Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/A king under difficulties


The family of the Von Neuhoffs, which expired in the year 1811, held for many generations a high position in Westphalia. In 1695, the future representative of the family gave it the first push down the path of decadence, by marrying a girl of equivocal character, which caused an irreconcilable breach between him and his relations. He thereupon entered the French army, and while stationed at Metz, a son was born to him in 1696. He was christened Theodore Anton, and is the subject of my memoir. The father died shortly after, and his mother proceeded to Paris, where her conduct was a bad example for the boy. She, namely, became the left-handed wife of the Count de Montague, one of the gentlemen in waiting of that clever German princess, Elizabeth Charlotte, Duchess of Orleans and mother of the Regent, who was so remarkable for her mania for letter-writing.

Theodore Von Neuhoff entered the Duchess’s service as page, and after the custom of the day, was educated for the army. His intimate friend, the Marquis de Courcillon, gave him a lieutenancy in his dragoons, and for awhile Theodore Von Neuhoff lived in magnificent style. Falling hopelessly into debt, he quitted the French service, and made his way to Holland. Here he offered his services to the well-known Baron Von Görtz, at that time Swedish ambassador at the Hague, who employed him upon several diplomatic missions, among others to the court of Spain. My readers may feel surprised that the plenipotentiary of a great power, for such Sweden was at that day, should not hesitate to enter into such friendly relations with a fugitive bankrupt;[1] but the truth is, that Görtz himself was a political adventurer, though on a grander style, and was connected with the countless scamps whom the intriguing policy of that day found it necessary to employ, and who were all linked together by a species of freemasonry.

When Görtz was beheaded at Stockholm, on February 28, 1719, Von Neuhoff was engaged on business of his at Madrid, and would have fallen into an abject state of poverty, had not Cardinal Alberoni, the Spanish prime minister, been a political adventurer of the same breed as Görtz. The adventurer in the red hat did not permit our adventurer to starve, but gave him a commission as colonel, and procured him in addition to his pay a pension of 600 pistoles. Moreover, Von Neuhoff worked his acquaintance with the omnipotent minister so cleverly, that he soon got together a fortune of from ten to twelve thousand pistoles. This success, however, made the young man so arrogant, that he treated the Spaniards impertinently, and hence, on Alberoni’s sudden fall, found himself surrounded by enemies. At the moment when he was preparing to fly the kingdom, another adventurer came to his assistance in the person of the Duke of Ripperda.

Ripperda advised him to marry a lady of the Queen’s bedchamber, who stood extraordinarily well at Court, and introduced him to her. The plan succeeded: Lady Catherine Sarsfield, daughter of Lord Kilmarnock, who was the cousin of the celebrated Duke of Ormond, became the wife of our adventurer, and secured him once more a brilliant position in Madrid. The lady, however, does not seem to have possessed the gift of enchaining her husband; but, on the contrary, shortly became so unendurable to him, that he preferred running away rather than remaining by her side, and he took ship at Carthagena for France. It need not surprise us, in an adventurer of this sort, that Von Neuhoff carried off with him all his wife’s jewellery and valuables. He arrived in Paris at the moment when the Mississippi swindle was at its height. Of course adventurer Law and adventurer Von Neuhoff soon became thick as thieves, and the former procured him a parliamentary decree that protected him from the persecutions of his old creditors. So long as the bubble lasted, Von Neuhoff lived en grand Seigneur, and spent fabulous sums; but when Law became bankrupt and fled, my hero was once more in a very awkward fix. At this moment his loving sister, the Countess de Trevoux, took compassion on him, and he cost her such enormous sums, that her protector, Count de la Mark, became impatient at it, and obtained a lettre de cachet in favour of Von Neuhoff. The poor fellow was compelled to fly from France, and took with him a few unconsidered trifles, as usual, that did not belong to him. This appears to have been a weakness of my hero: the Duchess of Orleans tells us that on his flight “he robbed his sister of two hundred thousand francs, and Law’s brother of close upon a million.” I doubt whether matters were so bad as this, for the old lady was fond of a good mouthful, and seems to have had a spite against her ex-page, for which, however, she can hardly be blamed. Von Neuhoff went first to England, and thence to Holland, and at Amsterdam he crept into the favour of several rich merchants, especially Portuguese Jews, who advanced him considerable sums, with which he went off to trade in the Levant.

And here comes a gap in my adventurer’s life, which all my research has been unable to fill up. I lose him entirely out of sight, and can only assume that he spent some time with Baron Ripperda, who had been stripped of his grandeeship and ducal title, and was now General in the service of Muley Abdallah, Emperor of Morocco, under the name of Osman. It may be assumed that Ripperda, who only maintained his position in Morocco through his intimacy with the most illustrious European adventurers, promoted Von Neuhoff’s bold plans in every way; but I am unable to offer any direct proof of this. Our adventurer’s idea was to put himself at the head of the Corsicans, who, wearied of the despotism of the Genoese, were preparing to declare their independence. Von Neuhoff had entered into negotiations at Leghorn with the national chiefs, and speedily convinced himself that a man who supplied the Corsicans with money, arms, and ammunition, might easily raise himself to supreme power. On this trust he acted, and ere long Europe was amazed at reading the following newsletter in nearly all the papers:—

Bastia, April 5, 1736.

An English ship, said to belong to the Consul of that nation at Tunis, anchored in Aleria Bay, on March 13th ult., having on board a very illustrious personage, whom some state to be an English Lord, others a Royal Prince, and others again Prince Rayoczy. So much is certain, that he is of the Romish Confession, and is called Theodore. His dress is after the fashion of that of Christians who travel in Turkey, and consists of a long scarlet quilted coat, velvet peruke, hat, stick, and sword. He has a suite of two officers, a secretary, a chaplain, a chamberlain, a steward, a cook, three slaves, and four lacqueys. He has landed his cannon, over 7000 musquets, 2000 pairs of shoes, a great quantity of stores of every description, as well as several chests full of gold and silver specie. The leaders of the Corsicans have received him with signal marks of honour, and given him the titles of Excellency and Viceroy: he has also appointed four of the Corsicans colonels, with a monthly pay of 200 pieces of eight, and raised twenty companies, in which each private receives a firelock, a pair of shoes, and a sequin. He has taken up his residence in the bishop’s palace, at Campo Loro, in front of which 400 men, with two cannon, keep guard.

This piquant article attracted the attention of all Europe to Corsica, but the mysterious personage, only indicated by the name of Theodore, was no other than our friend Von Neuhoff, who placed himself at the head of the insurgents, and declared war against the illustrious Republic of Genoa. Matters progressed rapidly; on April 15, Von Neuhoff was unanimously elected King of Corsica, and crowned in the open field with a wreath of leaves, which must have looked remarkably chaste on the above-mentioned peruke. At the same time a capitulation was drawn up between the new king and his subjects, to the effect that the crown would be hereditary in his family, on condition that the reigning monarch belonged to the Catholic faith and resided permanently on the island.

The whole affair now seems very ludicrous, but at that time was sober seriousness. The adventurer had become a real king, the king of a nation struggling to free itself from foreign domination, and he would have had an opportunity to play a great and noble part—had he been more than an adventurer. At the same time it cannot be denied that the man assumed with the royal title a certain dignity; that he felt, partly at any rate, the obligations he had assumed; and that the good points of the old Westphalian gentleman came to light. After the election the new king proceeded to organise his court. Costa, with whose assistance he had carried on the negotiations at Leghorn, became Lord Chancellor and Keeper of the Seals, and was raised to an earldom. Don Xavier was appointed Marquis and Treasurer; Don Giafferi, Count and General of the Army; and Don Hyacintho Paoli, Vicegerent. King Theodore had gold, silver, and copper coins struck, on the obverse of which was his bust, with the inscription: “Teodorus d.g. unanimi consensu electus Rex et Princeps Regni Corsici.” On the reverse was a crown supported by three palm-trees, with the legend: “Pro bono publico Corsico.” Other coins of his bore on one side the Immaculate Conception, with the legend: “Monstra te esse matrem;” on the other, the arms of the new kingdom, a Moor’s head on a field or, and the family arms of the Von Neuhoffs, a broken chain argent on a field sable, coupled together.

We see from this that the kingdom of Theodore of Corsica was seriously meant, and the whole world regarded it as such. In Westphalia, the regal crown also created a sensation, and seems to have reconciled a portion of the haughty family with the adventurer, for I find several Westphalian cousins in the royal Corsican service; for instance, a Baron von Droste. The Republic of Genoa regarded Neuhoff’s kingdom most seriously of all, and as it was menaced with the loss of the island it issued on May 9, 1736, a proclamation, in which Baron Theodore von Neuhoff was declared a swindler (not unjustly, as we know), a portion of his ill-spent life was revealed, and he was threatened with the severest punishment, as guilty of high treason. In addition, the Genoese offered a reward of £300 for the king if surrendered alive, and £150 if dead. That there was no one willing to earn this reward speaks in favour of the adventurer.

King Theodore not merely issued a contrary manifesto, but acted too, and exerted himself to expel the Genoese from his island. In this he partially succeeded, and invested Bastia, the capital, which was still held by the Genoese. Von Neuhoff does not appear to have been a bad soldier, for he defeated the enemy in several skirmishes, and even gained a pitched battle, on June 29, 1736, at Isola Rossa, in which the Genoese colonel, Marchelli, lost no less than 4000 men. The day after, King Theodore also captured two Genoese vessels, laden with money, arms, and ammunition. But this was the last smile of fortune; on August 29, he was repulsed by the Genoese at Calenzano, and, worse still, he began quarrelling with the Corsican chiefs, whom he held too tightly in hand, and who, in all probability, had expected a greater amount of assistance from him. Still the clever fellow managed to appease the malcontents, and as a symbol of reconciliation founded, on September 16, the royal Corsican Order of the Redemption. From this moment, however, matters took such an ugly turn, that King Theodore resolved to proceed to Europe, and personally fetch assistance. Early in November he landed at Leghorn, and proceeded through Paris to Amsterdam, where on April 19, 1737, he was arrested for old debts, and put in prison. He contrived, however, to get out again, on May 7, and was not handed over to the Genoese Republic, as it had demanded through its ambassador at the Hague.

The great support of our adventurer was, that all the enemies of the arrogant Republic of Genoa were not indisposed to give him assistance, at any rate, under the rose. Besides, on emerging from prison the king displayed indefatigable zeal; at one moment he was at Lisbon, then at Malaga, then in England, and back again in Amsterdam, and everywhere was at work to secure the independence of Corsica and his own kingdom. It also speaks in his favour, that the Corsicans had remained faithful to him, and governed the island in his name, with the exception of the fortresses of Bastia, Ajaccio, Calpe, and Pellegrino, which the Genoese still held. On September 13, 1738, King Theodore fulfilled the promise he had given the Corsicans on his departure: he arrived with several ships at Porto Vecchio, and landed large quantities of stores and ammunition. The Corsicans received him as their king; but he had arrived too late, for there was a French corps under Count Boissieux on the island, for the purpose of patching up a truce between the Genoese and the rebels. France had not recognised King Theodore, and had no intention of doing so, as she was already meditating the annexation of Corsica to France. Hence it was her interest to let the Genoese and Corsicans weaken each other, but not to help the king in securing his supremacy. This policy was successful, for thirty years later Corsica was French.

In November, 1738, the French demanded the extradition of Von Neuhoff, and the poor king found himself compelled to quit his country for the second time. He fled to Naples, where he was arrested and sent to Gaeta, but was treated with great kindness, and soon after released. In Naples the illustrious Republic of Genoa was not particularly beloved, either. From this time Von Neuhoff’s adventurous career recommences, and we see him constantly rising and being eclipsed in all sorts of places. In 1739 I come on his trail at Rome, Venice, and Tunis, and in 1740 at Cologne. The next year he was in Switzerland, and in 1742 again reached England. There is evidence to prove that the British government of the day negotiated with him, and was disposed to supply him with the means to expel the French from Corsica; but in all probability the negotiations were made, not with the king, but with the individual. Still, it appears that large promises were made him. On January 12, 1743, King Theodore turned up at Leghorn, where he collected the expelled Corsicans, and issued a manifesto, in which he offered a general amnesty to all who had deserted him, with the exception of Paoli. In this manifesto he calls himself “Theodore, by the grace of God, King of Corsica, and Grand Master of the Military Order of the Redemption.” In conclusion, it runs thus: “Such is our royal will. For this purpose we have subscribed it with our own hand, and confirmed it with our royal seal. Given at Bologna, on the 30th January, of the 1743rd year since the birth of Christ, and the seventh of our kingdom, which may God render happy and increase. Theodore.”

With manifestoes, however, no kingdom can be rendered happy: but the king of Corsica did not do much more. He certainly sailed to the island, and landed ammunition and stores at Isola Rossa, but he did not leave his ship himself, and contented himself with cruising off the coast and preventing reinforcements arriving from Genoa. We have seen that our adventurer was not deficient in courage, and hence other motives must have restrained him from placing himself at the head of his faithful Corsicans. Probably he regarded the whole affair as hopeless since the interference of the French, and merely employed his royal title as a means to commence negotiations and intrigues, which would bring him in money; possibly, though, I may do him injustice by this supposition. Soon after he disappeared again, presently to turn up at Siena, when his partizans ventured a new attack on the Genoese, and at a convocation held at Corte, on June 14, 1744, signed a document in which they pledged themselves to live and die for Theodore, their king. It must be considered that my adventurer was no common man, and possessed better qualities than his life-history makes known; otherwise this devotion of the Corsicans to him would have been an impossibility.

About this time Von Neuhoff disappears again till 1748. Some persons state that he resided in Holland, but he can hardly have been inactive, for that was contrary to his nature. In 1749 we find him again in London, and this visit was eventful for him, as it has been to many adventurers before and since. The king of Corsica was arrested for debt; but I must remark, in his justification, that they were debts which he incurred for the liberation of Corsica. The purveyors of arms and ammunition locked him up, and Government, on whom he fancied he had claims, would not help him: it denied in toto any negotiations with him. From this moment the poor monarch was a ruined man. He was removed to the King’s Bench, and spent nearly the whole of his days there. It was a terrible change for a man accustomed from his earliest youth to restless and incessant activity. The courage and noble resignation with which he accepted his fall at the outset, soon gave way, and he showed that he was not a true hero, but only an adventurer. On March 27, 1752, he appeared at Westminster, with other King’s Bench prisoners, before a Parliamentary Commission, and broke out into bitter complaints of the treatment he was compelled to put up with. The members took pity on him, and procured him a more comfortable room; but they could do no more, unless they paid the enormous sums he owed his creditors.

Want and hunger tormented the man who had once really worn a royal crown, and he made an appeal to public charity. The London actors first took up his cause. Garrick gave a performance in his behalf, which produced a considerable sum; but for all that, Von Neuhoff’s condition was so deplorable, that he made an unsuccessful attempt to escape in 1755, which naturally entailed stricter confinement. But his misfortunes were not ended yet. In the same year an Act of Parliament was passed, by which all insolvent debtors were set at liberty. Through this act Von Neuhoff became free, and the ex-king of Corsica positively had not a roof to shelter him. In May, 1756, he made an affecting appeal for assistance in the newspapers: he wished to return and die in his native land. But which was the poor adventurer’s native land? even at his birth he possessed none. A few of his former aristocratic friends gave him some assistance, but it must have been inconsiderable, for he was unable to leave the country: at any rate, he was not long a burden to his friends, for he died in December, 1756, aged sixty-one. The parish buried him, and I believe that his grave is still pointed out in Old St. Pancras churchyard.

Such was the end of Theodore, King of Corsica. I call the Westphalian Adventurer a king, because since his day, history has given a kingly title to adventurers who had much less claim to it than Theodore von Neuhoff. A brave nation fighting for its liberty had given him the crown, while others were invested with it at the caprice of a mighty despot. The Westphalian adventurer, at any rate, was King of Corsica, just as fairly as, some fifty years later, a Corsican adventurer was King of Westphalia.

Lascelles Wraxall.

  1. I had nearly written that such a thing would be impossible at the present day, but I remember in time the case of Chevalier Wikoff and Lord Palmerston.