Born: Henry VII, king of England, 1456, Pembroke, South Wales.
Died: King Roderick of Spain, killed in battle with the Moors, 711; Ladislaus I, king of Poland, 1102; Pope Paul II, 1471; Jacopo Bonfadio, historian and poet, executed at Genoa, 1560; Armand de Gontent-Biron, Marshal of France, killed at siege of Epernai, 1592; Charles Emmanuel the Great, Duke of Savoy, 1630; John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, noted debauchee and poet, 1680, Woodstock, Oxfordshire; Thomas Osborne, Duke of Leeds, statesman, 1712; Dr. John Freind, eminent scholar, 1728; John Emery, comic actor, 1822; Baron Gourgaud, distinguished general under Napoleon, 1852, Paris.
Feast Day: St. Anne, mother of the Blessed Virgin. St. Gernnanus, bishop of Auxerre, confessor, 448.
LEGEND OF DON RODERICK
One of the most romantic episodes of medieval history, is the conquest of Spain by the Moors or Saracens, in the beginning of the eighth century. There is perhaps no nation whose early chronicles are more shrouded in the robe of chivalrous legend and fiction, or invested with a brighter halo of poetic luxuriance. The story of the fate of Don Roderick, the last of its Gothic kings, forms one of the most curious of these semi-mythical narrations, and has in recent times been made by Sir Walter Scott the groundwork of one of his poems. It has also been told with singular attractiveness by Washington Irving, in his Legends of the Conquest of Spain.
Witiza, the predecessor of Don Roderick on the Spanish throne, had alienated the hearts of his subjects by his shameful debaucheries and misgovernment; and an insurrection having taken place, the latter, who had previously signalised race, greatly by his military achievements, was put in possession of the crown. His conduct in this exalted position was at first all that could be desired; but the deteriorating influences of prosperity and a life of ease gradually corrupted his disposition, and he became almost as noted as Witiza for his voluptuous and irregular life.
One of the most noted victims of his lawless passions was Florinda, who had been placed at Don Roderick's court as one of the attendants on his queen. Her father, Count Julian, held the post of military governor of Ceuta, in the Spanish dominions in Barbary; but having been high in favour under the administration of Witiza, he had never cherished much affection for the government of his successor. The intelligence of this outrage on his daughter roused in him the most strenuous determination of vengeance, for obtaining which the conjuncture of affairs presented ready facilities.
The religion of Mohammed, which had been promulgated less than a century previous, had now established itself over the greater part of Western Asia and North Africa. In its career of conquest, it had already penetrated to the western shores of the Mediterranean, and made encroachments on the African territories of Spain. Here, however, it had sustained some severe checks from the valour of Count Julian, and its further progress in this direction might have been stayed. But the irreparable insults offered to his family overcame all feelings of loyalty or patriotism in the breast of Julian, and he opened a correspondence with Muza, the Moorish general, for the betrayal of his country to the Saracens. Muza readily listened to his proposals, and a preliminary expedition was organised, under the celebrated Taric, who, by the direction of Julian, made a predatory descent on the Spanish coast, and returned to his master, Muza, with such glowing accounts of the wealth and fertility of the country, that its conquest was forthwith resolved on.
Don Roderick was, in the meantime, consuming his days in inglorious ease in the ancient city of Toledo. Not long after the disaster of the hapless Florinda, he had received a singular warning of the calamities which were about to overtake himself and kingdom. While seated on his throne one day, in the audience-chamber, two venerable old men, with long white beards, presented themselves before him. Their mission, they said, was to request from the king the performance of a behest which had been complied with by all his predecessors. As the guardians of the enchanted tower, which had been founded by the great hero Hercules, in the course of his western peregrinations, they besought Don Roderick to repair thither and affix an additional lock on the portal, as had been done by all former Spanish kings. A terrible mystery, on which the fate of the monarchy depended, was concealed in the building, which the founder had, after constructing it with immense strength and magic art, secured by a massive iron door and a lock of steel. He had further left injunctions that each succeeding king should add another lock to the portal, and refrain religiously from violating its mysteries.
Various Spanish sovereigns had, from time to time, ventured to force an entrance into the building, but they had either perished on the threshold, or been so appalled by the fearful sights and sounds which were encountered, that they had rapidly retreated and reclosed the ponderous barrier. No one had yet succeeded in penetrating to the inmost recesses of the sanctuary, the secrets of which had thus remained inviolate since the days of Hercules. Having delivered their message, the venerable guardians of the tower made an obeisance and withdrew.
The curiosity of Don Roderick was greatly excited by what he had just heard, and he declared his determination to see the interior of this marvellous tower. The archbishop of Toledo vainly endeavoured to make him desist from his purpose, assuring him that the violation of a mystery which had been so carefully respected by his predecessors, would only draw down destruction on his head. But the evil star of Don Roderick was in the ascendant, and he marched on blindly to his fate.
The following morning, a gay cavalcade of courtiers, with the king at its head, rode out at one of the gates of Toledo, and took the road to the mountains. They soon reached the mysterious tower, which was situated on a lofty rock, and supported by four magnificent bronze lions. The walls were constructed of marbles of various colours, so disposed as to represent the famous battles and heroic deeds of antiquity. The door was strongly secured by locks and bars, and before it stood the two aged men who had visited the court on the previous day. The king alighted with his train, and requested the old men to open the gate. They remained for a moment astonished, and then falling down on their knees, besought him that he would refrain from so rash an attempt. He was, however, inexorable, and a pair of huge keys having been produced from their girdles, the locks, one after another, were opened, but with such difficulty that a great part of the day was spent before the task was completed.
When every barrier was removed, an endeavour was made to open the gate; but it remained immovable, not-withstanding all the efforts of the king's attendants. Don Roderick himself then went forward and placed his hand on it, when it at once moved, as obedient to his touch, and swung open with a dismal groan. A damp cold wind rushed forth, and some of the eager young courtiers pressed into the tower, but quickly returned as if overcome by some magic influence. The king then led the way and entered a hall, on one side of which was an open door. Beside that door stood on a pedestal a gigantic figure whirling furiously a mace, which he, however, dropped to his side on the approach of Don Roderick, allowing him and his train to pass. They then entered a vast and magnificent chamber, the walls of which were composed of the rarest and most brilliant gems, and surmounted by a splendid dome. There were no windows in the hall; but a light, dazzling beyond description, proceeded from the walls, rendering the place as bright as day. Beneath the centre of the dome stood a table bearing the inscription, that Hercules, the Theban hero, had founded this tower in the year of the world three thousand and six.
On a golden casket on the table, richly adorned with precious stones, was another inscription, to the effect that herein was contained the mystery of the tower, but warning the intruder from proceeding further. The king had now, however, gone too far to recede, and he opened the casket, which only contained a piece of linen interposed between two plates of copper. It had painted on it figures of men and horses, which, as Don Roderick gazed on it, seemed to enlarge and become animated. A misty panoramic vision of an engagement gradually displayed itself, in which Christians and Moslems seemed to be struggling in deadly conflict, while to complete the scene, the cries of the combatants, the clash of arms, and the roar of battle, were all distinctly audible.
The Christians were seen to retreat, broken and discomfited, before the Saracens; and among the numerous figures, Don Roderick could descry his own war-steed, Orelia, galloping frantically about without a rider. Astounded and terrified, the king and his attendants rushed out of the tower, at the entrance of which they found the two aged guardians stricken dead, as if by a thunderbolt. A fearful blackness now spread over the landscape, turning rapidly to a terrible tempest, in the midst of which the royal party reached Toledo. The next day the king returned to the tower, resolved to replace the barriers which confined its dreadful secrets. On coming within sight of it, an eagle was descried soaring aloft, bearing a lighted brand, with which he swooped down upon the tower. The structure at once burst into a flame, and was speedily reduced to ashes, around which congregated a vast array of birds, who caught them up and scattered them over the country. Wherever these ashes fell, they were converted into drops of blood, and the places so stained became the scenes of slaughter and desolation in the ensuing conflicts with the Moors.
The remainder of the legend of Don Roderick is soon told. The warning received from the vision in the tower seems to have been gradually effaced from his mind, when one day he received the unexpected intelligence of the Moorish general, Taric, having effected a landing in Andalusia with a numerous and well-appointed army. To repel the invaders he despatched, in the first place, his kinsman Ataulpho, a gallant young nobleman, who at the head of an armed force encountered the enemy, near the rock of Calpe, the modern Gibraltar, but was discomfited and slain. The victorious Saracens now advanced into Andalusia, and encamped by the river Guadalete, in the plain of Xeres. Thither the king himself marched with the flower of the Spanish chivalry. A great battle ensued, in which the Christians fought with the most determined bravery, but were at length routed and dispersed by the superior generalship of Taric, aided by a Spanish force under the command of the recreant Julian. In the heat of battle Don Roderick was suddenly lost sight of; he was never heard of more, but it was conjectured that, having been slain near the Guadalete, his body had been washed away by the stream.
The belief was long current in Spain that he had escaped from the battle, and would return one day to vindicate his own and his country's rights against the invading foe. This fond dream, however, was never to be realised; and it has happened to Don Roderick, as to some other men, that the courage shewn by him in the last struggle has redeemed his name from much of the reproach previously resting on it, whilst the remarkable change of dynasty which the battle of the Guadalete inaugurated, has invested the fate of the last Gothic king of Spain with a romantic and abiding interest.
EARL OF ROCHESTER
Among all the gay courtiers who crowded round Charles II, none was more celebrated for his conviviality and wit than the Earl of Rochester. He early displayed remarkable talent, and was much distinguished at Oxford: had he lived in better times, he would probably have graced his high birth; but, after making the grand tour, as it was called, he came to court at the early age of eighteen, there quickly to become the leader of every excess. As his companions found that his wit was greater at the close of a long debauch than at the beginning, it was their amusement to make him drink deeply, and he himself confessed that for five years he was never sober. During this time he was writing satires and squibs upon all around him, and, as may be supposed, making himself many enemies. In one instance he handed the king a paper which Charles opened in the expectation of finding a droll description of some ladies, but it proved to be a witticism on the monarch himself. On another occasion, he scribbled on Charles's bedroom door the well-known mock epitaph:
Here lies our sovereign lord the king,
Whose word no man relies on;
Who never says a foolish thing,
or ever does a wise one.
He joined Charles in many of his wild pranks in the streets of London. At one time he disappeared from the court. Just then stories were circulated about a wonderful physician, necromancer, or Italian mountebank, who was practising on Tower Hill; those who consulted him were startled when they found him disclosing secrets which they hoped were known to none but their most intimate friends; the life of the court seemed laid bare by his wonderful powers; and nothing was talked of for some time, until the shrewder minds felt sure that only Rochester's talent could carry on such a game, and so it proved. At other times, he was inimitable as a porter or a beggar; indeed, Ire could personate any character to perfection.
That he had a spirit for better things, had he been wisely directed, is evident from his volunteering to join the Earl of Sandwich when he went to sea in 1665; during the engagement that followed, it was necessary that a dispatch should be carried from one ship to another in the very heat of the fight, and in an open boat. Rochester went on this mission, at the imminent risk of his life; yet the ruiners of the court used to taunt him with cowardice in avoiding the duels which his satires brought upon him. Sir C. Scrope thus wrote of him:
Thou canst hurt no mau's fame with thy ill word,
Thy pen is full as harmless as thy sword.
His constitution was not strong enough to bear his excesses, and early broke up; then, convinced of his past folly, he sent for Dr. Burnet, made confession of his reckless life and negation of all religion, and entreated to have his doubts about Christianity dispelled. Burnet has left a touching account of the unfortunate nobleman's last days; he desired. that all his wicked writings should be destroyed, and longed to undo the evil he had done by making his deep repentance known to all the world. He died at the early age of thirty-three.