On This Day in History, September 9th AD 9 | Teutoburg Forest

You’ve heard of the “Teutoburg disaster”, right? It’s kinda infamous if you like brushing up on your history stuff, particularly so if you are pro- or anti- Roman. It’s so touted as an example of anti-Roman rule, that it can be somewhat overdone. Or, to quote one Roman-o-phile I know; “I’m sick of hearing about bloody Teutoburg.”

And I kind of understand that, particularly the tendency to then fall into college schoolboy speak: “yeah, boyeee, we kicked yo asses right outta Germany, bitch! YEAH!” *chestbump*

But let’s tell the true story here, let’s take ourselves back to Ancient Rome and the newly acquired province of Germania. Yes, “Germania.” This was the Roman and Greek term for the geographical region in north-central Europe inhabited mainly by barbaric, unwashed gits (I kid! I kid!), it extended from the Danube in the south to the Baltic Sea, and from the Rhine in the west to the Vistula. The Roman portions formed two provinces of the Empire, Germania Inferior to the north (present-day Netherlands), and Germania Superior to the south (Switzerland, southwestern Germany, eastern France).


It hadn’t always been this way.

Only a few decades earlier and these were tumultuous times. Heck, we’re talking about the Romans here; every day was “tumultuous times,” but here it was “tumultuous” in the form of six feet tall, hairy, barbarian types throwing axes around like they’re “welcome to the neighborhood gift cookies.” The tribes across the east bank of the Rhine constantly felt like the grass was greener on the other side, or at least “richer,” and they just wouldn’t keep to themselves. Raids were common and culminated in the governor of Gallia Belgica, Marcus Lollius, getting his assed kicked in the summer of 16 BC, when the Sugambri decided they’d had enough of the fifth Alaudae hanging around, had a few drinks, and promptly ended up curbed stomping them into a fine puree.

And the fifth wasn’t exactly a pushover; we’re talking about one of Caesar’s bravest legions, veterans of the Gallic Wars and plenty of time under Marc Anthony, to boot. Not only did the fifth Alaudae get their faces pummeled, but they managed to lose their eagle in the bargain, and losing your eagle was, like, the ultimate disgrace. Remember this, ‘cos it’s kinda of a theme around these parts.

It was probably this little event that caused emperor Augustus to rub his manly chin and conclude “hm, maybe things are still a little unstable over there?” followed swiftly with a “Drusus, my boy, head on over, will you, and deliver a little Pax Romana on the tip of a few pilum heads, thanks very much!”



Over the next few years, the Romans reorganized along the Rhine, and basically put the iron shod caligae footprint of a military zone all up in its business. The XVII, XVIII, and XIX legions were set to defend the border – remember these guys, they feature later – while a second army group, consisting of the V Alaudae and I Germanica were set to become an expeditionary force of sorts. And by “expeditionary force,” I mean they’d be the first to jump the Rhine to land a righteous fist of civilized justice to the bearded mug of any muck dweller unlucky enough to be in the way.

In 12 BC, Drusus elbowed the Sugambri into submission, kneed the Frisians and Chauci in the wedding tackle, and snagged backed the eagle. All in time to return back across the Rhine in time for a smoked kipper breakfast.

But he wasn’t done.

The following year, he crossed again, mad-dogged anyone who caught his eye, and plopped down a large military base near Oberaden and homed 3 legions there. And if something is going to leave the message of “we’re not done here,” then it’s 3 legions on your front lawn.

The Lippe valley was considered “pacified” at this point.

DRUSUS INVADES GERMANY - The Romans under the command of General Drusus invade Germany. ©Mary Evans Picture Library/The Image Works NOTE: The copyright notice must include "The Image Works" DO NOT SHORTEN THE NAME OF THE COMPANY

The following year, Drusus again stomped around the country elbowing any bearded face to poke its ugly mug from beyond the treeline, and was feeling all kinds of smug when he fell of his horse and caught a dose of bodily death syndrome. He was but 29.

In stepped his brother, Tiberius.

Tiberius had a slightly different attitude to Germania, as he felt the country too poor to really bother with. But, heck, the legions were there now, and you can’t exactly pull them out, right? That might look bad.

So in the years of 9 BC and 8 BC, Tiberius attacked the Sugambri again (‘cos “screw those guys”) and promptly kicked it in the meat-and-two-veg until it transformed itself into a peaceful, normal, tax-paying province.

The only part between the Elbe, Rhine and Danube that remained unconquered was the kingdom of Maroboduus, the leader of the Marcomanni, who lived in Bohemia. But Tiberius had eight legions worth of “Roman Solution” for that particular problem, and would have been all over it like a bad rash, if it hadn’t been for a pesky Pannonian rebellion that caused Tiberius to go in a different direction.

Still, by the time of AD 1, the Roman Empire had subdued all of continental Europe west of the Danube and south and west of the Rhine. Its armies had conquered North Africa from Morocco to Egypt, as well as Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), parts of Syria, and Palestine. The imperial navy had turned the Mediterranean into a Roman lake, and everywhere around the rim of the empire, Rome’s defeated enemies trembled in fear of her legions.

Or did they?


The tribes of Germania were now full-on trading with the Roman Empire; iron, cattle, slaves, and foodstuffs went out in exchange for silver coins and luxury goods. A few tribes even pledged allegiance to Rome and German mercenaries served in the Roman armies as far away as the present-day Czech Republic.

All was calm. The sun was shining. Laughter could be heard all over the nation.

Enter the story: Publius Quinctilius Varus.


Varus, 55, was a noble from a patrician family, and was linked by marriage to the imperial family. He had served as Emperor Augustus’ representative in the province of Syria, where he had quelled ethnic disturbances, and he was the fourth most important person in the Roman world of this time. His credentials screamed “just the man to bring Roman civilization to the barbarous tribes of Germany.”

The problem was, he was an administrative official and not a general. Which is fine, right, in a new province that needed the steady hand of a strong governor vs. the all-conquering boot of a soldier.

The only problem that could possibly occur would be if Varus pissed off the tribes and caused some form of revolt. Or maybe if governorship turned into war.

Or both.

Yeah … so … about that.

The problem with Varus was, to coin an Englishism: he was a right twat.

He tended to treat subjected nations as if they were slaves of the empire, and that sort of attitude comes bundled with all sorts of “fun.” He was ruthless, cruel, was known to crucify insurgents, and wrapped all of this in a cuddly ball of arrogance.

He had no respect for the Germanic culture, and decided that the best way to lure a new province into the welcoming bosom of Rome herself was through a policy of toe-curling-taxation.

Not surprisingly, the tribes of Germany started to wonder wtf they had gotten into bed with. Even those allied with Rome started to rethink things. The others? Yeah, they started to get downright unruly.

But, hell, as long as the German tribes didn’t have a banner to rally around, it might blow over, right?



This is Arminius, or “Hermann the German”. Born around 17 or 18 BC, he was the son of the Cheruscan chief Segimerus. Because the Romans loved to take such sons and train them up in Roman military schools as part of their integration processes, Arminius had gotten the training of a military commander and attained Roman citizenship before he headed back home, apparently spewing with desire to kick in the faces of the Roman overlords. It’s that bearded chin: you can’t look like that without wanting to stud all over the place.

Maybe he just hated the Romans. Maybe he wanted to be king over all of the tribes. Whatever was going on in his head, Arminius contacted the Germanic tribes of the Cherusci, the Marsi, the Chatti, the Bructeri, the Chanci, and the Sicambri, and hatched the seeds of a cunning plan.


At face value, the scheme was delightfully straight-forward: report a fictitious “uprising” in territory unfamiliar to the Romans, lead them into a deadly ambush, jump out of the shadows with a skull-splitting “hulloooo!”, and curb-stomp the olive gnashers into a fine red puree.

But there were a couple of problems.

Firstly, the Roman legions were buzz-saws of righteous, military-precision, fury. Stand in front of one of these and you could be waving goodbye to your wedding tackle faster than Lorena Bobbitt’s husband after a stag party weekend at Vegas.

But this was all dependent on them having room to do their cohort-thing; Testudo? Not in the middle of a forest, buddy!

And herein lay the key to that particular dilemma: a 60 mile long patch of treant infested, vine-choked, hell that just happened to also be on very uneven ground. Welcome to the Teutoburg Wald. Also home to a large population of many different Germanic tribes, most of whom hostile to Rome.



Shank a Roman here and he’d be too busy trying to figure out how to get next to his buddy to actually stop you caving in his skull.


The second problem Arminius had, though, was in the form of tattle-tale snitches. You can’t just go around talking about your cunning plan, no matter how cunning it is, without running the risk of tipping your hand to the enemy.

You see, not all of the Germanic tribes got along together – as is the human nature – and remember I have already mentioned how some of them were outright allied to the Romans. So here you have a barbarian git … I mean, a glorious German nationalist … running around talking about how he was going to punch the Romans in the kisser; OF COURSE word got into the hands of someone who wasn’t down with the plan. This man was a rival chieftain, Segestes.


It’s uncanny how much he looked like Tom Hardy. But there you go, pictures don’t lie.

Segestes – whose daughter was married to Arminius – had a counter-plan: tell Publius Quinctilius Varus what was going on and watch the fireworks as the Roman forces bring down the righteous hammer of Pax-your-face-Romana.

Segestes: Oi, Varus, got news for you.

Varus: Indeed? Do share, oh noble chieftain.

Segestes: Arminius is planning on betraying you.

Varus: Nonsense!

Segestes: Uh … no … it’s true … he is going to ambu-

Varus: Pfft! He is a friend of Rome, we taught him all of our ways, he would never betray us!

Except Varus didn’t believe him. Segestes issued multiple warning and Varus didn’t believe one of them.

And pay heed of this, because this is where things start to unravel for the Romans.


During the summer of AD 9, Varus threw his legions around like a war flail made from barbarian skulls. All sorts of small rebellions were put down, so by the time winter started to approach, the three legions (the XVII, XVIII, and XIX), six independent cohorts of auxiliaries, and three squadrons of cavalry had earned themselves a bit of a rest.

Which was really fortunate timing, because various helpless communities scattered about the province all started to put in requests for Varus to put legionaries in them for the winter period … you know, protect them from robbers, escort provision trains, and that type of thing, you know? Not for the purpose of splitting up his forces with the intent of executing them, oh no … that would be just barbaric.

While Varus took the best part of 20,000 men and camp followers to his own winter quarters, he started to receive reports of even more uprisings … the sort of thing that needed his attention. Except these reports were a complete and utter fabrication by Arminius himself. Who then suggested that Varus and his legions should move through the unfamiliar Teutoburg Forest to accelerate the march.

What could possibly go wrong?



Segestes: No, really, Varus … Arminius is not to be trus-


Arminius: Thanks Varus, I love you. Say, I’m going to ride on out ahead of the legions and will gather some troops to help out, cool?

Varus: I love you, too. Sounds like a great plan. Don’t be long, miss you already! Bro bump!

Arminius: Psst, father-in-law, I have a jail cell with your name written all over it.

As Varus and his legions headed out, Arminius headed on out to “fetch more troops,” and, somewhere distant, all those little garrisons sprinkled across Germanic villages were butchered like dogs.


Arminius had left instructions with the Romans to make “a short detour”, a one- or two-day march, directly into the territory of the rebels. There was nothing but rudimentary trails meandering through farmsteads, fields, pastures, bogs, and forests. The Roman marching line was already eight miles long, but snaking its way along this “shortcut” it became even more extended.

Three legions, auxiliaries, and camp followers with carts aplenty, literally had to chop down trees, build roads, and lay down bridges.

The march became dangerously stretched out.


And then it started to rain. Not your piddly shit, either, I’m talking torrents of flesh shredding “the heavens have opened” wet-misery, accompanied with high winds as an extra slice of “sucks to be you.” It was as if the Germanic gods were in on the plan.

The ground became soggy, slippery, and treacherous. The extended march? Yeah, that was beginning to lose all semblance of anything military related. It was a loose migration of thousands of people generally ambling in the same direction.

And all around them the Germanic tribes started to surround them and close in.

But no worries, right? ‘cos Varus’ scouts would give him plenty of notice of incoming trouble.

Except Varus didn’t send out any scouts. He was marching blind.

The shit was about to hit the fan.



With fog, rain, trees, hills, and lord knows what else effectively rendering the stretched out Roman column completely oblivious to anything but their immediate surroundings, Arminius slipped away and joined the Germanic tribes. And then, recalling all of his knowledge of Roman tactics, he signaled the attack, driving the tribes exactly where he knew the column would be at its weakest and unable to effectively respond.

The German tribesmen slammed into the dispersed Romans and started to tear them up; lightly armed and armored, they could pick their timing, points, and peel away into the trees anytime. The Romans – their true strength being massed formations – were completely caught off guard and were too busy tripping over tree roots to actually do anything about it.


And the Germans didn’t stop in their attack all day.

It is amazing, that under these circumstances the Romans were able to construct a night camp as darkness fell, but it gave little respite. Men had thrown away or lost their gear in the fighting, plenty were without tents, campfires couldn’t be lit in the rain, and so with the cold creeping in, the rain falling, and thousands of howling barbarians all around them, the Romans tried to get some rest. Like that was going to be a thing.


The following morning, Varus gathered up his forces, gave them a pep talk, and admitted it was a completely messed up situation: it was time to head back out of the forest and to safety.

I kid, I kid! They pushed even deeper into the hell hole. But only after burning most of their wagons and non-essential supplies. And what screams “dude, you’re so screwed” more than a horde of barbarians trying to skewer your face from the woods? Doing it without your gear, that’s what!


Back into the forest the Romans plunged, and back to skull crushing went the German tribes. Losses were heavy for the embattled Roman forces, and the fighting was fierce. The German ranks had actually swollen overnight (“What? The Romans are not unbeatable after all? Let me at ‘em!”)


The third day dawned, and with it a heavy downpour and violent winds. I mean, jeez, could this get any more freaking miserable? Now the legionaries were unable to hurl pila or use their water logged shields. The situation was beyond hopeless.

Onwards the Romans pushed, losing men, equipment, and body parts along the way. But eventually, miraculously, they reached the valley of the Ems, where a former governor had constructed pontes longi between Ems and Lippe; an actual, full on, Roman road passing through surrounding swamps.



But the tribes and the Germanic gods were far, far from done with these guys.

Unfortunately for the Romans, Arminius had his men spending the nights cutting ditches through roads and felling trees to create only one distinct route the Romans could take. This route was lined with soldiers and earth walls. When Varus marched out of camp he unwittingly went straight through the path Arminius had set for him and met a dead end at the base of a hill.

The Romans were now utterly exhausted, which was the queue for the Germans to smash them with all of their weight. What happened next was an almost complete breakdown of the Roman army.

At one point a cavalry commander – Vala – thought “screw this for a lark!” and led his men on a mad charge for freedom, only to get swarmed by barbarians and hacked to pieces. I’d say “shit was out of control,” but in all truth it was never in control. This was a helpless mauling.

Vala Numonius, lieutenant of Varus, […] set a fearful example in that he left the infantry unprotected by the cavalry and in flight tried to reach the Rhine with his squadrons of horse. But fortune avenged his act, for he did not survive those whom he had abandoned, but died in the act of deserting them.


The Romans attempted to overcome the earthen wall, but they were either repulsed, or – if they did get to the other side – they quickly regretted it, were overwhelmed, and butchered into a hamburger meat.

So Varus grabbed two swords, wiped blood from his face, and charged into the surrounding barbarians, hacking apart the entire lot.

Nah, nah he didn’t.

He killed himself.

Yeah. He led his men into this clusterfuck and, seeing how screwed they were, he offed himself. What a guy.

You can only imagine what this did to morale.

Not surprisingly, plenty of Romans started to follow suit, but failed attempts at escape, or desperate bids to surrender started to sweep the Roman ranks.

And if you are now thinking “man, this is messed up!” well, you’d be correct, but it was also going to get nothing but worse.

A surrendering legionary found no sympathy in the German ranks, had his eyes gouged out and his mouth sewn shut; ‘cos, you know, “screw those Romans.”


Arminus, receiving the Roman’s surrender offer, called on his countrymen to stay their weapons. The command spread, and across the battlefield the fighting came to a halt and the din of battle subsided. Only the groans of the wounded could be heard, as all eyes turned to Arminius. Perhaps several hundred Romans still lived; on the command of the Varus’ successor, they threw down their weapons. Heavy chains were brought out by the Germans and the prisoners bound.

The centurions and thin-striped tribunes were separated from their men, then thrust into pits which the rank and file had been forced to dig. Realizing that the Germans planned painful deaths for them, junior tribune Caldus Caelius, ‘a young man worthy in every way of a long line of ancestors,’ took a section of the chain with which he was bound and crashed it down on his skull with all his might, causing instant death; with ‘both his brains and his blood gushing from the wound.’

He probably did the right thing.


Junior centurions were crucified in front of their men. Thin-striped tribunes and first-rank centurions were dragged away to sacred groves, where they were placed inside giant wicker cages in the shape of men. These cages were suspended over a feiry altar, and the victims were roasted alive.

And this is how the remaining officers of the 17th, 18th, and 19th legions died; roasted like game on a spit.

Caldus Caelius had the right idea, me thinks.

Losses for the Germans are estimated around 1,000. The Romans? 20,000. Only 1,000, led by camp prefect Caedicius, were able to escape.

The battle standards of the three annihilated legions – the eagles – fell into the hands of the Germans, a deeply humiliating act. Later Roman expeditions recovered two of the three standards late in the year 16, while the other was restored to the army in AD 42.

The shame and humiliation of the destruction of the XVII, XVIII, and XIX legions was so great, their numbers were removed from the Roman orders of battle, although it is a popular misconception that they were never reconstituted, and while this is true for the most part, the XVIII was actually re-used in later years.



Now, don’t get caught up in the rhetoric that over hypes this battle … I mean, “slaughter,” … as the Romans had lost before, would lose again, and had seen similar numbers in casualties (or even worse!). The Romans would even be back into Germania in later years to enact a very bloody revenge.

But …

Around 10 percent of the imperial army had been wiped out virtually overnight, and the myth of its invincibility had been utterly shattered. When news of this disaster reached Augustus back in Rome, he lost his shit; he tore his clothing to pieces, slammed his head against the walls of his palace, and screamed, “Quintili Vare! Legiones redde!” (Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions). Apparently for month he didn’t cut his hair and would often be heard muttering the same phrase over and over.

Roman bases in Germany were hastily abandoned, and Augustus – dreading Arminius would march on Rome – expelled Germans and Gauls from the city of Rome.

This carnage in Teutoburg Wald marked the empire reaching its limits, Rome accepted that some places were just not worth the hassle, and Germania would always keep some of her independence after this. This resulted in a militarized frontier in the middle of Europe that endured for 400 years, and it created a boundary between Germanic and Latin cultures that lasted much, much longer. Without this, almost all of modern Germany would have come under Roman rule. German, as a language, would have been marginalized, and Latin would have become more prominent towards the north; Saxons speaking Latin, anyone? The Thirty Years’ War might never have occurred, and the long, bitter conflict between the French and the Germans might never have been a thing.


This is the memorial to Centurion Marcus Caelius of the 18th Legion, and his two freedmen, who perished in the ambush of Varus’ legions in Germany. It is 54 inches high and shows a fierce looking Caelius, adorned with all of his military decorations and holding his centurion’s vine stick. On either side are his two servants, Privatus and Thiaminus. Both carry his name, indicating that they were freedmen. In all likelihood they also died at Teutoburg.

It was erected by Caelius’ brother beside the Rhine, with the request that if his bones were ever found they be laid to rest there. But Caelius’ whitening bones laid across the Rhine, on a silent, deserted battlefield in the Teutoburg Forest, indistinguishable from those of thousands of his fellow soldiers who had been left to rot by the victors of the battle. Caelius’ monument and his bones would never be reunited.



This has been a guest post by Alyssa Faden.  She writes an hilarious and excellent blog on all things military history at http://www.catchthispilum.com  If you enjoyed this, and I know I did, go check out her site!   ~ER

Some insight into The Black Death in Europe

Inspired by the Black Death, The Dance of Death or Danse Macabre, an allegory on the universality of death, was a common painting motif in the late medieval period.
Inspired by the Black Death, The Dance of Death or Danse Macabre, an allegory on the universality of death, was a common painting motif in the late medieval period.

Free from demographic disasters since the middle of the eighth century, Europe was ravaged from one end to the other by bubonic and related forms of plague, primarily from the years 1347-50. The plague subsequently settled in Europe (among the fleas of its rats, to be exact), recurring sporadically and locally in epidemic form until 1720. In the middle of the fourteenth century natural forces dealt the social order of medieval Latin Christendom a blow from which it never recovered.

A period of climatic irregularity seems to have occurred simultaneously, bringing with it agricultural disaster and resultant widespread and recurrent famine. The combination was too much for a civilisation whose ambitious superstructure rested on an economy that had not been developed far enough beyond the subsistence level. Although the greatest loss was in morale, the loss of manpower is easier to document:-

Florence, probably a city of 100,000 before the plague, had half that number of inhabitants after it, and did not regain its earlier population density until the second half of the eighteenth century. Rouen extended the circuit of its walls three times between 1150 and 1350, but did not again fill all the area within the widest circuit until the middle of the eighteenth century.

According to the best estimates, the kingdom of England contained 3,700,000 people before the Black Death, and only 2,200,000 thirty years afterwards; at the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the English population was still 500,000 short of the pre-plague total.

Other more local accounts show there died in Avignon in one day 1,312 persons, according to a count made for the pope, and another day 400 persons or more. At Montpellier there remained out of 140 friars only 7. There were left at Magdalena only 7 friars out of 160, at Marseilles, of a 150 friars there remained only 1.

The Black Death did not stop at humans though, noted in England is a great mortality of sheep everywhere in the Kingdom; in one place and in one pasture more than five thousand sheep died and became so putrefied that neither beast nor bird wanted to touch them. And the price of everything was cheap, because of their fear for death.

The consequences of the Black Death on a social and economic level were unprecedented. People abandoned their friends and family, fled cities, and shut themselves off from the world. Funeral rites became perfunctory or stopped altogether, and work ceased being done.

Some felt that the wrath of God was descending upon man, and so fought the plague with prayer. Some felt that they should obey the maxim, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die.” Faith in religion decreased after the plague, both because of the death of so many of the clergy and because of the failure of prayer to prevent sickness and death.

The economy underwent abrupt and extreme inflation. Since it was so difficult (and dangerous) to procure goods through trade and to produce them, the prices of both goods produced locally and those imported from afar skyrocketed, the price of wheat for example rose 150%. Because of illness and death workers became exceedingly scarce, so even peasants felt the effects of the new rise in wages. The demand for people to work the land was so high that it threatened the manorial holdings. Serfs were no longer tied to one master; if one left the land, another lord would instantly hire them. The lords had to make changes in order to make the situation more profitable for the peasants and so keep them on their land. In general, wages outpaced prices and the standard of living was subsequently raised.

In England the Ordnance of Labourers was introduced in 1349, this was followed up in 1351 with the Statutes of Labourers, these attempted to halt wage rises and ultimately stop the disintegration of the bottom rung of the feudal ladder which would have sent the whole deck of cards tumbling. They both had some success but ultimately the damage was done and the culmination of their unpopularity was one of the contributory factors to the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381.

It is very hard to underestimate either the scale of the Black Death of 1347-1350 or its impact on the decades and even centuries thereafter.

David Gest


King John at the Battle of Crecy by Josef Mathauser (1846-1917)
King John at the Battle of Crecy by Josef Mathauser (1846-1917)

Today the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg is best known as a financial, judicial and administrative centre of the European Union but during the Middle Ages the Counts of Luxembourg competed with the German Wittlesbachs and the Austrian Hapsburgs for control of the vast Holy Roman Empire. In 1312 Henry VII became the first Count of Luxembourg to wear the imperial crown and the marriage of his young son played an important part in Henry’s election.

In 1310, the 14 year old John of Luxembourg wed the 18 year old Elizabeth of Bohemia and by these diplomatic nuptials, Henry succeeded in depriving his rivals of vital territory at the heart of Europe. However, Henry had to take control of his daughter-in-law’s kingdom by force and the marriage was a disaster. Despite providing her husband with seven children (including the future Emperor Charles IV) they lived almost separate lives and in 1323 rumours of Elizabeth’s involvement in a plot against her husband began to circulate. Fearful for his crown, John kidnapped his three eldest children (Margaret, Bonne and Charles) and sent them to France. They never saw their mother again.

Though John succeeded in pacifying Bohemia, and even enlarged its boundaries, his treatment of Elizabeth did not endear him to his subjects. Always considered a foreigner by the Bohemian nobility, John wisely let viceroys govern his kingdom whilst he fought numerous campaigns in Denmark, Prussia, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania and even Italy. For ten years John of Bohemia was celebrated as the perfect example of a chivalrous knight errant but in 1336, whilst crusading in the Baltic with the German Teutonic Order, he contracted the ophthalmia which left him blind.

There were many who whispered that John’s blindness must be a punishment from God but on the outbreak of The Hundred Years War in 1337 he ignored these rumours, as well as his affliction, and declared that he’d fight for France. In the tenth year of the war the ageing king, together with his son Charles, joined the French army marching to meet the English invaders at Crecy but the subsequent battle ended in humiliating defeat for the French and among the dead was John the Blind. The medieval chronicler Froissart, writing around 1370, described his gloriously chivalric end:

“… when he [John] understood the order of the battle, he said to them about him: ‘Where is the lord Charles my son?’ His men said: ‘Sir, we cannot tell, we think he be fighting.’ Then he said: ‘Sirs, ye are my men, my companions and friends in this journey: I require you bring me so far forward, that I may strike one stroke with my sword.’ They said they would do his commandment, and to the intent that they should not lose him in the press, they tied all their reins of their bridles each to other and set the king before to accomplish his desire…”

The Chronicle of Prague [written slightly earlier in 1368] also quotes John as saying:

“Far be it that the King of Bohemia should run away. Instead, take me to the place where the noise of the battle is the loudest. The Lord will be with us. Nothing to fear. Just take good care of my son!”

Despite being totally blind for almost a decade, John of Bohemia charged the English archers and men-at-arms with predictable results. After the battle, his lifeless corpse was found surrounded by the bodies of his men and their horses – whose bridles were still tied together.

Always a restless soul, even after death John of Bohemia refused to lie peacefully in his tomb. At first the king’s mortal remains were interred in Luxembourg city’s ‘Old Abbey’ and after this monastery was destroyed in 1543, his bones were moved to the ‘New Abbey’ built nearby. During the French Revolution, the relics were entrusted to the Boch family, of Villeroy & Boch fame, who hid them in an attic. When, in 1833, the Prussian king Frederick William III visited the Rhineland (which had been awarded to Prussia after the Napoleonic Wars) Jean-Francois Boch presented him with the relics.

Frederick William, who claimed descent from John, took the bones to Kastel-Staadt, which lies on the German side of the border with Luxembourg, and had a chapel specially built to house them but still the old king could not rest in peace. In 1945, with Hitler’s Germany on the verge of defeat, the government of Luxembourg quietly liberated John of Bohemia and brought his remains to Luxembourg city’s Notre Dame Cathedral where they now lie.


Sources available on request

FROM CONSTANTINOPLE TO BARBADOS (VIA CORNWALL) -The strange fate of the last Byzantines

Picture Credits  1. The Barbados Pocket Guide.Com 2. Notes on Old Landulph Church by The Rev J H Adams (pub. 1930) 3. Westminster Abbey Library
Picture Credits
1. The Barbados Pocket Guide.Com
2. Notes on Old Landulph Church by The Rev J H Adams (pub. 1930)
3. Westminster Abbey Library

On the 29th of May 1453 Constantine XI Palaeologus, last Emperor of the Byzantines, died fighting the Ottoman Turks besieging his capital. With his death, the 1,000 year history of the Eastern Roman Empire came to an end but not all the imperial family perished in the Fall of Constantinople.
Some of the surviving Palaeologus clan ended up in Italy and in the late 1570s, a young man calling himself Theodore Palaeologus was banished from the Adriatic city of Pesaro after becoming mixed up in a murderous vendetta. Theodore, who claimed descent from the last Byzantine emperor’s brother, then vanishes from sight for several years but he reappears on the Greek Island of Chios, where he married the Byzantine princess Eudoxia Comnenus. In 1594 a daughter (Theodora) was born to this royal couple but Eudoxia must have died soon afterwards because in the late 1590s Theodore pops up in the Netherlands.

Like many landless princes, Theodore often fought as a mercenary and on this occasion he’d sold his sword to the English army helping Dutch rebels overthrow their Spanish-Hapsburg overlords. There’s also strong evidence that Theodore was part of Elizabeth I’s highly effective spy network where the skills he’d learned as a Pesaresi bravo (the original Italian word ‘bravo’ could mean ‘paid assassin’) must have come in handy.

Despite the unsavoury nature of his work, life with the English must have suited Theodore because, on May 1st 1600, he married a wealthy Suffolk heiress named Mary Ball. He continued to serve his adopted country well into the 1620s but, as the years began to take their toll, he tried to find a post better suited to a man of his age. In a letter dated 9th March 1628, Theodore asks the Duke of Buckingham (a favourite of both James I and Charles I) to find him a position and reminds the noble duke of the ‘good service’ he’d performed for the Prince of Orange as well as his own royal pedigree.

Though Buckingham was himself assassinated in August 1628, Theodore found another patron in his old comrade-in-arms Sir Nicholas Lower and he spent a comfortable retirement in the Cornish village of Landulph near Saltash. He lived at Clifton, Sir Nicholas’ manor house, and died peacefully in 1636. Theodore was survived by three sons and three daughters: his daughter with Eudoxia married a Greek prince in 1614 but his sons with Mary (Theodore II, John and Ferdinand) soon became embroiled in the bitter struggle between Charles I and his parliament.

During the English Civil War [1642-1651] many brothers found themselves in opposing armies and Theodore II, John and Ferdinand Palaeologus were no exception. Despite the royal blood in his veins, Theodore II became a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Parliamentarian Army and served under Oliver, Lord St John. He fought at the battle of Edgehill and, when he was killed in the spring of 1644, Oliver arranged to have his friend’s body interred in the St John family vault inside Westminster Abbey!

By contrast, Theodore II’s brothers joined the Royalist forces and fought with a regiment commanded by a relative of their late father’s benefactor. John was killed at the Battle of Naseby [1645] but, after Charles I’s defeat and execution, Ferdinand escaped to his maternal grandfather’s estates in Barbados. He arrived in 1649 and died thirty years later a prosperous and respected planter. Ferdinand was survived by his son, Theodore III, and he’d left his two sisters behind in England – so what became of them?

A plaque in Landulph’s parish church of St Leonard & St Dilpe chronicles the pedigree of Theodore’s family and records that ‘Maria’ died unmarried in 1674. Dorothy however married William Arundell of St Mellion and died in 1681 but, after this, the English Palaeologus begin to fade from history.

Following the death of his father Ferdinand, Theodore III served in the English navy as a privateer (a sort of licensed pirate) but he was lost at sea c.1694. A few years later, a grandson of Theodora (daughter of Theodore I and Eudoxia) had his claim to the throne of the Byzantine Emperors recognised by the British Government but despite this diplomatic success he died in obscurity.

In the 19th Century, during the Greek War of Independence [1821-1829], the Provisional Government in Athens sent representatives to Cornwall and the Caribbean to search for the descendants of Theodore I. Sadly they found no trace of the ancient Palaeologus bloodline, and the Crown of the Hellenes was offered to a Bavarian prince, but in 2007 a group of Greek Orthodox priests came to Landulph and celebrated Vespers in Theodore’s honour.


Sources available on request

Infanticide in England

The rise of infanticide in early modern England was a result of limited options and lack of support for unmarried mothers. With the rise of foundling hospitals and a support system for unmarried mothers, the fall of infanticide cases was inevitable. Women not under control of a male householder were considered potential leaches on society; neighbors were often encouraged to police the single woman around them, not only to watch their activities but also to watch the curve of their bellies. Women that found themselves in the care of midwives that often denied help during labor until they named the father of their child, the man that is to be held financially responsible for the bastard.

In the northern circuit courts, ninty percent of all persons charged in infanticide cases were women and of those women charged, nighty present of those were single, unmarried and rarely widows. Of the 430 cases heard at the Old Bailey from 1674 to 1913, 422 were female. Only 168 came back with guilty verdicts and 67 of those received a death sentence. There was a great reluctance to hang women during this period and only a quarter of those condemned to death ever met the hangman. Such was the case in 1595 when Margery Preston was convicted of killing but not murdering her infant; reprieves and pardons were more common with infanticide than any other homicide perpetrated by a woman.

In a 1576 a statute was enacted to prevent a parish from carrying the economic burden of a bastard born within, a result of the common practice of shifting a woman in labor from one parish to another to place the burden on another. This statute could prosecute both men and women for infanticide, but often because women were easier to recognize by their growing bellies or production of breast milk more often prosecuted for their crime. A 1610 statute added the additional punishment for women carrying bastards to serve out one year in a house of corrections.12512391_243996539275769_3937604087759266550_n

By 1624, infanticide caused the first major official act to prevent the murdering of bastard infants and made concealing the pregnancy itself a crime. Before the 1624 statute the judge would need proof that the child was born alive and then murdered by the mother. The 1624 statute changed that and now it was assumed that the child was born alive and then murdered to conceal its birth, unless there was witnesses to the birth that the child was stillborn.

The year 1741 saw the rise of foundling hospitals, given a new option for their infant and with a no questions asked policy for any infants that were taken in, the number of infanticide cases was nearly halved. With community support for unmarried women that found themselves with child, the option of killing to conceal pregnancy was moved further down the list. By 1767 the first lying in hospitals that assisted unmarried women during birth and post-natal care for her and the infant, including clothing for the child opened, bringing in yet another option with the help of a support system.

The rise and fall of infanticide in Early Modern England was influence by the legislation of the day as well as alternatives that became more and more available to unmarried mothers.


Sources available on request