What were the inalienable heirlooms of the Habsburgs?

Amongst a glittering treasury of splendours, the Habsburgs revered two objects above all others. One was a bowl reputed to be the Holy Grail and the other was a unicorn’s horn. 


A truly Imperial collection

The Habsburgs were amongst Europe’s pre-eminent collectors. They collected titles (from the Count of Habsburg to the Holy Roman Emperor with a host of dukedoms, royal and imperial titles in-between), lands (by 1700, Habsburgs ruled Spain, southern Italy, Milan, Austria, Hungary, Bohemia and Flanders) and brides (a favoured motto for the family was bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube (let others wage war; you, happy Austria, marry) [1].

But of the many things that the Habsburgs collected, nothing captured the imagination like the riches of the Imperial Treasury. And, of these, the two ‘inalienable heirlooms of the House of Austria’ were the most precious. They were the finest objects in the thaumaturgical collection – the Holy Grail and a sceptre forged from a unicorn’s horn.

Compared with these treasures, the crown jewels of other countries were merely shiny trinkets. These were the rarest, holiest and most potent symbols of the preeminence of the Habsburgs. They were accorded solemn and divine status. A binding contract, similar to a deed, ensured that they would stay in the family. And, inevitably, they were both fakes.

The Holy Grail?

According to legend, the Holy Grail was the vessel that caught the blood of Jesus Christ as he hung on the cross. Over the centuries, it was imagined as a cup, goblet or bowl. It inspired art and literature, with a written record stretching back to Chrétien de Troyes’s Perceval written at the end of the twelfth century.

According to the Habsburgs, the Holy Grail was their very own Agate Bowl (Achatschale). This immense object was hewn from a single piece of agate. It remains the largest carved stone bowl in the world.

The Agate Bowl By MyName (Gryffindor) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The scale was impressive, but the workmanship made it unrivalled. The stone was polished until it gleamed with a translucent glow. It has an iridescent brilliance that seems to capture light and colour. These characteristics alone made it a prized object.

What transformed it into a holy relic was a mysterious inscription embedded in the very veins of the agate. In a certain light, the letters XRISTO could be seen.

A unicorn’s horn?

Unicorns are mythical animals with potent symbolism in European legends. They are typically depicted as horses distinguished by a single straight horn protruding from their foreheads.

They were wild, untameable beasts which could only be captured by a pure and chaste virgin. In allegorical stories, tapestries and tableaux, the entrapment of a unicorn was symbolic of the Passion of Christ. In the 1470s, Leonardo da Vinci drew a maiden with a unicorn. In his notebook, he explained:

The unicorn … because of its intemperance, not knowing how to control itself before the delight it feels towards maidens, forgets its ferocity and wildness, and casting aside all fear it will go up to the seated maiden and sleep in her lap, and thus the hunter takes it [2].

The Habsburgs were keen to bolster the family’s image of holiness. This was more than a sign of devotion. It was an integral component of their most important title as Holy Roman Emperors. A unicorn’s horn was, therefore, an impressive sign of the owner’s standing in the Christian faith. So it wasn’t a great leap for the family to incorporate a unicorn’s horn into their sceptre.

Imperial Crown, Orb and Sceptre of the House of Austria By Bede735c (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The two most essential items in any set of European crown jewels are the crown and sceptre. Five public houses are named the Crown and Sceptre in Greater London alone [3]. The sceptre represents authority and power. It is analogous to a staff, rod or wand of office. The sceptre of the House of Austria certainly conveys that impression.

The sceptre’s magnificent head is worked in enamelled gold. It is topped by a large sapphire, a nod to similar stones set in the Crown and the Imperial Orb. Exquisite work by the Imperial goldsmith incorporates diamonds, rubies, pearls and emeralds [4].

But it is the simple shaft that was the most important element for the Habsburgs. This was the section of the Sceptre that had been fashioned from the horn of a unicorn. This Ainkhürn, or alicorn was amongst the most valuable objects that a medieval monarch could possess.

A more mundane beast

What was to stop a spendthrift monarch pawning these otherwise priceless treasures? How could the family prevent their most precious possessions ending up outside of their control? The answer was a legal covenant.

As Manfred Leithe-Jasper writes in his encyclopaedic reference work on the Imperial and Ecclesiastical Treasury:

Their cultural value was deemed so important that, after Ferdinand I’s death in 1564, his sons declared them to be “inalienable heirlooms of the house of Austria” [5]

Pod of narwhals By Dr. Kristin Laidre, Polar Science Center, UW NOAA/OAR/OER (NOAA Photolib Library) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the first documented reference of the Agate Bowl is in this deed, dated in 1564 and executed by Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian II and his brothers. In it, they declared the bowl to be an “inalienable heirloom of the house of Austria”. From that date onwards, they were the property of the entire dynasty, now and forever.

Today, they are part of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien’s most impressive collection of imperial objects. The museum now describes the ‘Holy Grail’ as The Agate Bowl. The unicorn’s horn, the shaft of the Imperial Sceptre, is now recognised as the tusk of a rather more mundane beast – the narwhal.


[1] Brook-Shepherd, Gordon. The Austrians: A Thousand-year Odyssey. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1997 (click here). A longer and more poetic iteration of this motto was, ‘Leave the waging of wars to others! But you, happy Austria, marry; for the realms which Mars awards to others, Venus transfers to you.’

[2] “Universal Leonardo: Leonardo Da Vinci Online.” Young Woman Seated in a Landscape with a Unicorn. Accessed September 29, 2016. http://www.universalleonardo.org/work.php?id=438.

Description of a pen and ink sketch by Leonardo da Vinci at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

[3] Adams, John. “The Listed Pubs of London.” The Listed Pubs of London. Accessed September 29, 2016. http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ccaajpa/pubs-listed.html.

[4] “Sceptre – Andreas Osenbruck.” Google Cultural Institute. Accessed September 29, 2016. https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/u/0/asset/sceptre/DgFIvTi36arw6A.

From the collection of the Imperial Treasury, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

[5] Leithe-Jasper, Manfred, Rudolf Distelberger, and Dinah Livingstone. The Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna: The Imperial and Ecclestiastical Treasury. Vol. 1. (München: Beck, 1998), 7 (click here) .


The most spectacular incident of biological warfare?

The Black Death was one of history’s most destructive and transformative disasters. Was it caused by an intentional act of biological warfare?


A modern-day plague

The United States was under attack. In New York City, the twin towers of the World Trade Centre had been destroyed. In Washington D.C., a gaping hole was punched into the western side of Pentagon. Americans asked themselves ‘what was next’?

The answer would arrive in the post. Envelopes arrived at the offices of newspapers, television stations and politicians. They contained a brown powder. It was anthrax, a terrifying and lethal bacterial disease.

The attacks resulted in the deaths of five people. It was a doomsday scenario that worried emergency services and terrified the general public. Biological warfare had come to our cities.


Did the public’s concern over biological attack stems from a primordial fear of plague? Some of humanity’s greatest disasters sprang from the spread of this highly infectious disease.

In the Sixth-Century CE, the Plague of Justinian killed the last hope of reunifying the Roman Empire. European diseases ravaged native populations across the Americas in the decades following Columbus’s voyage.

The First World War was followed by a horrifying coda in form of an influenza pandemic. The Spanish Flu killed far more people than the conflict.

These were all natural disasters rather than manmade biological attacks. But was the most terrifying outbreak of plague started deliberately?

The Black Death as its disastrous consequence

Microbiologist Mark Wheelis thinks it is possible. He highlights the Siege of Caffa (sometimes written as Kaffa) in 1346. For some, this was the moment that plague moved from Asia to Europe. If the records are to be believed, this:

“should be recognized as the site of the most spectacular incident of biological warfare ever, with the Black Death as its disastrous consequence.” [1]


Gabriel de Mussis was a notary from Piacenza in Italy. He wrote a vivid account of the arrival of plague in his Istoria de Morbo (History of the Disease). The outbreak spread from port to port. First, it overran Sicily and then the Italian mainland. Europe’s trading lifelines became deadly highways for the transmission of the Black Death.

Most historians agree that the plague started in Asia. Given its virulence, how did it survive the long ocean voyages to reach Europe? According to de Mussis’ account, it was the combination of biological warfare and trade.

A mysterious illness which brought sudden death

De Mussis recounts how the plague ravaged lands so far away they were almost mythical:

“In 1346, in the countries of the East, countless numbers of Tartars and Saracens were struck down by a mysterious illness which brought sudden death. Within these countries broad regions, far-spreading provinces, magnificent kingdoms, cities, towns and settlements, ground down by illness and devoured by dreadful death, were soon stripped of their inhabitants.”


Meanwhile, intermittent conflict between Crimean Tartars and Christian merchants flared into warfare. Europeans poured into the Genoese port of Caffar. Soon, this outpost attracted the attentions of the Tartars, who laid siege. Few things were more conducive to the spread of infectious disease than conditions in a 14th century encampment. De Mussis picks up the narrative:

“But behold, the whole army was affected by a disease which overran the Tartars and killed thousands upon thousands every day. It was as though arrows were raining down from heaven to strike and crush the Tartars’ arrogance.

“they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside.”

All medical advice and attention was useless; the Tartars died as soon as the signs of disease appeared on their bodies: swellings in the armpit or groin caused by coagulating humours, followed by a putrid fever.”

The Black Death had struck, destroying the Tartar armies. It raised the tantalizing prospect that Caffar was saved by divine intervention. Unfortunately for the Genoese, the Tartars made one last attack:

“The dying Tartars, stunned and stupefied by the immensity of the disaster brought about by the disease, and realizing that they had no hope of escape, lost interest in the siege. But they ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside.”

Caffar’s residents would have survived a bad smell, no matter how putrid the air or unpleasant the prospect of raining corpses. But they couldn’t withstand the plague. The Genoese:

“fell victim to sudden death after contracting this pestilential disease, as if struck by a lethal arrow which raised a tumor on their bodies.”

Some boats were bound for Genoa, others went to Venice

For many of the city’s inhabitants, there was only one thing to do – go home. Ships sailed from the Black Sea carrying the Black Death. They headed to Italy and, almost inevitably:

“among those who escaped from Caffa by boat were a few sailors who had been infected with the poisonous disease. Some boats were bound for Genoa, others went to Venice and to other Christian areas.

When the sailors reached these places and mixed with the people there, it was as if they had brought evil spirits with them: every city, every settlement, every place was poisoned by the contagious pestilence, and their inhabitants, both men and women, died suddenly.”


As Professor Wheelis notes, de Mussis: “makes two important claims about the siege of Caffa and the Black Death that plague was transmitted to Europeans by the hurling of diseased cadavers into the besieged city of Caffa and that Italians fleeing from Caffa brought it to the Mediterranean ports.”

Only one of several streams of infected ships and caravans

So, was a deliberate act of biological warfare responsible for the death of between 30-60% of Europe’s total population? Professor Wheelis’s conclusion is clear – no. He believes that it is “unlikely that the attack had a decisive role in the spread of plague to Europe.”

Why? Because European trade routes were more extensive than a single link to Crimea. Professor Wheelis notes that: “much maritime commerce probably continued throughout this period, from other Crimean ports. Overland caravan routes to the Middle East were also unaffected.”

So, rather than being the sole source of plague “refugees from Caffa would most likely have constituted only one of several streams of infected ships and caravans leaving the region.”

Do you want to know more?

The Black Death is a compelling and terrifying subject. I came across this story when listening to Professor Dorsey Armstrong’s Great Courses series of lectures The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague (link). I can’t recommend it enough – it is a lucid, broad and fascinating introduction to one of Europe’s most important historical events.


[1] Wheelis, Mark. “Biological Warfare at the 1346 Siege of Caffa.” Emerg. Infect. Dis. Emerging Infectious Diseases 8, no. 9 (2002): 971-75 (link)

Give peace a chance? Congress’s lone World War pacifist

Only one Member of Congress, Representative Jeannette Rankin, voted against the resolution that brought the United States into the Second World War. Astonishingly, she had also voted against American participation in the First World War.


A clear, steady and solitary voice

‘In a clear, steady voice, Rankin voted “No,”. The packed House Chamber erupted with boos and jeers’.

President Roosevelt had just addressed the joint session of the 77th United States Congress. The 82 Senators present came together with 389 Representatives on the floor of the House. They had joined to denounce Japanese aggression at Pearl Harbour and to vote for war.

Jeannette_Rankin_portrait By Sharon Sprung (http://history.house.gov/Collection/Detail/29557) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On 7 April 1917, Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin voted against declaring war on Germany. And now,  24 years later, she faced another war resolution in Congress. She stuck to her pacifist beliefs and cast the only vote against declaring war on Japan. In doing so, she became the only Member of Congress to vote against both World Wars.

On 7 December 1941, the Empire of Japan launched its attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbour. This was, according to President Roosevelt, a date that would live in infamy. The next day, Congress was asked to pass a joint resolution to declare war against Japan.

She was one of only two Members of Congress present at both votes. But she was the only legislator to vote twice against the USA’s participation in a world war. The vote was unanimous in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, 388 members voted for the resolution.

There was only one vote against, from Miss Rankin.She was one of only two Members of Congress present at both votes. But she was the only legislator to vote twice against the USA’s participation in a world war.

‘I cannot vote for war’

It had been easier the first time. In 1917, she was one of 56 Members of Congress who voted against the resolution to declare war on Germany.

By April 1917, the clamour for the United States to enter the war had reached a fever pitch. Unrestricted submarine warfare sank millions of tonnes of American shipping. The indiscriminate naval conflict had seen the Kriegsmarine target passenger liners. The most infamous incident involved RMS Lusitania. Hit by a torpedo from a German U-Boat, she sank in 1915, with almost 1,200 civilians killed.

Jeannette Rankin By Matzene, Chicago [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Then there were clumsy German attempts to create local difficulties. In January 1917, Arthur Zimmermann, the German foreign minister, sent a telegram to Mexico. In the telegram, he invited Mexico to join in a war against the United States. The British intercepted the telegram and passed its explosive contents to the Americans.

The final straw was a Germany declaration on 31 January 1917. It announced that it would target neutral shipping in a designated war zone. In the following three months, U-Boats sank five US merchant ships. President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war.

Six Senators and 49 other Representatives joined Congresswoman Rankin to vote against war. Some were like-minded pacifists. Others had strong non-interventionist stances.

In casting her vote, she said: ‘I want to stand by my country, but I cannot vote for war. I vote no.’ This group did not represent the majority opinion of either House. The resolution passed by 82 to 6 in the Senate and 373 to 50 in the House of Representatives.

The situation was quite different in 1941. America had just suffered a calamitous and jolting attack from the sky. Her prize naval base in Hawaii, Pearl Harbour, was a twisted mass of smoking metal. Flames still rose up from disabled ships. Bodies still floated in the water.

The USS Arizona in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941

In Washington D.C., the political class reacted with shock and disbelief. Finally, a terrible fury was born fuelled by righteous indignation. An America predisposed to isolationism was difficult to rouse. Once her blood was up, however, nothing could satisfy her but victory.

NPR retold the story of how she cast her vote and the immediate aftermath:

‘In a clear, steady voice, Rankin voted “No”.The final vote for the U.S. entering the war was 388-1. Rankin was the only member of Congress who voted against the war.’

She was thanked with boos and hisses from the public galleries and press.

Explaining her vote, she said: “as a woman I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else”. Her stance killed any chances of being re-elected. She paid for her dissension in other ways. She received hate mail from across the country, and, in the House, she became a pariah.

The Jeannette Rankin Brigade

Rankin would have earned a place in history regardless of her stand against the two world wars. She was the first woman elected to Congress. She pushed legislation that would become the 19th amendment to the US Constitution.

Her vote in 1941 was not her last stand against American involvement in war. She campaigned against the Cold War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. On 15 January 1968, at the age of 87, she led a protest of 5,000 women to the foot of Capitol Hill. They campaigned against the US involvement in Vietnam as the ‘Jeannette Rankin Brigade’.

Statue of Jeannette Rankin in the National Statuary Hall Collection

After her death in 1973, her home state of Montana sent a statue depicting Jeannette Rankin to the U.S. Capitol. On the plinth are the words that accompanied her lonely 1941 vote: “I cannot vote for war.”

The Englishman who started the Spanish Civil War


This week, on the Vaguely Interesting Podcast, we go back to the 1930s and visit the Croydon Airport to meet the Englishman who started the Spanish Civil War.

Just after seven o’clock in the morning on 11 July 1936, Captain Cecil Bebb prepared his plane for take-off.

At a quarter past seven, Captain Bebb, along with his navigator Major Hugh Pollard and two female friends, launched into the air from London’s Croydon Airport.

DH.89 Dragon Rapide (G-AEML) at Kemble Airport Open Day, Gloucestershire, England, 9th September 2007. Built in 1936. Photographed by Adrian Pingstone and placed in the public domain.

Bebb’s de Havilland Dragon Rapide biplane headed south by southwest. This wasn’t an idle pleasure trip. Bebb’s flight would play an important part in the start of the Spanish Civil War.

Captain Bebb was a freelance pilot. His usual work involved shuttling travellers on short cross channel hops. A quick hop to Le Touquet or Le Bourget would transport the well heeled to the continent in less time than it took most to get into the West End of London.

But, on that Saturday in July, Captain Bebb’s mission was far more exotic. And it would have consequences that the pilot could not even begin to imagine.

His journey would take him to the Canary Islands and then on to Spanish Morocco. On arrival in the Canary Islands, he was to pick up a passenger, General Francisco Franco, and take him to Africa. With the future Caudillo on board, the flight would become one of the incendiary sparks of the Spanish Civil War.

Panoramic view over the city of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (Gran Canaria). Canary Islands, Spain by Matti Mattila

In 1936, the Canary Islands were the furthest outpost of a severely truncated Spanish state.  40 years before, Spain still had the remnants of a trans-Atlantic empire.  It still ruled the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico along with a clutch of Pacific islands.

These remnants were a far cry from the continent-spanning empire of Philip II, but they were enough to bolster Spain’s claims to imperial importance. But even this shrunken empire would not last into the 20th century.

In 1898, the United States fought and defeated Spain.  Within two years of that war, Spain had withdrawn from the Pacific and the Americas. Four centuries of imperial power had unraveled. Spanish imperialists were now forced to focus on a tiny spread of possessions much closer to home.

By the 1930s, the last remaining traces of the Spanish Empire were in or off the coast of Africa. Other European countries had carved vast empires in the scramble for Africa. Spain clung on to Morocco, the Canary Islands and Spanish Guinea. Spanish Morocco included Western Sahara and the autonomous cities of Ceuta and Melilla.

In the same four decades, political turmoil and revolution shook Spain. A shaky republican democracy had replaced a staid and out of touch monarchy. By 1936, left-wing parties were in the ascendent. Together, they formed a Popular Front. Its aim was to overcome infighting on the left and defeat the right wing parties.

The Popular Front won a narrow victory in that year’s general election. This was followed by attacks on the church, the army and the landowning class. The election result brought tensions between left and right to a head.

General Francisco Franco By Fondo Marín. Pascual Marín (http://www.guregipuzkoa.net/photo/1024720) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The republic’s leaders knew they had a problem with the army. They suspected that many senior figures were disloyal and could rebel. One solution was to send the most suspect and dangerous as far away from the main cities as possible. Franco’s destierro (banishment) to the Canary Islands moved him as far away as possible.

Franco was a key figure in right-wing plots to mount a coup against the republican government in Madrid. It was vital that he was brought closer to the mainland and put in control of the Army of Africa in Morocco. His July flight would take him from banishment and put him back at the centre of Spanish politics and, ultimately, civil war.

Coincidentally, it was another plane ride that would put Franco in charge of the uprising. General José Sanjurjo had been designated as the leader of the rightish forces. Just nine days after Franco’s flight, General Sanjurjo also took a flight. His journey, however, ended in tragedy when his plane crashed and the general died.

Hugh Bertie Campbell Pollard, firearms expert, author, and secret service agent

Did Captain Bebb know what he was getting involved in? Some sources claim that Bebb was an agent for Britain’s MI6. Others suggest that only Major Pollard was a spy and that he got Bebb involved as a trusted friend.

Major Pollard was a devout Roman Catholic who supported the Spanish Nationalists. Was the flight plotted by Douglas Francis Jerrold, the conservative Roman Catholic editor of the English Review?

Jerrold is reputed to have met with Luis Bolín, the London correspondent of the conservative ABC Newspaper. Bolín would later serve as Franco’s senior press advisor. According to this narrative, Jerrold then persuaded Pollard to organise the flight. Pollard, in turn, recruited Bebb as pilot, and then used his daughter Diana, and a friend, as cover for the mission.

In 1983, Granada TV interviewed Bebb for its documentary series on the Spanish Civil War. He recalls his role as little more than a ripping yarn from a spiffing romp.

“A gentleman from Spain … asked me if I was prepared to go to the Canary Islands to get a Rif leader to start an insurrection in Spanish Morocco. I thought ‘what a delightful idea, what a great adventure'”.

The resulting conflict was a brutal prelude to the clash of ideologies of the Second World War. Half a million Spaniards are estimated to have lost their lives. The country would live under the Franco dictatorship for the following 40 years.


A dream that burst into flames – the British Hindenburg disaster

Scores of people died when the airship burst into flames. It crashed into the ground just over 50 miles away from one of the world’s most important cities. Its demise marked the end of a national programme of airship construction and the death of an imperial dream.

But this is not about the Hindenburg disaster. Just under seven years earlier, the British faced a similar tragedy when His Majesty’s Airship R101 plunged to the ground north of Paris.


The story of LZ 129 Hindenburg’s tragic last flight is well known. Hundreds of people came to watch the famous airship land. A live account of its fiery destruction on 6 May 1937 was broadcast on the radio. The recording became famous around the world. HMA R101 did not have an audience to witness its last moments.

British Airship R101

R101 was the flagship of the Imperial Airship Service. The blimps were designed to bind the far flung territories of the British Empire with vastly improved communications. Sailing times of weeks and even months could be compressed into days. They might be slower than planes, but they offered the promise of cruise ship levels of comfort to well heeled passengers.

Airship R101 at mooring mast (1929)

The project was initiated at the fourth Imperial Conference in 1921. The crash of R101 meant it would be terminated before the seventh Imperial Conference in 1930.

R101, along with her sister airship R100, would ply the route from London to Australia via Egypt and India. Alternatively, they could head west, crossing the Atlantic and linking Britain with Canada.

Whichever route they plied, they would play an integral role in linking London with other capitals in the Empire and Commonwealth.

Cardington Shed By Mac from UK (Cardington Airship Shed) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Those dreams would go up in flames when the dirigible crashed in France on 5 October 1930. Out of the 54 people on board, 48 died including the Air Minister Lord Thomson.

Even if public faith in airship travel wasn’t fatally compromised, the crash had robbed the Royal Airship Works of its most important designers and engineers.

Warwolf – King Edward’s secret weapon to hammer the Scots

Stirling Castle is a striking, man-made addition to an already formidable natural fortress. Sheer cliffs thrust up from the rolling Scottish Lowlands. The thick castle walls extend these solid quartz-dolerite foundations towards the sky. It is imposing and seems impregnable. It probably was, at least until Warwolf came to visit.


In 1304, Stirling Castle was the last Scottish holdout to the English invasion. Edward I of England had lived up to his enduring nickname. He had almost hammered the Scots into submission. But to have complete control of his northern neighbour, he needed to capture Stirling.

A photograph of Stirling Castle, in Stirling, Scotland.

Stirling wasn’t just a strong castle. It was synonymous with royal authority in Scotland. Its location, at the heart of Scotland and controlling the River Forth crossing, gave it an incredible importance. It was the gateway to the Highlands that could be slammed shut if it was allowed to remain in enemy hands.

Edward was not the sort of man who would let something he wanted remain in enemy hands.

His war machine had already laid low several of Scotland’s most formidable castles. With the country almost completely subdued, his relentless focus was now on bringing Stirling to submission.

Stirling Castle with the foothills of the Scottish Highlands in the background By RFARKAS (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

His army surrounded the castle and laid siege. His engineers constructed the siege engines that had been deployed to devastating effect earlier in the campaign. He deployed the latest military technology, ordering that the components of gunpowder be brought up from England:

‘We command you, that in haste, you cause to be purveyed to the city of York a horseload of cotton thread, a load of quick sulphur, and another of saltpetre’.

Edward I of England

Edward did not want to leave anything to chance. He didn’t want to merely suppress Scottish opposition; he wanted to crush it. And, to do this, and to leave an indelible impression of English might, he ordered the construction of what was one of the medieval age’s largest siege engines.

Fearsome weapons of war developed nicknames that have endured through the centuries. Edward’s machine had a suitably uncompromising name – Warwolf. Whether rendered as Warwolf, War Wolf, Loup de Guerre, Ludgar or Lupus Guerre, it was designed to strike terror.

Trebuchet in Castelnaud, France by Luc Viatour / www.Lucnix.be

Warwolf is believed to have been a trebuchet. All that is clear from the scant historical record is that it was a vast and complicated machine. It is believed to be the largest trebuchet ever made and, when disassembled, filled 30 wagons. It took “fifty carpenters and five foremen a long time to complete”. Indeed, some accounts say it took three months to build.

Was this creation so fearsome to behold that it induced the strongest castle in Stirling to surrender?

Historians disagree on what eventually induced the castle to surrender. Stirling’s own local history pages provide alternative explanations to the fear induced by War Wolf. In one version, “Edward succeeded in filling the moat with earth and stone and prepared scaling ladders and ropes, and the garrison saw their fate and offered their surrender. Another says that Edward managed to breach a wall with a ram, which convinced the garrison to surrender. Another explanation was starvation.”

What is clear, however, is that the garrison were willing to surrender. Matthew Strickland’s account notes that, ‘ ‘by a piece of cold-blooded cruelty which shows Edward in a singularly unattractive light’, the king refused to allow the garrison to capitulate until he had brought his great engine ‘War Wolf’ to play against the castle.’

The English king is widely quoted as replying to the plea for surrender that, “You don’t deserve any grace, but must surrender to my will.”

19th Century diagram of a medieval trebuchet

In the Book of the Crossbow, Ralph Payne-Gallwey quotes Sir Walter de Bedewyne, a contemporary observer, to explain what happened next:

‘As for news, Stirling Castle was absolutely surrendered to the King without conditions this Monday, St. Margaret’s day, but the King wills it that none of his people enter the castle till it is struck with his “War-wolf,” and that those within the castle defend themselves from the said “War-wolf” as best they can.’

Edward was not going to be denied the fun of unleashing his lethal creation. One contemporary account has Warwolf levelling a section of the wall of the castle. The siege of Stirling Castle was concluded soon after.

In The Hammer of the Scots, David Santiuste, finishes off the story:

‘Finally, on 20 July, Edward agreed to accept the garrison’s submission. The account in Flores tells us that the patriots embraced their allotted role in the spectacle, emerging with ashes on their heads and halters round their necks, placing themselves utterly at Edward’s mercy. This done, the king ultimately spared their lives – although [Sir William] Oliphant [the commander of the garrison] and his men were imprisoned. Only fifty had survived from the initial 120.’

Framing the question – history’s lessons for winning and losing referenda

On Sunday, Greeks will go to the polls to vote in a crucial referendum. The politics are fraught, the media is frenzied and accusations and recriminations are already flying.

The ballot paper has attracted plenty of attention, both inside and outside of Greece. The question is detailed and, to eyes that are unaccustomed to non-Roman alphabets, impenetrable.


Some commentators have pointed out that the ‘no’ option is given first. It made me think about referenda ballots that have been decidedly imbalanced.  When with these, Greece’s ballot looks the model of democratic accountability.

1. Austrian referendum in 1938 on union with Germany

On 10 April 1938, Austrians went to the polls to decide the future of their country. At stake was whether Austria would join with Nazi Germany in a Greater German Empire.

Austria had emerged from the ruins of the Great War as a republic. The imperial heart of the Habsburg empire, Vienna, was now without both its monarchy and the bulk of its former territories and people.

The result was never really in doubt. Even so, the vote produced an eye-brow raising 99.73% support for the proposition. According to the official figures, only 11,929 people vote no (out of an electorate of 4,484,617). Did the ballot play a part?

Ballot used for Austrian referendum, 1938 See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It certainly wasn’t a subtle ballot. It uses the unmistakably Teutonic font preferred by the Nazi regime. The circle for yes is twice the size as that for no. Yes is placed in the centre, under the large rendering of Adolf Hitler. No is placed, as a seeming after thought, off to the right.

It almost certainly had no material impact on the results. Still, it was crystal clear which option the authorities wanted you to pick.

2. Italian general election in 1934

General elections are usually different from referenda. The former ask you to choose between parties seeking to fill seats in the legislature and form a government. The latter ask the electorate’s opinion of a specific question.

In Italy, the two merged into a strange election to validate an entirely fascist parliament. Voters could either vote for or against the National Fascist Party’s list. They did so by folding a decidedly unsubtle ballot paper.

Fascist ballot paper, Legislatura XXIX, politic election, 25 marzo 1934, front side of the "Sì" (Yes) ballot paper. The "NO" ballot paper is similar but completely white (without the Italian flag colour), so the vote was not secret. You can read: "Do you agree with the list of deputies chosen by the Grand Council of Fascism?" By Oggetto di mia (Accurimbono) proprietà. (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On one side, the vivid green and red stripes of the Italian flag frame the large YES option. To vote yes, the card was simply folded with the colours showing. The other side was plain white, with just the text of the question and NO. To select this option, the voter folded the card to hide the flag.

This was highly symbolic and also had the impact of destroying the secret ballot. It was clear who was voting yes and who was voting no. This goes some way to explaining the official result of 99.84% in favour of the National Fascist Party.

3. Chilean national consultation in 1978

In 1978, the United Nations accused Chile of human rights violations. President Pinochet responded with a referendum to demonstrate the support he enjoyed in the country.

The question was decidedly leading:

“Given the international aggression against the government of our country, I support President Pinochet in his defense of the dignity of Chile, and I confirm again the legitimacy of the Government of the Republic in its sovereign head of the institutionalization process in the country.”

The ballot paper was even more so.

Chilean national consultation 1978 ballot paper See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Vote yes, with the flag of Chile. Or vote no, with a black box further down the ballot paper.

4. Referendum on the future of the Soviet Union in 1991

By 1991, the Soviet Union was under considerable pressure from all sides. Pro-Soviet governments had collapsed across eastern Europe. More independent minded nationalities, such as Georgia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, were straining to secede from the Union.

The authorities decided that a popular vote would bolster the Union, and declared a referendum. It was held on 17 March 1991. The ballot paper was admirably neutral, with equal prominence given to both options.

Soviet Union referendum, ballot 1991 By USSR [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But the question was, at best, leading:

“Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?”

Many Soviet citizens did. The result was a landslide in favour, with 77.85% voting yes. This wasn’t enough to save the USSR. Just over nine months later, the USSR was dissolved.

Which European country tops the sovereign default league table?

Sovereign debt default was a lot more common when it was literally sovereigns defaulting. Kings liked money. They didn’t like paying it back. So, quite often, they didn’t.

In the richest economies, default has become rare. One of the reasons the Greek financial crisis is dominating headlines and moving markets around the world is the rarity of a rich country failing to pay back the IMF.

But back in the nineteenth century, defaults were far more common. The table below compares the number of sovereign debt defaults in a selection of European countries from 1800 onward. There are lots of different ways of classifying a sovereign debt default; I’ve used the dates from this paper.

European sovereign debt league table

For more on the history of sovereign debt, plus a reading list, visit my 2011 post Screwing the moneylenders.

The coronation that never was

On 12 May 1937, Westminster Abbey rang with shouts acclaiming the new King-Emperor. In 1936, Britain had prepared for the coronation. Much of this effort was wasted when Edward VIII abdicated on 10 December 1936. Everyone had been getting ready for the coronation that never was. 

The Coronation of a new King-Emperor promised a bonanza for British manufacturers. Factories that had been quiet during the darkest days of the Great Depression now hummed with activity. 

Souvenir for the coronation of Edward VIII

Orders poured in for mugs, plates, medallions and a myriad other souvenirs. Many featured the distinctive profile of the new monarch, his head turned to the left to show off his sharp side-parting.

The London Illustrated News decided to scoop its rivals by commissioning an opulent coronation portrait. Albert H Collings depicted the King wearing purple and gold robes with an ermine cape and the gold and ruby chain of the Order of the Garter. 

Coronation portrait of Edward VIII (Illustrated London News)

Meanwhile, official preparations were set into motion. Illustrators got to work on the design of the official souvenir programme. Prints would be sent around the world well in advance of the ceremony. 

There was just one problem. Everything was made in the dying months of 1936 and depicted a King who was about the abdicate. Outstanding orders were discretely cancelled. Items already produced were destroyed or hidden away. They were souvenirs for the coronation that never was.

Edward VIII had succeeded his father on 20 January 1936. He broke royal protocol to watch the proclamation of his accession the next day. This was a sign of the crisis to come. It showed his disregard for tradition. Even worse, he was watching with the still married Wallis Simpson.

King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson on holiday in Yugoslavia, 1936 By National Media Museum from UK [see Wiki Commons page for license], via Wikimedia Commons

As 1936 unfolded, the constitutional crisis developed in intensity. British newspapers had been silent on the scandalous union between Edward and Wallis. Their American and European counterparts did not uphold such discretion and gleefully reported every detail.

As news seeped into the UK, public opinion moved sharply against the new king. The British political and religious establishment made it clear that Edward and Wallis’s relationship could not continue. 

Wallis was already a divorcee. She was about to divorce her second husband so that she could marry Edward. Perhaps even more shocking to imperial Brits, she was American.  

Edward wanted to defy convention and public opinion. He wanted to have his woman and keep his crown. Incongruous preparations for his 12 May 1937 coronation unfolded at same time as the crisis meetings that would lead to his abdication. 

With only months left, officials, newspapers and manufacturers carried on their preparations. Edward would sit for the Illustrated London News’s coronation portrait just days before his abdication. 

King Edward VIII - Instrument of Abdication (By Government of the United Kingdom [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

As it happened, on 12 May 1937, a King was crowned at Westminster Abbey. After all, the date was already in everyone’s diary. The massed ranks of ermine clad peers and robed clergy gathered to proclaim Edward’s brother as King and Emperor. 

The coronation portrait was also given a second chance. The purple and gold robes, ermine cloak and chain stayed the same. Edward’s face was simply replaced by a portrait of George VI. 

Postbox cipher of Edward VIII - Whitchurch (Mick Lobb [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Postal Station K in Toronto, Canada By Jamie (originally posted to Flickr as Postal Station K) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There are still a handful of traces of Edward’s brief reign. A clutch of Royal Mail postboxes carry his distinctive cipher. A handful of public buildings completed in 1936 are similarly adorned. Philatelists and numismatist prize rare examples of stamps and coins bearing Edward VIII’s distinctive profile.