Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Tragedy at Wuhan - Guest Post from Today in Alternate History

In 1966 on July 16, on this heart-breaking day of national tragedy and sorrow, Chairman Mao Zedong expired from a heart attack in Wuhan. He had participated earlier in a great Crossing-the-Yangzi event. Intended as a celebration of his vitality by marking a similiar event on the Long River ten years earlier (prompting his penmanship of a poem called "Swimming") instead the years of smoking and excess had taken their toll on the "Great Helmsman" and having over-exerted himself, he was dead, aged seventy-three.

However, he had been more or less forced to take this calculated risk in his doomed attempt to regain power that had slipped through his hands during the Cultural Revolution. Instead, the two major figures of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping vied for power and ultimately, Deng would emerge as the "paramount leader" of the People's Republic of China for the next three decades even though he never actually served in the official capacity as head of state. Ironically, Deng had been close to being forced out of the Chinese elite when the Chairman had made his fateful trip to Wuhan. But as Mao himself had written "A Single spark can start a prairie fire."

Out of the chaos of the Cultural Revolution Deng's brilliant leadership would steer China towards an exhilarating future that few could have imagined in the disaster that was 1966. President Nixon would recognize "Red China" during his first term and he personally traveled to Beijing to regularize relations between two super-powers. In an unguarded and unexpectedly generous comment, he even described the Chinese as the "ablest people in the world". After Nixon came an even more surprising guest from Taiwain, Chiang Kai-shek who would build open the American initiative by establishing detente with "White China."

After a brief interregnum, it even appeared that China might restore its status as a superpower, a status it enjoyed for fifteen hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire. But despite appearances, Deng would urge his followers to "Seek Truth from Facts". And those facts were that the country - civilization, really - was not headed towards the restoration of a Middle Kingdom. The world around China was changing, and communism itself was in retreat. By the middle of the 1980s Deng had to decide whether or not to junk the whole of Mao's legacy, including Marxist orthodoxy itself.


Originally posted on Today in Alternate History.

Friday, August 23, 2013

April 11, 1689 – Mary Follows William of Orange in Death

After contracting an illness that historians believe to be smallpox, Mary Stuart, wife of the previously deceased Dutch Stadtholder William of Orange, died in prison after attempting to usurp her father, James II of England and VII of Scotland.

The Stuarts had only recently been returned to the throne after the Civil War in which James' father Charles I had been beheaded in 1649. Oliver Cromwell and his Protestant Parliamentarians had dominated, but their oppressive policies caused England to wish for the more peaceful days of royalty. Charles II was invited back to the throne in 1660 after Cromwell's son Richard gave up the Protectorate. The Stuarts enjoyed renewed stability and worked to defend the rights of Catholics, one of many minorities suppressed by Puritan Britain.

During Charles' reign, 1660 to 1685, much of the government's power rested in the hands of the increasingly Anglican Parliament. Puritanism fell out of favor, and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer became the mandatory base for services. Charles and his brother James proved popular as the king granted licenses for theaters for the first time in decades and both served firsthand during the Great Fire of London in 1666. Still, James had converted to Catholicism while in exile in France, and the standing government worked to limit any Catholic power, even blaming the Great Fire and attempted assassinations on Catholics. The thought of another Catholic king made Parliament nervous enough to introduce an Exclusion Bill removing James from the line of succession. Charles reacted by dissolving Parliament time and again to stop such a bill from passing. The political chaos put stress on social tempers as well as the economy, which struggled under rapidly changing taxation laws.

In 1685, Charles died suddenly, and James proved a capable, if unyielding, king. His policies were strong, pro-French, and held remarkably modern ideals of religious tolerance, which endeared him with the disenfranchised religious minorities and those seeking a stable government. Others sought to dethrone him, and James had to put down two rebellions attempting to crown his illegitimate nephew, who, as Charles’ son, was considered a “rightful” heir to the throne. In 1688, James’ son James Francis Edward was born, assuring the continuance of Catholic kings. Opponents had been hopeful that James’ daughter Mary, Protestant and wife of the popular Dutch hero William of Orange, would succeed him and now became desperate.

William had fought for years alongside other European nations to stymie growing French power under Louis XIV. He saw no way to ensure a check over the French than by the English Royal Navy at sea. James had vowed neutrality in the Continental wars with France, and not even William’s many envoys could persuade him otherwise. He determined the only way to affect English policy was to control it himself.

With encouragement from English opposition to James’ forceful attempts to repeal the Test Act, William gathered strength in the Dutch Republic. When the French were distracted in Germany, William crossed the Channel with some 15,000 men. It was calculated that James’ army were over 30,000, but any sign of victory would prompt a wave of support to go to the Protestants. William advanced slowly, hoping to erode the peoples’ belief in James. The trick seemed to work as rioters in London targeted Catholics. Nobles such as Lord Churchill of Eyemouth and James’s own daughter Anne deserted.

Seeing the riot reminded James of the chaos of the Great Fire. The flames consumed houses regardless of religion, and men had come together to fight them. It was not until afterward that loud mouths had blamed Catholics, despite the truth being a poorly doused bakery oven. James had led Londoners then, and he determined to do it again even though his troops seemed unsure in their willingness. He gathered his most loyal men and charged after William. The Dutchman was caught seemingly by surprise and knew that retreat would lose him a great deal of public opinion even though drawing the war out over the winter would surely ruin James’s position. The two armies met outside Reading, both sides joined by supporters from the city. Despite relentless assaults, the Royal army did not seem able to break the Dutch until an errant cannonball crashed near William and killed him with shrapnel.

Without their paycheck, the Dutch mercenary army collapsed. James returned to London triumphant and forced the repeal of the Test Act, creating a new Parliament with a much wider base as anyone, not just Anglicans, could hold offices. James spent the next two years putting down minor revolts using loyal troops from Ireland and Scotland, whose nobles he rewarded handsomely. His daughters, Mary and Anne, were placed in the Tower of London, where both would live out the rest of their fairly short lives. English efforts continued against the Dutch abroad and gradually supported a French-led Continent.

James II died in 1701, giving the throne to the thirteen-year-old James III, who ruled until 1766. Early in his reign, the several crowns of Britain became the United Kingdom by order of Parliament, which had incorporated Ireland among its peers. His younger counterpart in France, Louis XV, ruled from 1715 until 1774. Gradually French and English relations cooled with the demise of the Dutch Empire at French hands and the later weakening of French power during the rise of Prussia. James’s son Charles, the “Bonnie Prince,” spent much of his adventurous youthful years abroad in the colonies, where he became very popular. As Charles III, ruling until 1788, he expanded Parliament to accept petitions and approve seats from the colonies after disputes over self-rule, largely settled by public letters written by his lifelong friend Dr. Benjamin Franklin. Four-year-old Charles IV succeeded his grandfather to the throne and ruled until 1854, overseeing the American and East Indian rebellions over the issue of slavery and the beginnings of nationalistic revolts in Europe. Britain’s history of tolerance made it immune to much of the early turmoil, but its humanism took an ugly turn as eugenics sought to manage scientifically the best people.


In reality, James chose to abandon England after Anne’s desertion. He attempted to stall William with proposals of peaceful decisions by Parliament, but when he was discovered trying to sneak out of London to France, William handily won full public support. Mary was placed on the throne alongside William, who demanded to be made co-ruler and ruled alone until succession by his sister-in-law Anne in 1702. Neither sister produced an heir, resulting in the British crown being handed to the vehemently Protestant German House of Hanover in 1714.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

October 14, 1066 - Welsh Forces Overwhelm Normans at Hastings

In 1055, the King of Wales Gruffydd ap Llywelyn and King of England Edward the Confessor reached agreement that would ensure peace between their two nations.

Gruffydd had worked for his entire life piecing together the warring bands of Wales. He grew up as the lazy son of King Llywelyn ap Seisyll, the ruler of both Gwynedd and Powys who had been usurped. One New Year's Eve, he was driven into the streets by his frustrated sister to find something to do. He began loitering around the kitchens, where he heard a cook muttering about a piece of meat in the stew that kept floating to the top and had to be continually pushed back down to cook. The meat became an odd inspiration that changed his life, and he dedicated himself to achievement. Gruffydd took back rule of Powys and soon stormed Gwynedd to the north. Over the years, he stitched together the Welsh kingdoms while beating back invaders such as Danes, Normans, and English, especially the Mercians just to the east.

War with England came time and again. Welsh raids infuriated English, who counterattacked readily. When Aelfgar (husband of the famed Lady Godiva) was exiled from East Anglia and formed an army to retake his earldom in 1055, Gruffydd volunteered to join him. After they had substantial success raiding Hereford, Edward the Confessor's favorite Harold Godwinson was given an army and charged to defeat the invaders. The two allies retreated, and Harold managed to end the war through diplomacy.

A tenuous peace was struck until the death of Aelfgar in 1062. Rumors spread that Harold was eager for revenge. The aging Gruffydd determined that peace had benefited his country and sued for lasting peace. Despite intrigues plotted by Harold, Edward the Confessor, himself aged, decided that the English could use a stable ally on Britain rather than a series of weak traditional kingdoms. On his deathbed in 1066, while proclaiming Harold his successor, Edward ordered him to vow never to begin unprovoked war with Wales.

The diplomatic move proved a Godsend. While Harold held claim to the throne as legal successor, other potential kings rose up from Europe. Duke William II of Normandy gained approval from the Church to seize England; Harold organized an army on the Isle of Wight to meet him, but the Norman never showed, claiming bad winds. Meanwhile, in the north, Harold's brother Tostig and the latter-day Viking Harald Hardrada invaded with victories over locals. Harold raced from London and defeated them at Stamford Bridge on September 25.

While Harold was in the north, William appeared in the south. Harold began to march his army southward, but his troops were exhausted and many of them, conscripted peasants, deserted to return home for the harvest. Although Harold felt he could defeat William on his own, his council advised calling fresh reinforcements from their ally, Gruffydd of Wales. Begrudgingly, Harold did.

At the Battle of Hastings, the Welsh were instrumental in defeating the Normans. Norman cavalry assaulted the English shield-wall time and again, which may have crumbled if not for the surprise flanking charge done by the swift Welsh troops who had been well practiced fighting Normans. William retreated to Normandy, and Norman attention would shift southward to the rest of France and the Mediterranean. Harold affirmed himself as king and became a proud defender of Gruffydd. The English and Welsh royalty would intermarry, strengthening the alliance of both countries.

The English, Welsh, and Scots would play instrumental roles in the Crusades, all the while battling each other in wars that kept Britain largely in balance. Each would take turns at attempts to conquer Ireland with varying degrees of success. While the rest of Europe later enjoyed the Renaissance, Britain would lag behind despite a surge of technical development in Scotland from the Knights Templar hosted by the excommunicated Robert the Bruce. England followed suit after the Dutch in building an overseas empire, along with temporary colonies started by the Welsh and Scottish. but these were far outpaced by those of continental Europe, especially France, Spain, and Portugal.

In the modern era, Britain enjoyed a great deal of economic growth due to its mines rich with coal and iron. As world attention left Spain and France focusing on Germany and Russia, Britain became a quiet region of Europe known for light manufacturing and tourism in its several countries.


In reality, the peace between England and Wales was far more delicate. Upon Aelfgar's death in 1062, Harold ambushed Gruffydd, who managed to escape only to be murdered by his own men. Normans under William the Conqueror would seize England and begin the process of uniting Britain by war and Parliamentary acts. Edward I of England completed the lasting conquest of Wales in 1283.


Based upon an idea originally posted on Today in Alternate History.

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