Last week, I began the curious tale of the largely unknown, but quite fascinating, nineteenth-century Slovakian aristocrat and adventurer, Ferdinand, Baron de Géramb. When we left him last week, he had sailed aboard an English frigate out of the Spanish port of Cadiz, which had landed him in England on 29 April 1810.
This week we shall learn of his eccentric exploits in England and try to determine which of the many strange and singular schemes in which he engaged finally drove the British government to order him out of the realm. For, you see, there was not just one …
When Baron de Géramb first appeared in London, many thought this exotic and fantastically-attired personage could be none other than the current King of Naples, Napoleon’s own brother-in-law, Joachim Murat, himself. Of the Baron’s appearance when he arrived in London, one source reports he was …
… a man who was as remarkable for the beauty of his features as for the singularity of his dress. He had a straight nose, a high forehead, dark hair flowing on to his neck, blue eyes, a dull [dark] complexion, and a long fine hussar-like moustache. He wore a Hungarian frogged jacket, a fur pelisse fastened across his breast by a silver death’s-head. Wellington boots, tight-fitting breeches, gauntlet-gloves, and on his head an astracan [sic] colback with an aigret of heron feathers. His belt contained a perfect arsenal of weapons: sixty cartridges, six small pistols, a life preserver, and a dagger. At his side swung a large scimitar, as well as a sabretache on which, on a black velvet ground, again figured a skull and cross-bones. The people of London — not easily astonished, so accustomed were they to all sorts of eccentricities — were simply astounded by this masquerader.
[Author’s Note: Astrakan is a curly lambskin which typically comes from Russia and a colback, or kolbach, is a cylindrical hat, several inches high, embellished with silk or gold braid, which widens near the crown, to which is attached a double-layered cloth flap which falls to the right, usually terminating in a tassel. It is more commonly called a busby in England. A plume (aigret) of feathers is attached at the center front of the crown. A sabretache is a leather satchel which is suspended by a pair of long straps from the left side of a cavalry officer’s sword-belt. Click here to view a portrait made of Baron de Géramb about the time he arrived in England.]
Baron de Géramb took an elegant new house in the developing area of Bayswater in west London. He set up house-keeping on a grand scale, with the servants he had brought with him, as well as more he hired after his arrival. All of his male servants wore livery of his own design, which was reported to be quite colorful and had distinctly military lines. He also acquired stylish carriages and fine horses to draw them and was soon to be seen in Hyde Park at the fashionable hour. The handsome visitor attracted a great deal of attention with his dark wavy ringlets and his splendid moustache, as well as his tightly-laced jackets and embroidered pantaloons. But perhaps his most distinctive article of attire was a pair of gold spurs, which were described as being anywhere from four to seven inches long. The dandies quickly copied him and soon "moustaches a la Géramb," tightly-laced coats, often over equally tightly-laced corsets, and long golden spurs were all the rage. In his satirical poem, The Waltz, Lord Byron made several references to Baron de Géramb:
Hail, nimble Nymph! to whom the young hussar,
The whiskered votary of Waltz and War,
His night devotes, despite of spur and boots;
A sight unmatched since Orpheus and his brutes …
No stiff-starched stays make meddling fingers ache;
(Transferred to those ambiguous things that ape
Goats in their visage, woman in their shape;)
Despite many who did not care for the peculiar vogue in dress inspired by the Baron, with his rank as an Austrian General, it was not long before he was making a splash in society and was soon considered a social lion of the haute ton. The invitations quickly began to pour in to the grand house in Bayswater.
Initially, the Baron did actively pursue his primary purpose for coming to England and met with a number of officials at the War Office to discuss his proposals for crushing Napoleon. Not only did he want to enlist 24,000 Croatians in the English army, he also believed that an effort should be made to detach all the foreign troops which had been conscripted by force into the French army and reform them into an allied army to be sent against Bonaparte. But when he explained that he expected the British government to pay for all of this, as well as to provide housing and staging areas for all these troops in Britain, the War Office officials balked. They began playing for time to consider their options and as the frequency of his meetings at the War Office dwindled off, the Baron became caught up in the social whirl of London.
Not long after his arrival, Baron de Géramb was introduced to Robert "Romeo" Coates, a wealthy amateur thespian, and the two soon became good friends. They could often be seen together in Hyde Park at the fashionable hour. Sometimes the Baron accompanied Mr. Coates in his distinctive cockleshell-shaped curricle, at other times Mr. Coates joined the Baron in his colorful and ornate open carriage, which some at the time referred to as the "magpie carriage." Géramb showed himself to be a good and faithful friend to Coates on numerous occasions. Though Coates loved the theatre, he was a terrible actor, wearing outrageous costumes not always appropriate to the character he was playing and his over-the-top histrionics often elicited jeers and catcalls from the audience. Nevertheless, the Baron attended nearly every performance which Coates gave while he was in London, in full uniform, typically seated in the stage-box. The Baron was sometimes greeted with shouts and hisses from xenophobic members of the audience in the pit. Other members of the audience, who did not approve of such poor treatment of an illustrious foreign visitor who was the toast of society, applauded loudly and vigorously enough to drown out those in the pit. The Baron haughtily ignored all of this and with a dignified bearing, continued to attend Coates’s performances. And in one case in particular, it is a good thing he did, as he probably saved either the life of Coates or another actor in the play that night.
It is important to remember that Coates had adopted a cock as his crest and his unique curricle was adorned with a gaudy gilded version of this crest. On the evening of 9 December 1811, Robert Coates was appearing at the Haymarket Theatre, in a benefit performance of The Fair Penitent, in the role of Lothario. Though it was one of his favorite roles, it was also one of the roles which evoked the most raucous ridicule from the audience, many of whom loudly crowed like cocks when Coates was on stage. The actor playing Horatio either became rattled or angry at the unruliness of the crowd and changed one of his lines, saying "Why drive you in state about the town, with curricle and pair, your crest a cock?" Coates, though usually an amiable man, was enraged and felt his honor had been outraged. Right on the spot, with the audience howling with laughter, he turned on the other actor to challenge him to a duel. The Baron was on his feet, clearly outraged on behalf of his friend. Poor Horatio, realizing his danger, immediately stepped to the front of the stage and addressed Coates, and in " … a very manly and sincere manner disclaimed on his honour any intention of giving offence to Mr. Coates." Coates hesitated for a moment, then went to the side of the stage to confer with his friend, Baron de Géramb. Though he was known to be a hot-headed man, with a fiery temper, in this case, the Baron counseled his friend Coates to accept the other actor’s heartfelt and very public apology. Fortunately, Coates followed his friend’s advice and shook hands with Horatio. The crowd finally quieted down and the play was able to continue to the end the playwright had intended.
Baron de Géramb also did not take long to discover the location of a number of gambling houses once he had settled into his new home. And, as he always gave the impression of a cultured, powerful and wealthy man, he was easily able to gain admittance to even the most exclusive gaming establishments in London. Despite his quick temper, he was calm and focused when he gambled and he won much more often than he lost, usually picking up large sums at most sittings. There were some who claimed he was a little too lucky, too often. But this seems to have come from those who resented his success at the tables and in society. There was never any suggestion in the records from those with whom he gambled that he ever played other than honestly and fairly. Though his manner and bearing led people to believe he was a man of means, in actual fact, he financed his life in London mostly out of his winnings at the gambling tables.
The Baron came to the attention of the Prince Regent within a few weeks of his arrival in London. It is reported that the Regent was extremely envious, not only of the Baron’s flowing moustaches and his luxurious whiskers, but of his ornate, colorful and gold-bedecked uniform. With the Regent an enthusiastic admirer, Baron de Géramb quickly became a most favored member of the Carlton House Set. The Regent often consulted with him on the design of both his private wardrobe, and on matters of military uniforms. Some of the British light dragoon regiments had been reconstituted as hussar regiments only a couple of years before the Baron had arrived in England. After extensive consultation with de Géramb, at the direction of the Regent, the uniforms of the British Hussars were redesigned based on the Baron’s own magnificent uniform. The English Hussars also adopted the Baron’s long, flowing moustaches, thus becoming the only British troops to do so. Though they were sometimes taunted by soldiers from other regiments as foreigners for both their facial hair and the design of their uniforms, hussars were considered to cut a fine figure in uniform and, throughout the Regency and beyond, were typically very popular with the ladies.
The Prince Regent was so pleased with Baron de Géramb, that he provided him with one of the most sought-after invitations for the social event of 1811, the grand fête held at Carlton House in June of that year. The Prince himself introduced the Baron to the French Royal Family, who were his honored guests for the evening. They were very impressed by his manner and bearing as well as his vehement antagonism for Napoleon. They showed him great favor, and by all accounts he was very taken with them. He had always enjoyed the company of royalty, but he was especially pleased to be treated with such respect and kindness by the man he considered to be the rightful sovereign of his own homeland. Though he thoroughly enjoyed that evening at Carlton House, his encounter with the Bourbons would eventually put him into the clutches of his greatest enemy, Napoleon Bonaparte himself.
By virtue of his having found such favor with the Prince Regent and the French Royal Family, Baron de Géramb had entree to the highest echelons of society and was even presented to the Royal Princesses. Though they lived mostly at Windsor Castle, they did occasionally come to London, often to stay at Carlton House. Their brother, George, had promised to help them all find husbands, once he had become Regent. However, the Queen, not wishing to live alone, did all she could to prevent any of them leaving her. It is not known if the Regent’s intention in presenting his new acquaintance to his sisters was to show off his new favorite, or if he considered him an acceptable suitor for one of them. Regardless of the Regent’s intentions, the Baron showed a determined preference for Princess Sophia. Within a few months de Géramb put it about that the princess had accepted his proposal of marriage and that he had a letter in her own hand, agreeing to their "engagement." However, he never allowed anyone to see this letter. Initially these betrothal claims were a source of much gossip, though Princess Sophia never confirmed or denied them. However, as the Baron’s fortunes began to sink in England, he was often ridiculed for this claim by the public, while both the Regent and the government early on took a dim view of the affair.
Despite his clandestine "courtship" of Princess Sophia, the Baron also joined the ranks of single men courting Miss Catherine Tylney-Long, a pretty young heiress, believed to be worth one million pounds, making her the wealthiest commoner in all of Britain at the time. Whether he was hedging his bets, or just in it for the sport, Baron de Géramb took his place in the queue for this young lady’s hand with his good friend, Robert Coates, as well as the Regent’s younger brother, the Duke of Clarence, as well as Sir Lumley Skeffington, Lord Kilworth, and William Wesley-Pole. Miss Tylney-Long’s family home was Wanstead Park, in the county of Essex. This courtship circus drew a great deal of public attention, and the noted caricaturist, George Cruikshank, could not resist the opportunity to render his version of it. In his hand-colored etching, Princely Piety, or the Worshippers at Wanstead, published in the satirical journal, The Scourge, in December of 1811, he captured all the suitors engaged in their antics for the amusement of the public. It may be that the Baron was first christened "Don Whiskerandos" in this number of The Scourge. In this image of the caricature, Miss Tylney-Long is seated atop a crimson and gold dais. On the left can be seen Robert Coates, with a cock on his head, alongside Sir Lumley Skeffington, offering a sheaf of poetry, and further back, William Wesley-Pole. To the right of the dais can be seen the Duke of Clarence, with Mrs. Jordan just behind him, dumping a chamber pot full of the tiny figures of their children over his head. Kneeling on a bunch of golden money bags just to the right of Clarence, who is pushing him back, is Baron de Géramb, with his long flowing moustache, a skull and cross-bones on his chest and an enormous plume in his colback. The Baron is handing a note, supposedly military intelligence, to the small figure of Napoleon behind him, in exchange for another bag of gold. Considering the Baron’s intense hatred of Bonaparte, this is quite ironic. However, there were some in England who did believe the Baron was a spy for the French Emperor. A complete description of Cruickshank’s caricature can be found at the British Museum web page for their copy.
In the issue of The Scourge; or Monthly Expositor of Imposture and Folly for January of 1812, was published "The Baron and the Elephant, or, Etna in an Uproar," a satirical report of a supposed new play which had the Baron as the central character. The Scourge announcement of the play began:
The Baron De Geramb having just announced that his crop of whiskers for the year 1812, is nearly arrived at its full growth; and Mr. Polito declared that the Elephant will be able in a week or two to tread the stage with the requisite majesty and grace, without endangering the toes of the biped performers; I beg leave most respectfully to submit to your consideration, an outline of the grand melo-drama, in which these two great and celebrated actors are intended to make their first appearance. Excited to amicable rivalry by the far-famed feats of his friend Mr. Coates, the Baron burns with ungovernable ardor to contend with him for the palm of histrionic excellence; and to personate the smock-faced Romeo or the unbearded Frederic, would not only be unworthy of so noble a personage, but extremely difficult, without the obliteration of his labial ornaments; a measure from which, if his exalted mind could entertain it for a moment, he is precluded by his contract with your correspondent …
The play opens with the Baron wandering the bank of the Elbe river:
Scene the first, — Baron Whiskerandos, the gallant and the gay, exiled from an ungrateful country, by the persecutions of the law, is seen wandering along the shore of the Elbe, at the moment when a British frigate arrives before the mouth of that celebrated river, in order to put in execution in the decrees of blockade. The Baron paces to and fro in agitation and despair, pronounces the name of Sophia! and rushes into the waves. The crew of the English frigate witness the act; but unacquainted with the race of Whiskerandi, they are lost in doubt, whether the floating animal be a sea-horse or a bear; till the appearance of his hessians above the surface of the wave …
The description of the play continues, placing "Baron Whiskerandos" in increasingly peculiar and outrages situations.
This seems to have been the beginning of the end for the Baron’s success and acceptance in London, though he did not yet know it. He had come to believe that he had so charmed and dazzled the practical English, whose government controled the largest purse in the world at the time, that his fortune was made. But the authorities at the War Office had already begun to distance themselves from the Baron, who had essentially abandoned his original mission to England, raising troops to crush Napoleon and obtain a personal commitment from King George III to force Bonaparte from the French throne. Sadly, the king was already slipping in and out of sanity when de Géramb arrived in England, and had made his final descent into madness before the Baron was able to contrive to meet him. In early 1812, some of the more powerful members of society were also pulling back from their relationships with the Baron, though his friend, Robert Coates, never abandoned him. By early 1812, Richard, Marquess Wellesley, had returned to England from his post as Ambassador to Spain and was now Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. After consultation with a number of government authorities, it was determined that Baron de Géramb’s ideas could not be realized and there was no point in negotiating with him any further. In mid-March, Lord Wellesley summoned de Géramb to his office in the ministry where he offered the Baron a hundred guineas and advised him to leave Britain within the month.
Baron de Géramb was furious at this unexpected treatment and he replied in a very haughty manner that he was of the opinion that the British government owed him a great deal more than one hundred guineas. By his reckoning, he was owed full payment for all his travelling and living expenses, as well as the cost of recruitment and equipment for the 24,000 Croatians, whom he maintained had already begun their journey to England. He declared to Lord Wellesley that all his French friends in London, meaning the French Royal Family, though he did not name them, would strongly oppose this robbery of a man who had ruined himself to advance the cause of the Coalition. The Baron swore that he would never leave Britain until he was paid at least £50,000, which he calculated would only just cover his expenditures for his mission to England. Wellesley advised him to accept what he had been given, as the government had no plans to give him any more money.
The Baron returned to his home in Bayswater, where he drafted a more complete itemization of the monies he believed were owing to him. This bill was well in excess his original demand of £50,000. He sent this demand for payment, couched in very threatening terms, to the War Office. It was not long before he received a response, advising him that he had no claims whatsoever upon the British government. They further notified him that he was well-advised to leave the country as soon as he could make the necessary arrangements. Baron de Géramb did make arrangements, but they had nothing to do with his departure from England and were soon to result in what would come to be known, only half-jokingly, as the Battle of Bayswater.
The Baron packed his cellar with five hundred pounds of gunpowder. He made a huge placard which read "My home is my castle. I am under the protection of the British Law." He barricaded himself in his house and hung the enormous placard from the top of his house. He ordered his servants out into the street and ordered them to announce to all and sundry that he had five hundred pounds of gunpowder set to blow and provisions for two months. He declared that he was fully prepared to undergo a siege while awaiting the arrival of the 24,000 Croatians, whose arrival was imminent and he would blow himself up along with his house, his horses and all of Bayswater, rather than capitulate. The small group of men who had been sent to the Baron’s home to arrest him retreated to their office for further orders when he threatened to blow up his home and them along with it. Another contingent of men arrived, only to retreat once again, in the face of the same threat. This stand-off continued for fifteen days, until finally, a much larger force arrived, armed with a warrant for his arrest from the office of the Secretary of State, and hatchets, which they used to hack down his garden gate and his front door, braving the threat of explosion and capturing the Baron. He claimed that he had thought they were the bailiffs come to dun him and did not realize they were government officials.
It was early April of 1812, and Baron de Géramb had been in London for almost two years. He was removed from his Bayswater home and hauled off to Bridewell Prison, at Tothill Fields, where he spent the night. The next morning, he was bundled into a post-chaise and driven to Dover, on the coast. There, he was officially notified that he was to be expelled from Britain under the Regulators of Aliens Act, which had been passed by Parliament, in 1793, to control the influx of French refugees during the French Revolution. He was then put aboard the first ship scheduled to sail out of the port of Dover that day, which was bound for Denmark. Thus ended Baron de Géramb’s two-year sojourn in England.
Next week, how the Baron came into the clutches of Napoleon, his time in prison, and what caused him to live out the remainder of his life as a monk.