Thursday, 31 May 2012

Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Second Crusade

“History always repeats itself: the first time is tragedy, the second time is farce” - Karl Marx

There is only one instance of a crusade being part-led by a woman, and this woman was one of the most extraordinary characters of the Middle Ages: Eleanor of Aquitaine.
She was born in 1122, the eldest daughter of William, Duke of Aquitaine, the immensely rich ruler of a vast domain in the south-west of France. This was the time of the great "Twelfth-century Renaissance", when it was increasingly no longer sufficient for noblemen to be illiterate warlords, and the ducal court at Poitiers was a a home for troubadours. The Dukes of Aquitaine could trace their ancestry back for many generations, and tended to regard the Kings of France as uncultured provincial upstarts. Eleanor was taught to read, and her father wrote poetry.
Eleanor's grandfather, another William, had not initially taken part in the First Crusade, where his powerful neighbour, Raymond, Count of Toulouse, had been one of the leaders. Two years after the capture of Jerusalem, William had taken out a reinforcing expedition, but it had met with disaster: most of his troops had been massacred by the Turks, though William himself had managed to reach the Holy City before returning home. He died when Eleanor was only four years old, but the court at Poitiers must have been full of stories of “Outremer” the land beyond the sea, where crusading lords, who were mostly French, now lived in fabulous luxury unknown at home, ruling the places where Christ had once walked. No doubt the young girl was fascinated.

When Eleanor was 15, her father died. He left no son to succeed him, so Eleanor became the heiress to the province of Aquitaine. The King of France, Louis VI, (known as “Louis the Fat”), saw the dynastic possibilities, and was quick to arrange a marriage between Eleanor and his own son, another Louis, who was just a year older, thus bringing this region, amounting to as much as a quarter of present-day France, under direct royal control for the first time. The young couple had only been married a few weeks when King Louis died, and Eleanor found herself Queen of France.
The marriage proved to be disastrously unsatisfactory for both parties. The new King Louis VII had not expected to become King; he was the second son of his father and was intended for a career in the Church, but became heir to the throne at the death of his elder brother in 1131. In truth Louis always seemed more interested in religion than in ruling: he spent much of his time praying and doing penance; and although personally brave, proved an ineffective strategist and commander. Under his leadership the government of the French kingdom was weak, with anarchy and civil war always threatening. Eleanor soon became tired of him, and of life in Paris, which compared with the glorious south was poor, dirty, cold and culturally backward. Furthermore she failed in her principal duty as Queen: after several years of marriage, she had not produced a son and heir, having given birth only to a daughter. But the personal problems of Louis and Eleanor were soon overshadowed by grave news from Palestine.

The main reason for the success of the First Crusade had been divisions amongst Moslems. The local emirs were always feuding with each other, and the Turks and Egyptians hated each other as bitterly as they hated the crusaders; a hatred exacerbated by the fact that in the eyes of most Moslems, the rulers of Egypt were Shia heretics. But this situation was soon to change.
The Turkish ruler of Mosul and Aleppo was Zanghi, nicknamed “Zanghi the Bloody”. Ferociously brutal even by the standards of the time; the savagery of his punishments was much remarked on by contemporary Moslem writers. Now in his sixties, he had fought many times against the crusaders. At Christmas 1144 he attacked Edessa, beyond the Euphrates, the most easterly of the Crusader states. Count Jocelyn, who was supposed to be in charge there, had gone away for the festivities, leaving the city inadequately garrisoned and provisioned. Zanghi captured Edessa, slaughtering the men and enslaving the women. This was the Moslems’ first real success over the crusaders, and the Caliph in Baghdad rewarded Zanghi with the title, “Ornament of Islam”. He did not long enjoy his triumph, because shortly afterwards he was stabbed to death by a eunuch whilst in a drunken stupor. His son, Nur ad-Din, less brutal but no less determined, succeeded him and vowed to continue a jihad against the Franks. He had some able lieutenants, notably two Kurdish brothers, Asad ad-Din Shirkuh and Najm ad-Din Ayub. The latter’s son, born in 1138, was destined to become the greatest of all the opponents of the crusaders; known in the west as Saladin.
Jerusalem was currently under control of a woman, Melisande, widow of King Baldwin II and acting regent for her young son Baldwin III. She decided to appeal to the west for help; directing her appeal specifically to undisputed leader of western Christendom: Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux

Bernard had been born in 1090, from a noble Burgundian family. He entered the abbey of Citeaux in 1113, but then left to create his own abbey, Clairvaux, where he stayed till his death in 1153, soon after which he was proclaimed a saint. He must have been a truly extraordinary figure. His ulcerated body resembled a walking skeleton from all the fasting and penances he inflicted on himself, he was barely able to eat, and was filthy from the hair-shirt which he never removed; but his marvellous voice moved thousands when he preached. He adjudicated between two rival candidates for the Papacy in 1131 and sponsored the election of Eugenius II as Pope in 1143; he condemned the rationalist ideas of great scholar and teacher Peter Abelard, but fearlessly denounced kings who resisted church reform. On one memorable occasion he had, by sheer force of personality, compelled Eleanor’s father to fall prostrate before him.

It took time for news of the Edessa disaster to reach Europe, but near the end of 1145 Pope Eugenius wrote to King Louis urging him to lead new crusade. There was little initial enthusiasm: no kings had ventured on the First Crusade and many royal advisors feared anarchy in France if king was absent. But at Easter 1146, Bernard preached the need for a Second Crusade to vast public gathering: it was a Christian duty to protect the Holy Land, and remission of sins guaranteed. Bernard’s eloquence won over King Louis and many of his nobles. Eleanor was also determined to go, doubtless welcoming a bit of excitement in her dreary marriage, and also having her own family reasons: her uncle Raymond, whom she remembered and liked from her childhood, was now ruling Antioch, having married Constance, the granddaughter and heiress of the famous crusader leader Bohemond. In 1147 Pope Eugenius came to Paris and presented the sacred banner of France, the red and gold Oriflamme, to King Louis. England was paralysed by the civil war between King Stephen and the rival claimant for the crown, his cousin Matilda, but when Bernard preached in western Germany, he won over the Emperor Conrad III to the crusade.

Both the French and German contingents decided to follow the land route, down the Danube and through Bulgaria to Constantinople, then across Turkey to Antioch. The Germans, ill-led and undisciplined, set out first, beginning their crusade with a massacre of Jews in the Rhineland, to the disgust of Bernard, who denounced it. They then created mayhem all the way across central Europe, before arriving in Constantinople in late summer 1147. The Byzantine Emperor Manuel did not want them, having long pursued a reasonably successful policy of playing off Moslem princes against each other, and after much trouble he persuaded the crusaders to ship across to Asia in September. The French arrived a few weeks later, crossing lands already ravaged by the Germans, and were also shipped across.
     By the time the French began their march across Asia Minor, Conrad’s Germans had already been trapped and massacred by the Turks near Dorylaeum, but the French only knew this when Conrad and a few ragged survivors turned up on a retreat back to Constantinople. Despite this most unpromising beginning, Louis decide to press on. The French marched south and east, without Byzantine guides, sometimes getting completely lost, and then winter set in, bringing hunger and disease. Discipline broke down and the army split up into separate groups. In mid-January 1148, Louis with the rearguard was ambushed by Turks in mountains north of Antalya. Louis managed to fight his way out and was one of the very few to escape. His courage in battle was never in doubt, and for once his personal piety and modesty helped him. He was dressed as a simple knight, with none of the accoutrements of royalty, with the result that the Turks did not realize he was the king, and made little effort to stop him getting away. The remnant of the army escaped to Antalya on the coast, only to find that there were not enough ships to evacuate them all, and then plague broke out. Finally, Louis, Eleanor and some followers took ship to Antioch, leaving the rest of army behind, where most of them died; though it was reported that a great many converted to Islam in order to save their lives.

What was left of the royal party reached Antioch in March 1148. Eleanor was delighted to find the city a great and civilised place; so much better than Paris! She was equally delighted to meet her uncle Raymond again. Louis, it goes without saying, did not approve of the oriental lifestyle at all. Raymond now suggested that the crusaders should join him in an expedition against Nur ad-Din in Aleppo, before he became too powerful. This made good strategic stress, but Louis vetoed it. He was eager to push on to Jerusalem, and also felt a dark suspicion that his wife and uncle Raymond were becoming altogether too close. Eleanor was now determined on annulment of the marriage, on the grounds of consanguity, but Louis put the matter off by saying he would have to consult the lords and bishops of France. They set off southwards for Jerusalem.
    Predictably, Louis loved the Holy City, and Eleanor did not. What should the crusade do now? After much debate between the new arrivals, King Baldwin and the Templars, it was decided to attack Damascus. This made no sense whatsoever. The Emir of the city was causing no trouble, he was afraid of Nur ad-Din and wished only to live at peace with the crusaders. Furthermore, the campaign was conducted with considerable ineptitude. The crusaders, reaching Damascus in midsummer 1148, cunningly set up camp in an area without water supplies, imposed an ineffective siege for a month, and then, hearing that Nur ad-Din’s army was approaching, gave up and retreated, suffering heavily casualties from Saracen raiders as they pulled out, amidst much bickering and accusations of treason and bribery. The campaign served only to boost Moslem morale, and 1154 the previously neutral Damascus was taken without a fight by Nur ad-Din when the current Emir died.
Louis insisted on staying in Jerusalem till April 1149, when he and Eleanor sailed for home on different ships. On reaching Sicily, they met more tragic news: uncle Raymond in Antioch, riding out against Nur ad-Din, had been killed along with almost all his men.
    So ended the spectacularly inglorious Second Crusade. One cannot but reiterate Karl Marx's comment, given at the top of this piece. He was writing about the French Emperor Napoleon III in the 19th century, but it applies just as well to the expedition of Louis VII, six hundred years earlier.

(There will be more about Eleanor in my next entry. An interesting sidelight on the logistical problems can be found in Tim Severin's book, "Crusader", where he follows on horseback the route of the crusaders from the Rhine to Jerusalem. Even in the modern age he encounters great difficulties in the journey)

Friday, 18 May 2012


Some years ago I was one of a party of tourists, mostly British, sailing from Athens to the island of Aigina, a few miles to the south. The chief attraction of the island is the temple of Aphaia,

but since this is on top of a hill seven miles inland from Aigina port, transport is needed. So we all dutifully queued up to wait for the little bus that shuttled tourists up to the temple, but when the bus arrived, a party of Germans appeared from nowhere, pushed ahead of the Brits and filled the bus, leaving us all behind. While we waited for the next bus, some Japanese appeared and quietly queued behind us. When that came, a little old Japanese lady tottered to the front, and of course we politely let her on first. But what we failed to notice was that she was carrying an array of cameras, which she then placed around on seats to book them for her friends. I am sorry to report none of us had the nerve to kick them onto the floor, and as a result the Brits ended up standing all the way to the temple. Undoubtedly we Brits deserved full marks for politeness, but at the same time I felt the episode illustrated why we often lose out in world markets.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Gymnastics: the Golden Age

In the 1970s and 1980s I was fortunate enough to have a press pass which got me admission to report on all the main gymnastics events in Britain and Europe. I would regard this period as being the golden age of the sport. Almost all the most famous acrobatic moves of the sport originated then, there was excellent media coverage, Britain hosted several elite competitions, and a display team from the Soviet Union performed at the old Wembley arena every year. We saw all the top stars: Tourishcheva and Korbut, Comaneci and Ungureanu, Andrianov and Detyatin, Kurt Thomas and Kathy Johnson. But I always enjoyed watching the Russian girls the most. Here are a few pictures I took of them which hold particular nostalgia.

This is the women's section of the Soviet display team at Wembley, autumn 1976:- Davidova, Korbut, Grozdova, Koval, Kim, Tourishcheva, Saadi. Truly a world-beating combination!

This team won the overall competition at the 1981 World Championships in Moscow:- Ilyenko, Polevaya, Sakharova, Davidova, Filatova, Bicherova. All of them except Polevaya also won individual medals.

Olga Korbut, the girl who started it all, in London at the 1973 European Championships. She had to drop out halfway through with an ankle injury.

Vladislav Rostorotsky, one of the greatest coaches of all time, shows off two of his protegees; Shaposhnikova and Yurchenko.

The displays always started with a group warm-up routine. Shown here: Grozdova, Filatova and Davidova, but I'm not sure of the identity of the girl at centre back. Can anyone help?

Nelli Kim performs a turn on top bar. In those days the bars were positioned much closer together than now.

Elvira Saadi: surely one of the most graceful of all gymnasts

Olga Bicherova, winner of the All-Around individual title at the 1981 World Championships. She was exceptionally tiny, even for a gymnast, and many of us suspected she was really too young to be allowed to compete!

Maria Filatova practises on beam

and Natalia Shaposhnikova performs an alarming single-hand balance

whereas Svetlana Grozdova turns to smile at us, just to show how easy it is.

Maria Filatova and Natalia Ilyenko peruse the latest edition of the British gymnastics magazine. I like to think they were looking at an article I wrote about Filatova!

A charming informal grouping from 1979. How many of these girls can you identify? And where are they all now?

(See also, my piece on going to Moscow for the 1981 World Championships; and for the the 1983 World Championships, the piece on Budapest: both listed under "Travel")


A book on mythology which I read recently put forward the interesting argument that what matters in primitive religious belief is the performance of ritual. Strict observance of ritual appeases the gods, and protects the performer against malevolent fate. I am sure this is a correct assessment. It can be seen, for instance, in the way in which Norman warlords would commit the most barbaric acts, but be confident that going through the ritual of confession and absolution would wipe away the sin, and leave them free to be equally barbaric the next day. They seldom allowed the profession of Christianity to alter their conduct in any way. Then, every few centuries, Saint Francis or Martin Luther (or for that matter, Jesus himself) comes along and says, "No mere observance of ritual can bring salvation! What matters is God in your heart!" Everything is stirred up, but after a while it is found that new rituals have grown up to replace the old.

Ritual clearly fulfils some deep need in the human psyche, and there is no doubt that the performance of an impressive and elaborate ceremonial can induce feelings of awe in the actors as well as the spectators. Magic and superstition are strongly linked with ritualistic behaviour: for instance, some sportsmen always go through such rituals as always putting the right shoe on first. If the ritual has not been performed correctly, they feel uneasy and are thus likely to perform poorly; and so the whole procedure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Robert Graves, in his writings on mythology, suggested that kings have always had a quasi-religious function,and in consequence become increasingly hedged around by ceremonial rituals and prohibitions, with the result that less and less time is left for actual governing, and actual power has to be exercised elsewhere. As early as the mid-19th century Walter Bagehot therefore distinguished between the "efficient" side of the British constitution (the Prime Minister and the Cabinet), and the monarchy, which was merely ceremonial.

At the time of writing, Britain appears gripped by an entirely synthetic piece of elaborate ritual, namely the Olymic torch ceremony. This is wholly without antique tradition, having been invented by the Nazis for the 1936 Berlin Games, and become more and more elaborate with every passing Olympiad. One cannot but admire Dr. Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda chief, for his penetrating if cynical insight into human nature. He was obviously right in assessing that this was just the sort of bogus-historical ritual that people would fall for. If we really wanted to follow the ancient Greek ritual, we would open the Olympics by sacrificing a hundred oxen to Zeus: but I suspect this would be a step too far even for Goebbels!

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Ashenden, by Somerset Maugham

This is a series of stories about Ashenden, a British agent during the First World War. Maugham tells us in his introduction that the book is based on his own experiences in the Intelligence Department, "rearranged for the purposes of fiction". Maugham defends this approach by arguing that in fiction, events can be made far more sequential and coherent than things usually are in real life, but it does mean that we are never quite certain how far the stories he tells actually occurred. As we would expect from Maugham, the book is beautifully written: his excellence as an author has rather been forgotten nowadays.
Most of the stories are set in neutral Switzerland, where Ashenden is based, though in the last story he finds himself in Petrograd at the time of the Bolshevik seizure of power in autumn 1917, but fails to make any impact on the course of events (which presumably mirrors Maugham's own experiences). In some of the stories not very much happens, but two of them stand out by being distinctly sombre. In one, Ashenden cold-bloodedly manipulates a woman in order to get her to betray her lover, an Indian nationalist agitator who has thrown in his lot with the Germans. In another, in even darker vein, his target is an Englishman living in Switzerland who is suspected of being in the pay of Germany. Ashenden eventually deceives him into venturing onto French soil, so he can be arrested and shot. This is not made any more palatable for Ashenden by the fact that he actually likes Caypor, the target, and his wife. When he receives the information that Caypor has duly been executed, Ashenden reflects that personal feelings must not be allowed to have any bearing on his work, but even so he is unable to stop himself thinking of the reality of a firing-squad:-
"He remembered a dreadful scene. Dawn. A cold, grey dawn, with a drizzling rain falling. A man, blindfolded, standing against a wall, an officer very pale giving an order, a volley, and then a young soldier, one of the firing party, turning round and holding on to his gun for support, vomiting. The officer turned paler still, and he, Ashenden, feeling dreadfully faint. How terrified Caypor must have been! It was awful when the tears ran down their faces ...."
Did Maugham himself witness such an execution, or did someone describe it to him? Or is it purely a product of his imagination? In any case, we are certainly a long way from James Bond's casual attitude towards death, are we not?