Archive for November, 2009

Washington retreats from Yorktown

November 22, 2009

The two wars between Britain and the United States may not have been very large as wars go, but they can be counted on to heat up the atmosphere wherever they are introduced into conversation. Well, let’s have a bit of heat.

Actually, if the alternate history I’m suggesting here worked out logically, George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau would never have been at Yorktown in October 1781. The victory over Lord Cornwallis at the siege of Yorktown was actually decided on September 5th between French Admiral de Grasse and the English Admiral Thomas Graves off Cape Henry.

I’m sure many of historical what-ifs have been investigated for the Virginia campaign and the siege of Yorktown that year, but I wonder if any of them took place at the opposite end of Chesapeake Bay. The British forces had a lengthy history of combined operations even before the War of American Independence, but they rarely got it together this time. The Federal tactics of the Civil War and the British successes in the War of 1812 indicate how the cooperation of land and sea forces could dominate Chesapeake Bay. To achieve this success in 1781 required a better admiral than Thomas Graves.

On September 5th, Washington’s army was still in the vicinity of Philadelphia, having not yet boarded de Grasse’s transports to ferry them down to Williamsburg. Admiral Graves’ fleet, sent south from New York to counter the French fleet that had arrived from the West Indies surprised the French at anchor near the mouth of the bay at ten in the morning. De Grasse was in a difficult situation and ordered his ships to slip their anchors rather than waste time raising them. The French warships then had to beat out of the bay against both tide and an offshore wind as the British van under Admiral Hood came closer.

Hood saw the tactical advantage of attacking the French as they tacked out past Cape Henry in no particular order and proposed the plan to Graves. Graves was no Nelson, and rather than assent to something so novel ordered his fleet to mark time until the French line was ordered enough that he could sail his own line of battle against them. This he did and instead of smashing the French piecemeal, succeeded in getting his own ships so badly mauled that he never pressed the attack home and ultimately fled back to New York for repairs.

That left the way open for the well supplied French and American troops to be assembled and invest Cornwallis at Yorktown.

What if Hood had crippled the major part of de Grasse’s fleet at Cape Henry and the French had been obliged to retreat from Chesapeake Bay? Firstly, would Washington ever have left Delaware to embark for Williamsburg if he’d known the British now controlled the bay? If he hadn’t been informed in time, and embarked, what would have been the chances of his army being sent to the bottom of the bay if the Royal Navy had intercepted the transports? What if he and his army had made it to Williamsburg only to find that it was now Cornwallis with the supples, the naval support, and the reinforcements to go after him?

Clearly George Washington is the prime candidate for being the protagonist of this story. Either trying to rescue his troop transports from the Royal Navy frigates, or trying to assemble some coherent defence of Virginia against a now-ascendant Cornwallis – or even more contrafactual, constructing defences to prevent the British from coming to the head of Chesapeake Bay and threatening to advance on Philadelphia. Perhaps this alternate history could be even more exciting than the actual rolling up of the abandoned and disillusioned Cornwallis at Yorktown.

This could even work into a series, because historians recognize that American independence would have never been abandoned and would have been pursued again even if the present war was lost. What would the Brits have done with Washington – exiled him to St Helena? What secret movements in the colonies would have kept the dream alive? What about the rest of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence; what plots would they have worked on from their exiles in Paris? Would those American exiles and their army have returned from France in 1805 at Napoleon’s behest to weaken an overstretched Britain beyond breaking point? The world we know today could have been very different.


Columbus and Henry VII:

November 15, 2009

Everyone has heard that Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain commissioned Columbus for his 1492 voyage of exploration. Perhaps few remember that he had struggled for many years to interest other monarchs and rich nobles in Europe in his venture without success. Columbus even sent his brother Bartholomew to Henry VII of England in 1491 looking for money and support.

Henry was a known penny-pincher whose principal preoccupation, as the final victor of the interminable Wars of the Roses, and the first of his royal line, was in founding a solid Tudor dynasty on the English throne. He may have been intrigued by the idea, but had far more important demands on his time and money. But what if Henry VII had agreed, and the conquest of the Americas had gone to the English crown?

There is a historical precedent that tells us England and its monarch were not completely averse to voyages of discovery. “On 5 March 1496 King Henry VII of England gave Giovanni Caboto, known as John Cabot, letters patent with the following charge:

…free authority, faculty and power to sail to all parts, regions and coasts of the eastern, western and northern sea, under our banners, flags and ensigns, with five ships or vessels of whatsoever burden and quality they may be, and with so many and with such mariners and men as they may wish to take with them in the said ships, at their own proper costs and charges, to find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians.” (Wikipedia)

Cabot was financed partly by Bristol merchants and sailed from Bristol. He is credited with being the European discoverer of North America and believed to have landed in what later became Newfoundland. (Here I will forbear from telling any Newfie jokes.) Bristol mariners had long had an interest in discovering or rediscovering an island in the ocean they knew as Hy-Brazil, which they held to be a source of a valuable red dye, so Atlantic voyaging wasn’t completely unknown to them. It’s also believed by many that Portuguese fishermen were already fishing the Grand Banks off Newfoundland before Columbus sailed – they just didn’t hire the right PR firm.

Henry may have had a political reason to authorize the voyage in 1496. Wikipedia again – “Like his contemporary, King Francis I of France, who would send Giovanni da Verrazzano to reconnoiter the eastern seaboard of North America, Henry VII may in part have been motivated by the perceived insolence of the division of the world into two halves by Pope Alexander VI in the Bull Inter Caetera in 1493, which followed the success of Columbus’s first voyage.” While this doesn’t prove that it was possible to persuade Henry to charter the first ocean exploration, it does give an example of what might have transpired from such an undertaking.

Some years ago I wrote a possible first chapter of a novel that had three ships under the Italian navigator Cristoforo Columbo returning up the Thames to report to his patron, Henry VII. I don’t have the material now but I remember anglicizing the names of the actual ships. St Mary is an easy translation; Nina translates roughly as Girl, but its proper name was Santa Clara; Pinta was probably a variant of its owner’s name, Pinzon, which translates as the English chaffinch. Actually the Santa Maria also had a nickname, La Gellega.

The reason for the name varieties probably stems from the impossibly pompous names the Spanish Dons gave to their ships. An aside – the galleon captured by Sir Francis Drake off the South American Pacific coast in 1578 was named “Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion”, but known to the sailors as the “Cacafuego” – the “Shitfire” in plain English.

What would an English Terra Firme have looked like – or the English Main? The alternate history novelist has a tabula rasa for almost any invention desired. I would suggest that Columbus would still have followed his southern route that used the Trade Winds. So the early colonies would still have been Caribbean and Central American. This may well have meant that Giovanni Caboto would have followed a southern route too if he had still made his way to sell his services to the merchants of Bristol. That would probably have made France and Verrazzano undisputed developers of North America – for a few critical years at least.

The history of Cabot and the later English mercantile corporations suggest that the enterprises that followed would have been commercial rather than military – not that English merchants were any more civilized, or less brutal, than Spanish Conquistadors. Henry VIII’s early warships would have been ocean going rather than high-charged carracks of the Mary Rose type, that capsized in battle just off Portsmouth. Where would this alternate history have left Sir Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth, and the Spanish Armada? The possibilities for the nautical author are almost endless.

I Believe I’m in love with Anne Boleyn……

November 9, 2009

I promised to show you a plot for an alternate history novel, and Anne figures, but there is some background to cover first. I never thought much of Henry the Eighth’s wives until I saw the models and costumes for a TV drama on the reign displayed at Longleat House during a visit. Suddenly, I realized these were not doughty and overdressed harridans raised and kept in aristocratic luxury, but sweet young women. I’ve had a soft spot for Anne ever since.

The charges Henry had placed on Anne (called by the populace, Nan Bullen, because her father was only recently raised to the peerage) were all monstrous lies and no more than a pretext to make way for his latest infatuation. Well, dynastic politics and the imperative for a son played a part, but only a part on Henry’s desires. Anne’s address to the crowd at her execution; at 8 am on the morning of 19th May 1536, that she knew would be reported to Henry, made her to me the premier among a long history of abused women.

“Good Christian people, I am come hither to die, for according to the law, and by the law I am judged to die, and therefore I will speak nothing against it. I am come hither to accuse no man, nor to speak anything of that, whereof I am accused and condemned to die, but I pray that God save the king, and send him long to reign over you, for a gentler and more merciful prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and sovereign lord. And if any person will meddle of my cause, I require them to judge the best. And thus I take my leave of the world and of you all, and I heartedly desire you all to pray for me. O Lord have mercy on me, to God I commend my soul.”

She was just 33 or perhaps 34 years old. So much has been written and played about Henry and his wives, but I have to wonder if any of that output has done justice to the young woman who could speak thus as she stood before the executioner’s block.

I started to look into writing a story that could combine Anne with her daughter, Elizabeth the First, who was two and a half years old when her mother was beheaded. I decided it should include a time when Elizabeth, too, was but an angry accusation away from execution. The story might need an element of supernatural influence to bring the two together as actors.

The location of the story settled naturally around Greenwich Palace – the old one, not the one built by Wren for Charles II more than a hundred years later – where Henry’s families spent much of their lives. It was the birthplace of Henry VIII, of Queen Mary and of Queen Elizabeth, and where Edward VI died.  It’s likely Elizabeth’s half-sister Queen Mary, Bloody Mary, died there on November 17th 1558 and that Elizabeth lived there at the time.

The story of the perilous relationship between the two half-sisters is entangled in the plots and politics of their father’s court. When Henry had his marriage to Mary’s mother, Katherine of Aragon, declared unlawful (because she had previously been married to Henry’s brother, who had died before ascending to the throne) it made Mary illegitimate. When Henry had Anne Boleyn falsely convicted of adultery, it anulled that marriage and made Elizabeth illegitimate. The two were not drawn together by the common plight because one was inevitably bastardized by the other’s legitimacy.

I’ll get back to the story plot in a bit. Mary became queen before Elizabeth despite a plot to usurp the throne, which enemies of Elizabeth tried to blame on her. Elizabeth had to tread very gently for Mary’s whole reign because of the Spanish connection. Mary had married Philip of Spain, many years younger than her, but no toy boy – it was entirely a political plot to defeat England’s protestants and return the country to Rome. Mary’s entire administration was obsesssed with devising a way to avoid having Elizabeth succeed her. It naturally involved the aging Mary, almost 40, giving birth to a Catholic heir.

Twice Mary thought she was pregnant, once early in the marriage, before Philip left his bride for important business on the continent, and once more after his second visit to the realm he co-ruled with the old lady. Mary was in very poor health by this time,  the Catholics were getting desperate for a male Catholic heir, but again it was a false pregnancy.

In the real history, Mary gave up the dream in March 1558 some time after making a new will concerning the realm should she die in childbirth. The whole pretence was abaondoned by October of that year, and then she died on November 17th. There was no way the Catholic party of England could prevent Elizabeth from becoming queen — perhaps they entertained false hopes that she would retain the overlordship of Rome, because she had had to pretend to be Catholic for the entire reign to avoid being accused of plotting rebellion again.

In my plot, the courtiers around Mary decide to insert a ‘bedpan’ baby into Mary’s birthing room in March – a tried and true strategem from other dynasties that involved some other woman giving birth secretly close by so the child could be claimed as the royal child. Mary had restored the convent adjacent to the Palace of Greenwich early in her reign – the Convent of the Observente Fryers,  (Mary’s spelling) – clearly an ideal source of secret but illegitimate babies.

I’m nearly up to leaving the rest of the story to you, but I have one more twist I like. One of the household ladies, or perhaps one of the younger nuns in the convent learns of the duplicity and goes to Elizabeth’s quarters to tell her. I would have the girl a striking double of Anne Boleyn – close enough that Elizabeth almost faints at first sight of her. Not only this, but the girl knows the whole tragic story of Anne’s fixed trial and execution and has much spunk as Anne in seeking to ensure the daughter does not lose out to the same kind of injustice.

Supernatural? Perhaps, but otherwise my fictional protagonist could be a protege of one Henry Carey who was born of Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister, and claimed by her new husband William Carey –  although the royal secret was that Henry VIII was the child’s real father from an affair Henry had indulged before he met Anne. Henry Carey was raised partly by Anne when she was queen, and much later made Lord Hunsdon by Queen Elizabeth. One could suppose that Henry C, who would have been 32 in the month Queen Mary realized her second ‘pregnancy’ was also false took a hand in the matter. It wouldn’t be a big distortion of history for him to be watching over his mother’s neice, or for the whole plot of the false prince being covered up as a political necessity once it was foiled.

Well, there it is. If you think you’d like to take a stab at it, please let me know. Otherwise I may go back to it myself one day.