Friday, July 01, 2011

The New Supreme Commander

Fraga (Aragon), 28th September 1713

Lead by a gallant general of severely aristocratic appearance, the long column of soldiers came in sight of the town of Fraga, the last one of the old Kingdom of Aragon before the Principality of Catalonia's border. Thoughtfully, the general guided his horse aside of the road, with the aim of observing with pride and some concern his troops in motion -all their flags defiantly flying against the wind like a waving sea of Burgundian crosses on white, or golden lilies-and-castle on purple.

Lord Guillem Ramon de Montcada, Marquis of Aitona, had no reasons for missing pride. Despite his partially Catalan descent -that one of the old and powerful House of Montcada, rivals to the Cardona-, King Philip V had granted to him the greatest honor and highest confidence, at putting him in command of His finest troops: two battalions of the Guardias Españolas Household Infantry and the whole Reales Guardias de Corps Horse Regiment. Fully empowered by the King Himself, on the way he had been able to gather to his column the McAuliffe Irish Regiment, who were at garrison duties in Saragossa. Not too far behind, two full batteries of field artillery followed the column. His mission had been clearly stated some weeks ago in Madrid: it consisted of replacing Duke of Popoli as supreme commander of His Majesty's Army in Catalonia, and leading it to returning to proper obedience that rebel Principality -at any cost, and whatever the means.

"Whatever the means..." Those words of His Majesty, even though might seem clear as water by themselves, implicitly contained hidden meanings that had been keeping him perpetually troubled since his departure. What did such words actually mean? Was he expected to set the whole Principality in blood and fire? Everyone at Madrid Court knew the Gallows Tithe policy performed at first by Duke of Popoli had proved plainly harmful and counterproductive, so that Lord Montcada's uncertainty at this respect had ceaseless grown since. Was perhaps His Majesty finally assuming a radical change of strategy, in the line the Marquis himself had been fruitlessly arguing for in the last years?

After the 1706 failed siege of Barcelona, when King Philip had to lead the dramatic withdrawal of His Majesty's Army pityful remnants northwards to France, Marquis of Aitona had amazed his Castilian and French colleagues at asking for a parley with the Catalan Colonel Bac de Roda who was pursuing them -and obtaining it! Thanks to his negotiation efforts, the Spanish Army was able to cross undisturbed to the French border side. When General Tessé and His Majesty demanded an explanation of his feat, he fervorously had argued that "it was far more likely to achieve a goal from the Catalans through civility and respectfulness, than through any abusive treatment and harsh voices", because "they hate dominance and absolute authority [implicit in the use] of force, for they were born free, and in freedom they live". Marquis of Aitona naively thought that episode would influence His Majesty's future attitude towards the Principality ... but he was wrong.

Sadly, he had to admit such hypothesis to be plainly unlikely, for King Philip's attitude towards the Catalans was inflexible since their treacherous aligment to the Allies. To Him, they were no more than an untrustworthy and quarrelsome Nation, whose ungodliness no pity ought to be deserved. No, Lord Montcada had no room for alternate interpretations of King Philip's words... if these were actually due to His Majesty Himself.

To his surprise, Lord Montcada then realized that it had been the Princesse des Ursins who had actually uttered that phrase to him, attributing it to His Majesty instead. Lady Anne-Marie de la Trémoille, Princesse des Ursins, had lately shown an increasingly ambiguous attitude towards the continuation of war; she, who had been the toughest defender of Spanish integrity so far... The Marquis wasn't that naive, he could easily guess the hidden intentions of that ambitious woman, who in fact controlled all levers of power in Madrid and had been recently tempted by Eugene of Savoy's proposal of a principality in Flanders for her, in exchange for the Catalan Liberties... and then he started to understand what the Princess was actually expecting from him.

But, how to perform it? -and besides, how to exploit it in his own favour?

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