You married King Who?

On August 24 of 1200, Bad King John married his second wife, Isabella of Angoulême. You have to feel sorry for anyone to whom such a thing would happen, especially if she was 12 at the time (she was). When reading about someone as wicked and inept as John I always wonder about the poor woman stuck with him, whether she’s secretly giving him good advice he won’t take, giving him bad advice and egging him on, or just trying to go about her own life and avoid him insofar as possible. But in Isabella’s case she seems to have made the worst of it.

John’s first wife was also an Isabella, a.k.a. Countess of Gloucester. And if you think it’s confusing that they’re both called Isabella try the fact that the Gloucester one was also known as Isabelle, Hawise, Joan, and Eleanor and sure, who among us wouldn’t greet an Isabella with “Howdy, Hawise”? She and John were both great-grandchildren of Henry I, in her case via one of his literally dozens of illegitimate children. As a result, though they were married in 1189, the Archbishop of Canterbury declared the marriage null because they were too closely related, but Pope Clement III said they could marry, just not do sex relations.

John being John, he busied himself bothering other women (yes, despite being a creepy loser he was apparently forever bedding barons’ wives and others) and shortly after becoming king in 1199 had the marriage annulled but kept Isabella’s lands. He would. And apparently she did not contest the annulment, probably thinking herself lucky.

So on to Isabella 2. John married her less than a year later despite the fact that she was betrothed to Hugh IX, Count of Lusignan, infuriating French King Philip II who confiscated all John’s and Isabella’s French lands leading to another war John “Lackland” a.k.a. “Softsword” lost. Apparently the king was genuinely infatuated with his dazzling if very young bride, who in turn seemed well-matched in the sense of having the same sort of explosive temper and propensity for malevolent scheming.

She bore John five children once she was old enough to do so including the future Henry III. And when John croaked she swiftly had him crowned, using her own golden circlet as the hapless John had recently lost the royal crown and the rest of his treasure in the Wash (it’s a river, not the laundry). Then she dumped him on the regent, the outstanding William Marshal, and went back to France to grab Angoulême back.

Trouble promptly ensued. Isabella and John’s daughter Joan had been meant to marry Hugh X of Lusignan, son of Isabella’s former fiancée and now Count of La Marche. But Isabella began batting her dazzling blue eyes at Hugh and before you knew it he’d married his fiancée’s mother and dad’s old flame.

This caused outrage in England, where they had a thing about people marrying into the royal line without approval of the king’s council. So they seized all her dower lands and stopped her pension. So she and Hugh threatened to keep Joan, now promised to King Alexander II of Scotland, prisoner in France. Henry III wrote scathingly to the Pope asking that his own mother be excommunicated (or at least signed a scathing letter drafted by his council) along with her beau. But eventually geopolitically cooler heads prevailed and to avoid trouble with Scotland the council compensated her for her confiscated lands and pension.

Isabella went on to have nine more children, with Hugh X. So I guess that sort of worked out. But Isabella couldn’t cope with being less socially prominent in France as a Countess than a Queen mother and after been snubbed by the French Queen mother who Isabella already hated for some small matter of having tried to put her own son Louis on the English throne instead of Isabella’s Henry (the one who wanted her excommunicated), she started conspiring against Louis, now King Louis IX of France, even persuading Henry III to invade Normandy then not showing up with the promised help. After Hugh X reconciled with the French king, two royal cooks were arrested and under “interrogation” admitted Isabella had paid them to poison Louis. So she fled to Fontevraud Abbey and conveniently died.

Eventually Henry III at least managed to get her body moved indoors, next to his grandfather Henry II and his dazzling if scary wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. Most of her other kids decided they’d live longer in England and sought refuge with Henry III.

Now I do not know for sure what might have become of Isabella if she hadn’t become John’s wife, especially at such a young age. But she gives a rather strong impression of having been a suitable wife for that wretched monarch.

I don’t mean that in even remotely a good way.


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And that’s an argument against it?

The Daily Telegraph reports a warning from Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Loefven that if Britain cuts corporate taxes it will make its discussions with the European Union over a Brexit “more difficult.” He insists that his own country will keep taxing heavily and spending (no, sorry, “investing”) because “Tax cuts are not the future.” Dude, the whole point of the Brexit is that Britain won’t have to keep implementing bad policy because European politicians condescendingly tell them to.

It’s even odd that Loefven believes the EU has leverage to dictate policy to a member whose citizens have voted to leave, let alone that threatening to will make them less determined to get away from such things.

Oh, and while I’m on the subject, the Telegraph also notes (you have to read down a bit in the story) that, as if deliberately seeking further to persuade Britons that the Brexit vote was a good idea, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker wants all EU members to open their borders entirely in a gesture of solidarity with the refugees now causing EU members to tighten border controls. Juncker went so far as to say “Borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians” which is a mind-boggling fatuity given the horrors governments have inflicted on people from tax rates over 100% to concentration camps. I know, I know, you’re not meant to end every discussion by invoking Hitler. But in this case Juncker’s claim invites the retort from Bertrand de Jouvenel that, as Milton Friedman recounts it, “said he had always been an ardent advocate of world government until the day he crossed the border into Switzerland ahead of the pursuing Nazis.”

Borders exist to protect people from the excesses of big government, from the petty to the ghastly. And Britain is correct to assert within its own the right to have tax policy that favours private initiative over a smothering state.

Hence the Brexit. Obviously.




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Wish I’d said that – August 23, 2016

“[A] good moral character is the first essential in a man, and that the habits contracted at your age are generally indelible, and your conduct here may stamp your character through life. It is therefore highly important that you should endeavor not only to be learned but virtuous.”

George Washington in a letter to his nephew George Steptoe Washington, 5 December 1790, quoted by The Patriot Post “Founder’s Quote Daily” Dec. 21, 2005


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Why the Jews of Frankfurt and elsewhere?

Frankfurt city map 1628, showing the curved Judengasse. (Wikipedia)

Frankfurt city map 1628, showing the curved Judengasse. (Wikipedia)

On this date in history Germans attacked Jews. Not for the first time and not for the last. Nor is it just Germans. What’s going on here?

The specific incident I have in mind was the August 23 expulsion of the Jews of Frankfurt following an attack on the Frankfurt “Judengasse” or “Jews’ alley” during the “Fettmilch Rising” of 1614. This uprising named for its leader Vinz Fettmilch was, of course, the boiling over of a simmering quarrel between the local guilds and the hoity-toity “Patricians” running Frankfurt and, apparently, running it rather badly.

As you can see, this has nothing to do with Jews. So let’s go get them.

In 1613 the patricians had granted the Fettmilchians or whatever they were called more power in urban affairs. What the guilds wanted was cheaper grain and cheaper money and of course restrictions on Jews. There were over 450 Jewish families and well I mean obviously that… uh… that… Besides, the Jews were moneylenders and of course everyone wants there to be money to borrow but it’s an outrage when you’re meant to pay it back as you promised.

Arguably I digress. The point is that when the guilds got more rights in the affairs of Frankfurt it included discovering that the city government had, of all things, been spending beyond its means and quietly piling up debts. In the process it had misappropriated the Jewish Tax. Why those no good Jews, they let money unfairly taken from them be misspent by the people who unfairly took it. Out with them.

Literally. The mob attacked the ghetto on August 22, drove off the defenders at its barricades after several hours’ fighting, forced the inhabitants into the local cemetery, plundered and wrecked their houses and then forced them to leave the city.

If there’s a bright side to this story, it’s that the Holy Roman Emperor was mighty displeased with Fettmilch and his supporters for all sorts of reasons like open revolt and arrested 39 people including Fettmilch. But they were also charged for persecuting Jews and on February 28 of 1616 Fettmilch and six others were executed while the Jews were escorted back into Frankfurt by imperial soldiers and an Imperial Eagle was erected over the ghetto gate with the inscription “Protected by the Roman Imperial Majesty and the Holy Empire”. And the Jews rebuilt the synagogue, restored the cemetery (desecrated, of course) and had a “Purim Vinz” to celebrate having survived yet another murderous unprovoked attack.

That was the good news. Oh, along with the fact that many Christians actually sided with the Jews, helping make this incident one of the last German pogroms (Frankfurt alone had seen two serious ones, in 1241 and 1349). Until the 20th century, of course. Which brings me to the bad news.

The Jews never got the compensation they were promised for their losses. New regulations were issued for Frankfurt that at least gave the Jews more or less permanent residence but limited the community to 500 families, with just 12 marriages allowed a year (any Christian could marry if they proved they had enough money to feed a family), and granted Jews the same business rights as other non-Christians which was pretty much none. Except Jews got to run wholesale businesses to annoy wealthy traders. But they couldn’t be or call themselves citizens and they had to pay extra taxes. And while Jewish codes were gradually softened they remained in place until the 19th century because…

Because what? Anti-Semitism is so familiar that even while deploring it, as all decent people do, we tend to take it for granted as a kind of loathsome background noise to life. But why? What had the Jews of Frankfurt ever done?

I mean, doubtless some individual Jews were wretched. People are like that. Doubtless there were thieves, wife-beaters, drunks and layabouts in the community as there are anywhere. But no more than among the Gentiles. Very probably less, if only because of the danger of giving any provocation to such neighbours. The Jews were not numerous, they were productive non-citizens, they paid their excessive taxes. But they didn’t get civic equality until 1864 and Frankfurt was only the second city to grant it. And within 70 years the Nazis were at their throats with significant public support.

What exactly was the problem? What is the source of this incredibly persistent, virulent hatred, egregious even by normal human standards of intolerance, that is erupting in the form of BDS and elsewhere in our own day?

There’s a question to ponder uncomfortably on August 23… and every day.


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Sighting the Loch Ness Monster

Saint Columba is a man. I think it is necessary to say so because the name looks exactly like a Latin feminine form (first declension, don’t you know?) and I wouldn’t want to cause confusion. Columba, the patron saint of Derby, founded the famous abbey at Iona (OK, maybe it’s as famous as Columba but at least I never confused it with a woman) and is one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland. So he, or she, had a knack for starting things. Including in his spare time… uh… sighting a monster. In Loch Ness.

No, really. That’s what it says. He moved to Scotland to found Iona and stayed there most of the rest of his life, dying at Iona at age 75 in 597. And during his mission to the Picts he found time on August 22 of 565 AD to have some sort of encounter with a monster some identify with the famous Loch Ness one.

Iona’s pretty far from anything, across a strait from the Isle of Mull. And that characterization might get me letters since two villages on Mull are called Calgary and Tobermory so I guess somebody from there settled Canada. (It’s not far enough from anything to stop Vikings from repeatedly attacking it during their attacking stuff heyday, starting in 794 or 795 AD and including massacring 68 monks in 806 AD which made many of their colleagues feel that Ireland had a healthier climate with fewer iron blades slicing through the bloody air right at you… or France… or Switzerland, you know, really really far from the North Sea.) And if you follow the “Great Glen Fault” northeast toward Inverness from Mull you will encounter the murky waters of Loch Ness. Since Loch Ness in turn contains more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined I guess there’s a lot of places for a bumpy serpent thingy to hide.

I also have to concede that sightings going back 1451 years suggest there might be something there. And I’m all for vigorous local traditions including kitchy tourist-related elaborations. But the fact that no one has ever really seen it, let alone a herd of same that might be reproducing, and mighty few individual animals live 1451 years, suggest that somebody was mistaken or making things up.

Not that anyone ever embroiders tales of missionaries in any way, of course. But presumably the monster he chased away from one of his disciples into the depths of the River Ness with the sign of the cross after it killed some Pict wasn’t the Loch Ness Monster that doesn’t live there today. (I also like the bit of the story where it killed some Pict, a sort of Star Trek redshirt of the Columba legend.)

By the way, I was sort of right about the name Columba means “dove” in Latin and is a translation of his Irish name Colm Cille or “church dove”, which we don’t know if it was his birth name or adopted. But it turns out Jonah in Hebrew is dove. So that all kind of makes sense.

Unlike spotting the Loch Ness Monster, in any language.


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Wish I’d said that – August 22, 2016

“Strive to be the greatest man in your country, and you may be disappointed. Strive to be the best and you may succeed: he may well win the race that runs by himself.”

Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack, quoted in The Patriot Post “Founder’s Quote Daily” February 6 2009



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If Australia were a fish

Cook's 1770 voyage shown in red, the 1776–80 voyage shown in blue (Wikipedia)

Cook’s 1770 voyage shown in red, the 1776–80 voyage shown in blue (Wikipedia)

On this date in 1770, August 21, James Cook formally claimed Eastern Australia for Britain. It took long enough.

Maybe not from the point of view of aboriginal activists who, as elsewhere, point with some irritation to the notion of claiming a place somebody else already calls home. But the curious thing is that if Australia was a fish, a lot of people would have thrown it back. Indeed they did, including the Dutch, who did the nautical equivalent of stumbling across it in the early 17th century and said the Dutch equivalent of phooey. And they weren’t shy about claiming, say, Indonesia or New York both of which had some drawbacks of their own.

Likewise, the British found it in 1688 and said “No thanks” or the unprintable nautical equivalent. Then Cook showed up, during a voyage whose purpose was to let astronomers view the transit of Venus (the planet not the naked goddess on a clam shell), and praised the lush ecology of Botany Bay.

I hope he was a better navigator than he was a biologist. Or that he knew it was propaganda. Because the British did then start sending convicts to start over in what was meant to be a fertile land but was actually a scrubby heap of sand and big fierce crocodiles. (And yes, inhabited. Evidently the first words spoken by an Australian aborigine to a European, on the first British colony ships, were “Warra warra” which means go away. They didn’t, even though the words were accompanied by waving a spear. Mind you Hawaiian natives did kill Cook in 1779 though as it turns out they cooked him but did not eat him, if it’s any consolation to anyone.) Not since Erik the Red came up with the name Greenland over a mug of frozen mead has PR so exaggerated the merits of a country for farming and settlement.

It got settled anyway. And I won’t repeat here what I have said elsewhere about the tragic collision of European culture and diseases with indigenous people in various parts of the world. But I will say that in Australia as elsewhere the aborigines were not living in Eden until white serpents showed up. And I will add, with Daniel Hannan in Inventing Freedom, that the Australia that the British founded did become one of the most prosperous and freest places on earth, and a key contributor to Allied victory in two world wars, because of distinctly English habits of self-government that, following the debacle of the American Revolution, were allowed to flourish in the antipodes. And the locals would not have been better off if the Imperial Japanese had been the first to show up and stay.

After visiting in 2004, Richard John Neuhaus wrote “In Australia it is said that they will not let their geography defeat their history.” And indeed they have not done badly at all for a place that seafaring colonizing nations appeared to be competing for the better part of two centuries to stick someone else with.


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