The tiny Principauté de Monaco is one of the world’s best known city states. The Casino de Monte Carlo, opened in 1865, and the Grand Prix, first held in 1929, which sees cars scythe through the narrow streets, have indisputably cemented its status as a leading destination for many of Europe’s most glamorous. Monaco is also notable, however, in that it is still ruled by a monarch – Prince Albert II, who ascended to the throne in 2005. Albert holds his position by virtue of his status as patriarch of the Grimaldi family, who have ruled over the city since the 15th Century. The story of how this came to pass however, owes its origins to a fateful night on 8 January 1297, where the rock of Monaco was seized in a petty Genoese political spat.
The rock of Monaco has always held an important strategic position on account of its 62-metre-high monolith which provides an excellent vantage point over both the Mediterranean sea and the surrounding countryside. The area was a colony for the Phoecian Greeks of Marseille, named Monoikos (after the temple Hercules Monoikos). Via the Latin Monoecus, this is the root of the modern name Monaco.
The traditional attributes of Hercules – strength and protection – can similarly be applied to the rock of Monaco. The geographical composition of the rock provides a safe, natural harbour in which boats could land and, to this day, the port is named Port Hercule after the Greek hero. After the Greeks, control of Monaco passed to the Romans. Suzerainty of the rock passed through several rulers over the following centuries before it was finally granted to the Ligurian capital, Genoa, by Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI in 1191.
The significance of Monaco to Genoa in the succeeding two centuries must be understood through the paradigm of the political conflict ravaging northern Italy at the time. During the latter part of the 12th Century, Frederick Barbarossa, the Holy Roman Emperor, attempted to reassert imperial control over his provinces in the north of Italy. This concerned many of the locals, who strongly valued their autonomy within the empire. Pope Alexander III was similarly worried, as he feared a possible rollback of the powers granted to the papacy by the Concordat of Worms in 1122. In Florence, this faction, which opposed Barbarossa’ centralisation of the Empire and supported the papacy, called itself the Guelphs. The pro-imperial faction in turn christened themselves the Ghibellines, in honour of the Emperor’s ancestral castle at Waiblingen. This distinction also spread to Genoa, where politics was dominated, as in much of Italy, by conflict between the papal and imperial factions.
In 1257, the Guelphic Fieschi family, dominant in Genoese politics, were overthrown in a democratic revolution dominated by Ghibelline ideals. Five years later, they would return to power in Genoa, assisted by the up-and-coming Grimaldi family, who in doing so established themselves as a bastion of the Genoese Guelphs. Their rule over the city, however, was short lived, and in 1270 the two families were once again turfed out by their Ghibelline rivals. By 1297, the Grimaldi family were fighting for control over Genoa in a military fashion, and consequently the rock of Monaco, so strategically valuable for centuries beforehand, became a key aspect of their strategy to regain the city.
In addition to its geographical advantages, the rock of Monaco had been fortified by the Genoese Ghibellines, who in 1215 began construction of a fortress to sit atop the rock. The situation for the Grimaldis was simple. Whoever controlled the castle controlled Monaco.
Events came to a head on the night of 8 January 1297, when Francesco Grimaldi, posing as a Franciscan friar, gained entry to the fortress. Once inside, he was able to open the gates and allow through the band of men he had brought with him, led by his cousin Rainier, who stormed the castle and handed it over to Francesco. The Grimaldis now controlled the rock at Monaco, and when Francesco died in 1309, he passed it to the aforementioned Rainier, now Rainier I, Lord of Monaco, whose descendant rule Monaco to this day.
The significance of this outlandish expedition to the Grimaldi family cannot be understated. The supporters of the Grimaldi coat of arms are two monks, hoods removed, brandishing swords, representing the method by which access was gained in 1297. The event is seen as crucial in securing Grimaldi control over Monaco and has even entered common vernacular in the form of idiom. The French saying “L’habit ne fait pas le moine,” idiomatically translated as “never judge a book by its cover”, literally means “the hood does not make the monk,” referencing the deception used by Francesco to gain entry and allow his men to seize control of Monaco for the Grimaldis.
Following its capture, the fortress was turned into a base for Guelphic manoeuvres against the Ghibellines in Genoa. The Grimaldi power base in the area was further consolidated by Rainier’s grandson, Rainier II, who conquered the neighbouring communes of Menton in 1346 and Roquebrune nine years later. Control of these two communes returned to France due to the Franco-Monegasque Treaty of 1861. Nevertheless, the importance of the rock meant that it continued to be a hotspot of conflict throughout the 14th Century, being captured and retaken multiple times following the first changeover in 1297. Finally, Jean I (a Grimaldi) formally bought the territory from the Crown of Aragon in 1419, and his family became undisputed feudal lords over the territory. This control was elevated to a sovereign principality in the 1600s by Honoré II and, barring a brief interlude during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire, the Grimaldis have ruled the rock continuously since then.
The fortress today is very different from that which was stormed by Grimaldi forces in 1297. During the 16th Century, widespread building works were undertaken by the Lords of Monaco to transform the military-oriented fortress into a grand palace which still stands today as the Palais Princier, from where the day-to-day business of running the principality takes place. The country meanwhile has undergone a rapid development over the last 150 years into one of the most popular spots on the French riviera, all of which is overlooked by the infamous rock. Although the fortress in its original form no longer exists, its legacy lives on as the source of the Grimaldi’s control over their state, which still exists as one of Europe’s few remaining reminders of a bygone age of princely fiefs.