History is littered with mad eccentrics but few more so than Charles Frederick August, Duke of Brunswick. Indeed, if an award for eccentricity had ever existed, he would most certainly have been short-listed.
A ‘painted, bewigged Lothario, whose follies, eccentricities and diamonds made him the talk of Europe’ was how this mad Duke of Brunswick was described in 1875, shortly after his death.
The son of the famous Duke of Brunswick, Frederick Willliam – killed at Quatra Bras in 1813 – Charles inherited neither his father’s gallantry nor composure. His many ‘spectacular indiscretions’ – including the declaration that many laws made during his minority were invalid – led in the aftermath of the 1830 July Revolution to his forced abdication and subsequent exile in Paris. He later denounced in court the entire population of Brunswick as ‘felons, traitors and incendiaries’.
However, it is thought by many that his very entrance into the world in 1804 presaged future events. At his birth the ceremonial cannon beheaded an artilleryman. Furthermore his early ascension to the throne upon the death of his father meant that, as with many such boy kings and rulers, his position and dependency made him vulnerable.
This vulnerability appears to have lasted a life-time and was expressed particularly in his Parisian palace where huge walls were studded with gilded spikes and electrical devices installed to warn him of intruders, thieves and assassins. His strong box was suspended in a well, protected by concealed gun barrels and his hot chocolate – the milk brought fresh from the countryside in a locked box – was prepared by himself but tested by his valet, just in case!
Aside from spending huge amounts of money in and out of court attempting in part to redeem his kingdom, Charles had two main interests, diamonds and chess. Indeed he is purported to have been the greatest collector of coloured diamonds in history. However, it is within chess circles that the Duke of Brunswick is perhaps best known. Although he played regularly and with many leading names, there is one game with which he will always be associated, the ‘Opera Game’. His opponent was the world-famous American chess master, Paul Morphy. However, the game is famous not so much for the spectacular defeat of the Duke by the blind-folded Morphy during a showing of the ‘Barber of Seville’, but because it is still used by chess tutors the world over as an example of one of the clearest and most beautiful attacking games ever. Morphy was famous for his exhibition games in which he would often take on blind-folded, more than one opponent – sometimes as many as eight. The move of every player, including himself, would be communicated verbally.
After much controversy and hundreds of lawsuits – one of which resulted in the Duke fleeing Paris for good to avoid the consequences – he died in exile in Geneva in 1873. His huge estate was left Geneva and in return, according to his wishes, a grandiose monument, ‘without consideration of cost’, was erected.