Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Of a History of Events which have Not Happened.

Such a title might serve for a work of not incurious nor unphilosophical speculation, which might enlarge our general views of human affairs, and assist our comprehension of those events which are enrolled on the registers of history. The scheme of Providence is carrying oil sublunary events, by means inscrutable to us,

A mighty maze, but not without a plan!

Some mortals have recently written history, and “Lectures on History,” who presume to explain the great scene of human affairs, affecting the same familiarity with the designs of Providence as with the events which they compile from human authorities. Every party discovers in the events which at first were adverse to their own cause but finally terminate in their favour, that Providence had used a peculiar and particular interference; this is a source of human error and intolerant prejudice. The Jesuit Mariana, exulting over the destruction of the kingdom and nation of the Goths in Spain, observes, that “It was by a particular providence that out of their ashes might rise a new and holy Spain, to be the bulwark of the catholic religion;” and unquestionably he would have adduced as proofs of this “holy Spain” the establishment of the Inquisition, and the dark idolatrous bigotry of that hoodwinked people. But a protestant will not sympathise with the feelings of the Jesuit; yet the protestants, too, will discover particular providences, and magnify human events into supernatural ones. This custom has long prevailed among fanatics: we have had books published by individuals, of “particular providences,” which, as they imagined, had fallen to their lot. They are called “passages of providence;” and one I recollect by a crack-brained puritan, whose experience never went beyond his own neighbourhood, but who having a very bad temper, and many whom he considered his enemies, wrote down all the misfortunes which happened to them as acts of “particular providences,” and valued his blessedness on the efficacy of his curses!

Without venturing to penetrate into the mysteries of the present order of human affairs, and the great scheme of fatality or of accident, it may he sufficiently evident to us, that often on a single event revolve the fortunes of men and of nations.

An eminent writer has speculated on the defeat of Charles the Second at Worcester, as “one of those events which most strikingly exemplify how much better events are disposed of by Providence, than they would be if the direction were left to the choice even of the best and the wisest men.” He proceeds to show, that a royal victory must have been succeeded by other severe struggles, and by different parties. A civil war would have contained within itself another civil war. One of the blessings of his defeat at Worcester was, that it left the commonwealth’s men masters of the three kingdoms, and afforded them “full leisure to complete and perfect their own structure of government. The experiment was fairly tried; there was nothing from without to disturb the process; it went on duly from change to change.” The close of this history is well known. Had the royalists obtained the victory at Worcester, the commonwealth party might have obstinately persisted, that had their republic not been overthrown, “their free and liberal government” would have diffused its universal happiness through the three kingdoms. This idea is ingenious; and might have been pursued in my proposed “History of Events which have not happened,” under the title of “The Battle of Worcester won by Charles the Second.” The chapter, however, would have had a brighter close, if the sovereign and the royalists had proved themselves better men than the knaves and fanatics of the commonwealth. It is not for us to scrutinise into “the ways” of Providence; but if Providence conducted Charles the Second to the throne, it appears to have deserted him when there.

Historians, for a particular purpose, have sometimes amused themselves with a detail of an event which did not happen. A history of this kind we find in the ninth book of Livy; and it forms a digression, where, with his delightful copiousness, he reasons on the probable consequences which would have ensued had Alexander the Great invaded Italy. Some Greek writers, to raise the Parthians to an equality with the Romans, had insinuated that the great name of this military monarch, who is said never to have lost a battle, would have intimidated the Romans, and would have checked their passion for universal dominion. The patriotic Livy, disdaining that the glory of his nation, which had never ceased from war for nearly eight hundred years, should be put in competition with the career of a young conqueror, which had scarcely lasted ten, enters into a parallel of “man with man, general with general, and victory with victory.” In the full charm of his imagination he brings Alexander down into Italy, he invests him with all his virtues, and “dusks their lustre” with all his defects. He arranges the Macedonian army, while he exultingly shows five Roman armies at that moment pursuing their conquests; and he cautiously counts the numerous allies who would have combined their forces; he even descends to compare the weapons and the modes of warfare of the Macedonians with those of the Romans. Livy, as if he had caught a momentary panic at the first success which had probably attended Alexander in his descent into Italy, brings forward the great commanders he would have had to encounter; he compares Alexander with each, and at length terminates his fears, and claims his triumph, by discovering that the Macedonians had but one Alexander, while the Romans had several. This beautiful digression in Livy is a model for the narrative of an event which never happened.

The Saracens from Asia had spread into Africa, and at length possessed themselves of Spain. Eude, a discontented Duke of Guienne in France, had been vanquished by Charles Martel, who derived that humble but glorious surname from the event we are now to record. Charles had left Eude the enjoyment of his dukedom, provided that he held it as a fief from the crown; but blind with ambition and avarice, Eude adopted a scheme which threw Christianity itself, as well as Europe, into a crisis of peril which has never since occurred. By marrying a daughter with a Mahometan emir, he rashly began an intercourse with the Ishmaelites, one of whose favourite projects was to plant a formidable colony of their faith in France. An army of four hundred thousand combatants, as the chroniclers of the time affirm, were seen descending into Guienne, possessing themselves in one day of his domains; and Eude soon discovered what sort of workmen he had called, to do that of which he himself was so incapable. Charles, with equal courage and prudence, beheld this heavy tempest bursting over his whole country; and to remove the first cause of this national evil, he reconciled the discontented Eude, and detached the duke from his fatal alliance. But the Saracens were fast advancing through Touraine, and had reached Tours by the river Loire: Abderam, the chief of the Saracens, anticipated a triumph in the multitude of his infantry, his cavalry, and his camels, exhibiting a military warfare unknown in France; he spread out his mighty army to surround the French, and to take them, as it were in a net. The appearance terrified, and the magnificence astonished. Charles, collecting his far inferior forces, assured them that they had no other France than the spot they covered. He had ordered that the city of Tours should be closed on every Frenchman, unless he entered it victorious; and he took care that every fugitive should be treated as an enemy by bodies of gens d’armes, whom he placed to watch at the wings of his army. The combat was furious. The astonished Mahometan beheld his battalions defeated as he urged them on singly to the French, who on that day had resolved to offer their lives as an immolation to their mother-country. Eude on that day, ardent to clear himself from the odium which he had incurred, with desperate valour, taking a wide compass, attacked his new allies in the rear. The camp of the Mahometan was forced: the shrieks of his women and children reached him from amidst the massacre; terrified he saw his multitude shaken. Charles, who beheld the light breaking through this dark cloud of men, exclaimed to his countrymen, “My friends, God has raised his banner, and the unbelievers perish!” The mass of the Saracens, though broken, could not fly; their own multitude pressed themselves together, and the Christian sword mowed down the Mahometans. Abderam was found dead in a vast heap, unwounded, stifled by his own multitude. Historians record that three hundred and sixty thousand Saracens perished on la journée de Tours; but their fears and their joy probably magnified their enemies. Thus Charles saved his own country, and, at that moment, all the rest of Europe, from this deluge of people, which had poured down from Asia and Africa. Every Christian people returned a solemn thanksgiving, and saluted their deliverer as “the Hammer” of France. But the Saracens were not conquered; Charles did not even venture on their pursuit; and a second invasion proved almost as terrifying; army still poured down on army, and it was long, and after many dubious results, that the Saracens were rooted out of France. Such is the history of one of the most important events which has passed; but that of an event which did not happen, would be the result of this famous conflict, had the Mahometan power triumphed! The Mahometan dominion had predominated through Europe! The imagination is startled when it discovers how much depended on this invasion, at a time when there existed no political state in Europe, no balance of power in one common tie of confederation! A single battle, and a single treason, had before made the Mahometans sovereigns of Spain. We see that the same events had nearly been repeated in France: and had the Crescent towered above the Cross, as every appearance promised to the Saracenic hosts, the least of our evils had now been, that we should have worn turbans, combed our beards instead of shaving them, have beheld a more magnificent architecture than the Grecian, while the public mind had been bounded by the arts and literature of the Moorish university of Cordova!

One of the great revolutions of Modern Europe perhaps had not occurred, had the personal feelings of Luther been respected, and had his personal interest been consulted. Guicciardini, whose veracity we cannot suspect, has preserved a fact which proves how very nearly some important events which have taken place, might not have happened! I transcribe the passage from his thirteenth book: “Cæsar (the Emperor Charles the Fifth), after he had given an hearing in the Diet of Worms to Martin Luther, and caused his opinions to be examined by a number of divines, who reported that his doctrine was erroneous and pernicious to the Christian religion, had, to gratify the pontiff, put him under the ban of the empire, which so terrified Martin, that, if the injurious and threatening words which were given him by Cardinal San Sisto, the apostolical legate, had not thrown him into the utmost despair, it is believed it would have been easy, by giving him some preferment, or providing for him some honourable way of living, to make him renounce his errors.” By this we may infer that one of the true authors of the reformation was this very apostolical legate; they had succeeded in terrifying Luther; but they were not satisfied till they had insulted him; and with such a temper as Luther’s, the sense of personal insult would remove even that of terror; it would unquestionably survive it.1 A similar proceeding with Franklin, from our ministers, is said to have produced the same effect with that political sage. What Guicciardini has told of Luther preserves the sentiment of the times. Charles the Fifth was so fully persuaded that he could have put down the Reformation, had he rid himself at once of the chief, that having granted Luther a safeguard to appear at the Council of Worms, in his last moments he repented, as of a sin, that having had Luther in his hands he suffered him to escape; for to have violated his faith with a heretic he held to be no crime.

In the history of religion, human instruments have been permitted to be the great movers of its chief revolutions; and the most important events concerning national religions appear to have depended on the passions of individuals, and the circumstances of the time. Impure means have often produced the most glorious results; and this, perhaps, may be among the dispensations of Providence.

A similar transaction occurred in Europe and in Asia. The motives and conduct of Constantine the Great, in the alliance of the Christian faith with his government, are far more obvious than any one of those qualities with which the panegyric of Eusebius so vainly cloaks over the crimes and unchristian life of this polytheistical Christian. In adopting a new faith as a coup-d’état, and by investing the church with temporal power, at which Dante so indignantly exclaims, he founded the religion of Jesus, but corrupted its guardians. The same occurrence took place in France under Clovis. The fabulous religion of Paganism was fast on its decline; Clovis had resolved to unite the four different principalities which divided Gaul into one empire. In the midst of an important battle, as fortune hung doubtful between the parties, the pagan monarch invoked the God of his fair Christian queen, and obtained the victory! St. Remi found no difficulty in persuading Clovis, after the fortunate event, to adopt the Christian creed. Political reasons for some time suspended the king’s open conversion. At length the Franks followed their sovereign to the baptismal fonts. According to Pasquier, Naudé, and other political writers, these recorded miracles,2 like those of Constantine, were but inventions to authorise the change of religion. Clovis used the new creed as a lever by whose machinery he would be enabled to crush the petty princes his neighbours; and, like Constantine, Clovis, sullied by crimes of as dark a dye, obtained the title of “The Great.” Had not the most capricious “Defender of the Faith” been influenced by the most violent of passions, the Reformation, so feebly and so imperfectly begun and continued, had possibly never freed England from the papal thraldom;

For Gospel light first beamed from Bullen’s eyes.

It is, however, a curious fact, that when the fall of Anne Bullen was decided on, Rome eagerly prepared a reunion with the papacy, on terms too flattering for Henry to have resisted. It was only prevented taking place by an incident that no human foresight could have predicted. The day succeeding the decapitation of Anne Bullen witnessed the nuptials of Henry with the protestant Jane Seymour. This changed the whole policy. The despatch from Rome came a day too late! From such a near disaster the English Reformation escaped! The catholic Ward, in his singular Hudibrastic poem of “England’s Reformation,” in some odd rhymes, has characterised it by a naïveté, which we are much too delicate to repeat. The catholic writers censure Philip for recalling the Duke of Alva from the Netherlands. According to these humane politicians, the unsparing sword, and the penal fires of this resolute captain, had certainly accomplished the fate of the heretics; for angry lions, however numerous, would find their numerical force diminished by gibbets and pit-holes. We have lately been informed by a curious writer, that protestantism once existed in Spain, and was actually extirpated at the moment by the crushing arm of the Inquisition.3 According to these catholic politicians, a great event in catholic history did not occur — the spirit of catholicism, predominant in a land of protestants — from the Spanish monarch failing to support Alva in finishing what he had begun! Had the armada of Spain safely landed with the benedictions of Rome, in England, at a moment when our own fleet was short of gunpowder, and at a time when the English catholics formed a powerful party in the nation, we might now be going to mass.

After his immense conquests, had Gustavus Adolphus not perished in the battle of Lutzen, where his genius obtained a glorious victory, unquestionably a wonderful change had operated on the affairs of Europe; the protestant cause had balanced, if not preponderated over, the catholic interest; and Austria, which appeared a sort of universal monarchy, had seen her eagle’s wings clipped. But “the Antichrist,” as Gustavus was called by the priests of Spain and Italy, the saviour of protestantism, as he is called by England and Sweden, whose death occasioned so many bonfires among the catholics, that the Spanish court interfered lest fuel should become too scarce at the approaching winter — Gustavus fell — the fit hero for one of those great events which have never happened!

On the first publication of the “Icon Basiliké,” of Charles the First, the instantaneous effect produced on the nation was such, fifty editions, it is said, appearing in one year, that Mr. Malcolm Laing observes, that “had this book,” a sacred volume to those who considered that sovereign as a martyr, “appeared a week sooner, it might have preserved the king,” and possibly have produced a reaction of popular feeling! The chivalrous Dundee made an offer to James the Second, which, had it been acted on, Mr. Laing acknowledges, might have produced another change! What then had become of our “glorious Revolution,” which from its earliest step, throughout the reign of William, was still vacillating amidst the unstable opinions and contending interests of so many of its first movers?

The great political error of Cromwell is acknowledged by all parties to have been the adoption of the French interest in preference to the Spanish; a strict alliance with Spain had preserved the balance of Europe, enriched the commercial industry of England, and, above all, had checked the overgrowing power of the French government. Before Cromwell had contributed to the predominance of the French power, the French Huguenots were of consequence enough to secure an indulgent treatment. The parliament, as Elizabeth herself had formerly done, considered so powerful a party in France as useful allies; and anxious to extend the principles of the Reformation, and to further the suppression of popery, the parliament had once listened to, and had even commenced a treaty with, deputies from Bordeaux, the purport of which was the assistance of the French Huguenots in their scheme of forming themselves into a republic, or independent state; but Cromwell, on his usurpation, not only overthrew the design, but is believed to have betrayed it to Mazarin. What a change in the affairs of Europe had Cromwell adopted the Spanish interest, and assisted the French Huguenots in becoming an independent state! The revocation of the edict of Nantes, and the increase of the French dominion, which so long afterwards disturbed the peace of Europe, were the consequence of this fatal error of Cromwell’s . The independent state of the French Huguenots, and the reduction of ambitious France, perhaps to a secondary European power, had saved Europe from the scourge of the French revolution!

The elegant pen of Mr. Roscoe has lately afforded me another curious sketch of a history of events which have not happened.

M. de Sismondi imagines, against the opinion of every historian, that the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici was a matter of indifference to the prosperity of Italy; as “he could not have prevented the different projects which had been matured in the French cabinet for the invasion and conquest of Italy; and therefore he concludes that all historians are mistaken who bestow on Lorenzo the honour of having preserved the peace of Italy, because the great invasion that overthrew it did not take place till two years after his death.” Mr. Roscoe has philosophically vindicated the honour which his hero has justly received, by employing the principle which in this article has been developed. “Though Lorenzo de’ Medici could not perhaps have prevented the important events that took place in other nations of Europe, it by no means follows that the life or death of Lorenzo was equally indifferent to the affairs of Italy, or that circumstances would have been the same in case he had lived, as in the event of his death.” Mr. Roscoe then proceeds to show how Lorenzo’s “prudent measures and proper representations might probably have prevented the French expedition, which Charles the Eighth was frequently on the point of abandoning. Lorenzo would not certainly have taken the precipitate measures of his son Piero, in surrendering the Florentine fortresses. His family would not in consequence have been expelled the city; a powerful mind might have influenced the discordant politics of the Italian princes in one common defence; a slight opposition to the fugitive army of France, at the pass of Faro, might have given the French sovereigns a wholesome lesson, and prevented those bloody contests that were soon afterwards renewed in Italy. As a single remove at chess varies the whole game, so the death of an individual of such importance in the affairs of Europe as Lorenzo de’ Medici could not fail of producing such a change in its political relations as must have varied them in an incalculable degree.” Pignotti also describes the state of Italy at this time. Had Lorenzo lived to have seen his son elevated to the papacy, this historian, adopting our present principle, exclaims, “A happy era for Italy and Tuscany HAD THEN OCCURRED! On this head we can, indeed, be only allowed to conjecture; but the fancy, guided by reason, may expatiate at will in this imaginary state, and contemplate Italy re-united by a stronger bond, flourishing under its own institutions and arts, and delivered from all those lamented struggles which occurred within so short a period of time.”

Whitaker, in his “Vindication of Mary Queen of Scots,” has a speculation in the true spirit of this article. When such dependence was made upon Elizabeth’s dying without issue, the Countess of Shrewsbury had her son purposely residing in London, with two good and able horses continually ready to give the earliest intelligence of the sick Elizabeth’s death to the imprisoned Mary. On this the historian observes, “And had this not improbable event actually taken place, what a different complexion would our history have assumed from what it wears at present! Mary would have been carried from a prison to a throne. Her wise conduct in prison would have been applauded by all. From Tutbury, from Sheffield, and from Chatsworth, she would have been said to have touched with a gentle and masterly hand the springs that actuated all the nation, against the death of her tyrannical cousin,” &c. So ductile is history in the hands of man! and so peculiarly does it bend to the force of success, and warp with the warmth of prosperity!

Thus important events have been nearly occurring, which, however, did not take place; and others have happened which may be traced to accident, and to the character of an individual. We shall enlarge our conception of the nature of human events, and gather some useful instruction in our historical reading by pausing at intervals; contemplating, for a moment, on certain events which have not happened!

1 Michelet, in his “Life of Luther,” says the Spanish soldiers mocked and loaded him with insults, on the evening of his last examination before the Diet at Worms, on his leaving the town-hall to return to his hostelry: he ceased to employ arguments after this, and when next day the archbishop of Treves wished to renew them, he replied in the language of Scripture, “If this work be of men, it will come to nought, but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it.”

2 The miracles of Clovis consisted of a shield, which was picked up after having fallen from the skies; the anointing oil, conveyed from heaven by a white dove in a phial, which, till the reign of Louis XVI. consecrated the kings of France; and the oriflamme, or standard with golden flames, long suspended over the tomb of St. Denis, which the French kings only raised over the tomb when their crown was in imminent peril. No future king of France can be anointed with the sainte ampoule, or oil brought down to earth by a white dove; in 1794 it was broken by some profane hand, and antiquaries have since agreed that it was only an ancient lachrymatory!

3 This fact was probably quite unknown to us, till it was given in the “Quarterly Review,” vol. xxix. However, the same event was going on in Italy.

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