I recently came across an interesting article about a man who commands fees of $4000 for slicing a leg of ham.
If one reads the article, the startling headline begins to make a bit of sense. Many consider Florencio Sanchez the pre-eminent international voice for Iberian ham, a traditional Spanish cuisine/delicacy. Apparently Iberian ham means to Spain what barbecue might mean for Texan. The pig must be raised in a certain way, cut in a certain way, and so on. Clearly as well, Sanchez styles himself as an “artiste.” For Iberian ham to truly be Iberian ham it must be presented in a certain way, with certain instruments that . . . only he may ever touch. Among other things, Sanchez believes that no true slicer of ham would ever speak English.
One comment in the video below particularly stuck with me, however:
Sanchez clearly takes the most pride in having cut ham for the King of Spain, which should not surprise us. But he added that, “We have a great king, who loves ham.”
It seemed to me that he could have almost said, “We have a great king because he loves ham.”
Of course, Sanchez has honed and practices a very traditional skill, and monarchy is a traditional form of government that relies on tradition to succeed. And if the king appreciates Sanchez’s life’s work, we should not blame Sanchez if he feels flattered and even vindicated. But with this comment, I think Sanchez has an insight into political leadership, and why many in the west–not just in the U.S.– feel less confidence about our democracies at the moment.
A successful monarch need not necessarily have the right policies. He/she will generally be loved if their actions in some measure reflect well on their country. So Richard I, the “Lionhearted,” can be revered in English memory although he actually spent very little time in England. Saint Louis IX lost on two crusades and emptied the treasury in payments to Moslems for his own ransom, but his noble character and sanctity earned him the love of France. Louis XIV had an enormous appetite (apparently due to his abnormally huge stomach), eating multiple courses for dinner, making a huge show of it in the process, and Frenchmen took pride in that. “Look what our king can do!” So too, “Our king loves ham.” He acts in ways that embody something of Spain, just as Richard did for England. Such kings overshadow more “successful” monarchs like Henry II, if we think of success in modern terms.*
Our founders recognized the need for this on some level. I think they wanted the president to always be George Washington–that is–someone above reproach who used his powers sparingly but with forbearance and wisdom, someone who had no political skin in the game. They utterly failed to anticipate the almost immediate rise of the presidency as a popular/populist office and the impact that would have on our democracy.
Bernard Bailyn, Gordon Wood, and others point out the radical nature of the American Revolution and its clean break with tradition and the past. This bold move helped make the Revolution successful and gave it its influence worldwide. But, this recent election might make us wish that we had a king, “who loves ham,” or in our case, perhaps cheeseburgers.
*Before we think that, “Hey, I’ll gladly love ham if you make me king of Spain,” kingship has some very tricky elements. By the end of his reign the people hated Louis XIV. Louis might say, “Sure, I lost two big wars, but after all, so did St. Louis IX! And . . . I can still eat more than most mortal men, right?”
But it wouldn’t have helped him.
People cheered Louis XVI at the opening of the Estates General in 1789. They executed him a few years later. Kingship works when a quasi-mystical, perhaps sacred connection exists between him and his people–when he rightly acts as the “pater-familias.”
Wikipedia tells us that Felipe VI of Spain has the favor of the Spanish people, and that many want him to intervene a bit more to reconcile party differences. He seems to have popularity and good-will at the moment. But if Wikipedia accurately reports, he will need great caution, because some of his popularity seems rooted in his abandonment of certain long-standing traditions, such as the practice of elected officials taking their oaths of office upon a Bible or crucifix.
A king’s power rests in large measure upon tradition, and he tampers with that as his peril. Many assume France’s Louis XVI was reactionary and inflexible. In fact, as Simon Schama points out in his Citizens, Louis attempted many progressive reforms. Some of the Enlightenment philosophes initially praised him as just the sort of king France needed (Louis probably did not want their praise, but still . . . ). Events show that this stance almost certainly hurt rather than helped.
Most modern westerners have a hard time with the notion of a religious war. After 9/11 many commentators scrambled to find other alternatives to the notion that the conflict had religious differences at its core. We talked about the relative poverty of the Mideast as the cause, though many leaders of terror groups come from wealthy backgrounds. We argued that they simply fail to understand us, even though many terrorists lived (and currently live) in western countries and got fully exposed to our culture and way of life.
Quite simply, it may be the case that most of us in the west can no longer understand faith as a motive for much of anything, seeing no purpose for religion aside from something purely private and “spiritual.”
Many scholars of the wars that convulsed Europe in the wake of the Reformation take the same approach. Whatever the religious differences between the sides, many point to rising tides of nationalism, economic concerns, class strife, and so on, to explain the crises. While all these issues have their place, they are almost always not the cause, but the fruit of underlying religious differences.
For example, let us take the rise of nationalist feeling in late 15th and early 16th centuries. Such ideas arose no doubt as an outgrowth of the revival of classical culture. Classical culture meant a revival of the city-state ethos, which worked directly against the medieval notion of Christendom. Certainly, the weakness of church leadership in the 15th century did little to stem this tide. But nationalism came from a revival of classical culture, a new life for an old religion buried 12 centuries prior.
Mack Holt’s The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629 impressed me immediately by his simple declaration that yes, the French wars of religion really were about religion. If we only realized that sanity comes at such a simple price.
From John Wycliffe on down, reformers often focused their attacks on the Mass and the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic feast. The same happened in France, with the first major Protestant salvo coming with with the “Affair of the Placards” in 1534. Various pamphlets distributed throughout Paris read thusly:
By this mass the poor people are like ewes or miserable sheep, kept and maintained by these priests, then eaten, gnawed, and devoured. Is there anyone who would not say and think that this is larceny and debauchery?
By this mass they have seized, destroyed, and swallowed up everything. They have disinherited kings, princes, nobles, merchants, and everything else alive. Because of this, the priests live without any duty to anyone or anything, even the need to study. What more do you want? Do not be amazed then, that they defend it with such force.
They kill, burn, and destroy all who oppose them. For now, all they have left is force. Truth is lacking in them, but it menaces them, follows them, and chases them, and in the end, truth will find them out. By it they shall be destroyed, Amen. Amen. Amen.
For many Protestants, issues such as the eucharist began and ended in the theologically intellectual realm. Strongly influenced by Renaissance humanists, they believed that truth came via textual analysis and debate. Their arguments centered on interpretation of Scripture. Holt gives a clear yet subtle analysis with this incident. He points out that for Catholics the issue went far beyond abstract theological interpretation. Obviously they had a theological position. But for Frenchmen at least at this time, the celebration of the mass formed crucial social bonds between its participants. The Church placed strong emphasis on not communing unless one had peace with your neighbors. So in the end, attacking the mass meant attacking the linchpin of social cohesion in France. It was the mass, and not any particular laws, political, or social organization that made France “France.” To change the theology of the mass would be akin to dramatically altering our Constitution.
Critics of religious wars today might often wonder why they couldn’t all just get along. Holt again parries and shows us the coronation oath all French kings took, which reads:
I shall protect the canonical privilege, due law, and justice, and I shall exercise defense of each bishop and of each church committed unto him, as much as I am able, with God’s help, just as a king properly ought to do in his kingdom.
To this Christian populace entrusted and subject to me, I promise in the name of Christ:
First, that by our authority the whole Christian populace shall preserve at all times true peace for the Church of God.
Also, that in good faith to all men I shall be diligent to expel from my land all heretics designated by the Church
I affirm by oath all this said above.
Faced with the “Affair of the Placards,” any French king could either abjure his oath or try and fulfill it. We can legitimately question some of the approaches used, but should not fault the French king for trying. He had no other choice, at least initially.
Things got out of hand quickly. The untimely death of certain French kings left a power vacuum filled at different times with different factions. Huguenots often converted from the merchant class. They had money and lived in towns that could easily be fortified against attackers. It would have taken a dynamic king with a budget in the black to defeat them if it came to fighting. France had neither. Eventually, commoners took up the cause themselves, and then things got really ugly, even allowing for the possibility of exaggeration in some accounts.
Catholics and Protestants both committed atrocities for various reasons. Catholics seem to have perpetrated more than their fair share of terrible deeds. Holt shows us, however, how the issues that divided them went far below the skin. Each side fought for a certain theology, and in so doing, fought for different versions of the meaning and purpose of France.
I find understanding the differences between the Protestant and Catholic versions of France tricky, but my best guess would be
Catholic France had an agricultural bent, while Protestantism favored merchants.
Protestants defined community via intellectual and doctrinal agreement. Catholics found community in common visible practices and common observance of the liturgical calendar.
Protestants stressed the written word, Catholics looked to a more embodied “word” in their mass, liturgy, architecture, sacraments, and so on.
Whatever the overlap between Catholics and Protestants, these religious differences would produce different cultures. We can imagine a Huguenot triumph perhaps resembling the Dutch Republic, where Protestants triumphed with a similar theology as the Huguenots–though Huguenots never had the numbers to actually take over France as they did the Netherlands.
For various reasons the monarchy never could root out Protestants. An uneasy peace developed which allowed for toleration and Protestants to have a firm minority presence in France. Some might say this proves that France could still be France with the two faiths co-existing.
Maybe. But France could no longer have the same basis of political and social order if the celebration of the mass no longer held the country together. The role of the king would have to change, his person would inevitably become less sacred, his job more administrative. In time the brilliant but enigmatic Richelieu stated that, “People are immortal, and so must live by the law of God. States are mortal, and thus are subject to the law of what works.” Possibly the emphasis on the text for Huguenots led to a decidedly different, more disembodied intellectual climate, and perhaps this helped lead to the universal dream of a rational Enlightenment.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” In the event that you find your house divided, you will therefore need to find a new place to live. In our own Civil War, one side triumphed decisively enough to force their opponents to live with them. In this case, the minority never succumbed to the majority, and so it seems that they both had to find a different house to live in.
Holt’s book reminded me of the quote from Adam Wayne, a character in G.K. Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill. Wayne commented that,
There were never any just wars but the religious wars. There were never any humane wars, but the religious wars. For these men fought for something they claimed at least, to be the happiness of a man, the virtue of a man. A Crusader at least thought that Islam hurt the soul of every man, king, or tinker that it could capture.
This week we looked at the building tension between Parliament and Charles I. The civil war that eventually came would, in the long term, change the way the western world thought of political power.
As I mentioned last week, Charles inherited the ideas of absolute monarchy from his father James. As some commentators, have suggested, however, there was a difference. For James absolutism was an intellectual question, and thus a conviction he could dispense with, or at least minimize, when the time called for it. For Charles, absolutism was a emotional issue, and one associated with his religious convictions. It ran deeper for him, he believed in it with his heart instead of his head.
It would be wrong to say that Charles coveted power for the sake of power. His conception of England was a realm that needed a shepherd. He viewed England in personal terms. His “High Church” Anglicanism serves as an example of this. Yes, Charles liked ceremony, but also believed ceremony and pageantry appealed to masses, many of whom could not read. He saw himself as their protector from the more “intellectual” Puritans. His parliamentarian opponents saw England I think, in terms of institutions, and these institutions for them were the guarantee of the people’s liberties. Both sides saw the same picture from different perspectives, and different aspects of the picture had different meanings for them.
Among the issues at stake:
Should something be considered legal if it is within the letter but not necessarily the spirit of the law? Is the letter or the spirit of the law a better guarantee of liberty?
To understand this question, the issue at hand was Charles’s refusal to rule with Parliament, and his collection of the ‘Ship’s Tax.’ Being an introvert and socially awkward, I think Charles hated Parliament. He did not hate every MP, but he did hate the crowd, the glad-handing, the politicking of it all. Charles lacked people skills. It was just so much easier, on a number of levels, for him to rule alone without Parliament’s help. As king, he was not required to call Parliament at all, except when he wanted new taxes.
Charles tried to keep expenses down but every government needs money at some point. The ‘Ship’s Tax’ was a law still on the books from a few generations prior, but it had fallen into disuse. It was used as a war-time measure to raise money when under the threat of invasion. The last time it had been collected was back in the days when Elizabeth used it as a special measure to help prepare defense against the Spanish Armada. Charles resurrected the tax. Technically it was not a ‘new’ tax, for it had been collected before. But Charles was using the tax as a means of general, not special revenue, and he did so to avoid calling for Parliament’s approval for any new taxes. Charles was within the letter, but not the spirit of the law. The tax was not “new” in the sense that it had once been collected, albeit with a different purpose in mind. But Charles revived the tax not under threat of invasion, but as a loophole to avoid Parliament altogether.
By definition, can the king be a traitor? If so, what would he have to do to merit that approbation? If one conceives of the king personally embodying England itself then the answer is no. But if one sees the king as a steward over something outside of himself, then it becomes a possibility. Charles obviously viewed himself in the former sense, and Parliament the latter. But at the time, no consensus existed on this question.
Should a bad, or ineffective king, be given complete loyalty? Does the power of the king depend on how he rules, or on his office?
In the end, Parliament put Charles on trial for treason. He had, they claimed, made war on his own people and trampled on the Constitution. Furthermore, he had lied to them and negotiated with the Scots to invade on his behalf, while negotiating in supposed good faith with Parliament. But the Parliament that tried Charles was not the full Parliament. The army booted out those whom they suspected that Charles bought off, including the whole House of Lords. Parliament may have the power to try the king, but was this Parliament? Charles, at the trial, refused to enter a plea for this reason. He argued that while “a power” faced him, law did not, which the following clip illustrates. . .
Charles never actually had a trial. When he refused to enter a plea Parliament found him guilty “in abstentia” (though of course it did not take 2:30 as in the movie clip!). Though I personally think that Parliament had a good case against Charles, they forced the issue and gave Charles back some dignity and legitimacy when they did not use the full Parliament to put him on trial.
At the end of this week we assigned lawyers to prosecute and defend Charles, as well as witnesses for the defense and prosecution. I hope the students will have fun with our own mini ‘mock-trial’ and come away with a greater understanding of England during the mid-1600’s. But as we will discuss next week, the past is not wholly “past.” Our own ‘War on Terror’ has raised many of the same questions that faced the English. Should torture ever be used, as Charles did, in time of war? How far does the power of the president extend in war time? Bush, for example, defended his extensive wire-tapping as a necessary war-time measure even if it was in a distinctly grey constitutional area, as this article notes.
These are many of the same dilemmas, in an obviously different context, that the English dealt with in 1650. I hope students will make the connections.
*Observe, for example, how in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” the kings of France and England call each other “Brother France,” and “Brother England.”
This week we continued our story in England. With the death of Elizabeth, the male Tudor line ended, but the line could continue through Henry’s niece Mary, known as Mary Queen of Scots. She had been executed for treason by Elizabeth, but now ironically, it was her son James that was called upon to take the reigns of power in England.
James I defense of absolute monarchy raises a dilemma occasioned by the Reformation. Protestants often accused Catholics of being ‘authoritarian.’ “Look,” they might say, “you have to obey bishops, popes, councils, and the like. Man has no chance to have an individual, personal relationship to God.” Thus, according to this argument, Catholicism and democratic government could never go hand in hand. Catholicism is inherently authoritarian.
Catholics would likely respond that Protestantism has the “authoritarian” problem. By reducing everything to “Scripture alone” and forgoing reason, tradition, etc. we put ourselves at the mercy of whoever has the authority to give the “right” interpretation of Scripture. With no buffer between man and the state in an independent church, the state would naturally grab up all the power.
As for Catholicism and democracy, what about the local village elections in the Middle Ages, or the Italian city-state republics of the 15th century? Democracy has its roots in Catholicism, not Protestantism.
Both sides of this debate are a bit of a caricature, but absolute monarchy arose first within Protestantism, beginning with Henry VIII and extending down to James I. In class we discussed when absolutism can gain acceptance by the people. It takes certain historical circumstances, generally, for that sort of thing to fly. One needs a time of great transition or crisis for people to accept this kind of authority. In the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses, Henry VIII had the license to reign autocratically. In the aftermath of “Bloody” Mary and the Spanish Armada, perhaps his daughter Elizabeth did as well. By the time of James I, however, this license may have expired. But James exercised his absolute rule generally to bring moderation. His portraits reveal an ease with himself and his surroundings, He is comfortable in power, and makes others comfortable thereby.
His son Charles, however, inherited his father’s ideas about absolute rule, but without the political sense and personality of his father. One look at his most famous portrait shows a man of unease and intensity, someone who might “upset the apple cart.”
His actions and those of others would bring about a clash that would shape the question of power and rights in England and perhaps western Europe, for decades to come.
From our vantage point monarchy seems quaint and outdated. But we must realize that democratic movements are the relative newcomer on the historical stage. It behooves us then, to consider the arguments for monarchical government.
Most such arguments that I encountered focus on some the technical aspects of kingly rule. Monarchy is faster, more efficient, and more unifying than democracies, and so on. I think these arguments, whatever their merits, miss the major point of monarchies from a Christian perspective. We should consider whether or not certain forms of government, and not just how they function, can aid or detract from our spiritual lives.
We begin by recognizing that the physical world is inextricably bound up with our spiritual lives. Of course creation itself reflects God, but it goes beyond that. Certain physical states may be more “spiritual” than others at certain times. Thus, kneeling to pray put our bodies in a submissive posture, which can aid our prayers. Or we stand to praise God, rather than recline on a couch during worship. God gave humanity the special privilege of being created in His image, and we in turn should “image” God to the rest of creation as well as to each other.
In this line of thought, our form of government should image God’s governance of His creation. Having a king, then, (regardless of whether the king acts well or poorly) gives us a physical reminder that we serve a heavenly king. Serving a king (whether or not we agree with him) trains and prepares us to serve the King of Kings.
Thus, king’s should at times be dressed regally to reflect the splendor and majesty of kingly rule. Also, a king should lead in service, modeling himself after how Jesus exercised His kingship (St. Louis IX of France and Emperor Michael II of Byzantium are notable examples of this). Either way, it is the office of kingship that teaches us about God’s Kingship over creation. It has nothing to do with the person itself, who got the job merely by accident of birth. And that’s the point (in part): some have the job of lawyer, or shoemaker, and some have the job of pantomiming the kingship of God. Democracy, in contrast, gives us not just a poor but even detrimental spiritual example (the argument goes), because it essentially states, “What you want, you get.” Democracy then, can encourage the worst of our spiritual impulses.
When we get to the democratic movements that sweep America and France we will make the case for a different form of government. For now, I want students to understand the logic and motivation behind the actions and attitudes like James and Charles.
As some of you may know, the title of this site is drawn from the historian Kenneth Clarke, one of my favorites. Last week we looked at parts of the ‘Protest and Communication” episode of his epic “Civilisation” series. I include the entire episode below if you are interested, but even if you had time to see just the first few minutes, that alone reveals how much insight art can give into an era.
This week we looked at the English Reformation, beginning with Henry VIII, and culminating with Elizabeth I. Wherever the Reformation took root, it did so for slightly different reasons and took different forms. Some say that the English Reformation was driven more by personality and nationality than theology, and there may be truth to this. In time, Anglicanism would develop a distinct theological voice, but in the beginning the marriages of the monarch determined much of the course of events.
When we think of Henry VIII we often think of a domineering and abusive man, perhaps too much in love with his own power. This may capture much of the truth of who Henry was, but he did not necessarily begin that way. He had great intelligence. He spoke fluently in perhaps three different languages. He was an accomplished musician and dancer. He wrote a legitimate and scholarly work on the sacraments. He had a love for crowds and spectacle, and England adored him in the early years.
When we see him as a young man . . .
we may wonder how eventually he became this man. . .
But I think both pictures share something in common. We often think of Henry as all confidence and show, like this. . .
But I wonder if this last picture shows Henry “protesting too much.” The first two pictures to me show a lurking insecurity. The man in the first two pictures is not at ease with himself or his place in the world. Perhaps I go too far in psychological speculation, but the image above with him jutting out his chest seems to reinforce this idea of insecurity. If we see Henry this way, his near obsession for a son begins to make sense to us. Strong as Henry wanted to appear, his theological views depended greatly on those who he surrounded himself at a given moment in time. Perhaps this is why many assert that Henry’s last wife, the evangelical Catherine Parr (here below giving her best “Excuse me, will you please keep your children quiet — this is a library!” look) may have been his most important. She tutored Henry’s son Edward, and had the strength of will to get her vision of Anglicanism imprinted on England. To outlive Henry (the only of his wives to do so) she must have been a strong woman!
Six years after his death, his oldest daughter Mary assumed the throne. History knows her as “Bloody Mary,” because of her persecution of Protestants. In many ways she deserved this epithet, but we must try and sympathize with her. Henry unjustly divorced and banished her mother Catherine of Aragon. She had little contact with Protestants, and plenty of time to nurse a grudge, to plan to right the wrongs of the past. We might understand better if we we realize that she thought that Henry had “ruined the country,” and God placed her in authority to bring England back to a godly foundation. We can imagine becoming president where your predecessor had done everything against your most deepest convictions. You would want to set things aright.
To this psychological motivation we should add that neither Henry or Mary’s mother lived very long. What if she felt that she had precious little time to accomplish her goals before her death? As the saying goes, “Beware of an old man (or woman) in a hurry.” In this image to the right we see the same gnawing insecurity her father could not hide. Like Henry she knew she needed a son if her attempt at reform would last, but as an older woman nearly past childbearing years, she had little hope of a suitor actually appearing. We can lament the tragic nature of her life without condoning her actions.
After Mary’s death the stage was set for her half-sister Elizabeth to have a glorious reign. Yet she too had reason to fear. The pope had declared Henry’s marriage to Anne illegitimate, which meant that Elizabeth herself had no right to rule. After Elizabeth, the closest to the throne was her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, niece of Henry VIII. She stayed Catholic, and so remained the focus of Catholic plots to unseat Elizabeth.
Matters got more complicated when Mary fled to England for refuge after some accused her of murder. Personal letter between the two reveal a long friendship between them, but almost immediately after her arrival in England, Elizabeth imprisoned her. Eventually one of Elizabeth’s spies uncovers evidence of Mary implicating herself in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth. The trial is a foregone conclusion — she’s guilty of treason.
We know that Elizabeth agonized over the options about what to do with her friend and cousin. Many believed that England and Elizabeth could never be safe as long as Mary lived. Now that Mary had committed treason, Elizabeth had every right to deal with the problem once and for all. Elizabeth had a few options:
She could execute her
She could keep Mary imprisoned, knowing that plots could still arise
She could exile Mary, but in exile she could still raise an army and return
She could ignore it altogether and hope it would not happen again. But what head of state can ignore treason?
Neither option appealed to Elizabeth. Sometimes we don’t have good choices, only a series of bad ones.
Some students wondered astutely if Elizabeth could escape all these choices by marrying herself. If she had kids, her place on the throne, and the future of Protestantism, would be much more secure. As to why she never did marry, my theory is the Tudor love of power. If she married, she would still be queen, but someone else would be king. This image below shows Elizabeth, like her father, perfectly comfortable in the role of outsized, grand monarch.
This week we continued our look at Elizabeth’s reign in England, and began our special focus on the Spanish Armada of 1588. This crucial naval battle was the high water mark of the Hapsburg Empire. With hindsight, we can see that Spain’s defeat here sent them spiraling into a decline for the next few centuries. Traditionally, the conflict between England and Spain is viewed through the following lens:
1. Spain was the big dominant empire, with all the advantages that brings, led by an intolerant king bent only on increasing his power.
2. England was the ‘Little Island that Could’ — the huge underdog that through scrap and pluck defeated the big bully.
I think this analysis is flawed for a number of reasons:
Did Spain have a legitimate strategic reason to attack England? The English had been raiding the Spanish coastline, as well as Spanish ships in the Atlantic, for years. England’s support of the Dutch’s rebellion against the Spanish would have made communication and supply very difficult for the Spanish. None of this is to say that Spain had a good plan, or that you have to root for Spain — but it is important to understand what might have motivated the Spanish in the first place.
England’s ‘privateering’ could in one sense be called ‘state-sponsored piracy,’ and what the Spanish might have called, ‘State-Sponsored Terrorism’ (though the Spanish, with the conditions of their mines and their treatment of the natives across the Atlantic, cannot claim moral high ground either). The English knew they could not beat Spain in the purely conventional sense. But they also knew they did not need to. If they could hit them here and there unpredictably, the Spanish would be forced to expend a great deal of resources to cover themselves everywhere. Maybe Spain could be slowly weakened not by destroying them from without, but putting too much strain on them from within.
We can see Spain in the mirror when we look at our current situation. In some ways, we are the Spain of today, one of the few nations with a truly global reach of power and presence. Al Queda and other like minded groups are in some ways in the position of England. What happened on 9/11 was devastating in the sense of shock and loss of life. The ripple effects, both financial (new government agencies, extra security measures, wars, etc.) and psychological continue to this day. They don’t have to hit us everywhere all the time to hurt us. To help identify with Phillip further I asked the students to consider the following hypothetical possibility:
You are president, and your Secretary of Defense comes to you with a plan. If the U.S. acts quickly, he has an idea, that if successful, could end the War on Terror and bring peace to the Mid East for the next 50 years. The plan is realistic and achievable
However, the plan requires a large commitment of our available forces
The plan has about a 50% chance of success
If the plan fails, perhaps as much as 1/3 of our forces might be wiped out.
Would you approve of the plan and take the risk? Most students said they would. Though if it failed, history would likely paint you as an ignorant fool who had blind faith, just as Phillip tended to get portrayed until the latter 20th century.
3. What were the strategic burdens the Spanish faced? They had more ships, but their ship were bigger, slower, and of course, needed to carry a lot of men and supplies (for the invasion). Spanish ships had, at best, 5% of their weight as weaponry, while the average English ship had about 14% of its weight as weapons. Who is the real underdog?
Below is the image of the newly designed English “race” ship:
And here we have the a typical Spanish ship of the time:
Of course, these differences in their respective ships are not the product of coincidence, but of the overall culture of Spain and England. Spain and England had many similarities, with neither monarch presenting us with either the image of a saint or sinner. Spain fought Protestants, but Elizabeth persecuted Catholics. We must careful to find good and bad guys too quickly.
I do think we can say with confidence that England was a more ‘open’ society. Next week we will examine the relative advantages more open societies have over their more ‘closed society’ counterparts. England was not necessarily more tolerant than Spain. They persecuted Catholics with the same zeal as Spain persecuted Protestants. But England had more social mobility. For example, in England non-nobles like Francis Drake could have enormous influence. In Spain, Philip II appointed the Duke of Medina Sedona as the top commander of the Armada, chiefly I think because he was the highest ranking nobleman available. He did this in spite of the fact that the Duke had rarely even been at sea, let alone commanded ships at sea. The Duke protested to the king to no avail. For Philip, the nature of things dictated that the highest ranking nobleman command the fleet.
Philip II may not have been tyrannical, but he did close himself off from his people. He never communicated in person – it was all done through official letters. While he communicated frequently with people, it was not in a manner that would generate a free flow of ideas. He issued pronouncements, and did not invite dialogue. Take a look at his palace in this image here, which shows his physical as well as psychological isolation:
In any contest, there are many factors at work, including what we might call luck. But we should not be surprised to see connections between winning and losing armies, and the respective contexts from which they are born.
As a total aside, here is a painting of Philip II, not afraid to show a little leg! Elizabethan fashion remains a mystery to me. When I asked what fashion accessory future generations will scratch their heads at, a few students said, “Ties.” I say, “Stiletto heels.”
The statistical revolution has transformed how we watch and evaluate baseball, and has made similar inroads into basketball as well. Granted, this has its benefits, but one important downside for all of this is that it ends all of the fun arguments about who is the better player, and so on. With the advent of WAR (wins above replacement player value) we can’t even argue about what is the best statistic to use in player evaluations.
The Roman historian Livy includes a great vignette from the 2nd Punic War between Hannibal and Scipio, with Scipio beginning:
When Africanus asked who, in Hannibal’s opinion, was the greatest general, Hannibal named Alexander… as to whom he would rank second, Hannibal selected Pyrrhus…asking whom Hannibal considered third, he named himself without hesitation. Then Scipio broke into a laugh and said, “What would you say if you had defeated me?
But alas, some of these quips may no longer be possible, thanks to the statistical revolution. A brilliant fellow named Ethan Arsht has used statistics to rank many of the great generals of all-time. He admits that he intends his findings to spark fun debate and not be the final word, but it is impressive all the same. He explains his methodology, and you can check out the full interactive rankings here.
Arsht has many surprises for us, some of which confirm my own thoughts (I have always thought R.E. Lee overrated by most, and Grant underrated by most), some that dramatically challenge them (George McClellan has a higher WAR than Lee–have at it Civil War buffs). But perhaps the starkest shock to my own thoughts is that his model ranks Napoleon Bonaparte as history’s greatest general by a very, very wide margin.
This would surprise no one who lived in the 19th century or perhaps the early 20th. Recently, however, some have challenged the traditional adoration of Napoleon and focused on his debacles in Egypt and Russia, and the fact that he lost in the end. When he started to face reformed and refitted armies, and better leaders, from 1809 onward, his fortunes changed dramatically. My own bias often leans towards challenging prevailing opinion, and I ate this up. But the study has challenged me to reexamine Napoleon and perhaps discover that (horror of horrors) received opinion has always been correct about him.
For my rethinking of Napoleon I turned to Harold Parker’s Three Napoleonic Battles. His premise intrigued me in that he proposed to look at different battles at different points in Napoleon’s career and see what, if anything, changed about his abilities over time. He first shows Napoleon at the peak of his powers against a weak general at the Battle of Friedland. Then, at Aspern-Essling about two years later, his abilities seem to wane as he faces a decent opposing commander within a trickier geography. Finally, we see Napoleon defeated at Waterloo by an excellent opposing commander in Wellington.
Even for those like myself who tend not to like Napoleon, one cannot deny the dash, charm, and incisive brilliance of the man, and all this is on full display at Friedland in June of 1807. At Eylau months previously, Napoleon failed to get a decisive victory over Russia. He got it here.
The battle began and the Russian General Bennigsen noticed a seemingly somewhat isolated French corp commanded by Marshal Lannes. Likely Bennigsen never intended to engage the French, for to do so he would need to cross the river Alle. Still, it looked inviting enough for Bennigsen–he need not engage the whole of the French army, but merely wound it with a quick excursion against a weaker force.
Herein perhaps lies a lesson of leadership: great generals can make great things out of the unexpected, but average to poor leaders need to stay on script to achieve anything at all.
Lannes held remarkably well, and Benningsen, having put his hand to plow, did not want to pull back, assuming that victory was just a few more committed troops away. He pushed more troops over the Alle, but in so doing, put the Russians in a tight spot of having their backs to the river. Time, however, was not on his side. Lannes sent messengers to Napoleon asking him to come with all haste, and if French reinforcements could arrive in time–and the French marched very fast for their day–Russia’s numerical advantage would disappear.*
True to his sanguine spirit and quick mind, Napoleon minded not at all the surprise of the Russian attack, and saw great opportunity in it. He had the knack, too, for creating memorable vignettes of speech, such as the following as he rode hard to the battlefield:
Do you have a good memory?
Well, do you know what anniversary is today, June 14?
That of Marengo.
Yes, yes, that of Marengo–and I shall beat the Russians just as a I beat the Austrians.
Below is a map of the field at Friedland
Napoleon arrived on the field of battle, and my impression is that he gave the following orders after perhaps one to two hours of personal reconnaissance of the field.
Marshal Ney will take the right, from Sortlack to Posthenen, and he will bear to the present position of General Oudinot. Marshal Lannes will have the center, which will begin at the left of Marshal Ney from the village of Posthenen to Henrichsdorf.
The grenadiers of Oudinot, which at present form the right of Marshal Lannes, will by slow degrees bear to the left, in order to attract the attention of the enemy to themselves.
The left will be formed by Marshal Motlier, holding Henrichsdorff and the the road to Konigsberg, and and from there extending across the front of the Russian right wing. Marshal Mortier will never advance, the movement is to be made by our right which will pivot on our left.
The cavalry of General Espagne and the dragoons of General Grouchy, joined with the cavalry of the left wing, will maneuver to do the most harm to the enemy when the latter, pressed by the vigorous attack of our right, will find it necessary to retreat.
General Victor and the infantry and cavalry of the Imperial Guard will form the reserve and will be placed in Grunhof, Bothkeim, and behind Posthenen. I shall be with the reserve.
One should always advance by the right, and one should leave the initiative to Marshal Ney, who will await my orders to begin.
From the moment that the right advances on the enemy, all the cannon of the line must double their fire in a useful direction to protect the attack of the wing.
All of Napoleon’s brilliance is here–the energy of the prose, the clarity of the orders, and the strategic overlay of the entire battle are all present. Bennigsen and the Russians fought hard. But seeing Napoleon’s mental command of the situation in the above orders, it surprises us not that he gained a decisive victory and brought (for a time) the Russians in line with his empire as a result.
Parker then forwards to the Battle of Aspern-Essling, where Napoleon faced a better commander a few years later, in a more confusing situation. Here too, the geography was more difficult, and the river (the Danube), more formidable:
By this time Napoleon had occupied Vienna and controlled much of the Austrian empire, but still had not destroyed the Austrian army in the field. The Archduke Charles led the Austrians, and most rate him as a thorough and competent tactician not likely to make mistakes, but lacking in strategic vision. Napoleon sought to destroy the Austrians, but as you can see from the map above, a competent commander could make that difficult given that Napoleon was in enemy territory with problematic geography.
The battle was confusing and lacked the decisive clarity Napoleon so desired. He needed good bridges over the Danube to concentrate his forces in Lobau, but the Danube, and the Austrians, had no intention of making it easy on them. At Friedland Napoleon assumes the air of absolute mastery, but here he pleads with fate rather than commanding it. A sample of some of his orders:
The interruption of the bridge has prevented us from receiving supplies; at 10:00 we ran out of munitions. The enemy perceived this and has done us great damage. In this state of affairs, to repair the bridges, to send us munitions and food, to keep an eye on Vienna, is extremely important. Write to the Prince of Ponte-Corvo . . . that he may draw toward us.
Here we are far from the Napoleon of Friedland, a commander who seems helpless, who needs reinforcements, who has no direct command of the action.
The Austrians were thus able to pound some French detachments for hours with no threat of retaliation due to their lack of ammunition. Many of the French naturally wanted to withdraw. Napoleon had not badly blundered–the field was confusing, and he had been somewhat unlucky with the bridges. While he lacked tactical clarity in the battle’s first stages, he managed to demonstrate his trademark strategic clarity in his response to his men’s request for withdrawal.
“You wish,” he said to [his field marshals] “to recross the Danube! And how? Are not the bridges destroyed? Without that, would we not be united as victors? We can, it is true, have the men and horses cross on boats; but what will become of the artillery? Shall we abandon our wounded? Shall we say thus to the enemy, and to Europe, that the victors today are vanquished? And if the Archduke, more puffed up by our retreat than by his earlier, pretended success, crosses the Danube behind us at Tulln, at Krems, and Lintz . . . if he brings together his different corp . . . where shall we retire? Will it be to the positions I have intrenched on the Traun, on the Inn, or the Lech? . . . . No! we must run as far as the Rhine; for those allies which victory and fortune have given us, an apparent defeat will take from us and even turn against us. We must remain [in the Lobau]. We must threaten an enemy accustomed to fearing us and keep him before us. Before he has made up his mind, before he has begun to act, we will repair the bridges in a manner to defy all accident, the corp will be able to unite and fight on either bank. The army of Italy, followed by that of Lefebvre, will bring us aid. . . . Then we shall be masters of our operations.
It worked. Parker quotes from Marshal Massena, who commented, “That’s true, that’s right! Yes, the Danube alone has conquered us so far, and not the Archduke!” The French managed to turn the tide the next day enough to allow a complete withdrawal in greater safety for the entirety of their army. The battle belonged to the Austrians, but the Archduke–quite capable in a limited tactical situation–failed strategically in the aftermath. They did not follow-up appropriately. Given this breathing space, the French dealt more decisively with the Austrians later at Wagram.
In the quote above, Napoleon showed that
He did not foolishly underrate his opponent the Archduke
He framed the issue in larger strategic terms
He focused on the problems the river had caused, not the Austrians or their own failures.
He summed up their overall strategic situation in Europe honestly and accurately, as it related to their allies.
So, at Aspern-Essling one could say that Napoleon either bit off more than he could chew, or waded into a situation he failed to fully grasp immediately, as he did at Friedland. Still, his energy and sense of the moment remain with him.
For his third battle Parker examines Waterloo. So many have written so much about this battle that neither he or I have much to say about it. What seems clear to almost every observer is
Napoleon’s health had declined markedly and he was no longer the same in the field (though obviously still a very good general).
At Waterloo he faced a top notch opponent in Wellington, who had sound tactical and strategic sense, had defeated the French in Spain, and had superlatively defensive capability.
While Napoleon showed hints of his former self in moments, he showed little of his usual tactical brilliance, relying on frontal assaults against entrenched positions.
Sir Edward Creasy ranked Waterloo as one of the 15 decisive battles of all-time. His account of the battle is worth reading, but his sense of the importance of the battle fails to convince. Napoleon’s own words make this evident. Quoting from his comments at Aspern-Essling again,
. . . for those allies which victory and fortune have given us, an apparent defeat will take from us and even turn against us. We must remain [in the Lobau].
At Aspern-Essling his clarity about his overall grand strategical situation led to his remaining on the field. It was the right call, for he was correct about the nature of his allies. Events with Russia and Austria proved him right. I can appreciate Arsht and Parker for helping me to see Napoleon with new eyes. Napoleon was a brilliant tactician, and an excellent strategist. My push-back to Arsht would be Napoleon’s failure in grand strategy. I suppose no one can do everything. But, Napoleon’s victories never really created anything lasting for France, for it would all go away after a significant defeat, as it did after Russia in 1812, as it did after Waterloo in 1815. But even if he won at Waterloo, he would have faced similar circumstances soon thereafter, and then again, and again.
Not even the best should burden themselves with being perfect, and if they do, maybe this should be held against them.
*It seems obvious in hindsight that Bennigsen should have withdrawn back across the river when his initial attack failed. There is even the chance that he could have lured the French to counter-attack him, and he would then be in the advantageous position of defending a bridgehead. But the history of human nature shows that this is psychologically very difficult to do–akin to an act of great repentance.