Austerlitz and an Empire’s End: Napoleon and the Dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire

Written by Daniel Sharp


2 December 1805: a battle takes place that was to enshrine Napoleon Bonaparte’s reputation as a genius military tactician and which would forever change the map and future of Europe. This battle would end the thousand-year-old Holy Roman Empire and would spell the end of the Third Coalition mounted by the European powers against France. This battle was the Battle of Austerlitz, known also as the Battle of the Three Emperors, fought between the forces of Napoleon, Tsar Alexander I of Russia, and the Holy Roman and Austrian Emperor Francis II. The battle has been hailed as Napoleon’s finest victory. To Andrew Roberts it was ‘the greatest victory of his career’ and to Richard Overy ‘There is perhaps no finer example of Napoleon’s remarkable military genius’ than Austerlitz. In this short essay I want to explore the battle itself and the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire which it engendered. First, however, some background will be necessary.


Background I: The Holy Roman Empire

The Holy Roman Empire is generally agreed to have been inaugurated by the declaration in 800 of Charlemagne as Emperor. From there, its thousand-year history took a complicated path. Over the centuries the Holy Roman Empire navigated a variety of crises and issues, from disputes with the papacy to differing ideas of what being Holy Roman Emperor meant. Born out of various issues, such as the lingering tradition of the Western Roman Empire and the need for a Christian empire to face down the ‘barbarians’, the Empire was always a hotchpotch of differing ideals and issues.

By 1356 the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV realised that the Empire must be a solely German entity rather than a pan-European one – such lofty ambitions were no longer possible. A Golden Bull was issued in that year redefining what the Empire was and its new name reflected the centrality of its Germanic lands: Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.

Through the difficult years of the Reformation the Empire survived, and according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘from 1556 until its end…the empire meant little more than a loose federation of the different princes of Germany, lay and ecclesiastical, under the presidency of the House of Habsburg’. The Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 and the Peace of Westphalia which followed confirmed the federalisation of the Empire, but by the time of the French Revolution and the beginnings of nationalism, it was outmoded. It was later to provide inspiration for the formation of the German Empire in 1871 and to Hitler’s conception of a Third Reich, not to mention that Napoleon posited himself as the heir to Charlemagne. But the decayed Holy Roman Empire was to be destroyed by Napoleon in 1805-6.


Background II: The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars

Between 1792 and 1815, war engulfed Europe pitting most other powers against revolutionary and Napoleonic France. The French Revolutionary Wars ended in 1802 when the Peace of Amiens brought a cessation of hostilities between France and Britain. Europe, having fought the Wars of the First and Second Coalitions (1792-1797 and 1798-1802 respectively), was to see peace at last. But it would not last long.

Tensions surfaced which led to the resumption of war, among which were Britain’s hesitancy to remove troops from Malta as agreed at Amiens and Napoleon’s towering ambitions. Napoleon had declared himself president of the recently created Italian Republic and ‘mediatised’ in Switzerland and Germany, his actions in the latter reducing the number of states there from 365 to 40. In May 1803 Britain declared war on France and was joined by, among others, Russia and Austria.

The Russian Tsar Alexander I had been offended by Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of the French on 2 December 1804, and Napoleon’s other actions, including the kidnap and execution of the royalist exile the Duc D’Enghien, taken from Germany in March 1804, convinced rival powers to go to war once more. As Mike Rapport has argued, these wars were often the result of long-term rivalries between the European powers rather than ideological in nature – nonetheless, the threat posed by the French Revolution and the Corsican usurper were powerful incentives for conflict. These and many other tensions, including a perceived French threat to British lands in India, led to war.

Thus the stage was set for the War of the Third Coalition between 1805-6 which would see seismic changes in Europe.


The Battle of Austerlitz

The battle took place on 2 December 1805, the first anniversary of Napoleon’s coronation, something which was to later appeal to the Emperor’s superstitious side. By late 1805 Napoleon’s forces were deep in central Europe and his lines were stretched. The great British victory of Trafalgar had occurred in October and the threat of Prussia joining the Coalition was ever present. Napoleon needed a swift and decisive victory, and that was what he got.

Napoleon picked his battlefield on 21 November and feigned weakness, indecision and desperation in dealings with the enemy. The battlefield was well chosen – the Plain of Turas near the town of Austerlitz with the hilly Pratzen Heights to his right. His genius was in his anticipation of what the enemy would do, and they played straight into his hands. The cautious Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov and Holy Roman Emperor Francis II were more in favour of a withdrawal to the east (and the former was aware of the high risk during the battle itself) but the young and hot-headed Russian Tsar wanted offensive action. By the end of the battle he so desperately wanted, Alexander was in tears under a tree.

On the night of 1-2 December Napoleon reconnoitred and on his return to camp he was greeted with cries of ‘Vive L’Empereur!’- this was ‘the finest evening of my life’ according to Napoleon. He was confident and morale was high.

Napoleon’s plan went brilliantly. The battle began around 4am on 2 December and his enemies walked into his trap. He had vacated the Heights, a seemingly terrible tactical error, and allowed his foes to take them. They occupied the plateau and planned to attack Napoleon’s (apparently) weak right flank and attack the main French force from the rear. The wily Emperor, however, had secret reinforcements behind his right flank and it held throughout the day while the main French force attacked the plateau – aided by fog and bright sunshine they took the enemy by surprise and, despite fierce fighting in close proximity to Napoleon, the French held Pratzen, cut the enemy in half and gained command of the battlefield.

The Russians and Austrians managed to retreat, the former in better fashion than the latter. The defeat was decisive, however. Richard Overy has stated that had Napoleon had spies in the enemy camp he could not have anticipated his enemies’ actions better. Luck, some incompetence on the part of the enemy, including a drunk Russian general, gambles (for example, the reinforcements for the right flank were not guaranteed to arrive in time) and sheer genius had won the day for the Emperor of the French. Coalition losses were far larger than French losses and they had been routed despite a numerically superior army.

While Napoleon’s enemies despaired at this defeat, the Emperor addressed his soldiers that night, writing to them: ‘Soldiers! You are the finest warriors in the world. The recollection of this day, and of your deeds, will be eternal!’ On the evidence of the battle of Austerlitz, won by Napoleon’s genius and the soldiers’ doggedness against the enemy, and considering the mythical status Austerlitz has gained since 1805, it is hard to disagree with his assessment.


Aftermath and Consequences: An Empire’s End

Austerlitz had many consequences. Perhaps its greatest effect was on Napoleon himself. As Philip Dwyer has put it: ‘One can cite the victories at Austerlitz and Jena as turning points, moments when Napoleon became even more imbued with a sense of destiny than he already was, when he believed himself invincible.’ Austerlitz gave Napoleon confidence – perhaps, in later years, overconfidence that was to be his downfall. The foundations for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris were laid after Austerlitz, though reception to news of the victory was lukewarm at best. Austerlitz and Napoleon’s coronation were celebrated in tandem in future – the Emperor and his best victory inextricably linked together.

Most notably, Austerlitz heralded the end of the War of the Third Coalition – but tensions would lead to a new coalition being formed within months. The Austrian defeat was absolute. Napoleon met Emperor Francis II soon after Austerlitz where they discussed terms – Napoleon was hesitant, not knowing whether the war would continue, but once it became clear the allies had no will to fight on he imposed a dictated peace on Austria. The Treaty of Pressburg in late December 1805 was extremely persecutory towards Austria – little justice was there in this settlement.

Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine, a loose grouping of German states which he once more ‘mediated’, essentially spelling the end of the Holy Roman Empire. The Confederate states officially declared their secession on 1 August 1806 and Francis II dissolved the Empire a few days later, partially out of fear of Napoleon taking the title of Holy Roman Emperor, becoming only Francis I, Emperor of Austria; a post he had created in 1804.

Ironically Napoleon’s destruction of the Holy Roman Empire led to growing feelings of German nationalism which would culminate in the creation of a unified Germany in 1871, a just settlement for many German nationalists but which destroyed the Second French Empire (Napoleon’s being the first) of his nephew, Napoleon III, and which would cause untold misery and persecution to France in the First and Second World Wars.

In the end, as Frank McLynn has put it, Austerlitz was Napoleon’s Gaugamela, his Cannae, and his Alesia, ‘his most perfect victory’. It was a display of immense military skill and raised the Emperor to the first ranks of history’s military geniuses. It changed the map of Europe forever (Eric Hobsbawm notes that the French Revolution dragged Europe’s political geography out of the Middle Ages and this is shown nowhere better than in the events after Austerlitz) and ended 1,000 years of history. Perhaps most of all it shows the importance of personality and luck in history – without Napoleon, the Holy Roman Empire may have limped on for a few more decades. Long-term processes are important in historical development but so too are the personalities, skills and events of certain people and certain days. Napoleon’s career as a whole is testament to this: impossible without the French Revolution and elements of good fortune yet indelibly marked and shaped by his will and those of his enemies.




  1. Geoffrey Barraclough, ‘Holy Roman Empire’, entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica, Accessed: 3/3/2018.
  2. Richard Cavendish, ‘The End of the Holy Roman Empire’, in History Today Vol. 56 Issue 7, July 2006, Accessed: 3/3/2018.
  3. Philip Dwyer, Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799-1815, (Great Britain, 2013).
  4. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, (Great Britain, 1977 print).
  5. Frank McLynn, Napoleon: A Biography, (Great Britain, 1998 print).
  6. Richard Overy, A History of War in 100 Battles, (Great Britain, 2014).
  7. Mike Rapport, The Napoleonic Wars: A Very Short Introduction, (Great Britain, 2013).
  8. Andrew Roberts, Napoleon the Great, (Great Britain, 2015 print).   



The Meiji Restoration and its Consequences: 150 Years On

Written by Travis Aaroe


True isolation was not possible for any country during the age of imperialism, although few tried harder than Japan under Shogunate rule. Ever since the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 which heralded the Tokugawa clan’s dominion over the country, Japan had been artificially cut off from the outer world under the ‘Sakoku’ policy of national seclusion. While it is true that Japan had become a more urbanized and commercialised society over the course of Tokugawa rule (much to the chagrin of the traditional Samurai warrior elite), the country that Commodore Perry’s ‘black ships’ found in 1853 was remarkably similar to Japan on the eve of Sekigahara – feudal, pre-industrial and suspicious.

    The country’s early encounters with the West were mostly benign; a minor trading relationship with the Dutch had existed since the mid-1600s and there was a moderate level of interest amongst Japanese elites in Western science and technology, known as ‘Rangaku’ (‘Dutch Studies’). By the nineteenth century, these contacts became more ominous – and then morphed into an existential threat to the Japanese nation. In the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the eastward-bound Russian Empire aggressively probed the northern islands of Japan, although their many requests for commerce were refused. Furthermore, in 1808 the British HMS Phaeton arrived in Nagasaki, fired warning shots at local vessels, and demanded supplies under threat of bombardment. These small incidents, although worrisome for the Tokugawa Shogunate, paled in comparison to the traumatic encounters with the West a few decades later. First was the humiliation of the regional hegemon – China – after the Opium Wars of the mid-1800s. These conflicts resulted in a series of unequal treaties with various Western powers which imposed treaty ports, extraterritoriality for Westerners, fixed tariffs on Western goods, and the ceding of Hong Kong to the British Empire. The Netherlands unsubtly warned the Shogunate in 1844 that continued isolationism might subject Japan to a similar fate. Second, much closer to home was the arrival of Commodore Perry and his fleet of American gunboats in 1853. The Tokugawa government, facing modern steamships with Renaissance-era weaponry, had no choice but to submit to the demands of the United States. The Convention of Kanagawa in 1854 and the Harris Treaty in 1858 opened six ports to American trade, granted extraterritoriality to American citizens on Japanese soil, set fixed low tariffs on American goods, and obliged the Japanese government to rescue shipwrecked American sailors. During the negotiation of the treaties, the Tokugawa regime took the unprecedented step of consulting with the Emperor, who had acted largely as a figurehead for centuries, as well as the daimyo (vassal lords) on Japanese policy towards the foreigners.

    Japan had been shaken from its long slumber, and it awoke to a dangerous new world. Inchoate rage at the erosion of the nation’s sovereignty ran high in the post-treaty years and was often expressed through political violence: Ii Naosuke, the Chief Minister of the Shogunate who had signed the Harris Treaty, was cut down by a group of radical samurai in 1860, and in 1863 the daimyo of the Choshu domain launched an abortive attack on the USS Wyoming in the Shimonoseki Straits. Amongst much of the nation’s elites, colonial status and the destruction of Japan’s unique culture through Christianisation seemed imminent.

    Amongst those serious about averting national catastrophe, two currents of reformist thought came to the fore. One was Japanese nativism, whose proponents argued that national salvation would come from intense devotion towards Japan’s divine Emperor and a return to the ancient culture of the Japanese ‘Yamato’ race – for example by revering the country’s native Shinto religion over imported Buddhism. Nativism eventually crystallised into the ‘sonno joi’ (‘Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians’) movement, a cause whose adherents were dubbed ‘shishi’ – disaffected daimyo and young lower-ranked samurai who often attacked Tokugawa officials and foreigners in the name of the Emperor. To the nativist supporters of Imperial rather than the Shogunal rule, the Imperial household (which took a harder line than the Shogunate against the foreigners) acted as an allegory for the national cause. The other major school of thought was the ‘realists’ – who claimed that the rapid modernisation of Japan along Western lines would allow it to deter predatorial behaviour from the European powers. Many of this ilk began to travel to Western countries and became acquainted with their culture and technological progress, and soon concluded that any return to isolation was doomed to fail.

    As the 1860s wore on, the Shogunal government attempted to chart a course between these two opinions, and as a result alienated almost all reform-minded Japanese. Although the Tokugawa made repeated efforts to renegotiate the treaties imposed on the country by Western powers, none succeeded – partly because of the perennial attacks on Europeans in Japanese territory by radical shishi samurai. On the other hand, the Shogunate frustrated or ignored the Imperial Court’s anti-foreigner policies, such as Emperor Komei’s 1863 ‘Order to Expel the Barbarians’, knowing full well that Japan was in no position to militarily resist the Europeans. The Tokugawa’s foreign policy destroyed the tentative political partnership it had forged with the Imperial Court in the wake of the unequal treaties – the Emperor and the pro-Imperial nativists who had gathered in his court at Kyoto interpreted the Shogunate’s failure to roll back the treaties as chronic incompetence, and its reluctance to expel the foreigners as treachery. Meanwhile, although the Tokugawa attempted a certain degree of industrial and military modernisation with French aid, the pace of such reforms was far below what was desired by the ‘realist’ school – and indeed would pale in comparison to the rapid transformation of Japan under the future Meiji regime. The Tokugawa’s failure to win over either the nativists or the ‘realists’, along with the continued existential crisis over foreign relations, eventually caused these two intellectual currents to combine in opposition to the established feudal order. A coherent plan of action for the pro-Imperial faction, beyond crazed and futile attacks on Europeans, thus began to take form: the Shogunate would be toppled with the aid of Western armaments and replaced by a European-style aristocratic government with the Emperor as its ceremonial head. This would be followed by a breakneck modernisation of Japan’s governance, society, economy, and military – which would allow it to defend itself from colonisation and cultural destruction by foreigners. This new doctrine of modernisation in service of the nativist cause was neatly encapsulated in the popular pro-Imperial phrase ‘Wakon-yosai’, or ‘Japanese spirit, Western techniques’.

    The Imperialists’ chance soon came. After a brief period of renewed Shogunal authority in 1863-4 following its suppression of several poorly-planned pro-Imperial risings, the Tokugawa botched a punitive expedition launched against the militant anti-Shogunal Choshu domain in 1865. The Choshu forces, aided by the purchase of 7,000 modern rifles, repulsed the invasion – a humiliation which the Shogunate could not recover from. With the Tokugawa on the ropes, the Imperial faction made its bid for power. The last Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was persuaded to resign his post and dissolve his office by the moderate leaders of the Tosa domain in November 1867. However, the rulers of the Satsuma and Choshu domains were suspicious of the still-substantial power of the Tokugawa clan and moved against them with force of arms. These two clans had spent centuries in disfavour after fighting on the losing side at Sekigahara and were thus all too happy to lead the anti-Tokugawa vanguard.

    The resulting conflict, the Boshin War, proved anticlimactic. After a decisive (though relatively bloodless) engagement at Toba-Fushimi in January 1868, the Tokugawa folded, and their armies melted away. By 1869, the last holdouts of the old order in the North had been mopped up. Regime change in Japan was cemented in April of 1868 by the ‘Charter Oath’ signed by the young Emperor Meiji upon his ascension to the throne – which called for constitutional government and unity in pursuit of the national cause.

    The Meiji Restoration had not been a genuine revolution, but rather an inter-elite conflict akin to England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688. Post-Restoration Japan, at least until the advent of mass-suffrage democracy in 1925, was politically dominated by aristocrats hailing from the pro-Imperial domains of Satsuma, Choshu, and Tosa. Indeed, the framers of the Meiji constitution envisioned Japanese governance as a harmonious system where a virtuous and unified aristocracy would rule in concert with Japan’s burgeoning bureaucracy – with deliberative assemblies acting as a forum to voice the opinions of the wider public.

    Nevertheless, the modernizing policies of the new regime would prove transformative. The new government ended centuries of feudalism through its abolition of the domain system and eventually the samurai class itself. Western dress soon became popular amongst political and business elites, and Japan’s first Diet (parliament) was opened in 1890. The new government’s social and educational policy, designed to foster national unity, amounted to the wholesale importing of nativist thought into civil society. State Shinto was promoted at the expense of foreign Buddhism, and the new education system combined a modern curriculum with the inculcating of fervent loyalty to the Emperor and the Japanese nation, and obedience to the State and the social order. Every facet of Japanese society – religion, social organisations, education and local government, were imbued with a new nationalism centred on Imperial worship. Economic modernisation was rapid, aided by protectionism, high literacy rates, and abundant native capital – by 1877 every major Japanese city was connected by telegraph and by 1900 5,000 miles of railway track had been laid. Furthermore, the Meiji period saw the rise of ‘zaibatsu’ – large vertically-integrated conglomerates that engaged in everything from mining to shipbuilding and banking. Military modernisation to defend Japanese sovereignty was also deemed a priority – a modern conscript army along German lines was rapidly created along with a British-inspired navy.

    Despite the fanatical nativist rhetoric of the Restoration, the foreign policy of the Meiji regime was prudent and restrained – seeking friendly relations with Western powers and a negotiated end to the unequal treaties. However, this caution did not prevent Japanese imperial adventures in the region – an opportunistic conflict with the sclerotic Chinese Qing Dynasty in 1893 gave it the island of Taiwan and a client regime in Korea as its spoils of war. The crowning achievement of Meiji modernisation was victory over Russia in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War – where the modernised Japanese navy blew apart the Russian Baltic Fleet at the Battle of Tsushima. With the decisive defeat of a Western power at its hands, Japan had now unquestionably joined the ranks of the great powers as the first non-Western industrial nation. The project of national reform and renewal, dreamt up during the country’s traumatic collision with the age of Imperialism, had succeeded in under fifty years.

    However, the romantic nativism which had sparked the Meiji Restoration would prove the undoing of the new Japanese Empire. Decades of government policy designed to foster unity under the banner of nativism had bred a new ultra-nationalist generation of Japanese, who revered their Emperor as a living God. This social development coincided with the 1925 ‘General Election Law’ – which enfranchised all adult men over 25. With the advent of mass politics, aristocratic government could not last, and the fanaticism of the Japanese public meant that their prudence and caution in foreign affairs did not long survive their political eclipse. Despite the nation’s remarkable progress, the West refused to recognise Japan as a genuinely equal partner: its contribution to the Allied cause in WWI went mostly unrewarded, and a ‘racial equality clause’ proposed by Japan at the Treaty of Versailles was rejected. These slights enraged and embittered the Japanese public, fanning the flames of nationalism.

    The fateful moment came in 1931 when the Army, without orders from the civilian government, invaded Manchuria. Given the choice between parliamentary government and the national cause, the Japanese people, who contrasted the supposed factionalism of civilian politics with the patriotism of the military, chose the latter by supporting the invasion with enthusiasm. The Meiji Restoration had elevated the ‘apolitical’ national cause above all other values – including constitutionalism, so it was unsurprising that parliamentary governance collapsed after its first attempt to rein in the forces of expansionist nationalism. Civilian politics thus gave way to the rule of the generals. Their cause was simple: the supremacy of the ‘Yamato’ race everywhere. It was a cause that would lead Japanese arms to Nanjing where 300,000 civilians were slaughtered; to the Malay Peninsula where the great citadel of the British Empire, Singapore, was stormed; to a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, which brought about the entry of the United States into the Second World War. At its heart, the new militarist regime resembled the worst of the Shishi – those wild samurai street brawlers and assassins whose dominant emotion was unfocused rage and xenophobia. Its policy was unhinged and unserious in equal measure – the overextended Japanese Empire could not possibly hope to triumph over Britain, China, and the United States simultaneously – a reality which Japan’s most famous wartime admiral, Isoroku Yamamoto, privately acknowledged. It was never enough. Despite the Japanese government’s relentless war of conquest in China in the 1930s, radical elements in the army were still unconvinced of their devotion to the Emperor and the national cause – and saw treachery wherever they looked. They struck in February of 1936. A group of young officers occupied government buildings in Tokyo and assassinated several elder statesmen, demanding the absolute personal rule of the Emperor, and the purging of ‘traitors’ within the government. The coup was defeated, but its paranoid aftermath only increased the military’s stranglehold on politics.

    Eventually, the limits of Japanese power caught up with the limitless ambition of the national cause, and the war effort disintegrated. The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were levelled by nuclear weaponry, and the sacred islands of Japan were – for the first time in their history – occupied by a foreign power.

    How then should we judge the Meiji Restoration? It is likely that without the regime change and subsequent modernization that the Meiji government brought, Japan would have suffered a similar fate to China – surely an undesirable outcome given the latter’s tortured history in the 19th and 20th centuries. However, the radical nativism present at the genesis of the Meiji state, coupled with the onset of mass-suffrage democracy, would produce a frenzied nationalism that led the nation to ruin and subjugation in 1945 – which was ironically the very fate the pro-Imperial faction sought to avoid by overthrowing the Shogunate. As a result of American occupation, Japan has been deprived of much of its freedom of action – under the terms of Japan’s postwar constitution drafted in 1947 by General Douglas MacArthur’s occupation government and reformist Japanese politicians, Japan is unable to wage aggressive war or maintain armed forces beyond a relatively modest ‘Self-Defence Force’. This tenet of the constitution has been the source of intense debate in Japan ever since – with many increasingly vocal conservatives arguing that it is based on an unfair perception of Imperial Japan’s foreign and military policy. The Meiji Restoration fast-tracked Japanese modernisation in order to champion the national cause, but it was the national cause itself that eventually deprived Japan of many of the features of a sovereign nation and cost the lives of millions. Thus, when we examine the legacy of the Restoration, we are at once confronted with the shadows of Nanjing, the kamikaze, and atomic destruction – rendering all its triumphs as ultimately pyrrhic.



Jensen, Marius P (eds.), The Cambridge History of Japan Volume 5: The Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)

Jensen, Marius P, The Making of Modern Japan, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002)

Mishra, Pankraj, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia, (London: Penguin, 2013)

Pyle, Kenneth B, The Making of Modern Japan, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996)

In Bruges

Written by Fay Marsden


     Stepping off the bus that had taken us from Brussels to Bruges, the difference between the two cities was immediately discernible. Brussels seems to be somewhat sterile – too cosmopolitan for a medievalist. Bruges, in contrast, felt older and more historical. It is much smaller, with rows of short canal-style houses sitting atop the waters, countless lace and chocolate shops, and the beautiful Market Square, which is replete with stunningly preserved architecture, horse-and-carriages, and homely restaurants.  Bruges is located in northwest Belgium, about an hour away from Brussels. The size of Bruges is perfect for a small trip. Plus, walking around the city is a treat, with it feeling and looking effortlessly historical. I stayed for three nights at the end of November last year and felt like I had stepped back into the past.

     Bruges’ Market Square is home to a twelfth-century belfry and the Provincial Court – both of which are toweringly pretty. The Provincial Court was once the city’s Waterhall – where imports and exports were stored and processed. The history of this grand building can be learnt about in Historium, a ‘historical experience’ also located in the Market Square, which claims to take you through ‘medieval Bruges in a story’. Historium is perhaps the strangest history experience I have been to. It tells the story of the creation of Jan van Eyck’s painting – ‘Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele’ (1434-36), – painted in Bruges. While the idea behind this experience is quite original and interesting, the experience is very short. You walk through different rooms which make up the painting’s story, including a tax office (where van Eyck paid the import tax for his paints), a mystic’s house (who sells rosaries), and a bathhouse (also a brothel). The sets were very well done, and if the story had been about the history of Bruges more generally, I think the experience would have been more informative. Whilst it was enjoyable, I found the story too narrow to be interesting.

     A short walk away from the Market Square brings you to the Burg Square, which is similarly beautiful. It is home to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a twelfth-century gothic chapel. It is situated next to the City Hall – a tall, classical, pale stone building, built between 1376-1421. The Basilica is juxtaposed by the City Hall – being much darker and gothic, instead of classical. The lower level of the chapel is dedicated to St. Basil the Great, but the upper level was rebuilt in the sixteenth century and contains its namesake – a venerated relic in the form of Christ’s blood. The interior is really beautiful, with big painted walls depicting stages of Christ’s life. The atmosphere is sombre, but welcoming, with the warm colours of the interior wood and paint and the light filtering through the stained glass windows. The main attraction is Christ’s relic, which sits in a glass tube on an altar with a guard sternly watching over it and taking donations, which most of the visitors were watching with interest. I would definitely recommend visiting this very beautiful, small and strange chapel, even if you are uninterested in medieval religious history.

     My favourite part of the trip was The Hospital of Saint John. It is a medieval hospital, founded in the mid-twelfth century and functioning until 1977. In the Middle Ages it was a hospital for pilgrims and travellers, but when a monastery and a convent were added, it also became a refuge for poorer patients to receive religious treatment and intervention. The hospital now contains a rich collection of documents, art, and medical instruments relating to the history of the hospital. My favourite piece was Hans Memling’s intricately painted reliquary dedicated to St. Ursula, created in 1489. This was brought out annually on her feast day, highlighting the integral role of religion to medical care and thought in the medieval period. For anyone interested in medical history, this is a great place to visit.  

     These were, for me, the top three sites to get an insight into the rich medieval history of the city. There’s much more to see – prestigious art galleries, numerous chocolate and beer museums, and even a torture museum to see the darker side of the city. The architecture throughout the city is also beautiful, and incredibly well-preserved. Bruges is a lovely place to visit as a historian, but the city is so vibrant and beautiful that it is welcoming to everybody.

Crime and Punishment: The Saga of Sports in Russia Today


Written by Eleanor Hardy


Tarnished by endless doping scandals, riddled with corruption and in the deep midwinter, can Russians find a reason to keep their passion for sports alive and are they still being punished by the West for the Cold War?

The current outside air temperature here in St Petersburg is a balmy -16 degrees Celsius and I can’t say it is tempting me to get outside and join in a football match, but that is not to say it is stopping the locals. The Russians are not the kind of people to allow something like the cold to prevent them from enjoying one of their great passions: sports. Just last week I was lucky enough to watch Zenit St Petersburg play Celtic in the newly built Krestovsky football stadium and the thing that impressed me more than the efficient security and the state of the art heated indoor pitch, was the atmosphere. People, certainly in the West, often immediately associate Russian football with racist hooliganism and violence. Of course this is duly reinforced by the stereotypical view of Russian fans as burly vodka-fuelled middle aged men, yet neither of these were true in my experience. The stadium was family friendly; children accompanied their parents, delighting in seeing their local team cruise to a 3-0 victory over the Scottish visitors. It was in many respects too good to be true. Since the days of the 1980s Moscow Olympic boycott, Russia and the West have struggled to see eye to eye on any sports field and the press on both sides hardly does much to help relations, but are things changing? Is it time to rewrite some of the preconceptions we have about sports in Russia?

In truth our understanding of Russian state controlled events would not support this opinion, but as the History, Classics and Archaeology School at Edinburgh always teaches us: in history you can never listen to just one side of the story.  Perhaps those dated arguments from historians that love to demonise the USSR do not fit so perfectly with the image of modern Russia? Russians, like most other people, are passionate about their sports, and as in many other countries there are incidents of racism, hooliganism, drunkenness and fighting but this is not standard practice. As far as I can see the focus is on the game itself rather than acts of criminality.

However, the recent doping scandals that have dogged Russian sports cannot be ignored either. From tennis to athletics it seems state sponsored performance enhancing drugs were used extensively and thus the Olympic ban was justified. On saying that, Russia is not the only country to have recently faced accusations of malpractice and further to that, what I have found so admirable is that the Russians refuse even to let this stop them. Although many athletes from various disciplines were implicated in the scandal it is important to remember many were not. Those individuals and teams deserve to be recognised too for their talent and hard work as much as any other competitive sportsperson.

With the Winter Olympics now having drawn to a close in South Korea, here in St Petersburg you cannot escape talk of the Russian successes there. The incredibly talented fifteen year old figure skater Alina Zagitova (who won gold at Pyeongchang) and her compatriot Evgenia Medvedeva are the talk of the town. Add to this the impressive victory of the Russian men’s’ ice hockey team over Germany in the final on the last day of the competition and it is not hard to see why Russians are still finding reasons to be proud of their sportsmen and women. It is not just the fans and support at home that is a testament to Russian resilience in sports. The proud singing of the Russian National anthem by the ice hockey champions emphasises how the patriotism in sports has not been destroyed by the corruption and punishment. Bans, media stories and political battles have not deterred the sturdy Russians.

It remains a difficult historical issue. Will Russia ever be fairly judged in the West? Will the Russian government ever truly stop meddling? Dostoevsky wrote in his epic novel Crime and Punishment: ‘it wasn’t a human being I killed, it was a principle!’ Let us hope that the principle of cheating has been killed but perhaps also the principle of prejudice against Russia of the West.