Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Harlech castle

Harlech is one of four mighty castles (along with Beaumaris, Conwy and Caernarfon, all of which I have described in previous entries) built by Edward I in the late 13th century to secure his conquest of Wales. Like the others, Harlech was designed by his master architect and engineer, James of St. George, and cost the equivalent of many millions of pounds in today's money, but unlike the others it was built very quickly; in just seven years, between 1283 and 1290.
   This photograph, taken from a postcard, shows the immensely strong position chosen by Master James. It stands on an outcrop of rock, with the sea to the west (the direction from which this was taken). There is a moat and a low outer wall, with the only entry being from the east, where the modern town is situated.

The castle is in the form of an inner courtyard, or bailey, almost square in shape, with four massive round towers at the corners. Within the bailey were placed the great hall and other buildings.
The dominant feature of the castle is the massive gatehouse on the eastern wall. Its walls are up to 12 feet thick, and the entrance is guarded by twin cylindrical towers, between which would be several different gates and portcullises. Their impact on the visitor is impressive even today 

The gatehouse is entered by staircases from the bailey.

The view down from the west. When the castle was built, these precipitous steps led down to the sea, and there would have been boats at the bottom, so in emergencies the castle could have been supplied from the sea. The sea has retreated since then and is now on the far side of the railway line.

The Northern wall provides a view all the way up the coast to the Lleyn peninsula, showing once again the strategic value of the site.


Harlech's defences were soon tested by the Welsh prince Madog ap Llewellyn in 1294, and proved their worth when a garrison of just 37 men successfully repelled the assault. But then over the next century the magnificent fortress was allowed to decay, and is described in cotemporary sources as "weak and ruinous". At the start of the 15th century it was besieged by Owain Glyndwr, and although he was not able to take it by storm, he eventually starved the garrison ito surrender. Owain then made Harlech his headquarters in his campaign to free Wales from English rule. However, in 1409 King Henry IV sent a strong force which was able to retake Harlech. Owain managed to evade capture, but the days of his power were gone.

The stirring partiotic song, "Men of Harlech", which serves as virtually an alternative Welsh national anthem, was first published in 1830, but was probably much older. Various English translations have appeared since then, and can be heard on youtube.  

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Playing Cards, part 4: colourful packs

I have been collecting playing cards for around fifty years. This pack, from Sweden, is one of the first I had. It shows famous Kings and Queens of Sweden, with soldiers of the appropriate era as the Jacks.

This next pack was made by Piatnik of Vienna for the anniversay of Shakespeare's birth, and features the Wars of the Roses,with the red suits as the Lancastrians and the black as the Yorkists; so we have Henry VI as King of Hearts, Henry VII as King of Diamonds, Edward IV as King of Spades and Richard III as King of Clubs, togther with their Queens and ministers or soldiers. The Jokers are executioners! The modern suits hace been ingeniously fused with the old tarot suits of Cups, Swords, Money and Clubs. 

This is another pack I bought back in thee 1960s, which features English Kings, Queens and famous people. It was produced by Piatnik: the quality of the printing is amazing!

Another very beautifully-printed pack, this one by Fournier, featuring the native peoples of North and South America.

There are many packs featuring the two World Wars. This is a French pack illustrating the armies of the Western Front in the First World War, with the Kings as generals (Foch, Hindenburg, Haig and Pershing), the Queens as nurses and the Jacks as soldiers ("Fantassins" in French)

These are from a pack called "Jacob's Bible Cards", with names given in English and Hebrew.

And to end on a light-hearted note: the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, with a different girl on each card! 

Nowadays a great many packs like these can be found, and they are cheap and colourful things to collect.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Playing Cards, part 3: Political Packs

In England of the late 17th and early 18th centuries there was a craze for packs of cards illustrating some famous event, with a different picture on each card. Here are some examples. All are taken from modern reproductions, since the originals are extremely rare.

These cards are from a pack called "The Knavery of the Rump", produced soon after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. (The "Rump" was the nickname given to the House of Commons after the expulsion of all the anti-Cromwellian members)

 The cards constantly denounce or ridicule Cromwell and his friends and military commanders, often drawing attention to their humble origins, sometimes inaccurately. Thus, the Seven of Clubs shows Major-General Thomas Harrison, who was in fact a lawyer, not a carpenter. Harrison was a "Fifth Monarchy" man; believing from prophesies in the Book of Daniel that Christ was shortly to return to earth and initiate the "Rule of the Saints". Harrison was hanged, drawn and quartered after the restoration. I particularly like the Four of Spades, with the Earl of Argyle, chief of Clan Campbell, described as "A muckle Scotch knave in gude faith sir"!


The next set is entitled "Marlborough's Victories", and celebrates England's triumph, led by the great Duke of Marlborough, over the French in the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13) in the reign of Queen Anne. (It is worth remembering that this was the first major successful war that England had fought on the continent since the Middle Ages). The cards are in no particular sequence, and feature battles, famous incidents and leading personalities, and also make propaganda points. Anne is shown triumphing over Louis XIV of France, and also over the Pope, as on the Six of Clubs and the Ace (One) of Hearts 
The Five of Spades, where the devil is shown knocking together the heads of King Louis and the Pope, makes a crude reference to the fact that Louis, at the age of well over seventy, had had to undergo an operation for an anal fistula. The Knave of Hearts shows a government official embezzling money intended for the army. A spectator exclaims, "Oh rogue!", to which the official responds, "I am not the first!", and the lines underneath invite the reader to reflect whether he would have behaved any differently,given the opportunity.  Finally the Knave of Diamonds shows three nations each fighting for what each loves: The Frenchman exclaims, "Ambition!", the Englishman, running him through, exclaims, "Honour!", and the Dutchman, scrabbling on the ground between them, "Money!"


This card is from a pack of 1720, illustrating the "South Sea Bubble"; the world's first-ever stoack exchange "boom and bust". Each card illustrates some ludicrous prospect offered to gullible investors, with an appropriate verse underneath.
This one concerns one of the oddest invention of the time: "Puckle's Machine Gun", which was to fire round bullets against Christians and square ones against Turks. The verse below reads:-
   "A rare invention to destry the crowd
    Of fools at home instead of foes abroad:
    Fear not, my friends, this terrible machine,
    They're only wounded that have shares therein".


The nearest approach to these in my collection is this series, produced in the U.S.A. around 1970, with a different political figure on every card. The black suits are Republicans, the red suits Democrats.
Here we see President Nixon as King of Spades, Henry Kissinger as a puppet-master pulling the strings, Billy Graham with his flock, and Ronald Reagan (then Governor of California) jumping on a hippy. Below are Jane Fonda as Joan of Arc, Mayor Daley of Chicago (the ultimate "machine" politician, George Wallace of Alabama as a cop, and Teddy Kennedy as the would-be King Arthur, completely failing to pull the sword from the stone.

Nowadays a great many commemorative packs of cards are produced. They are colourful and inexpensive things to collect.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas everyone!


A mediaeval nativity scene. I love the baby Jesus stroking the animals, Mary looking suitably exhausted and the helpful angel filling a bath. The artist must have had great fun painting this!

Friday, 9 December 2016

Playing Cards, Part 2: The Origins of the English Pack

Here's a test of observation. You'll have seen these four Kings from a pack of cards literally thousands of times, and they're always the same, no matter which company manufactured them. So can you recognise which King is which, now I've removed the suit symbols? The answer will emerge later.
But how did they come to look like this? 
We saw in the first part of this essay how the four suits with which we are familiar appeared in France, probably in the 14th century, and the design of French court cards has changed little over the centuries. Our court cards copied the French system in having a King, Queen and Servant (called a Knave until the 20th century, but now better known as a Jack), followed by 10 pip cards.


The design of the English court cards  derive from a pack produced in the French city of Rouen in 1567. This is a rather crude modern reproduction of the four Kings from this pack:-      

By the end of the 17th century, English cardmakers had reduced these Kings to a more abstract form, though the derivation is obvious:-

These cards have been immortalised in Alexander Pope's mock-heroic description of a card game in "The Rape of the Lock". The game being played is called "Ombre", a game for three players, with one suit being trumps and tricks being taken, as in Whist or Bridge. Pope does not describe the King of Hearts, but the King of Diamonds is:-

    "Th' embroidered King, who shows but half his face"

 He is always the only King in profile, on British, French and German packs. The King of Spades is described in more detail:-

    "With his broad sabre next, a chief in years,
      The hoary Majesty of Spades appears,
      Puts forth one manly leg, to sight revealed,
      The rest, his many-coloured robe concealed"

It it clearly the King shown above who is being described.
   Finally, we have a mock-heroic description of how the King of Clubs is trumped by the Queen of Spades:-

    "The Club's black tyrant first her victim died,
      Spite of his haughty mien, his barbarous pride:
      What boots the regal circle on his head,
      His giant limbs, in state unwieldy spread,
      That long behind he trails his pompous robe,
      And, of all monarchs, only grasps the globe?"

The King of Clubs is still the only King to have an orb, though nowadays it usually floats unsupported in front of him. Only in the pack which Alfred Cook used to make for Woolworth's did the King of Clubs retain some vestigial fingers under his orb! 
  
    In the 19th century the court cards "lost their legs" and were turned upside down. It's easy to work out why this happened. With only one suit symbol on each card, a player who was dealt his court cards "legs upward" would have to turn them around to find the symbol, thus giving important information about his cards to his opponents!

So our court cards evolved, as shown here, left to right, from 16th century France to late 17th century England to the present day, becoming evermore less lifelike and more diagrammatic. These are three of the Kings, but the Queens and Jacks followed exactly the same path.
.



The King of Hearts has had his rather inappropriate little tomahawk changed to a sword held behind his head - though it clearly has a very short blade!

There is just one more curious detail to add, concerning the Ace of Spades, traditionally the highest card in the pack (as indeed it was in Alexander Pope's Ombre game). In the 18th century there was an excise duty levied on every pack of cards, which was enforced by means of a government duty stamp placed on the Ace of Spades. Here is an example from a 20th century pack:-
In 1805 there was even a case in which an unfortunate man named Richard Harding was sentenced to be hanged for forging the Ace of Spades!


Thursday, 1 December 2016

Playing Cards:Part 1: Their History and Geography

The earliest European playing cards which survive belonged to King Charles VI of France. In 1392 a painter called Jacquemin Gringonneur was paid for "Three games of cards, in gold and divers colours, ornamented with many devices, for the diversion of our lord the King". A few of these cards still survive: they formed part of a tarot pack.

These are cards from a modern reproduction of a slightly later tarot pack, produced in Marseilles in the 16th century. (All the pictures in this essay are of cards in my collection)
There are 78 cards in a tarot pack. The four suits are Cups, Swords, Money and Clubs, each of which have ten pip cards and four court cards: the King, Queen, Knight and Servant, making 14 cards in each suit. In addition there one card, "Le Mat" with value zero, who is clearly the ancestor of the modern Joker, and 21 "Atouts". These include such cards as the Sun, Moon and Stars, the Emperor and the Pope, and abstract virtues like Strength and Temperance. Death is, of course, number 13. Some are highly mysterious: there is a Lady Pope, "La Papesse", a Hanged Man, "Le Pendu" and "La Maison Dieu", which in mediaeval French meant a hospital, but which is always depicted as a tower struck by lightning.   

There are games which can be played with tarot packs, but nowadays they are mostly used for fortune-telling. Many magicians design their own tarot packs, and often alter them after their own ideas: the suits of Money and Clubs are changed to Pentangles and Wands, the Pope and Papesse becomes the Hierophant and High Priestess, and so forth.

There are strong grounds for believing that present-day cards derive from the tarot pack. In Spain and Italy the four tarot suits have been retained, and the Queen has been dropped from the court cards, leaving the King, Knight and Servant. This is from a modern Spanish pack:-

and one from Italy. It will be noticed that there are only 12 cards in each suit, with 9 pip cards; the Servant being number 10, the Knight 11 and the King 12. Spaniards and Italians thus cannot play whist or bridge with their native packs!

There are charmingly different suits in central Europe, such as Acorns, Daisies, Leaves, Bells and Shields; and the court cards feature an "Ober" who holds his suit symbol up, and an "Under" who holds it down. Here are a couple of examples:-



The pack of cards with which we are familiar today has its origins in France, probably some time in the 15th century. The French card-makers eliminated the Knight from the tarot pack, leaving a suit of 13 cards with the court cards of King, Queen and Servant (called the Valet in a French pack). The four suits became Coeurs (Hearts), Piques (Pikes, or Spear-heads), Carreaux (Tiles) and Trefles (Clover-leaves). These pictures are a modern reproduction of a French pack from the early 19th century:-



An unusual feature of the French pack is that the court cards all have individual names. The Kings are called Charles (Charlemagne), David (with the harp), Cesar and Alexandre; the Queens are Judith, Pallas, Rachel and Argine; and the Valets are famous warriors: La Hire, Hogier, Hector and Lancelot. (In case you are struggling to remember a Queen with the name of Argine, it is merely an anagram of the Latin "Regina"! I have no idea why)
   The only change in a modern French pack is that the court cards have "lost their legs". They retain their names, albeit partially obliterated by the suit symbol, and King David still has his harp. 

The French system was followed in Germany, where, as can be seen below, the court cards are by far the most beautiful in the world. They are no longer named, though "David" retains his harp and "Caesar" wears a laurel-wreath:-

The French system was also followed in England, and indeed is now familiar throughout the world, though the names of the suits were changed. Hearts remained Hearts, and it is easy to see how Carreaux became Diamonds; but the suit we call Spades is still obviously a Spear-head, and the fourth symbol remains obstinately a Clover-leaf, with no resemblance to a Club at all. Perhaps this is a reversion to the old tarot name for the suit?
 It will also be noticed that in the French and German packs only one King is shown in profile, and, as in British packs, it is the King of Diamonds.

How the British pack reached its present appearance will be explained in the second part of this essay, to follow shortly.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Quiz: Kings and Battles

What battle is linked with the reign of each of these English Kings?


Kings:-

Edward III   
George III
Henry III
Richard III
William III


Battles:-

Agincourt
Blenheim
Bosworth
Evesham
Flodden
Killiecrankie
Poitiers
Naseby
Saratoga
St. Albans

(To make it a little more difficult, I have given more battles than kings!)