14/09/2012 by noonobservation
Assessing the merits of monarchs causes me more pub arguments than all my spilled drinks and ill-thrown darts combined. I’m told my tastes are rather singular; for example, I am often grimaced at for saying that I like Edward I of England. Most people seem to think that because he liked nothing better than a weekend away in Wales/Palastine/Scotland slaughtering the natives, he was somehow a Bad King.
The “mistake” I (apparently) make is to try to judge rulers by the standards of their day. By my reckoning Longshanks was in fact the ideal medieval monarch. He fits all the criteria:
Slaughtered infidels: YES
Enforced the Law: YES
Warlike to the point of psychopathy: YES
Religious (without letting it impinge on psychopathy): YES
Built castles and other impressive stuff: YES
Like Edward I, Augustus the Strong of Saxony (b.1670-d.1733) embodied kingship in an utterly corporeal way. He wasn’t just a king – he was the king other kings wanted to be. He ate wildlife and shat porcelain, slept with hundreds of women and bought Poland. In the age of “representational” culture,* no one represented like Augustus.
*see work of Jürgen Habermas
Why was he so awesome?
1. Oh, I just can’t wait to be king!
Augustus didn’t start out a king – oh no. When his older brother died of the French disease in 1694, Augustus became no more than a plain old Elector of Saxony. Augustus was a trier however, and when the job of King of Poland came up in 1697, he applied instantly. The only catches were the great expense in bribes and that he had to become a Catholic. To a lesser man, the fact that most of his subjects, and his own wife, were staunch Lutherans would have proved an obstacle, but Augustus was a real man. He took that Catholic religion and the crown of Poland in his big beefy hands and gave them both a great big man hug. In his excitement, he did forget to build himself any Catholic churches for a good 10 years, but then multitasking wasn’t his strong suit.
2. He was also a Superhero
My university supervisor referred to Augustus as “Augustus the Physically Strong” so as to be absolutely clear about the kind of strength he possessed. His other epithets were “The Saxon Hercules” and “Iron-Hand”, owing to his party trick of breaking horseshoes with his bare hands. He was also known to ride through Dresden holding his horse’s reins in his teeth, while he balanced an urchin in each hand.
3. Second homes
Augustus was a big king and needed lots of leg room. In an attempt to make Dresden “The Florence of the Elbe”, he splashed his subject’s cash on sumptuous baroque palaces including Dresden Castle, the Zwinger Palace (where he did his Zwinging), Pillnitz – his summer palace, and Moritzberg Castle which he used for hunting. So that the ordinary taxpayers didn’t feel hard done by, he built them a small museum where they could view some of his fabulous treasure when he wasn’t using it.
4. King of China
One day, Augustus came along a young “Alchemist”, Johann Friedrich Böttger, and tried to force him to reveal the secret of manufacturing gold. Unable to make gold, Böttger attempted to appeased Augustus with discovering how to make porcelain – something only the Chinese had previously managed. Thus began the crown-owned Meissen porcelain factory, which not only fed Augustus’s insatiable appetite for little figurines, but also made him even more fabulously wealthy.
5. King of beasts
More than anything (apart from porcelain and sex), Augustus liked to have fistfights with god’s creatures. He is famous as the foremost exponent of fox-tossing, which he was able to do using only his index finger. In this sport, foxes (and other animals) were driven across slings. As they passed over them, the contestants holding the ends of the slings, pulled them taught, flinging the creature into the air, the winners being the pair who tossed the highest. He was also known to toss badgers, hares and wildcats.
When he wasn’t tossing animals, Augustus also liked to have sword fights with bears. Sadly, the bears were not allowed swords of their own. He also had his servants set wildboar on him to keep him on his toes.
6. Party like it’s 1699
When Augustus’s son married Maria Josepha, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, planning the wedding took two years and involved the construction of the largest opera house north of the Alps. The celebrations lasted a month. According to Baron Pöllnitz, Augustus also treated his citizens to “plays, masquerades, balls, banquets, tilting at the ring, sleigh-rides, tours and hunting parties” which anyone could attend (as long as they could afford court dress).
7. The leadiest pencil in Germany
Augustus’s wife, Christiane Eberhardine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, did not care to party, nor did she approve of Augustus’s Popish affectations. Having completed her duties of producing one son, she retired to the country. In his loneliness, Augustus is rumoured to have fathered up to 382 illegitimate children. Modern historians dismiss this as pish, putting the actual figure at more like 60. Naturally, he only admitted to the ones with wealthy, attractive and aristocratic mothers.
Augustus had his failings – he got totally smacked-down by Charles XII of Sweden in the Great Northern Wars and didn’t do that well in his campaigns against the Turks either (where he was said to have been found drunk in charge of an army).
All those porcelain dogs, high maintenance mistresses and lengthy foreign wars didn’t come cheap, and the state ran up considerable debts. Unfortunately for Augustus’s son, their neighbour, Frederick I of Prussia had spent his reign squirrelling away all his money in the royal mattresses for a rainy day. His son, Frederick the Great liked to spend his rainy days invading Saxony.
But despite his military failings, Catholic dalliances and wildly extravagant lifestyle, Augustus remained insanely popular with the Saxon people (if not the Poles), who loved his good humour, fancy-pants architecture and child-juggling tricks. He reminds me oddly of Boris Johnson…
Hotness (red): 202. Three hundred and eighty ladies can’t be wrong.
Eccentricity (green): 192. Overfondness for fox-tossing and crockery.
Violence (blue): 151. Potent towards animals, but impotent against armies.
Resulting colour: Buff!