King Stépan IV's pleasure dome at Kragoneidin, on the shores of Lake Polishov

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Syldavian History of the 17th century

Syldavia began the 17th century in possession of only a fraction of its historical territory and was fortunate to have even that. Borduria held the rest on behalf of the Ottomans and all of the country would have been entirely occupied if not for the long intervention of the Venetians.  Even in the lands that remained in its possession in the 1600’s, Syldavia’s sovereignty was open to question, as their kings had been vassals of the Venetian Republic since shortly before the arrival of the Ottomans in the north-western Balkans.  While the Venetians exercised their power in Syldavia principally to their own advantage, their interest in using the western Balkans as a front to contain the Ottomans did have the effect of propping up Syldavia and the Almazout dynasty during their period of utmost weakness.  

By the reign of King Karel II in the mid 17th century, Venetian dominance in Syldavia began to chafe, most notably due to the trade monopoly and demands for taxes and ongoing troop contributions for the reinforcement of the besieged Venetian army in Crete.  Few of those soldiers ever returned home. Karel II’s intention was of course to continue to push back the Bordurian frontier but the Venetians’ attentions had, by then, been turned toward their Mediterranean empire.  The troops Karel lost to the struggle over Crete greatly weakened his efforts to recover more territory.  Karel did manage to retake the strategic town of Djordjevaro, key to the upper Wladir river valley, but could not hold it in the long run.  When the last treaty of vassalage expired in 1658, Venice was terribly weakened by the expensive war still going on in Crete and was not in a position to coerce a renewed pact. Karel and then Ottokar VIII managed to forestall the question of vassalage for years by signing trade deals favourable to Venice and consenting to a mutual local defence treaty.  Syldavia had regained its sovereignty. 

King Ottokar VIII.  Note purported Mace of King Muskar at right.

Ragusia (the territory of the city of Dbrnouk) had also defected in the same manner a generation earlier and had guaranteed its security by building impressive fortifications around its port, through the growing importance of its trade which brought wealth rendered it too important for most neighbours to attack outright) and by new strategic alliances.  The governing republican Council of Dbrnouk extended preferential trade rules to the Ottomans who then used Dbrnouk as a preferred (if secondary) port in the Mediterranean trade.  This was a matter of some importance as trade goods originating in or passing through the Ottoman Empire were prized throughout Europe and by supporting a separate market in Dbrnouk, the Ottomans cut into the trade of their adversary in Venice.  Dbrnouk’s significance as a centre of Balkan trade was still limited however, as its access to the continental interior was limited by poor roads and by the eternal hostilities on the Bordurian frontier. 
Ragusian Irregular Infantryman, 17th century

With the diminished authority of Venice, Karel II, Ottokar VIII and their successors strove to culture closer relations with the Imperium.  The Habsburgs had played, since the time of Alexander I, more or less the role of a friendly uncle to Syldavia.  They were certainly interested in expanding their influence in the Balkans and in working with enemies of the Ottomans.  Better yet, Syldavia was too far from the Imperium’s real borders to permit substantial gestures of aid and real diplomatic entanglements.  By the latter 17th century, many young Syldavian nobles passed time in Austria, as students or wastrels. As well, Syldavian mercenaries found their way into Imperial service and some of these proved quite successful, at least at la petite guerre.  The experience of these men led some of the sons of Syldavia’s privileged families to venture to Vienna (Wyenow in the Syldavian tongue) and to undertake military careers there.  Upon their return to Syldavia these men commonly found their way into positions of political and military leadership, resulting tin a general sympathy for the Imperioum in Syldavian government.  With the battle against Borduria going nowhere, Ottokar VIII turned to Imperial examples to modernise his forces.
Syldavian Irregular Light Infantry and Cavalry of the mid to late 17th Century (image actually from the fabulous Vinkhuijzen Collection ) 

Until the late 17th century, the Syldavian Army was for the most part an improvised force built of varied and indifferently organised bands of troops raised by individual commanders who were, in turn, held commissions from the Crown or forces raised and organised through ancient clan kinship systems.  While pike-armed troops were a necessity of the times, an important part of the army comprised light infantry and cavalry well suited to the rough landscape of Syldavia’s interior.  The soldiers themselves were of rather good quality, raised locally of hardy men whose former lives as shepherds, farmhands, woodsmen and the like were no less demanding of endurance and determination than the occupation of soldiering.  Like those of many other regions of the Balkans, Syldavians often found their way into the forces of the Imperium and of various Italian states, where they enjoyed a hard-won reputation as wily and redoubtable fighters particularly adept at skirmishing and raids.

Despite being made of good raw material, the Syldavian army was hampered by its lack of formal training and organisation (outside of the clans) and by its commanders’ variable technical (in)expertise.  Commanders preferred skirmish engagements (where their knowledge of the land, personal leadership and courage were enough to give the Syldavians parity with their opponents) and avoided massed battles.  The efficient use of masses of troops was largely beyond them.  As a result, Syldavia’s military forces were typically unable to break the long-standing stalemate with their Bordurian foes who enjoyed the advantages of numbers and strong defensive positions.  
Musketeer and Pikeman of King Ottokar VIII's army, circa 1660 (image actually from the fabulous Vinkhuijzen Collection )

The first initiatives for modernising Syldavia’s army came under King Ottokar VIII who in the midst of his reign (1652-1669), instituted moves to formally train modern modern Continental-style musketeers and artillerymen and improve the casting of cannon.  With these improved troops he managed to push Bordurians out of the strategic town of Djordjevaro once and for all.  After the premature death of Ottokar VIII, his sister, Beneficia (1669-1677), assumed the throne and continued to push the improvement of training and drill and instituted a formal bureaucratic office (the Könikstzrwa Zyldav krag ministarstvo or Royal Syldavian War Ministry) charged with overseeing supply, the artillery and fortresses.  The campaigns of her reign saw both advances and reverses and the pushing the Syldavian frontier several miles further up the Wladir River.   The most important military reforms were made under the leadership of King Ivan (1677-1712), the son of Queen Beneficia.  Ivan was nicknamed “Iron Head” because of his infamous temper and bloody single-mindedness. 

In their youths, Crown Prince Ivan and his cousin Count Nikola Mikolic gained personal experience with modern methods of warfare as cadets and then as officers in the Habsburg Imperial Army.  Ivan returned to Syldavia upon ascending to the throne in 1677 while Nikola remained to work as a staff officer of the newly appointed Field Marshall Duke Charles of Lorraine.  Ivan dreamed of reclaiming the Syldavian territory still held by the Bordurians by breaking the impasse of border skirmishes through a decisive offensive campaign.  A more fully modernised army was essential to his goal and, from the start of his reign, Ivan worked to introduce a system of formal and permanent regiments.  He brought with him from the Imperium a cadre of experienced officers looking for advancement (both Syldavian and émigré professional soldiers) and, as a rich Imperial gift to the new king, a body of Syldavian émigré troops who had been in Imperial service as musketeers and as troopers of a dragoon regiment.  Both bodies of troops had in reality dubious reputations.  These soldiers were reconstituted into Syldavia’s first formally organised modern regiments comprising the simply named King’s Musketeers and the Dragoon Regiment who, with the old Royal Guards (now a formal regiment as well), formed the basis of a professional army.

Living under the watchful eyes of the King, church and kinsmen, and patiently drilled into discipline by the King and his officers, these miscreants eventually were shaped into dependable and disciplined soldiers.  Once he was satisfied with his results, King Ivan split up his regiments to serve as training cadres around which whole new regiments were built.  By 1681, Ivan was training men for four regular regiments of musketeers, one of heavy horse and one of dragoons.  As well, a formal provincial militia was instituted in an attempt to circumscribe the power of the clans in the countryside.  From local militias, chosen men were selected to form a small light infantry force comprising a couple of companies.   With these troops, King Ivan was equipped to face the challenges and opportunities that were about to be presented, unexpectedly to him and to Syldavia.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

History of Syldavia from the 14th to 16th century

In the late 14th century, Syldavia was caught in a vice between the Venetians who continued to expand into the Balkans from the northwest and the Ottomans who began to press into the Balkans from the southeast.  Moving north from the ruins of Byzantium, the Ottomans overwhelmed Bulgaria in the 1390’s. When Borduria fell soon afterwards, Syldavia suddenly found the Ottomans on their northern and eastern borders. The whole region fell into a chaotic and fearful reactive stance for the next century as the Ottomans pushed incrementally to the north.  Syldavia reinforced its frontier forts and waited grimly. In order to stave off pressure on its vulnerable trading fleet from both the Venetians and the Ottomans, the independent city state of Dbrnouk chose to become a nominal tributary (on very liberal terms) of the Ottomans in 1469.  They stayed assiduously out of conflict as far as possible and free of any real Ottoman occupation.  The Ottomans, preferring to tax Dbrnouk’s trade rather choking it off by making the city into an isolated theatre of war with Venice, left the city largely alone.

Dbrnouk in the 17th century

Syldavia’s mountainous border and its marginal value to the Ottomans given their much greater interest in richer lands further to the north (notably the Danube corridor and the Hungarian plain) saved Syldavia in the short term.  A combination of stubborn military resistance aided by troops and fortifications paid for and built by the Venetians, diplomacy and the continued resistance of Albania further prolonged Syldavia’s semi-autonomy.  Nevertheless, through incessant raids and episodic small campaigns, Syldavia gradually lost most of its inland territory to the Ottomans and Borduria by 1430.  In between these campaigns, the desperately weakened, King Karel and his successor King Grygor II pledged vassalage alternately to the Venetians and the Ottomans and a few times to both at once, in order to forestall outright conquest.  Under unremitting pressure, however, (especially after the fall of Albania in 1468), Syldavia was finally overrun in 1494 and annexed to the Ottoman Pashaluk of Borduria.  At the 11th hour, with the final Ottoman advance bearing down, the ageing King Grygor knew that Syldavia’s time had run out.  He smuggled his family out of Syldavia with his most loyal retainers and treasure.  The promise of a possible future for the dynasty secured, Grygor led a final raid against the Ottomans in the Wladir River valley near Rivajow, where he was captured.  In shameful captivity, Grygor was executed, his body buried in an unknown place.  The Almazout family fled in exile to Italy and later to Vienna, where they were received with sympathy by the Habsburg court. The family converted to Roman Catholicism at this time, a move noted both in Vienna and Rome.  The young heir in-exile, Alexander I, become a notable officer of the Knights of Malta and a scourge of the Ottomans at sea, many of whose corsairs in the Adriatic were now based at Cattaro.  Many Syldavians became exiles as well as refugees moved to Croatia and some to Italy, Austria and further afield.  There is even mention of a troop of mountaineers from Zympathia in the employ of far-off Tradgardland. 

The Ottoman occupation was soon contested.  The Venetians organised and armed displaced Syldavian refugees and allied with the restive clans still residing in the coastal provinces in a long struggle to push the Ottoman frontier back to the east.  The conspicuous service of Alexander I with the Knights of Malta served him well, as he (now a man in his prime) was given command of a force of Syldavian exiles, Knights and Austrian volunteers with which he re-took the town of Douma in 1516 and then lead a night attack on a key fortification in the harbour at Cattaro in 1517.  The port was opened to the Venetian ships and the Bordurian garrison capitulated once the Venetian troops made land.  In 1518, the presence of Alexander in Syldavia at the head of an armed force incited a popular uprising (much as happened in 1204) and the bulk of the provinces of Hum, Travunia and Zeta all fell relatively rapidly to the Veneto-Syldavian forces.  Dbrnouk became a vassal of Venice as well. Venice, facing the obvious political situation caused by the uprising inspired by Alexander and considerable pressure from Vienna and the Vatican in support of him, reluctantly accepted the reinstatement of the Almazoutian dynasty as kings of the reclaimed territories. 

Venetian-built fortifications at Cattaro, modified in the 17th century 
Venetian-built fortifications protecting the landward approaches to Cattaro
The price of Venetian protection of the Almazout dynasty included a pact guaranteeing Syldavia’s quasi-colonial status and other such niceties as preferential Venetian trade rights and bases in Cattaro and Douma.  Several generations of Syldavian kings preferred their tributary status to extinction and happily lived with this deal.  Quite naturally, Syldavian society and its military followed Venetian trends during this time.  While the Venetians oversaw the reconstruction of the coastal territories, including building imposing fortifications and new port facilities, the military situation was deadlocked in the interior.  The Ottoman (Bordurian) – Syldavian border fluctuated frequently along the mountains separating Wladruja from Hum and Travunia at this time; occasional minor gains in territory were balanced by minor losses.  This stalemate lasted well into the 17th century. 

King Alexander I, wearing habit of the Knights of Malta

A modern view of the town of Cattaro

Friday, November 18, 2011

History of  Syldavia from the 12th to 14th century

Last year, I was still involved in relating the early history of Syldavia as a diversion whilst I painted its 18th century armies.  The story of Duke Jiri trailed off in midstream, partly because I was running out of ideas and certainly out of time, and also because I found writing something deliberately fictional (nothing at all like my real life!) with plot and dialogue and brevity pretty difficult!  I quite failed at that.    It did amuse me and I would like to get back to Duke Jiri’s adventure but as my original and true interest, the 18th century, comes closer into view I would like to finish setting out my version of the history of Syldavia.  So, here goes…

The Kingdom of Syldavia, first established by Muskar I in 1127 was re-established in 1205 by Duke Jiri Almazout, the Duke of Hum.  Duke Jiri profited from a popular revolt against the occupying Bordurians and the Viceroy Surov to marshal sufficient forces to throw out Bordurian forces from the coastal provinces and then from Klow, the capital and the interior highlands.  The rebels he unified included the general population, a faction of old noble families and a monastic sect allied with the old Muskarian regime, and exiled Syldavians who, uprooted once again by the Venetian conquest of the state of Zadar, returned to reclaim their place and properties in their homeland.  The Bordurians were weakened by their own unwilling involvement in the Fourth Crusade, enforced by the alliance of their overlords, the Bulgars, and the Venetians against the Byzantine Empire.  That ill-fated campaign brought shame to Venice, ruin to Constantinople, defeat to Borduria and a unique and gilded opportunity to Duke Jiri, who seized the day.  In such a manner is history made. 

Duke Jiri took the name Ottokar I as King of reclaimed Syldavia and established the Almazout family as a dynasty.  He also rebuilt the institutions such as old King Muskar’s Church (now Cathedral) of St Vladimir, which had made the capital, Klow, one of the leading cities of the western Balkans.   His son, Konstantin, and grandson Ottokar II continued the war against the Bordurians, breaking the back of their grip on Polishoff and northern Zympathia and expanding Syldavia’s borders for the first time into the Bordurian plains north of the Zympathian mountains. In one notable battle at the town of Bellicosow, Konstantin routed the Bordurian army with their Viceroy present and siezed elements of his viceregal regalia, the gold and jewels of which were used to make the new Syldavian royal crown, an eternal insult to Borduria.  These two kings saw to the improvement of the provinces, building fortifications, roads, markets, building a new port at Cataro to replace the entrepot of Dbrnouk (still in Venetian hands), and a new monastery and school dedicated to St. Stanislaus in Travunje, enfranchising the monastic sect who had worked secretly for a generation to replace the Syldavian monarchy.  Ottokar IV is notable in history for his wise and largely peaceful rule and for having reformed laws, instituting a kind of Magna Carta defining the limits to regal and baronial powers.

Seal of Ottokar I, rare example courtesy of Prof. A. Halembique

Over the two hundred years following Ottokar I, Byzantine power (which was largely friendly to Syldavia) disappeared while that of the Venetians increased.  One by one, the independent petty states of the Adriatic were swallowed up by Venice. The Syldavian kings, now a weaker lot, used diplomacy and tribute payments to maintain their independence from Venice, but Venetian strategy became more directly menacing by the beginning of the 14th century.  King Demetro was forced to assent to become a vassal of the Venetian Republic and to grant a special concession for a semi-independent Venetian free port and trade centre at Cattaro, which has an excellent natural harbour. These were difficult times for Syldavia, as it had lost control over much of its coastline and all of its major ports.  The port of Dbrnouk, however, had become an important and prosperous trade centre with a fleet of its own.  Its proud burghers dared to expel the Venetian administration in 1358.  The city became a republic and allied itself with Hungary for protection.  Despite Venetian pressure, much illicit Syldavian trade moved through Dbrnouk because of its more favourable location.  The official Venetian trade monopoly and other exactions were onerous and the Syldavian population grew resentful of Venetian interference.  While Syldavia was increasingly pre-occupied by relations with its superpower neighbour in the Adriatic, the Ottoman Turks overthrew the remnants of the Byzantine Empire and stood poised on the threshold of the Balkans…

King Konstantin, leading the Syldavian army in battle against the Bordurian Viceroy
and allies at the Battle of Bellicosow, Polishov