The Duchy of Bronte
In his last years, Horatio Nelson habitually signed his name “Nelson & Bronte.” The “Bronte” came courtesy of King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies. In 1799 Ferdinand, nicknamed “The Nose,” granted Nelson the title “Duke of Bronte” as a reward for the latter’s help in suppressing, with rather uncharacteristic brutality, a Neapolitan republican revolution earlier in the year.
The title came with 30,000 acres in eastern Sicily, on the westward side of Mt. Etna, and an annual stipend of £3000. It was a new title, named, apparently at Nelson’s request, after the town of Bronte. Since “Bronte” can be translated as “Thunder,” Nelson’s beloved Lady Hamilton took to calling him “My Lord Thunder” as a result. Nelson never visited the estate. Had he done so, he would certainly have visited the impressive Castello di Maniace, a thousand year old fortress in ruins since a devastating earthquake in 1693.
The Castello di Maniace dates to the Eleventh Century.
Early in the Ninth Century, Sicily, a Byzantine Province, had been invaded by Moslems from North Africa. A long and bloody war ensued, lasting for generations, as Moslem and Christian strove to win final control of the island. By the early Eleventh Century the Moslems had almost completely overrun Sicily, save for some isolated Christian outposts. But soon after the Papacy, the Lombards, and the Byzantines began working together to liberate Sicily.
In 1038 the Byzantine General George Maniakes, who had accumulated an impressive record fighting Moslems, Bulgars, Serbs, Normans, Lombards and other peoples in Italy, the Balkans, Anatolia, and Syria, began recruiting an army for a renewed effort against the Sicilian Moslems. In addition to Byzantine subjects from Southern Italy and Greece, he managed to enroll many Normans, who had been settling among the Lombards, and even some Vikings, most notable among them the famous Harald Hardrada, later King of Norway, who would perish at Stamford Bridge in 1066. Within two years Maniakes had brought much of the eastern end of Sicily back under Byzantine control. To commemorate his success, in 1040 he established on the site of his most decisive battle an abbey, which shortly became known as Santa Maria de Maniace. This abbey was granted control of the revenues of about two dozen small villages in the area, among them Bronte, about eight miles away. Maniakes continued to campaign against the Moslems for a while, but court politics led to him being deprived of his command. Rather than go meekly into retirement, in 1043 Maniakes organized an army and crossed the Adriatic to attack the Empire itself, only to be killed. In the end, his Abbey was perhaps his most enduring contribution to history, for Sicily ultimately fell, not back into Moslem hands, but into those of the Normans, who completed the liberation of the island by the end of the century.
So Nelson’s holdings in Sicily had a military record of considerable note, though he perhaps never knew this. He was, nevertheless, aware of the Castello de Maniace, for he gave orders that it be restored as a residence, though he never lived there. On Nelson’s death, the title and properties were inherited by his brother William. William died leaving no male heir, and in accordance with Sicilian law – which recognized female inheritance – the duchy passed his daughter Charlotte, who married Admiral Samuel Hood, the Viscount of Bridport, and actually lived on the estate for many years.
Meanwhile, history did not by-passed the Duchy of Bronte. During the Nineteenth Century there were revolutionary outbreaks at Bronte on several occasions, including an unfortunate incident in 1860 when Garibaldi’s Red Shirts actually executed a number of peasants for being excessively revolutionary. In World War II the Nelson-Hood family had to flee their estates in haste when Italy declared war on Britain, and the lands were soon confiscated. During the war the Castello de Maniace – by then long known as the Castello de Nelson – served for a time as Headquarters for German Marshal Albert Kesselring and later for British Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander.
Although their estates were restored after the war, a series of legal squabbles involving Italian land reform laws eventually prompted the seventh Duke of Bronte, Alexander Nelson-Hood, Viscount Bridport, to the sell everything to the town of Bronte in 1981.
The Castello de Nelson is today a museum.
On the Nose
Very early in the Revolutionary War, Congress resolved to recruit a regiment of riflemen from the rugged frontier folk of Virginia and Pennsylvania. An enormous number of men came forward to offer their services. Too many, in fact.
When the officers appointed to organize the two companies allocated to Virginia arrived at the appointed rendezvous, they found 500 men ready to serve, far more than the approximately 200 required. Now the volunteers were all good men. And a mite touchy lest some preference be shown to another. So merely picking 200 men out of the mass of volunteers would not do.
To resolve the dilemma, one of the recruiting officers devised a simple test.
Taking a board one foot square, he chalked upon it the profile of a face. He then nailed the board to a tree and paced off 150 yards, where he drew a line in dirt. Each volunteer was asked to put a round in the target, as close to the nose as he could.
The first 50 men to step forward obliterated the nose, requiring a replacement. In this way the Virginia companies were filled with little difficulty and, under Daniel Morgan, later one of the most successful American commanders of the war, almost immediately set out to join George Washington’s army in front of Boston.