HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: “Louis XIV: The Real King of Versailles” by Josephine Wilkinson

Louis XIV’s story has all the ingredients of a Dumas classic: legendary beginnings, beguiling women, court intrigue, a mysterious prisoner in an iron mask, lavish court entertainments, the scandal of a mistress who was immersed in the dark arts, and a central character who is handsome and romantic, but with a frighteningly dark side to his character.

Louis believed himself to be semidivine. His self-identification as the Sun King, which was reflected in iconography of the sun god, Apollo, influenced every aspect of Louis’s life: his political philosophy, his wars, and his relationships with courtiers and subjects.

As a military strategist, Louis’s capacity was debatable, but he was an astute politician who led his country to the heights of sophistication and power – and then had the misfortune to live long enough to see it all crumble away. As the sun began to set upon this most glorious of reigns, it brought a gathering darkness filled with the anguish of dead heirs, threatened borders, and a populace that was dangerously dependent upon – but greatly distanced from – its king.

Cover and blurb via Amberley

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I will be honest; when I received a copy of this book, I was taking on a subject in which I knew zero… literally nothing. My French court history extends of Catherine Medici and…. that’s it. Versailles is gorgeous, and there’s recently been a tv series by that name (didn’t watch, never a good place to start accuracy wise) and Louis was the king who put the man in the iron mask… right?  But Josephine Wilkinson has proven to me multiple times she produces quality books, so I dived in to learn about the French.

Little Louis was born in 1638, a miracle gift from God, as his parents had suffered so many stillbirths before they got their heir, and the little dauphin took the crown at age four, ruled by a council instead of Queen Anne. It was great to learn about a royal heir who had a good relationship with his mother, how they were close and affectionate, instead of being raised by strangers. Louis also grew up with governesses and a tutor which formed a close group around the boy, giving him friendship a budding king would be grateful to have. With his mother at his side, Louis was king as she negotiated the end of the Thirty Years’ War and fostered a fixation that ruling was a divine absolute right of Louis’.

By 13, Louis was old enough to rule himself and took on financial changes in the court. While he was in love with a girl, he was supposed to marry his cousin Mary Theresa, which he did in 1660, age 22. His cousin was the daughter to King Felipe of Spain, who was freshly dead, and Louis never got a dowry paid to him, giving Louis an excuse  to invade the Spanish Netherlands. This was a love Louis continued with – war. Over the years, Loius invaded and battled in all directions for his country, always believing he was doing the right thing. The French court about Louis was a vivid mixture of friends, ministers and lovers, all brought together by Dr. Wilkinson.

The book suggests Louis took his role as a king very seriously; he considered him an absolute ruler and France was in his hands. Over his 72 years as king, Louis managed his huge country, and an almost impossible amount of foreign policy and the origins of French colonies around the world. Louis was an absolute monarch, ruling France with total power, while extending France’s influence in every direction.

Everyone knows of the beauty of Versailles, the sun, and all of France would orbit around their Sun King. I had details coming at me in all directions while reading this book, a whole new area for me to explore. Married for 23 years to Maria Theresa, they had six children, only one making it to adulthood. However, Louis had countless mistresses and well over a dozen illegitimate children, though a few handfuls of them were legitimised as they grew. Louis took a second wife, Françoise d’Aubigné, and either he got too old, or he really cared for this woman far inferior to him, as he managed to curb the mistress habit.

I cannot say if this is a good biography for an expert on the subject, but as a beginner, I feel like this book is a great place to begin. There are so many people in this great cast of characters over the 72 years of Louis’ reign and total transformation of France. Direct descendants are still walking around today, spread into major European families, cementing Louis’ place in history.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 132 – 133: 21 – 31 January 1939: 80 Years Since the Fall of Barcelona

Civilians line up for food in Barcelona in freezing weather

January 21

Today marks the first of four days of successive bombing in Barcelona by Nationalist aircraft, with ten flyovers bringing bombs into the streets. After almost three years of war, Barcelona is weary, despite being far from the front until now. The Nationalists are fast advancing through Catalonia, with little or no resistance.

January 22

The Nationalist counteroffensive in Valsequillo is five days old, and they have taken all 500 square kilometres the Republicans have taken over the month. The Nationalists take the strategic town of Peraleda del Zaucejo, on the Extremadura/Andalucia border.  The only other town the Republicans hold falls only three days later. The Republicans have lost almost 6,000 men by this time, for no gain at all.

General Solchaga and General Yagüe’s Nationalist troops reached the Llobregat river, just a few kilometres west of Barcelona,  Generals Muñoz Grandes and Garcia Valiño attacked Sabadell and Terrassa, and General Gambara advances to Badalona.  Barcelona is now surrounded by the Nationalists and the three lines of defense set up around Barcelona, composed of all men aged 18 -45, with all the city’s industry militarised, cannot save the city. Prime Minister Negrín gets a call from the head of the Republican Army, General Rojo, to tell him that the frontline around Barcelona has been completely shattered.

January 23

The Republican government decides to abandon Barcelona as the capital and heads for Figueres Castle, and most of Barcelona’s political prisoners are released. Much of the population of the city is now fleeing north towards France, and the men on the frontline have either been killed or have retreated from advancing Nationalists. The aircraft overhead are still bombing Barcelona ten times per day.

January 25

One day after General Garcia Valiño’s men capture Manresa, the Nationalist vanguard takes the town of Tibidabo, the highest mountain around Barcelona, which overlooks the entire city. The Nationalists are now on the outskirts of Barcelona and all the defensive lines are gone.

Sadly, some in Barcelona felt like fascism was liberation. Talk about messed up

January 26

Nationalist troops march through the streets of Barcelona, where General Yagüe’s  Regulares begin their execution spree. While Barcelona is ravaged, the Catalonia offensive is halted briefly, meaning many civilians who have fled north towards France have no advancing troops at their backs . But the German Condor Legion and and Italian Aviazione Legionaria  continue their campaign from the air, bombing towns and roads on the 160 kilometre hike to the French border.

Franco’s fascist troops enter Barcelona

January 28

The town of Granollers, thirty kilometres north of central Barcelona is captured by the Nationalists. Just eight kilometres north of Granollers, the town of La Garriga has 10,000 people, 7,000 of them Madrid and Basque refugees, and now has the remaining Republican troops under General Lister hiding with them. With the Nationalists in Granollers, the men have to leave, while the refugees have nowhere to go but towards France, if they dare.

Refugees head for the border

January 29

The Italians send ten bombers to La Garriaga, and bomb the town over two days, though Republican troops are gone, leaving 13 civilian casualties; one local, five refugees and seven children. Bombing La Garriga’s train station means getting north is much harder for Republicans.

January 31

The French government, who announced they opened the border on January 28, start receiving the first of 400,000 – 500,000 refugees into the country, those who are first to make the walk through the snow. Republican troops are not yet permitted to enter, yet the remaining men are flanking the refugees on their dangerous walk, while the German Condor Legion continues to bomb them from overhead. Once the Nationalists reach the frontier, they plan to close the border, meaning there is nothing but executions and oppression for all remaining Spaniards who opposed the rebel invasion. They have only ten more days to make the freezing, bomb-ridden march towards France, while starved and/or injured and all traumatised.

Republican men head for the border

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the month’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘La Reine Blanche, Mary Tudor- Henry VIII’s Sister’ by Sarah Bryson

Mary Tudor’s childhood was overshadowed by the men in her life: her father, Henry VII, and her brothers Arthur, heir to the Tudor throne, and Henry VIII. These men and the beliefs held about women at the time helped to shape Mary’s life. She was trained to be a dutiful wife and at the age of eighteen Mary married the French king, Louis XII, thirty-four years her senior.

When her husband died three months after the marriage, Mary took charge of her life and shaped her own destiny. As a young widow, Mary blossomed. This was the opportunity to show the world the strong, self-willed, determined woman she always had been. She remarried for love and at great personal risk to herself. She loved and respected Katherine of Aragon and despised Anne Boleyn – again, a dangerous position to take.

Author Sarah Bryson has returned to primary sources, state papers and letters, to unearth the truth about this intelligent and passionate woman. This is the story of Mary Tudor, told through her own words for the first time.

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I have always had a soft spot or Mary Tudor. She was the daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. One brother was destined to be king, and the other brother really took the throne. Her sister was Queen of Scotland. It could be easy to think Mary Tudor achieved little, but she might have been the happiest of them all.

Mary was only 18 when she had to marry the 52yo King of France. I can only think how foul that would be for Europe’s most beautiful princess (she was no fool, but as per the time period, her appearance was her talking point). Mary may have been sold off to the highest bidder by her brother Henry, but she had already planned her next move – to marry Henry’s bestie Charles Brandon. Brandon had already sidelined two wives and was ready to marry the lovely Mary.

Luckily for everyone, the French king died after three months of marriage and Mary married Brandon in secret. Bryson’s book tells this wonderful tale in full detail, of two people defying King Henry to hatch this plan and marry. Was Brandon a gold -digger? I shall reserve my opinion and you can make yours while reading the book.

The author used primary sources to write about the life of Mary, in order to create a full picture of who she was outside the shadows of the men around her. Mary’s letters have survived, giving us her own hand, her own thought process. Mary was the perfect princess; beautiful, virtuous, religious, skilled in all the areas a woman was meant to excel. But Mary was no uneducated woman – she may have been handed to France and into the bed of a creepy old guy, but she knew how to play men. Mary used a classic skill – make the man in her way think her ideas were all his, and then praised him for ‘his’ thoughts, while succeeding behind his back. Women with opinions were heretics; women who praised men after planting ideas were perfect wives/sisters/princesses/mothers. Mary used her charm not only for herself, but for people who came to her in need, a calming female voice in a harsh male world.

Mary became The White Queen (the nickname often now given to her grandmother Elizabeth) while wearing white, the French colour of mourning. Mary was meant to waiting to see if she was carrying the French heir, but instead she was writing, to plan the fortunes of the rest of her life. Mary wanted to come back to England, not stay in France and be married off again for English-French relations. Mary wanted to marry Brandon, and she was played the slow game in her words to her kingly brother.

Mary, of course, suffered for her marriage to Brandon, but being Henry’s favourite sister, returned to glory, bore many children with Brandon, and died in her fifties after spending her life beloved by her brother and husband. Her granddaughter Jane would become England’s queen for nine days. Mary was not just a king’s sister and pawn, she was a woman who was able to quietly plot the course of her life. Mary was not loud or dramatic in history, yet a woman born to an extraordinary couple, with extraordinary siblings, and lived her own free life in a time of great turmoil.

This is the only book I would turn to when referencing Mary Tudor. It is an essential volume on any discerning bookshelf.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 100 – 103: 1 – 30 June 1938

100 weeks into the 80th anniversary blog and still going, not a week missed (okay, sometimes late, but life happens)!

June 6

The small town of Bielsa on the border with France has been home to the Bielsa Pocket, all-out fighting for almost two months. The town of 4,000 people has been protected by the Republican 43rd division led by Antonio Beltran, though they have lost many men. The Nationalists have the entire Aragon and Huesca regions under their control, and only need to defeat the 43rd division, which have only half the number of men and almost no artillery. Much of the population of the Pineta Valley area around Bielsa has followed the Alto Cinca river north  to the border into France, which is still currently open. But on the morning of June 6, the Nationalists break through the frontline to take the town of Biesla. The battle has no importance to the war, yet the hold-up since mid-April means that many Republicans have been able to flee to safety through the difficult terrain into France. This delay in the Nationalist march gives the Republicans a huge morale boost as the 6,000 Republican soldiers bravely fought back.

Pineta valley and Alto Cinca river into France

June 13

The Levante Offensive has continued, despite the huge cache of Soviet artillery the Republicans have received over the French  border. The Nationalists, continuing their three-pronged attack from the north, west, and northwest battalions, take Castellón, capital of the Levante region of north Valencia. It is General Rafael Garcia Valiño’s northwest battalion which has fought its way south through the harsh mountainous terrain, bombing and destroying villages such as Benassal, Albocásser, Ares del Maestrat, and Vilar de Canes. Many in this arid region have never seen bombs or German aircraft, and were killed without resistance. Vilafamés  has an airfield which makes the village a target, the town crushed in the Nationalist trek south to Castellón. Castellón is a key port for the Nationalists to gain, to receive more equipment needed to continue south.

Vilafames in 1938

(Side note: I first visited Vilafamés 13 years ago, when it was still a loooong way off the tourist trail, and is still quiet now. Finding any evidence of the SCW was either hidden or locked away from the public.  The locals thought me suspicious, a foreigner loaded down with babies and looking for war info. Lots of old ladies twitching their curtains. 

In February this year, Vilafamés reopened the old war airfield and its 11,000 square-metre area, home to the old aviation telecommunications tower,  air-raid shelters, staff kitchens, 200 metres of trenches, basic shelters, ammunition store, pilot flying records, a life-size replica of a Polikarpov I-15 ‘Chato’ aircraft, and memorial plaques. All of these areas are fully accessible to the public, considered a living museum, and also has a full military re-enactment camp, medical tents, radio posts and machine gun positions. They have also written a book on the area, which is a good read if you know Spanish, though being filled with photographs and artwork, anyone can enjoy) 

Click here to read more about the book and authors

Franco wants to be in Valencia by July 25, only 70km south of Castellón, and wants the port village of Sagunto, just 30km north of Valencia, immediately. But the Condor Legion are exhausted after bombing their way south through the Levante, and wants to be withdrawn. Generals call for the battle to Valencia to be abandoned, but Franco will not oblige. By the end of the month, Franco will reinforce the Levante troops, now given new leaders, fresh men and an enormous artillery, with some 900 cannons, 400 new aircraft and 50 Italian bombers. The men will be put into the Turia corps, but the second half of June yields little result. The Sierra Espada, the mountains leading from Sagunto on the coast northwest towards Teruel are impossible terrain for Nationalist troops, and the Republicans have managed to hold them back. The reinforcements are coming, and yet the Republicans are in a firm position to hold Sagunto and Valencia.

There are still many war secrets hidden in this area

June 16

The Republican fighters who held the Bielsa pocket complete their final retreat, with the last troops crossing the border into France. The French government gives them a choice – they can re-enter Spain on the Republican or Nationalist side. While 411 men and five nurses choose to join the Nationalists, another 6,000 re-enter Spain to continue the fight against the Francoists.

The 43rd division

June 25

The border from Spain to France as been open since March 17, allowing many people over to safety and weapons in to fight Franco’s men. But the flow of weapons and refugees has taken a toll on France and its relations with other nations in Europe. The border is ordered closed again, cutting off countless thousands from reaching safety. The closure of the border means that Spaniards are completely on their own again while the Nationalists still have access to men and weapons via Italy and Germany. With the border again closed and countries all trying to stay out of the war while they worry about European war, the time the International Brigades can remain in Spain is starting to look short, but first shall come July’s Ebro Offensive.

The below video has no date of the footage nor the location it was shot, but does show how many wished to escape into France on any given day during the precious three months the border was open. 

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the month’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.

This Week in Spanish Civil War History – Weeks 95 – 99: 1 – 31 May 1938

May was considered a quiet month in terms of gains in the war, it was certainly not quiet. After the heavy battle of the Aragon offensive, the Levante Offensive was proving to be slow-going for troops on either side due to weather and terrain. Madrid was being bombed constantly, as those defending the city were cold and suffering from lack of food and ammunition. Franco accepted he could not just take the city, but continued to bomb slowly, restricting the Madrid defenders piece by piece. Barcelona was still reeling from bombings earlier in the year, and plagued by constant infighting between Republican factions. Northern Spain was completely dominated by the 1937 invasion by the Nationalists. Seville had been captured on day one of the war and was locked down in fascist hell, as was nearby Granada. Salamanca further north suffered a similar fate, while across in Valencia and Alicante, they were far from the frontlines but their ports were subject to attack by air. Almeria was filled with refugees from southern Spain who had nowhere to turn. People in the cities were suffering from lack of food, safe shelter and medical care, while rural homes and small villages had the additional struggles with weather, poor crops, lack of supplies and trade and constant skirmishes of fighting.

May 1 – Bielsa Pocket Offensive

By the end of April, the Nationalists had reached the Mediterranean coast, breaking through at Vinaros, the most northern town of the coastal Valencia region. The Aragon Offensive had stretched through the entire Aragon region, leaving just one pocket, the town of Bielsa, under Republican control. The tiny town on the border with France is home to around 4,000 people living in the Pineta valley by the Alto Cinca river. The 43rd division, led by Antonio “El Esquinazado (The Dodger)” Beltran, a group of 7,000 men, have only four guns and no chance of any reinforcements or air cover. Meanwhile, the Nationalists in the surrounding area have double the men, with plenty of weapons and enormous air support.

The one thing which saves the Bielsa pocket is the difficult terrain, which surrounds the valley which leads directly into the Pyrenees. The Republicans, with almost no ammunition, manage to hold off the Nationalists in outbreaks of attack, backed up by bad weather. The Bielsa pocket managed to stay unharmed through April in snow and fog, but the weather begins to clear in May, so the Republicans start evacuating the 4,000 residents of the valley over the Pyrenees and safely into France. The troops manage to hold the Nationalists back as the civilians make the trek into France, but the Republicans do not flee and continue to fight to hold the Bielsa pocket, as it represents a huge morale boost for Republicans everywhere. Despite the overwhelming odds, the Republicans would hold the Bielsa pocket well into June. Some of the soldiers and nurses  choose to return to the Nationalist regions after aiding refugees, but almost 6,000 remain to fight.

The Pineta Valley north of Bielsa, where the refugees trekked to safety in France
The Republican 43rd division

May 11 – Levante Offensive

The Levante Offensive, which started on April 25, is continuing in difficult terrain. Due to the bad weather of April, all attacks were halted, giving the Republicans time to receive their new artillery, shipped over the French border courtesy of the Russians.  They were fitted out with Soviet Supermosca (I-16 Type 10) fighters with four machine-guns, 40 Grumman FF fighters and anti-aircraft guns. The Nationalists wish to make it south to Castellon, some 80 kilometres south from their first break into the region.

Nationalist faction tracking south through the Levante through three different divisions

The Nationalist Galician troops start heading south along the coast, the Castile troops head east from Teruel and the Maestrazgo troops headed southeast through the mountains in the centre. The Republicans, with their new equipment, are able to slow the inevitable march of the troops south, with none of the groups reaching Castellon by the end of May. Individual skirmishes break out through the month but casualty numbers are not recorded, though it is estimated  that in May, around 10,000 Nationalist men are killed, with only around 2,500 Republican casualties.

May 22 – Balaguer Offensive

The battle of Balaguer had been continuing since its first outbreak in early April. Francoist men had held the Segre river and the bridgehead into the town, when the Republicans were forced to remain in retreat on the east side of the river. On May 22, the Republicans again try to launch an offensive to take the Balaguer bridgehead, resulting in fighting going for a full seven days, but the Nationalist men are better trained, equipped and prepared.

Frontline through from Bielsa in the Aragon far north, down through the Levante – May 1938

Some of the Republican soldiers are only in their mid-teens and have received no training. By the end of the week of fighting, the Republicans have to withdraw and leave their casualties behind. Numbers of casualties during the constant outbreaks around Balaguer are not recorded, instead considered part of the overall push towards defeating Catalonia. The Republicans at Balaguer have successfully held the Nationalists as they slowly head into Catalonia, fearful of angering nearby France. The Balaguer Offensive will not end until January 1939.

The website on the Balaguer offensive of very thorough and has many photos and details of the battles and how it looks today. Click on the photos to access the site.

May 25 – Alicante bombing

After the Aragon Offensive, Franco changes tactics to destroy the Republican maritime trade and along with it, their morale. The Italian Aviazione Legionaria and the German Condor Legion plan to undertake bombings of the remaining Republican-held cities. Valencia, Gandia, Barcelona, Murcia, Alicante, Granollers and other Spanish towns are made targets.

Aerial attack on Alicante

Nine Italian Aviazione Legionaria bombers attack Alicante. Alicante has been far safer than any other Spanish city and has no working air-raid alarm and the anti-aircraft artillery is unusable.  Ninety bombs are dropped, many into the market and central city area. The deaths of civilians range between 275 and 393, some 100 of them unable to be unidentified due to damage. The Italians have no problems bombing purely civilian targets, just as the Germans have done.

Italy had already accepted to withdraw from Spain at the end of the war and to allow the Mediterranean to be safe and back to normal. But while saying this, they then sent another 3,000 men to Spain to fight and started bombing Mediterranean ports.

May 31 – Granollers bombing

Five Italian Aviazione Legionaria bombers attack Granollers. The town is only 30 kilometres north of Barcelona and has no military targets and is not a port town. One hundred kilograms of bombs, around 40 individual bombs, land in the city.  As the bombing lands in the city centre, most of the dead are women and children at the market. The death toll is estimated at between 100 and 224, as not everyone missing was found after the attack. 

Granollers after the bombing May 31, 1938

Only now does the rest of Europe stop to pause over the bombings of civilian targets, after more than a year of specific bombings. The British government sends two officers to carry out enquiry, who report that the bombings are being planned and carried out only to install terror.  The British government pairs with the Vatican, who appeal to Burgos (Franco’s Spanish capital), plus Rome and Berlin. Rome blames Burgos for ordering the attack, despite Alicante and Granollers being Italian attacks.  Italy’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Mussolini’s son-in-law Gian Galeazzo Ciano promises to look into the bombings, and calls Berlin to report – “actually, we have, of course, done nothing, and have no intention of doing anything either.”

List of cities to be targeted by the Italians, as found in an Italian notebook dated January – September 1938

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This is not a detailed analysis, just a highlight (lowlight?) of the month’s events. Things get lost in translation – Feel free to suggest an addition/clarification/correction below. The more the world remembers, the better. All photos and captions are auto-linked to source for credit, and to provide further information.