The Spanish Dancer and the King

Lola Montez (1847), painted by Joseph Karl Stieler for Ludwig I of Bavaria and his Schönheitengalerie

In a previous post, we took a look at the life of Ludwig, the Mad King of Bavaria.  (Please see this post:  He was not the only odd ball in the Wittelsbach family.   The grandfather for which he was named had a distinctly overbearing personality and an obsession beautiful actresses.  Ludwig came to the throne at the age of thirty-nine and cut a rather unimpressive figure.  He was known as a stingy eccentric, who liked to wander the streets of Munich dressed in threadbare clothes and carrying a broken umbrella.  As previously mentioned, he loved beautiful women and courted a string of women to whom he wrote reams of bad poetry.  His first wife, Queen Theresa, was a notable beauty, however, he preferred to find his muses outside of his marriage.  At his palace in Nymphenburg, he decorated the walls with thirty-six portraits of women he found attractive.  These ranged from chambermaids to nobility, even just women he passed on the street and was drawn to.  Sadly, when it came to actresses, Ludwig usually disappointed as instead of giving them something pretty and highly pawnable he gave them his own bad poetry.  I’m sure that is exactly what they were looking for.

King Ludwig I, c1860. source: Wikipedia

Ludwig met his match in raven haired and tempestuous, Lola Montez.  Lola was born Maria Dolores Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in County Sligo, Ireland.  She claimed to be descended from Spanish Royalty through her Moorish mother, but this was a dubious claim at best.  She was educated in Britain and France, but spent a significant amount of time in India after she eloped with an army lieutenant  They divorced and she hit the London stage billed as Lola Montez, the Spanish Dancer in June 1843.  She was booed off the stage as she was recognized as an army wife.  For anyone less determined and single minded this would have been the end of the story.  Not Lola.  She retreated to the continent and won fame for her beauty and celebrity and her trademark “Tarantula Dance”.  There she had a string of affairs with the notables of the day, and usually they did not end well.  She could include among her lovers Franz Liszt, Alexandre Dumas and a French journalist Dujarrier.  When Dujarrier was killed in a duel, he left Lola 20,000 francs so she was rather well set.  Except, Lola liked the high life and she needed more cash.  On to Bavaria and an audition at the State Theater.  At the audition she was told her dancing might cause offence to the extremely moral theater manager.  Not taking no for an answer, Lola stormed to the palace and demanded an audience to plead her case to Ludwig himself.  Ludwig was a sucker for beauty.  Legend says she cut her bodice strings with a letter opener and exposed her breasts when Ludwig asked if they were real.  Apparently they passed muster as the sixty year old king was instantly smitten with the twenty-five year old dancer.  

Lola remained on the Munich stage for only two performances, then was whisked away for her primary role as mistress to the king.  It was a good thing he was a king because he was as ugly as Lola was beautiful.  He had never cut a dashing figure, but in his old age he had gotten worse.  He lost his hair and his teeth and a large cyst in the middle of his forehead.  However, Lola gritted her teeth and though of England as it were.  Ludwig had her portrait painted and added to his collection at Nymphenburg.  Ludwig showered her with gifts, a castle, money and even made her the Baroness Rosenthal and Countess of Landsfield.  Decisions of state were subject to Lola’s opinion, and the cabinet at that time were called the “Lolaministerium”.  Lola did not endear herself to anyone else but the king.  She had a habit of boxing the ears or even horse whipping anyone who displeased her.  She carried around a huge bulldog wherever she went and swore voraciously.  The papers of the day called her “the Apocalyptic Whore”.  She had to go.

Matter came to a head and an angry mob demanded she leave the country.  Ludwig tried to brave it out, but no one was having it.  Lola had to go and was banished from the country.  Ludwig was forced to abdicate in favor of his son.  Lola went on to more adventures in both England and America, after a succession of marriage died of pneumonia a month before her 40th birthday.  Ludwig never saw Lola again, but did continue to send her poetry through the mail.  Lucky her.


St. Patrick’s Day

History_St_Patricks_Day_Shamrocks_SF_re1_HD_still_624x352Everyone has heard of St. Patrick.  The patron saint of Ireland who drove the snakes from the island.  However, the famous Irish saint was not even Irish by birth.  It is thought that he was born in Scotland, England, Wales or even on the coast of France around 385 CE.  He wasn’t named Patrick either.  It is thought his original name was Maewyn or Succat.  When he was sixteen, a group of Irish pirates sacked his village and took him for a slave.  As a slave shepherd in Ireland, he turned to the religion of his youth- Roman Catholicism.  He eventually escaped and studied in a monastery in France under St. Germain, bishop of Auxerre, and took the name Patrick as his Christian name.  He journeyed back to Ireland as a priest under St. Palladius, and when Palladius went on to Scotland became Ireland’s second bishop.  The Celtic Church flourished.  (For more on this, please read this post: )  

Many miracles and events were attributed to Patrick, and his life is shrouded in myth and legend.  He is said to have kindled fire from snow, raised the dead and preached a sermon that drove all the snakes from Ireland.  However, it is thought this reference to snakes is metaphorical.  “Snakes” in this case were the Druids and pagans.  “Driving them away” is thought to have merely driven them underground or out of Ireland to murdering them.  The most famous legend about St. Patrick links him to the shamrock.  A shamrock is small green plant with three leaves on one stem.  Legend has it that Patrick was explaining the trinity to a group of converts and they were struggling to understand.  Looking for a teaching tool, Patrick picked up the small plant and said for them to think of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as the three leaves on the plant.  They were separate, but together on one stem, which represented the single Godhead.  March 17 is his death day, and eventually became his feast day, which is what is celebrated.

How did the feast day of an Irish saint become such a celebrated holiday?  People in Ireland began celebrating St. Patrick’s feast day as early as the 9th and 10th century CE.  However, it was nothing more than another Church holiday.  St. Patrick’s Day did not even get a parade until the late 18th century, and the first one was in the United States not in Ireland.  In 1762, Irish soldiers serving in the English military marched through New York City on St. Patrick’s Day.  They played Irish music and sang Irish songs.  Over the next 35 years, the parade continued.  There are records of George Washington giving his Irish soldiers a day off to participate.  As time went on, the parades were sponsored by Irish Aid societies such as the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick and the Hibernian Society even though there was plenty of prejudice against the Irish immigrants who participated.  In 1848 at the height of Irish immigration to the United States, several Irish Aid societies combined their parades into one large one to form the official New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  This was conceived as an act of rebellion against “nutty people who didn’t like the Irish very much”.  Catholics and Protestants marched together to “show how many there were of them”.  This parade grew into the largest worldwide St. Patrick’s Day parade.St._Patrick's_Day_greetings

The color green was not originally the color used for the holiday.  The original color was a light blue, and can be seen on ancient Irish flags and on flags and armbands used by the Irish Citizen Army.  This group tried to end British rule in 1916 with the Easter Rising.  However, as early as 1798 green was being associated with Irish nationalism to differentiate Ireland from the blues and red used by England, Wales and Scotland.  It also represented the lush green fields of Ireland.  Green became so popular that it eventually eclipsed the original blue badges altogether.

Green food may be considered something fun in the US for St. Patrick’s Day parties, but it really harkens back to an extremely dark time in Irish history.  During the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, starvation was not out of the common way.  Millions of Irish fled their homeland to the United States and elsewhere to find a better life.  Those that stayed tried to survive and resorted to desperate measures.  Christine Kinealy is the founding director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.  She said, “People were so deprived of food that they resorted to eating grass.  In Irish folk memory, they talk about people’s mouths being green as they died.”  Corned beef wasn’t an Irish dish either.  Cows were considered a symbol of wealth in Gaelic Ireland, and kept mainly for milk.  Meat was generally pork and not beef.  However, when the English invaded they brought their love of beef to the island, and corned beef was born.  

So something to think about as you eat your corned beef and cabbage and drink your green beer.


Twelfth Night and Nollaig na mBan

yule-log-historyTraditionally, the Christmas season lasted from Christmas Day on the 25th to January 5, and there was a celebration and a holiday for each one.  These were typically in honor of a specific saint.  In medieval Europe, the Christmas holidays were:

  • Day 1 (25th December): Christmas Day, which celebrated the birth of Jesus
  • Day 2 (26th December): St Stephen’s Day.
  • Day 3 (27th December): St John the Apostle.
  • Day 4 (28th December): The Feast of the Holy Innocents.  This celebrated the babies killed by Herod in his search for Jesus
  • Day 5 (29th December): St Thomas Becket.
  • Day 6 (30th December): St Egwin of Worcester.
  • Day 7 (31st December): New Year’s Eve  also known as Hogmanay in Scotland.
  • Day 8 (1st January): Mary, the Mother of Jesus
    Day 9 (2nd January): St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen
  • Day 10 (3rd January): Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. The celebration of the “name day”, where Jesus is formally named in the Temple.
  • Day 11 (4th January): Saint Simon Stylites
  • Day 12 (5th January): Epiphany Eve

A huge party was given on the night of the twelfth day of Christmas called Twelfth Night because no one was very original.  This marked the end of winter and was a modern day Saturnalia where rich and poor exchanged roles.  A huge cake was baked made which was loaded with rich treats like eggs, butter, fruit, nuts and spices.  A modern cake that approximates the Twelfth Night cake is the Italian Panettone.  Inside the cake, a pea and a bean was baked.  Anyone who received the slices containing the bean or the pea was considered the king or queen of that night and would have good luck the whole year.  This is very similar to King Cake at Mardi Gras. (

There was general partying and mayhem.  As with Saturnalia, servants were served by their masters and the roles were very relaxed.  Pantomimes and plays which tweaked authority were popular entertainments.  In these plays, cross dressing was the norm, with the “Dame” being played by a man and the male lead being played by a woman.  To lead the revels, a Lord of Misrule was elected.  This office began as a “boy bishop” and morphed into the “Lord of Misrule” in England and the “Abbot of Unreason” in Scotland and the “Prince des Sots” in France.  This was usually a peasant or someone of lower social standing.  This started as a fairly innocent tradition where the “boy bishop” presided over a processions and church ritual.  This progressed to games that were less innocent and in 1523 at London’s Inns of Court a “Lord of Misrule” was responsible for a

When everyone woke up the next morning, they were tired, probably hung over and generally crabby.  Probably most of all the women as they had been responsible for the logistics of the celebrations, making the rich Twelfth Night cake and all other other food for the feasts along with all their other household chores.  From this Nollaig na mBan was born.

Technically, January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany, the celebration of when the wise men arrived at the manger in Bethlehem to worship the baby Jesus.  It is also the first day Christmas decorations can safely be taken down without risking bad luck.  Any holly displayed was burnt.  Nollaig na MBan is celebrated on this date in Ireland, and translates to “Women’s Christmas”.  It was a well deserved rest for Irish women after the busy season of Christmas.  

It was tradition for women to sneak away for impromptu gatherings in their homes or in local pubs to enjoy their free time.  This was the only time a lady would feel comfortable in the traditionally male domain of a pub.  Any pocket money left over from the year’s budget or from sales of produce at the Christmas market was spent on treats at Nollaig na mBan.  It was never an elaborate celebration.  Mostly tired women putting up their feet with a nice cup of tea and chatting over a bit of cake or biscuit while the men folks minded the kids.  Children also bought their mothers and grandmothers gifts on Nollaig na mBan.

There was a joke in an Irish Times article saying, “Even God rested on the seventh day, Irish women didn’t stop until the twelfth!”  Having Irish women in my family, I can attest to this fact!


The Naughty Hellfire Club

sfc11211920cropPrince Regent:   Last night, I was having a bit of a snack at the Naughty Hellfire Club, and some fellow said I had the wit and sophistication of a donkey.

Blackadder:   Oh, an absurd suggestion, sir.

Prince Regent:   You’re right. It is absurd.

Blackadder:  Unless, of course, it was a particularly stupid donkey.

If you are like me and a fan of the greatest television show in the entire world-  Blackadder- you will have heard them make mention of the “Naughty Hellfire Club”.  This was not a fictional club, but the name of several actual organizations which existed in the mid 18th century.  Were they actually “naughty”?  Well, that depends on who you ask.

“Hellfire Club” was the name for several exclusive clubs established in Britain and Ireland during the 18th century.  These were exclusively for high society gentlemen who wished to take part in activities that were not acceptable in polite society.  This could be anything from politics to heavy drinking.  The first Hellfire Club was established in London in 1718 by Philip, Duke of Wharton for his high society friends.  Whilst there, Wharton and his friends would ridicule religion and poke fun at the seriousness of English society.  Surprisingly, ladies were treated as equals and given full membership alongside male members.  The president of the club was called “the Devil” and the members called themselves “devils” as well.  Wharton’s political enemies put an end to the club in 1721 accusing them of “horrid impieties”.  The worst we have documented was they had feasts where they named the dishes “scandalous” names, such as “Holy Ghost Pie”, “Breast of Venus”, and “Devil’s Loin”.

However, the most notorious Hellfire Club was The Knights of St. Francis of Wycombe, which was founded by Sir Francis Dashwood around 1749.  Dashwood was active in the Dilettanti Society and the Divan Club, for gentlemen who had an interest in classical art and those who had visited the Ottoman Empire.  The Hellfire Club was a natural progression out of these organizations.  Like many gentlemen of means at that time, Dashwood went on a Grand Tour of Italy.  While there, he developed a virulent antipathy towards the Roman Catholic Church.  To demonstrate his disdain, Dashwood had himself painted in several poses unflattering to the Church.  He had himself painted as a Franciscan monk, as Pope Pontius VII toasting a statue of Venus and again as a monk leering at a nude of Venus.

The original meeting place of the club was a London pub, the George and Vulture.  However, meetings soon outgrew the pub and Dashwood leased

Banqueting Cave
Banqueting Cave

Medmenham, a 13th century Cistercian abbey, near his home in West Wycombe.  He rebuilt it as the clubhouse of the Hellfire Club and carved “Fay ce que voudras” or “Do what thou wilt” over the door. And that is exactly what the members expected to do.  Underneath the abbey, there were caves where the meetings took place.  No one is quite sure what went on at the meetings or even how often they met, but there are a few contemporary accounts which give us a tantalizing glimpse.  Apparently at least twice a year, there was a chapter meeting, which was invitation only.  A costume was required, but no one is quite sure what that was.  A book published in 1779 called Nocturnal Revels describes the meetings, “’They however always meet in one general sett at meals, when, for the improvement of mirth, pleasantry, and gaiety, every member is allowed to introduce a Lady of cheerful lively disposition, to improve the general hilarity. Male visitors are also permitted, under certain restrictions, their greatest recommendation being their merit wit and humour. There is no constraint with regard to the circulation of the glass, after some particular toasts have been given: The Ladies, in the intervals of their repasts, may make select parties among themselves, or entertain one another, or alone with reading, musick, tambour-work, etc.  The salt of these festivities is generally purely attic, but no indelicacy or indecency is allowed to be intruded without a severe penalty; and a jeu de mots must not border too much upon a loose double entendre to be received with applause.”  However, as the ceremonies went on the ladies were to consider themselves the lawful wives of the brethren during their stay within the walls.  Well, we all know what husbands and wives do….  They also indulged in mock religious ceremonies as their was an “Abbot” in charge of the club who was elected each year.

Some of the notables who passed within the walls of the Hellfire Club included:

Sir Francis Dashwood, Lord le Despencer
Paul Whitehead, Poet and Steward
The Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty
Lord Melcombe Regis, Politician
Sir Thomas Stapleton of Greys, near Henley
Sir William Stanhope, MP for Buckinghamshire
Thomas Potter, son of the Archbishop of Canterbury
Sir John Dashwood-King, MP and Landowner
Dr Thomas Thompson, Physician to the Prince of Wales
Francis Duffield, owner of Medmenham Abbey
John Tucker, MP for Weymouth
John orris, MP & don at Magdalen College, Oxford
Arthur Vansittart, of Shottesbrooke Park, MP
Sir Henry Vansittart, Governor of Bengal and MP for Reading
Robert Vansittart, Regius Professor of Civil Law at Oxford
Charles Churchill, Poet
Robert Lloyd, Poet
George Selwyn, MP
John Wilkes, MP
Sir John Aubrey, MP
Dr Benjamin Bates of Aylesbury
William Hogarth, Painter
John Hall Stevenson
Edward Lovibond
Mr Clarke of Henley
Dr John Morton, MP
Richard Hopkins, MP
Sir John Russell

Even Benjamin Franklin was said to have been a club guest at one of their soirees.   The club began to die out  in the early 1770’s as the members began to die off.  However, in its heyday it was certainly scandalous, but probably a lot of fun.


Sources available on request

Theft of the Irish Crown Jewels

strangecasecrownjewelsThe Order of St. Patrick was created in 1783 by George III as a corresponding association to the English Order of the Garter.  The king was the head and Sovereign of the Order; and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland was the Grand Master in the absence of the Sovereign.  At ceremonies the Sovereign or the Grand Master wore a jeweled insignia.  In 1831, William VI replaced the insignia with a more elaborate one.   394 stones were taken from English crown jewels and the Order of the Garter star.   Rumor had it Queen Charlotte donated the jewels because they belonged to her husband’s mistress, but no matter.

The Honours of St. Patrick consisted of two principal pieces–the star and the badge.  The Badge of St. Patrick was made of blue enamel with a green shamrock of emeralds.  The motto of the Order was spelled pink diamonds from Brazil of the first water.  The badge was completed by a cross of rubies.  The Star of St. Patrick consisted of Brazilian diamonds with eight star-points with a central shamrock made of emeralds and a cross of rubies in the centre on a background of blue enamel.  The set was rounded out by three collars and badges belonging to the Knights of St Patrick as well as two silver state maces, the Irish Sword of State, a jewelled sceptre and two massive silver spurs.

When the jewels were not being worn, they were in the custody of the Ulster King of Arms.  In 1903, the jewels were transferred to a safe, which was to be placed in the newly constructed strongroom in Dublin Castle beside the Ulster King of Arms’ office.  Unfortunately, the safe was too large to fit into the strongroom so if it was left in the Ulster King of Arms office.  Arthur Vicars was the Ulster King of Arms had both keys in his possession.  On July 6, 1907, a cleaning lady came into straighten up the office.  The door and safe were open and jewels were gone.

Apparently at that time, Dublin Castle was party central.  In fact, Vicars was found dead drunk with the insignia around his neck after one hard drinking gathering.  A crowd of “undesirables” were involved in these parties.  These include Captain Richard Gorges, sent home from the Boer War for molesting drummer boys, Francis Shackleton, a cash-poor swindler well-known for frequenting the wrong type of gentleman’s club. There was Lord Haddo, the party boy son of the then viceroy, the king’s official representative in Ireland, and Francis Bennett-Goldney, revealed as a master thief after his death.  Rumors went round during the investigations they were all involved in gay orgies.  Shackleton was rumored to be lover of the king’s brother-in-law.  This was not long after Oscars Wilde had been in a significant scandal after being called a sodomite by the Marquis of Queensbury.  The king was in a panic.  The investigation had to be stopped before any skeletons popped up.

Vicars took the fall.  He was not arrested, but lost his position.  All files were destroyed.  Shakelton and Gorges were asked to leave Ireland.  Vicars went to his grave protesting his innocence.  He was killed by the IRA in 1921.

Theories abound as to what happened to the jewels.  Some say Shakelton stole them and sold them to finance his explorer brother, Ernest’s, polar expedition.  Vicars smuggled it to his mistress.  Even that the IRA stole them and took them to the US.  In 1976, a file of the Irish government that was opened to the public for the first time contained the following intriguing memorandum, dated 1927:

‘The President would not like them [the jewels]to be used as a means of reviving the Order [of St. Patrick]or to pass into any hands other than those of the State . . . He understands that the Castle Jewels are for sale and that they could be got for £2,000 or £3,000. He would be prepared to recommend their purchase for the same reason.”

This leaves the possibility open they may still be out there