the area, especially to China, who uses about 12% of the world's oil--second only to the United States in world usage.

In addition to gas and oil, the Spratly Islands are also rich in fish and other sea life--a major component of the southeast Asian diet. Being able to fish in those waters is very important to the livelihood of the people closest to the area, and having control of those waters lends an enormous economic advantage.

However, fish rights aren't the only thing that makes the Spratly Islands strategic. Their location in the South China sea not only makes them an excellent military outpost to launch attacks in Southeast Asia, but it also lends control of one of the largest shipping routes in the world. Any cargo boat that sails to Asia has to go through the South China Sea, and whoever controls the Spratly Islands exerts significant influence over trade in the region.

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Map of the islands and the claims exerted over them.
The Spratlys are claimed by six nations--China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines. While the Spratlys are closest to Vietnam, Malaysia, and the Philippines, Taiwan retains the longest military presence, and China is the most militant about populating the area, going as far as to build artificial islands to station military forces on.

Delving into the basis of territorial claims on the Spratlys, many countries share similar justifications for why the Spratlys should belong to them. The claims separate into about three camps, with all of them boiling down to the same reasoning that five year olds use to fight over toys. These claims are: I had it first, I have it now, and But it's close to me.

  • I had it first.
China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all use this argument. All three countries have produced documents that 'prove' the existence of Chinese¹ and Vietnamese people living on the Spratlys hundreds of years ago. The Chinese produced records stating that Han people had settled the area in the 1600s, and the Vietnamese produced records showing that the Spratlys had been a part of several ancient Vietnamese kingdoms. However, this historical evidence is shaky at best, and due to a lack of continuous occupation of the region, an important factor in claiming sovereignty over an area, has not been accepted as grounds for a valid claim by the United Nations.
  • I have it now.
While nowhere near one of the greatest military conflicts in the late twentieth century, armed conflict, and taking island features by force has been one way of securing possession of the archipelago. There have been armed skirmishes between China and Vietnam in 1974 and 1988, and between China and the Philippines in 2012. Following, and in between these skirmishes the Chinese government has established airfields and military bases on various island features. They have also gone as far as to include the Spratlys on their official maps, and give them an official place in the Hainan Province.

Taiwan has had a physical occupying force in the islands since the end of WWII, with only a brief interruption. They occupy Itu Abu, the largest island in the archipelago, and have been administering it peacefully for decades.

Malaysia, likewise, has physical garrisons on the islands, and claims twelve islands that are located on its continental shelf. Malaysia, however, is the newest claimant to the game, not taking possession of any of the islands until the 1980s.

All of these countries are operating under the idea that continuous occupation=ownership. It's the same idea that led Canada to abandon 92 in the High Arctic. It is, by far, a much stronger claim than historical precedence or international law, given that possession is 9/10ths of the law.
  • But it's close to me.
Part of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea states that a nation may claim up to 200 nautical miles away from their land as an exclusive economic zone. This is the law upon which Brunei hangs its claim, and a law that Malaysia and the Philippines both utilize. It is worth noting that in all three of these cases the country in question isn't claiming the entire archipelago, just a few islands, or, in the case of Brunei, a single reef. 
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A Chinese Military Base 

All of these countries make strong claims to certain features of the Spratly Islands, and peace would certainly be conceivable if China, Taiwan, and Vietnam weren't attempting to claim the entire archipelago. As it stands, the Spratly Islands is the epicenter of a cold and sporadic conflict. None of the claimant countries make an active effort to maintain the claims on the region, and Malaysian and Filipino fishermen make use of the waters surrounding the archipelago. It seems unlikely that any resolution between the six countries will be reached soon, and so the Spratly Islands remain a volatile, and dangerous region.



¹The Taiwanese have been lumped in with the Chinese here, as Taiwan was administratively a part of mainland China until 1949. The Taiwanese historical claims are the same as the Chinese historical claims.

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Sources
The Spratly Islands Dispute: International Law, Conflicting Claims, and Alternative Frameworks
For Dispute Resolution by Robin Gonzalez
Why is the South China Sea Contentious?
The South China Sea: the Spratly Islands Disputes
Making Sense of the South China Sea Dispute
Spratly Islands
Spratly Islands: Reefs, Shoals, Atolls, and Islets