Category: Europe

Asturias and the Battle of Covadonga

In 711, the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate invaded Iberia, quickly overwhelming the Visigothic Kingdom that occupied the region and killing their king. By 718, virtually the whole Iberian Peninsula was under Islamic rule.

However, in the northwest, a region called Asturias revolted against the Umayyads. Elected to lead the new kingdom was Pelayo, a nobleman and the grandson of a Visigothic king. For its first years, the Umayyads neglected to put down the Asturian rebellion, as it wasn’t a danger to them.

By 722, the Umayyads had enough, sending an army commanded by the governors Munuza and Al Qama to quell the revolt. As their forces flooded the Asturian countryside, Pelayo and his much smaller army retreated into the mountains. They eventually came across a valley near the town of Covadonga, that would be easy to hold when attacked.

Once Al Qama army, ~1,400 men strong, confronted Pelayo’s army, with little more than 300 soldiers, he sent a messenger forward demanding the Asturians to surrender. Pelayo refused, starting the battle. Al Qama sent his soldiers charging towards the Asturian army. Unknown to Al Qama, part of Pelayo’s army was hiding in a cave. They jumped out and cut into the Umayyad ranks, massacring their army, including Al Qama. It was a spectacular success for the Asturians. At the end of the battle, over 1100 Umayyad soldiers were dead. More amazing than that is that only a few dozen of Pelayo’s soldiers remained.

When Munuza heard of Al Qama’s defeat, he assembled an even larger army to fight Pelayo, but once again they were defeated with Munuza dying in battle as well.

The Battle of Covadonga was the first victory by Christian forces against the Umayyads since they invaded Iberia, and it is generally recognized as the start of the Reconquista. Asturias continued to expand the Muslims in Iberia, but the Reconquista would not conclude for another 750 years, in 1492.

The Collapse of Austria-Hungary

The House of Habsburg had been one of the most powerful dynasties in Europe for the past 500 years. Starting in with only a small canton in Switzerland in the 900s, over the centuries the dynasty has held titles such as King of Portugal, Spain, Austria, and even Holy Roman Empire. But by the the early 20th century, the Habsburgs had lost much power throughout Europe, only controlling the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria-Hungary controlled large swaths of land in Central and Eastern Europe. However, the empire was declining in power. Their army was less advanced than other European nations, and there was growing nationalism throughout the culturally-diverse Austria-Hungary.

Habsburg domains in 1700

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, tensions were building in Europe. The powers across the continent had created alliances with the goal of keeping each other in check. In the 6 years before World War I, the collective military expenditures of the major European countries increased by 50% as Europe prepared for war. Pressure continued to build, and Europe soon would reach its breaking point.

On June 28, 1914, the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was visiting the city of Sarajevo, the capital of the Austrian region of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Meanwhile, six Yugoslav nationalists were preparing to assassinate the Archduke. As Ferdinand’s motorcade passed through the city, one assassin hurled at grenade toward him, missing although 20 onlookers were injured. More assassins were waiting ahead, but the motorcade sped past them before they could react.

The Archduke, although shaken, continued with the day. He halted his plans to visit the people injured during the explosion at the Sarajevo hospital. After he left, his convoy turned down the wrong street, where Gavrilo Princip, one of the assassins, was coincidentally standing with a pistol in hand. He aimed and fired towards Ferdinand, killing both he and his wife.

The government of Austria tried to use the Archduke’s murder to their advantage. They correctly suspected that Serbian officials were involved in the assassination. On July 23, they sent the Serbian government the July Ultimatum, ten demands that were created to be unacceptable, in an attempt to start a war. Serbia refused to accept the ultimatum, and on July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war. Serbia’s ally, Russia, began to mobilize their army against Austria-Hungary and its ally, the German Empire, who demanded Russia stop. Russia refused, causing Germany to declare war. This long chain reaction eventually led to Russia, France, the United Kingdom, many other European nations, and eventually the United States, known as the Allies, fighting against Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria, known as the Central Powers.

European alliances at the outbreak of World War I

From the beginning of the war, Austria-Hungary was immediately in a bad position. They were unable to sustain themselves agriculturally, and the nations that once provided most of their food, Russia and Romania, were now their enemies. The war had decreased their wheat harvests even further, spreading hunger throughout the nation.

Austria-Hungary at the beginning of World War I

The Austrian military wasn’t faring well either. They had experienced multiple defeats against the Russian army, forcing them to depend on Germany for assistance. Things became even more difficult in 1915 when Italy joined the allies and created a new front on Austria-Hungary’s southern border. The Austro-Hungarian army began to have supply shortages, making it difficult to fight.

In 1918 protests arose across the nation, calling for food and peace. Soon the Austro-Hungarian army and navy began to experience mutinies, lessening their power in the war even further. The nation became more divided as the culturally different regions of the empire saw support nationalist movements significantly rise. The last realm of the Habsburgs was collapsing. By October, all hope was lost for the empire. On the 14th, the Austrian foreign minister, Stephan Burián von Rajecz, asked the allies for a truce based on Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. On October 16, the Austrian Emperor Karl issued a manifesto that would give the regions of Austria-Hungary more autonomy and their own national council, and allow the Polish regions to join a Polish state.

Four days after von Rajecz sent for a truce, the US Secretary of State Robert Lansing respond by essentially saying that the Allies would not consider a peace deal unless Austria-Hungary recognized the complete independence of the Czechs, Poles, Slovak, and South Slavs. This reply was the demise of the Austrian Empire, as peace would not happen unless the whole empire was dissolved. By the end of October, each of these nationalities declared independence, and the Habsburg monarchy was no more.

The Tennis Court Oath

The Beginning of the French Revolution

France’s poor were dealt with taxes and famine, while the rich lounged in luxury. King Louis VI called an emergency meeting to fix France’s problem. Instead it would lead to the king’s overthrow and the French Revolution.

In the 1780’s, France’s government had accumulated debt from two recent wars. France had lost the Seven Years War, from 1754-1763. Fought against Great Britain and its allies, the war ended in defeat, with France losing large expanses of land including almost all their colonies in the Americas, mainly Canada and the Louisiana Territory.

The second war, the American Revolution, was a gamble that seemed to have paid off. British colonies in North America had revolted over high taxes and regulations. Triggered by their defeat and territorial losses in the Seven Years War, France signed a treaty of alliance with the Americans. A month later, the British formally declared war and hostilities resumed after more than a decade. The French were able to change the tide of the war. In 1783, the war concluded with the Treaty of Paris with an American and French victory. They had inflicted a heavy defeat on their rival, but not without growing their debt.

Throughout the 1780’s, a mild famine spread throughout France. Less wheat was being produced compared to the years before, and people were hungry. On top of that, the burden of France’s enormous debt was being placed on the backs of commoners. While the peasants paid the taxes, the rich and nobility lounged and spent their money on luxuries, paying very little taxes.

Meanwhile, throughout Europe, an intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment was taking hold. The Enlightenment spread ideas that hadn’t been considered in generations. Philosophers were bringing new scientific concepts to light, philosophers of the Enlightenment were spreading political philosophies like democracy. Throughout much of the 18th Century, most people would scoff at the idea of democracy. But the American Revolution showed that people could have a successful government without a monarchy.

With debt and famine still lingering over France, the king, Louis XVI, summoned an emergency meeting at the Palace of Versailles known as the Convocation of the Estates General that would meet in May 1789, to discuss raising taxes to pay off the debt. This was a meeting of representatives of each estate, essentially social classes. The first estate was comprised of the clergy, making up approximately 0.5% of France’s population. The second estate was the nobility, making up 1.5% of the population. The third estate encompassed the rest of the population, the peasantry and commoners of France, 98% of the population.

The Convocation of Estates-General
The Convocation of Estates-General

In the Convocation of the Estates General, which met on May 5, representatives from each estate met to vote on how to raise taxes. There were approximately 300 delegates in both the first and second estates, and 600 from the third. During the convocation, there was a debate of how the votes should be cast. One way, supported by the Louis XVI and much of the first and second estates, was to vote as estates. This would give the first and second estates an advantage because the third each estate would have one vote no matter the number of representatives in it. The second way of voting was one vote per delegate, which was supported by the delegates of the third estate and some members of the other estates.

The first and second estates ultimately had their way, forcing each estate to have equal power. Representatives of the third estate, furious at what they perceived to be an unjust rule, gathered in an assembly hall in Versailles without approval from the king. On June 13, they declared themselves the National Assembly of France and invited members of the other states to join them. Days later, the entire first estate voted to join the National Assembly.

King Louis XVI, unpleased with what was happening, had the doors of the assembly hall locked once the National Assembly temporarily dispersed. The National Assembly instead moved to an indoor tennis court in Versailles. On June 20, they took a vow agreeing not to dissolve the assembly until a constitution had been established. This was known as the Tennis Court Oath. Every member of the assembly except one person took the oath.

The Tennis Court Oath
The Tennis Court Oath

On the June 23, the king held a Royal Session. While the meeting took place, Louis XVI proposed limited reforms that were opposed by the National Assembly. Louis tried to intimidate the members of the assembly, but the tense meeting concluded with King Louis giving in, allowing the National Assembly to remain. The Estates General was falling apart as many members joined the National Assembly, and Louis XVI saw this. He soon ordered the remaining members of the first and second estates to join the National Assembly, in an attempt to appease them. On July 9, The National Assembly renamed themselves the National Constituent Assembly and instituted themselves as a new governing body of the country.

Meanwhile, soldiers were moving on Paris.


Sources for the Beginning of the French Revolution: