Gottfried von Kalmbach — Part One

I’m curious to know how the readers will like Gottfried von Kalmbach …  A more dissolute vagabond than Gottfried never weaved his drunken way across the pages of a popular magazine: wastrel, drunkard, gambler, whore-monger, renegade, mercenary, plunderer, thief, rogue, rascal – I never created a character whose creation I enjoyed more.

— Letter to H.P. Lovecraft, March 6th, 1933

Red Sonya of Rogatino’s comrade in arms, Gottfried, among his varied qualities, was German.  A coming series of posts from myself and Deuce Richardson is going to be devoted with serious intent (damn’ well told) to another noteworthy German created by REH – von Junzt, author of Nameless Cults.  The latter was born in 1795, and it’s my contention that he had von Kalmbachs among his ancestors.  Not Gottfried, though, or not directly at any rate.  Gottfried was a footloose, debauched black sheep who doubtless died drunk or in battle, or both, and never married.

The von Kalmbachs were not merely noble.  They belonged to the “Uradel” or Old Nobility, those with ancestors of free and knightly birth before the mid-fourteenth century.  The families ennobled after that time, by imperial letters patent, were known as the “Briefadel”.  There were also the Imperial Knights, a class of their own, responsible to the Emperor only and the backbone of his army.

Gottfried von Kalmbach would have been a younger son.  I assume he was born in 1498 – almost exactly three centuries before von Junzt – and had two older brothers as well as a sister.  The von Kalmbachs were a Bavarian family with a castle near Regensburg (Ratisbon).  They were said to be descendants of Charlemagne through Arnulf of Carinthia (who died at Regensburg in December 899 CE).  The town had been a free imperial city with its own mayor and council since the Emperor Frederick II granted it those rights in 1245.

Von Kalmbachs had fought in the Crusades and been members of the Teutonic Order in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, subjugating the pagan Balts.  The family had also become related by marriage to the Dukes of Bavaria, the Wittelsbachs, by 1500.   The Kalmbach coat of arms was “per pale purpure and argent, a chief and bear passant counterchanged”.  The crest was a gauntleted hand grasping the hilt of a broken sword.

Gottfried was exceptionally large and strong by the time he was fourteen.  Tawny-haired and blue-eyed, he was a born rebel, brawler and hell-raiser.  He demonstrated it even at that early age, as the undisputed leader of a gang of other nobly-born but rambunctious boys, some of them years older than he.  They drank, whored, engaged in highway robbery for amusement, and wrecked a dozen taverns in Regensburg during their free-for-alls.  Flogging at the hands of their fathers, or on a couple of occasions the law, never mended their ways.

At seventeen, Gottfried killed a man in a fight over a peasant girl.  German aristocrats in those days were allowed plenty of leeway in their amusements, but the man was a rich burgher’s son, and that made a difference even though he had been no better than young von Kalmbach.  Gottfried’s father decided his youngest son was unsafe to have around, and pulled strings to have him accepted into the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (the Hospitallers), telling him roundly that if no-one else could discipline him, the knights of the white eight-pointed cross certainly would.  As a German, Gottfried would have joined the Teutonic Knights if born two centuries before, but that Order had lost its main purpose when Lithuania became a Christian land, and in 1515 – the very year Gottfried von Kalmbach overstepped the mark too far – the Emperor Maximilian I had made a marriage alliance with Poland-Lithuania.  The German Empire ceased to support the Teutonic Order against Poland after that, and the Order’s decline – already far advanced — accelerated.  The Order of St. John offered better prospects.

It was rather like the way aristocratic ne’er-do-wells were sent out to the colonies from England in Queen Victoria’s time, or misfits and drifters found their way into the French Foreign Legion.  Gottfried didn’t mind too much, knowing as he did that the Knights of St. John were great seamen (and pirates) sworn to fight the Turks.  He would as soon have fought Turks as anybody else.

From the beginning it was plain that his career in the Order would not lead to the Grand Master’s chair.  Gottfried was hardly suited by nature to observe vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.  Poverty he could accept with a shrug, chastity he could take or leave, but obedience was beyond him.  If he thought about it at all, he probably assumed his remarkable fighting prowess would ensure that his misdeeds were overlooked.  Coming from one of the noblest families in Germany ought to ensure exceptional tolerance, also.

Fabrizio del Carretto was Grand Master of the Order when Gottfried joined it.  The failure of the Crusades had pushed the knights from Jerusalem and the Levant to Cyprus, then from Cyprus to Rhodes, their present stronghold.  The Order was divided into eight langues, or tongues, one of them German.  Each, on Rhodes, was lodged in a separate inn, or auberge. Their ships were three-banked galleys armed with rams at the bow and small cannon, but the main striking power lay with the knights who manned them, in their plate suits, wielding their heavy broadswords.  Their usual tactic was to close and grapple with their enemies – or victims – and board in a red onslaught.  Gottfried von Kalmbach was in his element there.

Rhodes had a long, violent history, even then.  From the 15th century BCE it had been under the sway of Minoan Crete, and when the main Bronze Age civilizations collapsed before the migrating Sea Peoples, it fared as badly as Cyprus and the Levant.  In the 8th century the Dorians came to the island, and brought with them the worship of Athena and Helios.  The Persians later conquered Rhodes, but Athens beat the Persians and forced them out of the island in 478 BCE, after which the Rhodian cities joined the Athenian League.  After the war King Mausolus of Caria (whose tomb was one of the Seven Ancient Wonders) conquered Rhodes in his turn, though only briefly.  The Persians came back and conquered Rhodes again, but again their rule was short before Alexander the Great defeated them and added Rhodes to his dominions.

Alexander died, his generals struggled to control Rhodes, by then an important centre of commerce and culture, closely allied with Egypt.  Antigonus threw all his resources into a siege of the island to destroy that alliance.  He failed, and had to sign a peace agreement, leaving vast stores of military equipment and immense siege engines behind.  The Rhodians – chuckling and rubbing their hands, no doubt – sold it all and used the money to raise a gigantic statue in honour of their sun god, Helios, the famous Colossus of Rhodes.  It stood for less than sixty years before an earthquake snapped it at the knees.  The wreckage lay where it had fallen for centuries, and travellers marvelled to see it.  Then the conquering forces of Islam came to Rhodes, and the statue’s remnants – according to popular legend – were carted away and sold as just another graven image from the “days of ignorance”.

By Gottfried’s time the island was the best defended fortress in the Mediterranean.  The Knights of St. John had spent two hundred years making it impregnable, or as close to that as human powers could contrive.  Eight smaller islands surrounding Rhodes were under the sway of the knights, serving as important surveillance posts and ports.  They maintained a hospital – one of their order’s functions – and in theory protected Christian shipping from the depredations of Islamic corsairs.  In practice they were corsairs themselves, not only raiding Turkish vessels but also Venetian ones, on the ground that Venice traded and colluded with the Turks.  Before the Byzantine Empire fell to the Turks, the knights had raided Byzantine shipping too, the Order of St. John being Catholic and the Byzantines Greek Orthodox – heretical by the knights’ standards.

Gottfried became a skilled pirate and naval gunner while wearing the eight-pointed cross.  He had survived a number of ferocious sea-battles by the time he was twenty.  Once, against odds, he had distinguished himself in a fight with a squadron of galleys led by Khaireddin Barbarossa himself.

In 1520 a new Ottoman sultan, only four years older than Gottfried, came to the throne of Turkey.  He was Suleiman, who would be known in the west as “the Magnificent” and to his own people as “the Lawgiver”.  In his teens, to learn the business of ruling, he had been appointed by his father Selim the Grim as governor of Theodosia, Manisa, and briefly Adrianople.  Having become sultan, he began as he intended to go on, first crushing a revolt by the governor of Damascus, then leading his armies against the key fortress-city of Belgrade, to wrest it away from Hungary.  Through criminal, craven negligence, Belgrade had a garrison of only seven hundred, and worse yet, Hungary sent it no assistance.  Belgrade fell to the Turks in August 1521.

Suleiman might easily have advanced into Hungary then.  He chose not to.  He regarded taking Rhodes, headquarters of the Knights of St. John, as more urgent.  While he was taking Belgrade, a new Grand Master of the knights had been appointed, del Carretto having died.  The new man was the redoubtable Philippe Villiers de l’Isle Adam, who wasted no time making the fortifications of Rhodes even stronger.  He called all the knights of the Order to Rhodes and appealed to the monarchs of Christendom for help, but aside from some Venetian troops from Crete, no help arrived, in spite of the sinister lesson of Belgrade.  It wasn’t a new story.

De l’Isle Adam prepared to resist with all his power.

In June 1522, a mighty Turkish fleet of four hundred ships assailed Rhodes.

Gottfried’s future comrade-in-arms and mistress, Sonya of Rogatino, was then eighteen years old by my reckoning.  She had already seen Crimean raiders attack her home town and carry off her sister Roxelana – later to be Suleiman’s favourite.  Sonya, in the aftermath of the raid, had become the adopted daughter of a hetman of the Zaporozhian Cossacks.  The wildest of those wild men had to admit she rode as hard and cut as deep as any.  She and Gottfried would meet, in seven years’ time, at the siege of Vienna.

But first Gottfried fought at Rhodes, unaware that Sonya existed.  Coban Mustafa Pasha commanded the fleet that preceded the Sultan, and Suleiman himself arrived at the end of July to take charge in his own person, with an army of one hundred thousand men.  The Order prepared to withstand him with three hundred knights, the Venetian mercenary troops from Crete, and about four thousand Rhodian soldiers – five thousand men, six thousand at most, against the superbly trained, motivated and organized Turkish host, with the most advanced artillery in the world, of one hundred and seventy thousand.

The odds were a trifle heavy …

Read Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten, Part Eleven