Who was the Duke of Plaza-Toro?
The Duke of Plaza-Toro (c.1720 – ?1797) was by his own account the 5th generation in the family to hold that Spanish title. He is best known to us today from the fictional character of the same name purloined by the famed librettist W. S. Gilbert for The Gondoliers, a comic opera of 1889. The Duke portrayed in The Gondoliers is a character intended to satirises a declining nineteenth century aristocracy who still espouse old class values and notions of duty, but in reality care more about the grubby financial opportunities offered by the new industrial and banking age. Gilbert’s Duke is remembered by music lovers for his reluctance to pursue that most important of aristocratic duties, military service, here self proclaimed (in the third person of course!) in the famous ditty:
In enterprise of martial kind,
When there was any fighting,
He led his regiment from behind — He found it less exciting.
But when away his regiment ran, His place was at the fore, O —
The Duke of Plaza-Toro!
(The Gondoliers, Act I)
Had he still been alive the real Duke would undoubtedly have been discomforted by his portrayal in a highly successful piece of popular stage entertainment (The Gondoliers had a first run of 554 performances, and is still occasionally performed to this day). Not so much because of any slur against his character – for what we know of the Duke he cared little for that – but more with the general attention it drew to his very existence. He had, after all, spent much of his life carefully avoiding all forms of exposure. What any surviving (and equally elusive) descendents thought of their ancestor’s theatrical representation is not recorded. Although a letter to Gilbert, from his musical partner Arthur Sullivan, does record in passing “a curious incident” in early 1890 when Sullivan was briefly accosted on Brighton Promenade by “a slightly dishevelled fellow” claiming to be the 9th Duke and demanding a share of the opera’s royalties.
So who was the real 5th Duke of Plaza-Toro? There is good deal that is unclear concerning his family history. To begin with, his claim to being the “5th Duke” must be considered highly suspect as the existence of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Dukes cannot be verified at all. Indeed his few ancestors who can be identified with any certainty seem to have picked aristocratic titles out of thin air as it suited them, and none of them ever risked describing themselves as “Duke” while resident in Spain. A thorough search of Spanish archives has revealed none of official documentary evidence required to legitimise the Duke’s claim to grandee status. What are we to make of this? Considering the family’s self proclaimed Catalan origins (all the known family members used Catalan derivations of their names at one time or another) then the Spanish title “Duke” seems rather improbable. By the usual traditions of Catalan aristocratic titles we might better expect that they should all have been called “Counts”.
Our first verifiable encounter with the 5th Duke comes in early 1742, when he appears quite suddenly in Vienna, requesting an interview at the Imperial court. Introducing himself as Xerxes Roig i McVitie and using the Catalan version of his title Duquel de Plaça de Braus, he wished to offer his services to Austria’s embattled Queen Maria Theresa as a “military philosopher” and expert in Ottoman affairs. When Plaça de Braus arrived in Vienna the War of Austrian Succession was in full swing with Austria and Spain on opposite sides of the conflict, so the Duke was understandably at pains to emphasise his Catalan roots rather than his broader Spanish associations. But in spite of these efforts he at first made little impression, except amongst the wits of the Viennese court who dubbed him the Duke of “Saus und Braus” (“Living It Up”) – a pun on the Duke’s title inspired by his rapidly acquired reputation for eager patronage of Vienna’s more notorious ‘Coffee Houses’. Perhaps this verbal barb stung the Duke somewhat because he soon dropped his Catalan tile and adopted its more Spanish derivation – Duque de Plaza de Toro – which was to stay with him for the rest of his life.
The young, Turkish speaking Spanish Duke, with a Catalan family name and a maternal surname that suggested Celtic ancestry, appeared quite exotic to his Austrian contemporaries and the paucity of information concerning his past only served to enhance the air of mystery. There was soon a rash of theories circulating the Viennese court as to Xerxes Roig i McVitie’s true provenance. One suggested his mother had been the illegitimate daughter of an exiled Scottish Jacobite. Another tale, which gained some credence, whispered that the Roig family had first acquired its fortune operating several highly successful houses of ill repute in Barcelona – a lucrative venture which only came to an end when King Philip IV, in a fit of pious prudishness, closed down all the government licensed Spanish brothels in 1623. The validity of this story was once put directly – and rather boldly – to the 5th Duke by the Irish born Austrian general Maximilian Ulysses von Browne during a particularly drunken St Patrick’s Day celebration in Prague. According to one witness the Duke retorted that seeing as the von Browne family claimed direct ancestry going all the way back to Hengist and Horsa (the semi-mythical Anglo-Saxon conquerors of Roman Britain) then “surely anything is possible.” Von Browne quickly changed the subject.
The Duke himself seldom spoke of his forebears. He once claimed his father had been sent to Egypt “to spy on the Mamluks” but did not expand on the circumstances. For almost three decades prior to the Duke’s appearance in Vienna the historical record is all but silent on the activities of the Roig family and any links to either the Plaça de Braus or Plaza de Toro titles. We must go back to Venetian property contracts of the early 1700’s before we find a Catalan by the name of Alaric Roig i Garcia, calling himself Il Marqués di Piazza di Braus. The ‘Marquess’ (if indeed he was) accompanied by a son “Xavier de Braus”, took up residence in Venice sometime before 1707. Their arrival in “The Floating City” and the events immediately leading up to it are as historically enigmatic as the 5th Duke’s arrival in Vienna. However, the one thing we do know about Alaric during his time in Venice is that he was an enthusiastic ambassador for Philip V’s claim to the throne of Spain during the War of Spanish Succession. A claim that Alaric boasted he had played a role in orchestrating as a “close advisor” to Philip’s predecessor, the unfortunately inbred and tragically afflicted King Charles II (known to history as – El Hechizado – “the hexed”).
Remarkably, a study of Spanish archives suggest there might be some truth to Alaric’s boast. His name does occur in the correspondence of the Spanish royal court, which he seems to have been part of as far back as Charles II’s accession in 1665 – although it should also be noted that while in Spain he was calling himself the Vizconde de Plaza de Toro! Any suspicions we may now harbour about the Roig family’s carefree use of titles was shared by Alaric’s fellow courtiers at the Escorial palace. Private mutterings questioning the ‘Viscount’ of Plaza-Toro’s credentials abounded, but no one was tempted to challenge Alaric publicly on account of the close rapport he apparently enjoyed with the King – a relationship gifted to Alaric in his official capacity as ‘Keeper of the Royal Comb’. This was a title normally much coveted by the Spanish court elite because of the intimate and influential access it afforded to the King’s person, but it was universally shunned during Charles II’s reign mostly on account of the king’s notorious lack of personal grooming and hygiene. Alaric, however, seems to have held no such reservations and the position undoubtedly offered security within the highly factionalised Spanish court. It is therefore not surprising to learn that Alaric and Xavier left Spain in some haste following the death of their royal protector in 1700.
But we digress. Might it be possible then to establish a connection between Xerxes Roig i McVitie “the Duke”, and Alaric Roig i Garcia “the Marquess” / “Viscount”, or his son Xavier de Braus? The prospects at first inspection appear unpromising. The final destiny of Alaric, an old man by the time he settled in Venice, is unknown, and an unfortunate fate appears to have awaited his son. From 1710 Xavier de Braus begins to appear on military pay rolls listed as a “Spanish captain” in Venetian service, but in 1715 he is recorded as “lost – feared cruelly executed by the heathen Turk” after the fall of several Venetian fortresses across the Aegean in one of the last great military offensives undertaken by the Ottoman Empire. The trail of evidence might well have ended there but for a chance discovery in the papers of a Russian envoy present at the Ottoman court in 1724 to negotiate the Treaty of Constantinople. Among the official reports sent back to St Petersburg are numerous notes and gossipy observations, including this one concerning –
“…a strange Spanish fellow, who the Turks call “Boğa”, and who I am told advises the Grand Vizier on military matters. He has adopted full Ottoman dress and customs, including – most shockingly for a supposed Christian – the taking of several wives! We are of course not allowed to see the women, but one of my informants says Boğa’s most favoured wife is reputably a freed harem slave of great beauty, flaming red hair and the fairest skin, who is thought to hail from the north western extremities of the British Isles. They have a young son who struts about the court like a proper little Ottoman prince, to the unceasing amusement of our hosts!”
The possibility that “Boğa” (meaning “The Bull” in Turkish) is a literal translation of the Catalan “Braus” or Spanish “Toro” is too tantalising a possibility to ignore, especially when the Russian envoy is quite specific about Boğa’s Spanish nationality. The identity of this man becomes even more intriguing as to his relationship to the 5th Duke when the origins of Boğa’s “most favoured wife” are speculated upon. Could this fair skinned redhead “from the north western extremities of the British Isles” be the McVitie who gave birth to the Duke of Plaza-Toro? The coincidences are most compelling: the Spanish lineage, the Celtic mother, the Duke’s intimate knowledge of Ottoman affairs and his fluency in the language. Surely then the strutting “little Ottoman prince” can be none other than the young 5th Duke himself! And furthermore what is the likelihood that his father Boğa and Xavier de Braus are one in the same, and that Xavier had not expired “cruelly executed” in 1715 as reported, but had managed somehow to ingratiate himself with his Ottoman captors and forge a new career?
So it would seem then, that the de Braus / de Toro family were adept survivors, imbued with a sly intelligence and sense for self preservation that made them difficult to shake off. From his first appearance in 1742 it is clear the young Duke of Plaza-Toro was already well versed in these family traits. Undeterred by the haughty reception he received from the Viennese court Plaza-Toro moved on to offer his services directly to the Austrian army – who were most welcoming once they realised he was a man of considerable financial means. Always under-resourced and on the lookout for potential sponsors, the military authorities enthusiastically wined and dined the Duke around the officers’ clubs of Vienna where he proved to be a popular, if vaguely disreputable guest. An infamous night spent drinking the entire officer corps of the Deutschmeister regiment (notorious carousers in their own right) under the table was the talk of Vienna for many months, and he could always be depended upon for a host of lurid after dinner tales concerning “Ottoman vices” and eye-popping descriptions of the “Eastern ways of love”. When Prince Charles Alexander (Austrian generalissimo and Maria Theresa’s brother-in-law) once described a late evening conversation with Duke as “an education” it was widely assumed they had not been discussing mathematics or philosophy.
In spite of the attention lavished on him by the Austrian military class the Duke was in no hurry. While professing pledges of future support for Queen Maria Theresa’s cause in the war, he also insisted “as a man of military science” that it was essential for him to personally “assess the latest tactical and strategic doctrines”. He promptly departed Vienna and toured around Europe attaching himself to different Austrian and allied army staffs for extended periods as “an observer”. (Maximilian Ulysses von Browne once dryly commented that it was always those army staffs with reputations for particularly good field kitchens). There are various reports of the Duke at several battles and sieges, such as Dettingen in 1743, although it seems he was at pains to avoid the Italian theatre where Spanish armies were campaigning against Austria. He became a familiar figure to Austrian, Hanoverian, British, and Dutch commanders, often seen hovering on the edge of some rapidly convened council of war in a field somewhere or a wayside Inn. He was, we are told, not averse to offering the occasional word of advice in the ear of a general, whether it was welcome or not. The Duke of Cumberland is alleged to have once complained that “The Duke of Plaza-Toro haunts our every move like some awful battlefield spectre.”
So engrossing were Plaza-Toro’s studies that he did not find the time to return to Vienna until sometime after the conclusion of the War of Austrian Succession in 1748. He is known to have twice presented himself at the Viennese court in 1750 but he soon departed on fresh travels “of profound importance” (or more likely, it was rumoured, to avoid the wrath of at least a couple of ‘wronged’ husbands). It is difficult to trace his adventures over the next few years and there are widely diverse sightings of him across Europe, most of which are hard to substantiate, and so outlandish as to be probably false. Certainly not worthy of serious discussion here. What can be confirmed is that the Duke spent some of this time undertaking what he described as “a mission in confidence” on behalf of his friend, the great reformer of the Austrian artillery, Fürst Joseph Wenzel von Liechtenstein. This “mission” involved an extended tour of fortresses and garrison towns across Bohemia, the Austrian Netherlands, Hungary, the Tyrol, and the Danube frontier in order to assess the state of Austria’s defences. Frequently travelling alone, but for a servant or two, Plaza-Toro typically appeared unannounced at some Austrian outpost or other, flourishing a barely legible and much folded ‘letter of introduction’ (apparently signed by Liechtenstein) before imposing himself on the hospitality of the local commander. The duration of the stay then seems to have been proportionally dependent on the quality of his host’s wine cellar.
Plaza-Toro eventually slipped back into Vienna sometime late in 1755 where he was met with little enthusiasm by an army ministry which had grown weary of filing a steady stream of begging letters from out-of-pocket garrison commanders. However, the beginning of the Seven Years War and the ensuing crisis obliged Austria to call upon the services of all her supporters, whatever their reputations, to save them from “Old Fritz” (Frederick the Great). Plaza-Toro was despatched as an ‘ambassador’ to liaise with Austria’s new allies the French, and in the summer of 1757 he joined the staff of the Prince de Soubise’s French army to help coordinate its movements with the approaching Austrian/Imperialist army under the Prince of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The intention was to threaten Frederick from the west in the hope of distracting him from Austria’s frontiers in the east. The Duke did not get off to the best of starts with the French after asking Soubise some indelicate questions about Madame de Pompadour. Within days he was reporting back to Vienna that the French army was “an undisciplined rabble that I greatly fear for, should they encounter Frederick and his Prussians.”
The die, however, had been cast. The now combined Franco-Imperialist army advanced across the River Saale in October to threaten Leipzig, only to be surprised to find Frederick already there with an army to meet them. The allies withdrew, but Frederick followed, despite a marked numerical disadvantage, determined to provoke a decisive engagement. There followed several days of move and counter move as the two armies danced around each other seeking an advantage. Saxe-Hildburghausen and Soubise eventually hatched a plan to outflank the Prussians near the village of Rossbach. Saxe-Hildburghausen wanted to crush the Prussians; Soubise and the French sought a less dramatic outcome – simply to force Frederick to retreat. Frustrated by the lack of French aggression Saxe-Hildburghausen famously remarked “That’s just like you French, isn’t it? When the enemy advance you go back and when we ought to attack you stick fast. You are as bad as Plaza-Toro over there!” Military historians seldom quote this well known fateful statement in full as the reference to Plaza-Toro at the end seems superfluous – but not so to our story. According to the many witnesses Plaza-Toro greeted this provocation in silence and merely raised his hat in mock salute.
The French though were duly scolded, and agreed to Saxe-Hildburghausen’s more aggressive plan, but the allied armies were too slow (held up – as Plaza-Toro had predicted – because a large proportion of French troops were absent marauding across the countryside). By the time the allied march got underway their adversary was alert and watchful. Frederick’s Prussians broke camp in a fraction of the time it had taken the allies and then rapidly relocated to block the allied line of advance, their movements hidden by low hills. Soubise and Saxe-Hildburghausen were quite unaware of the Prussian army’s close proximity until it was too late. Still in their columns of march the French and Imperial armies advanced straight into an ambush on a grand scale, as the massed Prussian cavalry swept over the hill and attacked them head on, closely followed by the serried ranks of the Prussian infantry in full battle array. In less than two hours the allied army was completely routed. Rossbach was a catastrophic defeat for the allies in the west and essentially put an end to any serious threat against Frederick from that quarter for the rest of the Seven Years War. Soubise returned to France and Madame de Pompadour full of excuses; Saxe-Hildburghausen went into shamefaced retirement; Plaza-Toro was back in Vienna within days – in a vexed mood about the loss of some of his baggage.
At this point (late 1757) Plaza-Toro finally threw himself directly into the Austrian war effort; motivated it seems by the death of his old friend and sparring partner von Browne earlier that year at the Battle of Prague. The Duke raised a ‘Legion’ of Freikorps comprising two volunteer infantry battalions and a squadron of “hussars”, all uniformed, equipped and mounted at his own expense. As a body of fighting men they raised some suspicions amongst the Duke’s critics. One observer wrote of them that “…they are always at ease in each other’s company to the point of unseemly familiarity with their officers – including the Duke himself. Yet their happy demeanour changes the instant they are approached by an officer from another regiment or a member of the general’s staff or indeed anyone who might be deemed an ‘outsider’, at which point they fall silent and adopt an unnerving, brooding countenance.” In a later letter the same observer wrote “This evening I found myself close to the tents and fires of Plaza-Toro’s men but found I could understand little of their chatter. I would swear that many of them speak nothing but Turkish!”
Toro’s Freikorps (sometimes called Toro’s Pandours) are however rarely found on any official Austrian order of battle because, as one critic put it, “They seldom arrive on the battlefield at the allotted time or in the required numbers.” This observation is perhaps harsh because as Freikorps their battlefield role would have been peripheral (scouting, raiding, skirmishing etc) but nonetheless Plaza-Toro and his men seem to have pursued martial glory at their own pace. Whereas that most notorious Austrian Freikorps regiment of the time, Trenck’s Pandours, earned an evil reputation for violent banditry and enthusiastic plundering, Toro’s men were characterised by a certain studied casualness bordering on indolence. “Send Toro’s men off into the country on some military enterprise” wrote one member of the Austrian staff “and you will be most fortunate indeed to ever find them again before the campaign is concluded.” Less critical witnesses who actually observed Toro’s Pandours doing any fighting say they fought very well, although some noted a preference for noisy covering actions and fighting withdrawals rather than headlong charges at the enemy. It was this reputation that presumably inspired W. S. Gilbert’s portrayal of the Duke of Plaza-Toro in The Gondoliers, as a man supposedly lacking in physical courage, but whether truth or slander, all we can say is the real Duke served Austria throughout the Seven Years War (1756-1763) without sustaining so much as a scratch.
Of the Duke’s later life we will say little here for now. After the war his Pandours were disbanded (their final departure from camp for their homelands being described as “a long gypsy caravan weighed down with all manner of shiny metal and silks – and all armed to the teeth!”) and the Duke himself appears to have gone into comfortable retirement – possibly acquiring land and a hunting lodge in the Tyrol. However there are conflicting accounts and retirement may not have sat well with Plaza-Toro for he continues to reappear in sketchy accounts of further adventures across Europe and elsewhere right up until his death sometime in the 1790’s. Even this event is something of a mystery. According to one story the Duke of Plaza-Toro expired in the bed of a renowned Russian courtesan while on a secret diplomatic mission in 1797 to persuade Tsar Paul I to declare war on Revolutionary Republican France. He would have been in his late seventies. Other versions claim he was already dead! That he had died a soldier’s death (of all things) in 1793 – struck down on the battlefield of Neerwinden at the moment of crisis in the battle as he was advising Joseph Smola on the precise position to deploy his artillery to smash the French and secure an Austrian victory. His name however does not appear on any Austrian list of ‘notable’ casualties after the battle – so we are left to ponder which of these two stories is the more likely scenario.
Research into this intriguing historical identity will continue, and should any further light be shed on the Duke of Plaza-Toro’s life, or details concerning other members of this enigmatic aristocratic dynasty – we will be sure to pass them on.
The Plaza-Toro Research Committee, 2011