The Last King Of Corsica

There is another way out of my current predicament. It is open only to a select few.

As things stand at the moment, no deal has been reached on the rights of UK citizens living in the European Union. There is no guarantee that my application to become a German citizen will be successful. It therefore makes sense to fully explore the third option: Just how easy would it be I wonder to become king?

There is much to recommend this particular route. The position is vacant — Germany hasn’t had a monarch since 1918 — and I know of no other claimants.

Germans are great fans of the British royal family and follow royal births and scandals in gossip magazines at least as avidly as the British. Perhaps they would like to have a real life British monarch of their own.

I need to get my birth certificate translated into German so perhaps I could bung the translator a couple of euros to change my mother’s maiden name to Stuart. There is also no rule that says you have to be a German to become King of Germany. After all, royalty is one of Germany’s most successful exports.

The only problem is the competition. Germany may pride itself on egalitarian values but blue blood is in plentiful supply here. Kaiser Wilhelm may be resting in peace and pushing up the tulips but if I ever wanted his throne then I would have to contend with an aristocratic class which is alive, well and whose blood links to the Hohenzollern dynasty are surely stronger than mine.

Actually, their links to most dynasties are closer than mine. The closest living heir to the Stuart dynasty is the Duke of Bavaria. It matters not one whit that he is not a Scotsman — Germany’s tradition of exporting monarchs has little to do with blood lines and everything to do with being in the right place at the right time.

The British royal family’s German connections are well documented but they are far from the only ones. In fact they are boring by comparison. However spurious their claims to the throne, they are at least legitimate.

Compare them if you will to the list of characters who follow, none of whom had the slightest claim to the countries they ruled other than that they were ready to answer the call when it came. Some of their names may even ring a bell.

King Carol of Romania for example. Every football nerd can tell you that he picked his country’s team for the 1930 world cup — but few also know that he was a Hohenzollern like Kaiser Wilhelm. Or King Leopold II of Belgium. His father was German born and took the newly created job of King of the Belgians in 1831 after turning down the job of King of Greece. That job went to Otto von Wittelsbach, a Bavarian.

Simeon of Bulgaria, the former Tsar who briefly reentered Bulgarian politics as the elected prime minister at the start of this century, can be styled either Sakskoburggotski or Saxe-Coburg-Gotha -the same family who produced Queen Victoria’s Albert. His grandfather was an army officer chosen to lead Bulgaria after the country’s liberation from the Turks. So close was he to German royalty that he once slapped his cousin the Kaiser on the backside without creating a major international incident.

Wilhelm of Wied, from the industrial town of Neuwied in the Rhine-Palatinate, was elected Prince of Albania and would have remained so had he not been deposed during the First World War and later replaced with King Zog. We’ve even been to his home town; his Albanian adventure has been sadly neglected.

The Emperor of Mexico? Well, actually the Emperor of Mexico was an Austrian but he did have German roots. The Empress was another Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

None of these people had the slightest genetic connection to the throne of the kingdoms they ruled but the came with several advantages, especially as the states they were chosen to rule were relatively new.

Electing a German as monarch avoided a lot of arguments. In Serbia for example, which opted for native princes, the throne changed hands between the rival Obrenović and Karađorđević dynasties a total of four times in just over a century. The Bulgarians kept it in the family and had no such problems.

Appointing a German also opened up the possibility of German patronage and tapped in to a ready supply of experienced aristocrats. And if these people can do it, so can I.  I’ve come here today to the town of Lüdenscheid to meet the granddaddy of them all, the archetypal soldier of fortune, in order to get some tips.

Theodor von Neuhoff (1694-1756) was born into an age of adventure and discovery and this he typified to the full. Gulliver’s Travels was written when he was at the height of his powers, Voltaire’s Candide even features him in one of its chapters while William Makepeace Thackeray’s Luck of Barry Lyndon could have been written for him.

You will seldom find a better of an example of a swashbuckling soldier of fortune who occasionally needed to change his identity and disappear in the middle of the night than Theodor.

Lüdenscheid, with its quiet respectability, hardly seems the sort of place to produce one of the greatest chancers, fly-by-nights and confidence tricksters the world has ever known but his family home is right here — and they’ve even erected a monument in his honour.

Schloss Neuenhoff is a couple of miles outside the town down a street which starts with two Greek restaurants trying to put each other out of business and ending in a tree-lined dirt track which takes you out into the hinterland. It is not the sort of place you would normally associate with a king.

The castle itself is a compact structure with a worryingly asymmetrical air which looks as if the moat is going to swallow it up. On all sides the woods are fighting a winning battle against the gardens. It has a homely feel and, as it is still home to Theodor’s distant relations, you cannot go inside. His monument is in the castle grounds, tacit acceptance of his fame by a family which disowned him while he was alive.

He probably never saw this place more a few times in his whole life. His father, the son of the residing baron, fell out with the family over his choice of bride and would probably have been disinherited had he not died while Theodor was a baby. Thus began  a life based on the throes of fortune, as often as not based on a hand of cards or a toss of the dice.

He was sent to Versailles as a pageboy for the Duchess of Orléans where he received comprehensive military training, the ability to speak French without an accent and a recommendation upon his coming of age that he should receive an officer’s commission in the French army.

In this capacity he appears in Scotland fighting for the Stuart cause in the 1715 Jacobite rebellion before returning to Germany when the rebellion failed. He briefly found work as a captain in the Bavarian army before his gambling debts forced him to make one of his many dawn departures rather than face prison. For the next two years he was in the pay of Charles XII of Sweden.

Charles XII was also one of those guys who liked to live his life on the edge, a life characteristed by the sort of recklessness that was bound to be a bad influence on any young prodigy. The Swedish king is perhaps most famous for his lifelong abstinence from alcohol after a drunken fight with a bear during which both parties fell from a first-floor window. He too had German roots, from the House of Wittelsbach — just like our king of Greece.

Unfortunately, shortly after Theodor arrived the king’s luck ran out. While inspecting front line troops during an invasion of Norway he was hit in the head by a bullet and killed instantly. Von Neuhoff was in need of a new employer.

Fortunately his silver tongue and persuasive charm had been recognised. Charles had taken advantage of his excellent command of Spanish and had used him as a negotiator during talks with Spain and its representative Cardinal Alberoni. Upon Charles’ death, Theodor looked up the cardinal and entered his pay.

Things turned sour when the cardinal was exiled from Spain and for a few years Theodore’s life gets really murky. He reappears in Paris in order to sort out his dead mother’s last will and testament but flees town due to non-payment of debts.

There is a passionate extra-marital affair in Holland brought to an abrupt end when the debt collector comes calling. He becomes a spiritual counselor and develops an interest in alchemy. The king of Saxony sees great potential in the science and Theodor becomes his chief advisor. For the first time in many years, Theodor actually claims to be a German.

In 1733 he was in Geneva working for the Austrians, who were threatening to occupy Corsica and then came the meeting that changed his life. Part of the plan involved talking to Corsican rebels with a view to arming them and helping them take over the island from the occupying power, Genoa. The eureka moment arrived when Theodor realised that he could cut out the middle man.

Over the next few years he is to be found in Istanbul, Madrid, London, Tunis and Livorno — the Italian city closest to Corsica. Livorno belonged to Genoa and, because it was so close to Corsica, was full of Corsican exiles who were willing to fight for an independent Corsica if only there was someone to lead them.

Theodor cut them a deal: If they would fight for him and make him their king then he would use his international contacts to find the weapons and finance they needed. His tour of Europe’s capitals was to that end — and it was at least partly successful.

The British Consul in Tunis gave him a ship, from the Netherlands he procured four cannons, the Doge of Florence lent him money while the Turkish Sultan agreed to send Christian settlers to the new kingdom. On the minus side, the operation was delayed while Theodor was thrown into prison for borrowing money on false pretences.

A Spanish sea captain bailed him out and in 1736 he sailed for Corsica having half-kept his side of the bargain. Arriving at Aleria in March, he was greeted by a small but curious crowd. He handed out the weapons and cases of wine he had brought, lifted the Genoese ban on hunting and fishing and on the 15th of April 1736 was proclaimed Theodore I of Corsica.

His reign started well enough. From his base in the island’s mountainous interior his men were able to take over the island’s capital of Porto Vecchio and lay siege to Bastia. For a while it looked as if the Genoese — who had put a price on his head and rather unsportingly publicised his less than perfect record of financial transactions — were on the run.

Unfortunately, slowly but surely the Corsicans started putting two and two together. The money was running out, their king’s past indiscretions were being hung out for all to see and the promises of reinforcements from Turkey and Sweden did not materialise. They began to desert — and so Theodor had to think fast.

His solution was trademark. He left the island very quickly. He gave the excuse that he was leaving to borrow more money and he may well have believed that. Though his honesty was throughout his life questionable to say the least, he does seem to have been committed to the Corsican cause. He spent rest of his life trying to raise funds to reconquer his kingdom — which had in the mean time been occupied by the French — but was run out of town every time.

He arrived in England in 1649 looking to borrow money but was thrown into a debtors’ prison shortly afterwards. Six years later he was released after declaring himself bankrupt whereupon he made the acquaintance of Horace Walpole MP who, for whatever reason, was prepared to sponsor a very comfortable retirement. He died in London in 1756 and is buried in St Anne’s Church in Soho.

On the 275th anniversary of his coronation his family here in Lüdenscheid erected the monument and opened up the castle for an exhibition dedicated to his life and adventures. It seems hard to believe that the castle was big enough. The setting is somehow too serene for a life so packed with action and drama.

Lüdenscheid itself is something of a class metaphor. This part of the world is made up of farms, forests and the sort of light industry that produces things that you know are important but never really think about: steel cables, fire extinguishers, bathroom taps. Lüdenscheid was built on buttons.

The macho coal and steel towns to the north like to laugh at places like this. Fans of Borussia Dortmund’s rivals have given the team the nickname Rot-Weiss Lüdenscheid, the implication been that Dortmund’s fans have somehow abandoned their working class values. They’re entitled to their opinion but if you ask me then if you can make it as king when you come from here then you can make it anywhere.

I head up the dirt track and choose the Akropolis over the Olympus Grill. Having spent the afternoon in the company of a legend, I now want to come back to earth.

I doubt very much that I’ll become king — it seems like too much trouble to me — but I’m happy I came here,

It’s made one thing abundantly clear to me and Theresa, I hope you’re reading this.

There are around 120,000 Germans living in the UK. At the moment they are in the same murky position as I am. The British government had better be nice to them. If not, the chances are that one of them will end up running the place.




2 thoughts on “The Last King Of Corsica

  1. You could always have a go at being the Last King of Scotland – the job has been vacant since Idi Amin snuffed it. Could open all sorts of doors…


    1. The possibilties are endless. Uganda is African Union rather than European Union so I wouldn’t have it down as my first choice but other than that, why not? There’s still a job going in Kapuristan for The Man Who Would Be King.


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