Two hundred years ago this month, a mustachioed and eccentric Slovakian Baron was ordered out of England under the so-called Aliens Act. Already having had a number of adventures on the Continent, in less than two years, Baron Ferdinand de Géramb had become well-known on the London social scene. He was a prominent member of the Carlton House set and was acquainted with several notable Regency-era eccentrics. A number of his idiosyncratic wardrobe choices were being emulated by the London dandies before the Baron was asked to leave the country in the spring of 1812. Though by profession a military man, before the Regency was over, this very same aristocratic adventurer would be captured by Napoleon, then take vows upon his release and end his life as a leading Catholic churchman and author who held the esteem of the Pope himself.
So we begin the curious tale of the Baron Ferdinand de Géramb, in which truth is often very much stranger than fiction …
Information on the Baron’s origins are sketchy at best. It is most commonly believed that he was born Ferdinand-François, in Lyon, France, on 14 January 1772, though some would have the month of his birth as April or July and the year as 1770. And there is some disagreement on whether his birth took place on the 14th or the 17th day of whichever month he was born. His mother is known to have been Marie-Magdeleine Lassause, the daughter of an upper middle-class Lyon family. His father, Julian Ferdinand Géramb, is believed to have been a member of a cadet branch of either an Hungarian or Austrian noble family. He had apparently set himself up as a silk merchant and had come to the area to take advantage of the thriving French silk trade. Géramb Père settled in Lyon upon his marriage to Marie-Magdeleine, where his family grew as he and his wife were first blessed with their son, Ferdinand, to be followed by two daughters.
It is likely that Géramb Senior’s connection with even the lesser nobility of his homeland is what motivated him to take his wife and two young daughters out of France in the early 1790s. By then it was becoming clear that all aristocrats, at any level, regardless of the land of their birth, were at risk under the new regime which held power during the French Revolution. Most authorities believe the young Ferdinand, then in his late teens or early twenties, did not accompany his family when they left Lyon for Vienna. His father may have arranged for him to stay with a relative or friend, but it is not known if he stayed in Lyon or relocated elsewhere in France. According to the Baron, his "step-father," with whose family he was then living, went to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. The young Ferdinand appears to have left France soon thereafter, and probably began his life as an adventurer at this time. He was a hot-headed, eager young man, keen to sow his wild oats. It is known that he went to Rome, where, among other adventures, he climbed the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica, at the risk of life and limb, in order to chalk his name on the large bronze ball atop the cupola. He also seems to have developed a fondness for the fairer sex at about this same time and quickly learned to exercise his considerable charm in their pursuit.
By the mid-1790s, he had rejoined his family in Austria. It is known that in 1796, Ferdinand de Géramb married his cousin, Theresa de Adda. Some sources state that she was a young widow of a Hungarian nobleman and that her second husband assumed her first husband’s title upon their marriage. However, other sources make it clear that Géramb was made a Baron by the Emperor of Austria in recognition of his service to the Empire. The story goes that he first came to the attention of the Austrian monarchy in Vienna, on the occasion of the grand procession of the Fête-Dieu (Feast of Corpus Christi). He was standing along the route of the procession at a point where the Empress hesitated to pass over an uncarpeted portion of the roadway. Immediately, in the style of Sir Walter Raleigh, Géramb whipped off his coat and tossed it down to cover the area at the feet of the Empress. This gallant gesture caused the Empress to have him admitted to the Austrian Court. Here, he quickly came to the attention of the Emperor and not long after was appointed to the position of Court Chamberlain. It should be noted that there were several men who held this mostly honorary position in the Imperial Austrian Court at any given time. However, it gave its holder regular access to the Court and the Emperor, as well as other persons of influence in the government. Click here to view an 1805 portrait of Ferdinand de Géramb.
Not long after Géramb arrived in Vienna, he wrote a poem, entitled Hapsbourg, a poetic history of the ruling House of Austria. He paid great homage to the current Emperor in his poem and presented Francis I with a magnificent copy printed on seven folio-size sheets which were embellished with a series of allegorical engravings. The poem was eventually made public, late in 1804, with a run of two thousand copies very similar to the original, the majority of which were bound with vellum, embroidered with gold. Though he enjoyed writing, and would continue to write throughout his life, Géramb was a man who craved action. According to a report in the Austrian Court Gazette dated 26 August 1806, about seven o’clock on the evening of 21 August, a workman fell into the Danube River, which was swollen to near flood stage, due to recent heavy rains. After hearing the man scream for help, a crowd gathered at the river bank to watch, but no one went to his assistance. There was no boat in the area, and no one was willing to risk their life to go in after the struggling worker. Moments later, a tall man in a uniform pushed through the crowd, and without even bothering to remove his boots or any of his clothing, dove straight into the raging river. Ferdinand de Géramb swam powerfully against the current toward the floundering man. Remarkably, Géramb reached the rapidly tiring man and, getting a good grip on him, towed him to the river bank. Once there, a few men stepped out of the crowd and helped pull the worker and then Géramb out of the torrent of the river. Apparently not satisfied with having saved the worker’s life, the newspaper notes that Géramb also provided him with a handsome gift of cash. But even the occasional plunge into a raging river was not enough to occupy Ferdinand de Géramb. Not long after receiving his appointment as Chamberlain, he threw himself into the effort to raise a corps of volunteers to fight Napoleon, whose army was advancing on the city.
While endeavoring to encourage young noblemen to join his volunteer corps, Géramb, a tall, handsome man, began to be seen about Vienna in a brilliantly colored and heavily gold-braided uniform which he reportedly designed himself. As he frequented the fashionable cafés along the boulevards, he was usually accompanied by a small cadre of young "aides-de-camp," who were just as magnificently attired, in uniforms he had also designed. He did raise a corp of volunteers which served in the name of the Empress and he himself rose to the rank of Lieutenant-General, serving with distinction. Some sources claim that when Napoleon and his army were at the gates of Vienna, Géramb was accused of stealing military supplies, lost his title of Court Chamberlain and was forced to flee Austria. But this may have been nothing more than sour grapes, since records show that the Austrian Emperor made Géramb a baron, a high title, much coveted in Austria, on 19 July 1809. Family tradition holds that Géramb did have to remove from Vienna in 1807, but only because he had shown entirely too much gallantry to the pretty young Empress of Austria.
But were these allegations of military mismanagement or royal flirtation true, or were they actually intended to obscure Géramb’s true purpose in departing Vienna? Ferdinand de Géramb was known to have been in Sicily in the early weeks of 1807. At that time, the Queen of Naples and Sicily was Maria Carolina, the aunt of the Austrian Emperor, Francis I. Her husband, Ferdinand I, was an indifferent King, more interested in his personal pleasures than his royal responsibilities. By their marriage agreement, Queen Maria Carolina was to be granted a seat on the Privy Council once she was delivered of a male heir. She managed that very early in the marriage and she was thereafter the de facto ruler of Sicily. In 1806, Napoleon had captured Naples, at which time Ferdinand and Maria Carolina fled the mainland to their capital of Palermo, on the island of Sicily. Had the Queen’s nephew sent her a trusted courtier to advise and support her as she struggled to defend her shrinking realm from the predations of the French Emperor? It would seem that Géramb must have been carrying papers from the Austrian Emperor, at the very least a letter of introduction to Maria Carolina, for he was a regular at the Sicilian Court almost as soon as he arrived in Palermo.
Géramb had traveled to the island of Sicily with his family, for by now, he and his wife, Theresa, had had six children, though two of them had died in infancy. Sadly, within a year after the family had arrived in Palermo, Theresa fell ill and died. At some point after his wife’s passing, Géramb sent his four surviving children home to his family in Austria. But he stayed on, in the service of the Queen of Sicily. All reports indicate that she was very pleased to have him in her service. Maria Carolina had a weakness for handsome men, and everyone agreed that Géramb was a very handsome man. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with an erect military bearing. He had a strong jaw, a high brow, light blue eyes, and thick, black hair which he wore in loose waves around his face and over his collar. In addition, he had a long flowing moustache in the style of those worn by the Hussars, the Hungarian cavalry. Géramb had also taken the Hussar uniform as the model for his own uniquely ornate and colorful military uniform, which he always wore whenever he reviewed the Sicilian troops. He was also usually in uniform as he routinely accompanied the Queen on her drives about the city or to her royal box at the theater. Many of her subjects were quite shocked by his regular attendance upon their monarch and the overt familiarity which they believed he showed her.
But there was another reason, of which few were aware, for the close relationship between the Baron and the Queen. They were planning the assasination of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Baron hated the French for the execution of his step-father during the Terror, and Queen Maria Carolina hated them for the murder of her favorite, most beloved sister, Maria Antonia, whom the French had called Marie Antoinette. Both concentrated their hatred for the French on the person of its Emperor and plotted his death. It is said that the Baron kept a portrait of Bonaparte in his bedchamber and amused himself by firing at it nearly every day. However, by the end of 1809, all the intelligence they had been able to gather made it clear that Bonaparte was so closely guarded it would be quite impossible for anyone unknown to him to gain access to his person and the plot was reluctantly abandoned. By then, the storm of anger among the Queen’s subjects was steadily increasing against the Baron for his apparent close connection and influence with her.
Géramb had also drawn unfavorable attention to himself due to an affair of honor in which he became involved while in Palermo. He and another military officer of high rank had become entangled in a disagreement which eventually resulted in the other officer calling the Baron out. Having the choice of both weapons and ground, Géramb insisted that the duel was to be fought with pistols and was to take place at the very summit of the volcano, Mount Etna, which though not in full eruption, was seething with lava within its crater at the time. The intent was that whichever combatant fell, they would be annihilated and forever entombed within the crater. The officer escaped this fate by virtue of the fact that his arm was shattered by the second shot, while his own ball had passed through the Baron’s hat. Aware of the rising animosity against him, late in 1809, Baron de Géramb made it known in his lofty way that the Spanish Cortes Generales had requested his presence in that country, as they began their revolt against French occupation. Soon thereafter, he departed Sicily for Spain, landing in Cadiz in January of 1810.
Not long after his arrival in Spain, the Baron paid a call on the Austrian Charge d’Affairs, from whom he purchased a commission as full general in the Austrian army, in anticipation of leading Spanish troops. After reviewing the available soldiers, he quickly saw that the Spanish were no match for the entrenched French army. He believed that the British were the most powerful opponent of Bonaparte in Europe and possessed the greatest will and resources to defeat the French army. He wanted to travel there, ostensibly to induce the English government to appoint him the task of enlisting 24,000 Croatians into the service of the English army. He had already broached the subject with the British Ambassador to Spain, Richard, Marquess Wellesley, who thought it had enough merit that he issued Géramb a passport so he could travel to London in order to discuss the details with officials at the War Office. Unknown to Wellesley, the Baron had other schemes he intended to pursue once he got to England. He planned to float a loan to fund those Croatian troops and he wanted to solicit the personal support of King George III in the struggle against Napoleon. The now General Ferdinand-François, Baron de Géramb sailed aboard the English frigate, Italienne, out of Cadiz, bound for London, where he arrived on 29 April 1810.
Next week, the various exploits of Don Whiskerandos on the town in London, and the egregious exploits which resulted in his expulsion from England.