Cleopatra and 2,000 Years of Slander

Cleopatra is what you might call the epitome of a VIP. After more than 2,000 years, she is as present as if she were still alive. Such eminence lends itself to storytellers and moralists alike. It offers any number of pitfalls for historians and writers, too. 

Independent Corsica

Corsica was once independent. It was a kingdom before becoming a republic and then a kingdom again. The whole affair has to be classified as highly unsuccessful as most of Europe just ignored it. The first king was German and spent nine months on the island; the second king was British and never set foot on Corsica. In between the two was a general turned president; he then turned prime minister for the last act.

And God Granted Their Wishes

For times immemorial, humans have prayed to their Gods to look favorably upon them, to keep them safe, and to grant their wishes. But what happens once the wish has been granted? This real life story starting in the dim past and bringing us into today's world tells you exactly what. 

Cosmati Mosaics: Recycled Art

In the 12th and the 13th century, an Italian family business elevated recycling to an art form. Named for Cosmas, the founding father of the enterprise, they are collectively known as the Cosmati. Using ancient art buried in the rubble of Rome, they created outstanding works of art. 

The Village of St Silvester, Switzerland

The day of Saint Sylvester is the 31st of December, New Year’s Eve. In French and in German usage, the saint's name is synonymous with New Year’s Eve, party, booze, and fireworks. The village of St Silvester in Switzerland was named after the church dedicated to him. There, his day starts off with an old tradition dating back more than 400 years. 

If Short on Facts, Then Invent: Marketing of Chateau Talbot

The Chateau Talbot winery in the Saint Julien region of Bordeaux prides itself on its wines. It is also  proud of its long history and purported link to Sir John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, and Constable of France under King Henry VI of England and (at least in Henry's exalted opinion) of France. 

Evacuation From Yalta 1919

In 1919, the Dowager Empress of Russia, Maria Feodorovna, was evacuated on a British ship from the Crimea peninsula. A new book tells the story of this evacuation based on the diaries of passengers and crew on that ship. The book captures one of those time capsules created by extraordinary events and presents them in a microcosm contained on one ship.

Prince Valdemar of Denmark and Too Many Thrones

Prince Valdemar of Denmark was three times in the running for the crowns and thrones of two European countries. Instead of becoming a ruling monarch like his two brothers and his two nephews, he remained with the Danish navy. What had happened? 

Royal Correspondence in the Curiosity Cabinet

The Leibniz Library in Hanover has published the results of three years’ research into a golden letter held in the library’s strong room for 250 years. It had been sent by King Alaungpaya of Burma to King George II of the United Kingdom in 1756. Instead of answering it, the latter put it in his curiosity cabinet in Hanover.

Money Married Title

When three American heiresses arrived from Maryland in London in 1816, they took the aristocratic society by storm. Their large fortunes would enable them to overcome two little drawbacks that might bar them from achieving advantageous marriages: they were American and Catholic. 

The First Flying Permits of 1909

When flying was all new and shiny, it was also a pilot's paradise. There were no permits to get and no exams to pass; you just got into your flying machine and took off. But paradise ended when the snake crept in; the snake was called officialdom and took the form of an international body which started to issue permits and organize exams. 

History of the FIS Alpine Ski World Championship

The FIS Alpine Ski World Championships have been running for over 80 years. There were a few curious instances in that time. They include time differences between winners and runners up of almost 30 seconds, the championship that never was, one without snow, and the man who became women’s world champion.


Roman Troop Highway

A Roman road has been uncovered in Puddletown Forest in Dorset. While the existence of a road had been a well-known fact, so far it had been so well hidden by the forest that it could't be located. The harvesting of a planting of Norway spruce firs by the Forestry Commission brought a considerable stretch of it to light, though. 

Count Welf and His Descendants

Until 1918, German nobles didn't have any family names; these only came into existence by act of parliament when the German Republic was created. Instead, the noble families were recognized as being part of ‘Houses’, and the tradition persists. Among them, the House of Welf or Guelph is looking back on over 1,000 years of history. 

A List of Popes in Book Form

Chatto & Windus published The Popes by John Julius Norwich. The Popes: That amounts to almost 300 individuals for a single book. You might guess that the result is less than impressive. Add some personal idiosyncrasy by the author, and the end product becomes surpassing strange. 

The Title Conundrum of Monaco

The title of Monaco's ruler Prince Albert II is Prince of Monaco, and the conundrum starts there. The prince also styles himself Duke of Valentinois, just one of many French titles the Grimaldi family lays claim to. There lies the second conundrum. The Prince and other family members are addressed as His (or Her) Serene Highness, and that’s a third conundrum.

Princess Antoinette of Monaco, Baroness of Massy

Princess Antoinette of Monaco was born as the first child of Princess Charlotte of Monaco and was the older sister of Prince Rainier III of Monaco. In her time, she was good for quite a few scandals. Highly eccentric, she was also well beloved by the citizens of Monaco. She took two turns at being First Lady of the Principality of Monaco and was president of its animal welfare charity SPA. 

Naval Arms Race in The Mediterranean

The history of the Mediterranean Sea is the history of naval development and armament. Ships played an important part in the Persian Wars of the Greek city states against the Persian Empire as well as in the Peloponnese War between Sparta and Athens and their allies. The Punic Wars of the Romans saw a lot of naval action as well as their in-house squabbles leading up to Octavian taking power as Emperor Augustus. 

The Making of a Monster: Henry VIII

King Henry VIII is often perceived as a monster. The heads of various wives were just a fraction of an epidemic of the people losing their heads during his reign. But to understand why he acted the way he did, you must know where he came from. A new book sheds light on the young Henry. 

Imperial Wedding Document for Princess Theophanu of Byzantium

When Emperor Otto I went looking for a wife for his son, he wanted it to be a political statement. As the first Emperor from German stock, he was looking for acknowledgement by the other half of the Roman Empire. A princess of the house of Byzantium it had to be and nothing less. Once that goal was achieved, the newcomers went out of their way to show how much they appreciated the gesture. 

The Principality of Monaco in World War II

During World War II, the Principality Monaco was a neutral state. It was fiercely contested by Germany and Italy who had mutually opposing and exclusive ideas as to its future. Prince Louis II had been brought up in Germany and was a general in the French army. He played his connections for all they were worth in trying to keep the country afloat.

The Duchess of Windsor Conspiracy

The Duchess of Windsor was a footnote in history. Despite that fact, publishers keep on inundating the market with books about her. This one looked interesting from the outside but proved one very, very long disappointment inside. Author Hugo Vickers produced the ultimate guide on how not to invent a conspiracy theory. 

William and Kate: Title History

Prince William got a bevy of titles as a gift from Queen Elizabeth II for his marriage to Catherine (or Kate) Middleton. Real titles come with quite a baggage of history, some quite recent, some more ancient. So William was saddled with the Duchy of Cambridge in England, the Earldom of Strathearn in Scotland, and the Barony of Carrickfergus in Northern Ireland.

A Desert Country by The Sea: Bohemia

Shakespeare gives the famous description of "Bohemia, a desert country by the sea" in his play A Winter’s Tale. Bohemia today is part of the Czech Republic and one of the greenest and most beautiful holidaying regions in Central Europe. But there was system to the madness of Shakespeare's description. 

Princes: Not All That Glitters

There are Princes and Princesses, and then there are Princes and Princesses. Some are Royal or more, some are not. The problem lies in geography. Depending on where the title came from, the title of Prince does not mean the same thing. The puzzle can be solved given some knowledge of geography and history, and quite some of the muddle derived from translating foreign titles into English. 

How Royal Succession Works in the United Kingdom

The content of this article is aimed mainly at readers not living in the United Kingdom, but also to some living here. Succession rights seem to be something very puzzling if you haven't grown up with them. I have compiled some information here as to succession rights and some other puzzling facts pertaining to the Queen and her heirs.

Palimpsest: Ancient Recycling Method

Before paper was commonly used to write on, papyrus and parchment were the writing materials of choice. When texts fell out of favor or use, the base material was too precious to throw away. Instead, it was recycled. The recycling means that many texts that might have ended up in a landfill may still be accessible to us today. 

Iconic Design: Swiss Army Knife

The Swiss Army Knife was an invention of the 19th century, but it only gained a wider audience after World War II, when PX stores of the United States Army started selling it. They also gave it its name. Saying goes in Switzerland that you are not truly Swiss if you don’t have a Swiss Army Knife with you at all times. 

Secret War in Yemen

Many people claim to have unearthed secrets from the near past. Some of those secrets were never a secret; most are nothing more than conspiracy theories. It was therefore nice to find a book about a secret war that really was carefully kept under wraps. At the least, for various reasons, it escaped wider scrutiny so far. 

Nonexistent Switzerland

La Suisse n’existe pas (French for Switzerland doesn't exist) was once used as the title for the Swiss exhibit at a World Exhibition. It set the Swiss media aflame with outraged indignation; despite that, it was nothing but a statement of fact: There is no country going by the name of Switzerland.

The Elect Circle of Elected Monarchs on Europe’s Thrones

When we look at the monarchies in Europe, working and deposed ones, we get the false impression of perpetuity as ‘it always had been that way’. In fact, the vast majority of dynasties started out as elected monarchs. 

Supernatural Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is remembered for his stories of Sherlock Holmes and the Lost World. A new biography tries to reconcile these seemingly highly logical writings with his unshakable belief in fairies and the supernatural. 

Cheating Hermann Goering

Hermann Goering was the number two in Nazi Germany after Adolf Hitler. Apart from being an arch Nazi, he was an avid if incompetent collector of art stolen at his behest all over Europe. But sometimes he bought art and paid for it with equally stolen money. One of the pictures he bought was a forgery. It was so cunningly falsified it almost cost its creator his head after the war. 

Blowing up the Acropolis

The Acropolis has become the byword for Athens, though every Greek city sported an acropolis, an upper town. The Athenian Acropolis was built and destroyed several times during its 7,500 years of history and it found many uses. What sticks in the mind, though, is the moment when the Venetians blew it up. 

About Roman Numerals (and Not Numbers)

Roman numerals are still used today (you'd know that if you would stay to the end of a movie). And they are numerals, not Roman numbers. If the Romans had used different numbers from what we use today, we would have the hell of a time converting them to our numeric system. Roman numbers, in fact, don't exist, scrap the term and start using Roman numerals correctly. 

James Abbott and Abbottabad

Abbottabad has been all over the news for all the wrong reasons, thanks to someone called Ossama Bin Laden. The town on the Indian subcontinent is a purely British invention. These days, it forms part of Pakistan. 

Prime Minister for Dinner Anyone?

Johan de Witt was Grand Pensionary of Holland, an office with powers similar to that of a Prime Minister cum Foreign Secretary combined. He led the country during the first stadtholder-less time from 1650 to 1672 when Republicans saw their chance to get more power for themselves personally at the expense of the House of Orange.

Graffiti in the Church

When a relatively new church built in 1961 fell into disrepair, the diocese of Freiburg in Germany decided to sell it for profane uses in 2005. But the parishioners had other ideas and collected enough money for a thorough renovation. All that was missing was some artwork to embellish the nave. 

1608: Walking From Somerset to India

Thomas Coryat didn't walk all the way, but he first traveled 2,000 miles mostly on foot in Europe and then went on to explore the Orient covering over 4,000 miles also mainly on foot. If you think this is extraordinary, imagine further that he did this at the beginning of the 17th century. 

Demons’ Dungeons or Soul Storage?

Ley tunnels are treated as one of the favorite myths in Anglo-Saxon Europe. After the discovery of the 700th such tunnel in Bavaria alone, archaeologists decided to make a major stab at unraveling their secrets. As usual, archaeologists' answers just produced many more questions. 

The Beginnings of Investigative Journalism

James Greenwood started out as a printer. Later, he began writing adventure tales before entering journalism. As a journalist, he was the first to go undercover for research and to invent investigative journalism in the process. His subsequent writing was nothing short of revolutionary.


The Transvestite Surgeon

Dr James Barry studied at Edinburgh and qualified with a Medical Doctorate. He entered the army and had a sterling career there. But not all things were as they seemed at the time. Who was Dr James Barry?

How to Dress Your Concubine For Dinner

Shi Hu Jilong called himself Emperor of China; a charming affectation that expressed his ambition of once ruling all of China. To further this ambition, he not only depopulated whole cities, he also gave lavish parties. To impress his guests, he put up a lavish display and served only the best at his table. Tale of his banquets survived; his ambition died with him. 

Abolition of Slavery: A Purely Financial Decision

In 1783, a scandal in the slave trade of Great Britain rocked the economy. The court case that ensued sparked righteous outrage throughout the country. It was the beginning of the end of slavery. And the outrage that had gripped the general public had nothing to do at all with slavery. 

Borussia: Not (Quite) Soccer History

Two leading German soccer teams use the word Borussia as part of their name: Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Monchengladbach. The latter's stadium is called Borussia-Park, too. While everybody uses the word Borussia as a matter of course, do you know what it really means and where it came from? 

Fanny’s Story: Lady Nelson

The story of Lady Nelson is not told often enough, as everyone seems to be captivated by Lady Hamilton. But Fanny's story is well worth telling, one would think. It is nice, therefore, that her biography has been republished after 25 years. 

Prince George of Hanover, Duke of Cambridge

Prince George Duke of Cambridge was the last holder of that title before Prince William. He led an extraordinary life for his time. He had a most successful army career; he had firm beliefs on how it should be run. He ran it accordingly and stuck to his preconceptions and prejudices without fail. His views on private life were no less firm and for a Royal Prince highly unconventional.

Wallis Simpson: The Bored Duchess of Windsor

A biography invented and written by Anne Sebba on Wallis Simpson Duchess of Windsor manages the impossible: The book is more boring than her and of even less consequence. The only amusement to be gained from reading it is following up the constant contradictions contained in it. 

How to Make Your Own Predictions For The End of The World

An invaluable tool to invent your own apocalyptic predictions has come online, finally. With it, and a lot of creative invention, you’ll be able to concoct your own brand of doomsday scenario. Dresden State and University Library has been kind enough to publish it online. As far as vision and prophecy go, I have to admit, the original is not the most exciting bit about it.

The First Woman Employee at the Vatican

In 1934, Hermine Speier became the first female employee in the Vatican in the modern sense of employee with a salary and a pension plan. She wasn't a nun, and more surprisingly, she wasn't even Catholic.