Wednesday, 27 July 2011


"The most frightening experience I ever had", said Nigel, "was when I was a student, living in lodgings in a scruffy part of town. I woke up in the middle of the night and found a man sitting on the end of my bed. It was too dark to see clearly, but it looked like he had a knife. He asked me, "Where's the drugs, then?" I was terrified"
"Did you think he was a burglar or a policeman?" asked Martin. "Because if you thought it was the police, you should have demanded to see his search-warrant".
"I don't know what I thought. I was trembling all over and I couldn't even think straight, let alone talk coherently".
Martin said, "If I was sure it was a burglar, I'd have said the drugs were hidden in the kitchen, and I've have taken him there. Then I'd have grabbed the big kitchen knife, and I've had said, "I'm a trained fencer, so now I've got the advantage over you!", though I suppose that legally I should have told him to clear out rather than just go for him".
"It's all very well for you to talk! You weren't there! I bet you'd have been every bit as scared as I was! In the end he went away, but by that time I was a gibbering wreck! I couldn't sleep the rest of that night, and I couldn't face staying in those lodgings any longer. I went and dossed down with a friend until I found somewhere else to live. I still have nightmares about it".
"So this intruder: he didn't find the drugs, then?" But Martin hardly bothered to listen to Nigel's reply. He was running through in his own mind how he would have seen off the intruder, or, if the man did after all prove to be a policeman, the sensation he would create in court with his brilliant orations in his own defence.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Little Moreton Hall

Little Moreton Hall is in south Cheshire, a few miles up the A34 road from Stoke-on-Trent. It is one of the strangest-looking houses in Britain. It was built in stages from the mid-15th century. Its most spectacular feature is the Long Gallery which forms the top floor, which seems to have been added at the end of the Elizabethan period, when such features were fashionable. Unfortunately the house was not strong enough to take the added weight, so it now tilts in various directions and the floors are more like waves than level surfaces!

The entrance can be seen towards the right of the picture, via a bridge across a moat and into a gatehouse (none of which could possibly have served any defensive purpose!) and through to a courtyard. Here is a picture of the coutyard, seen from near the gatehouse.

The carpenter who built this part of the hall left his name on the work. There was no standard spelling in the Tudor period.

These two improving messages can be seen at either end of the Long Gallery. Note that all the letter Ns are back to front!

Unfortunately the house contains hardly any furniture or pictures. It is now owned by the National Trust.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Bohemond and the First Crusade

The names of the great lords who led their armies by various routes to Constantinople between November 1096 and May 1097 read like a splendid litany: Robert, Duke of Normandy, eldest son of William the Conquerer; his cousin, Robert, Count of Flanders; Godfrey of Bouillon, Duke of Lower Lorraine and his brother Baldwin; Stephen, Count of Blois, the Conquerer's son-in-law; Hugh, Count of Vermandois, the son of King Philip of France; Raymond, Count of Toulouse, leading a large but ill-disciplined contingent from the south of France; and from southern Italy, Bohemond of Taranto, with a contingent of Normans. There was no overall military leader, though Pope Urban had appointed Bishop Adhemar of Le Puy as his representative.

The Byzantine Emperor, Alexius Comnenus, must have been horrified as these forces arrived at his capital. When he appealed to the Pope for aid, what he had wanted was mercenaries to defend his empire against the Seljuk Turks, who since their destruction of the Byzantine army at Manzikert in 1071 had overrun most of Anatolia and penetrated almost to the Aegean (see map). Instead these huge crusading armies, totalling perhaps 60,000 fighting men plus followers, had entered his territories and were intent on conquering Jerusalem, which frankly was of little interest to him: Jerusalem had fallen under Moslem control more than 400 years earlier, and was currently being disputed between the Turks and the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt.
Alexius thought the only way of avoiding bloodshed and pillage would be to supply them with plenty of food, make them stay camped outside the city, and persuade then to swear sacred oaths to obey him. This he eventually achieved, though only after months of stalemate, following which they were rewarded with lavish presents & shipped across into Asia. There was mutual incomprehension from the start. To the crusaders, the Byzantines were effete city-dwellers, ruled by eunuch bureaucrats and practising heretical rituals in their huge golden churches. To the average Byzantine, the crusaders were illiterate barbarian thugs: partcularly the Normans - who when all is said and done were only second-generation Vikings with a thin verneer of Christianity, whose brutality towards Moslems only narrowly exceeded their brutality to any fellow-Christians who opposed them. But Alexius well knew the military effectiveness of the Norman knights, and Bohemond he knew only too well.

Bohemond arrived in the city April 1097, with his nephew Tancred and other members of the Hauteville clan. He was aged about 40, and unlike most of the crusaders he spoke Greek and knew the Byzantines well. He was the son of Robert Guiscard, the most ferocious of a clutch of brothers, the sons of an obscure Norman knight, who had all come to Italy to seek their fortunes. Over previous decades, by a mixture of ruthlessness and cunning they had made themselves rulers of southern Italy, and were even now in the process of conquering Moslem-ruled Sicily. Even Rome itself had fallen victim to their ferocity. Robert Guiscard and Bohemond had invaded the Byzantine Empire ten years earlier, and smashed an army commanded by Alexius himself before troubles back in Italy forced them to retreat. Alexius knew Bohemond was a great warrior and a man of limitless ambition, and didn’t trust him an inch! (For more on the Normans in Italy and Sicily, see earlier entries on my Blog)
We have an intimate source for the story. The Emperor's daughter, Anna Comnena, wrote a biography of her father, known as the Alexiad", in which she describes Bohemond. She mentions his great size, his blue eyes, his charm, his threatening-sounding laugh, the hard, savage quality of his appearance, the admiration and terror that he inspired in equal measure. Anna was only thirteen when Bohemond first came to Constantinople, and we can easily imagine the mixture of fascination and horror with which this highly educated princess, who could quote the ancient Greek philosophers and poets, would view the giant barbarian warlord. (In fact, after Anna’s own father, Bohemond is much the dominant personality in the second half of her book: she says precisely nothing about her husband and openly despises her brother, who later succeeded as Emperor himself)

Bohemond agreed to swear an oath to Alexius, but in return demanded the title “Grand Domestic of East“, that is, the commander of all Imperial forces in Asia. The Byzantine Empire had a long history of military coups, and Alexius had little doubt that Bohemond's ultimate ambition was not the regaining of Jerusalem for Christianity, but the seizure of the throne of Constantinople itself. He prevaricated and shipped Bohemond and his Normans across the straits, no doubt with a sigh of relief.

The crusaders and Byzantine forces took Nicaea (Iznik) in June 1097. On July 1st the advance guard ran into a Turkish ambush at Dorylaeum and were surrounded by horse-archers who refused to close with them, and were fortunate to escape when supporting forces arrived a few hours later and drove the Turks off with heavy losses. (Anna's account becomes less accurate as the distances increase, and we henceforth have to rely on a work written by an anonymous Crusader, known as the "Gesta Francorum": "The Deeds of the Franks". Both Anna and the author of the "Gesta" reveal complete ignorance of the Islamic religion, but the "Gesta" shows much respect, even admiration, for the Turks as warriors. In fact, the Turks and the Crusaders had far more in common with each other on a cultural level than either had with the sophisticated urban Byzantines).

After Dorylaeum the Turks did not further impede the crusaders' march onwards, but soon reoccupied the land once they had passed on. The crusaders' main enemy was the climate, as they crossed the Anatolian plateau and then the mountains beyond in the height of summer. Their losses were enormous, especially of horses. Many knights had to ride oxen, or continued on foot, discarding their heavy equipment. Eventually they reached Cilicia, in the south-east of modern Turkey, territory then inhabited mostly by Armenian Christians, and effectively beyond Turkish control. At this stage
Baldwin left the main army and with 80 knights headed eastwards to Edessa, a largely Armenian-inhabited city in eastern Syria beyond the river Euphrates under threat from the Turks; where by the usual mixture of violence and trickery he not only drove away the Turks but seized control of the city, styling himself Count of Edessa, after the existing ruler contrived to get himself killed. (As the historian of the crusades, Sir Steven Runciman, put it; “We know nowadays to distrust the hopeful word “liberation”!”). Meanwhile the main body of the crusaders reached Antioch in October 1097.

North Syria had a very mixed population of Greeks, Armenians, Kurds and others. The Turks were very recent arrivals on the scene, and tensions lay close to the surface. The key to what follows is that local chieftains often hated and feared each other at least as much as they did the crusaders. The city of Antioch was crucial: it must be taken if the crusade was to progress any further. It was an ancient Hellenistic city: once the third greatest of the Roman Empire. It had been seized by an Armenian general in 1079 and only captured by the Turks in 1085. The Turks had also only recently taken the major nearby cities of Mosul and Aleppo from their Arab ruling dynasties, and furthermore the current rulers of Mosul and Aleppo deeply disliked and distrusted each other, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they were brothers!
Antioch would be very hard to attack: it occupied a strongly fortified position above the river Orontes, and the walls were too long to be fully besieged. Through winter 1097-8, crusaders camped outside Antioch, but were unable to storm city or even prevent supplies getting in. The crusaders themselves might have starved but for the arrival of ships from Italy, and even some from England, bringing supplies. Even so, by summer 1098 they were still camped outside Antioch, the poorer crusaders were starving and there was continuing great losses of horses: the crusade was perhaps down to no more than 200 effective mounted knights. Stephen of Blois abandoned the crusade and fled back to Byzantine territory, where he tried to excuse his desertion by saying that the crusade had been defeated.
Then, June-July 1098, there came the most dramatic sequence of events in the entire crusading story!

One of the towers on the southeast city wall of Antioch was commanded by a man named Firuz. Who was he? Perhaps an Armenian Christian who had been forcibly converted? Somehow, for reasons not known, he agreed to betray his tower to Bohemond. On June 2nd, most of the crusader army appeared to march away. But just before dawn the next day, Bohemond’s men occupied Firuz's tower and a opened postern gate. As the crusaders flooded in, the Christian population of Antioch rose up and massacred much of the garrison. The survivors retreated to the citadel, which the crusaders were unable to storm. Antioch was taken at last! But this was only the start.

While this going on, the Caliph at Baghdad had persuaded Kerbuga, the governor of Mosul, to raise an army for the relief of Antioch. Forces were assembled, but Kerbuga then spent three weeks in an unsuccessful attack on Baldwin in Edessa, and as a result only arrived outside Antioch four days after the city had fallen. The crusaders were now themselves besieged in Antioch, and starving, there being no food left in the city! Nor was there any prospect of help from Constantinople: following the news he had received from Stephen of Blois, the Emperor Alexius abandoned the relieving expedition he had been planning.

Then on June 28th a Toulouse priest named Peter Bartholomew announced that Saint Andrew had appeared to him in a dream, bringing sensational news. If the crusaders would dig beneath the floor of a certain church in Antioch, they would find hidden there the Holy Lance: nothing other than the spear that had pierced Christ's side as he hung on the cross; and this would be a sign that God had not forgotten his people. The crusaders dug where instructed, and duly found this holiest of relics. Filled now with confidence of victory, they prepared themselves by holding masses, fasing (which cannot have been difficult), confessing their sins, and on June 28th sallied forth against Kerbugha, with Bishop Adhemar bearing the Holy Lance. It is unclear precisely what happened in the ensuing battle. The "Gesta Francorum" says that angels cames down to fight for the crusaders. But in any event it was a stunning victory: Kerbugha’s forces mostly ran away, and we are told that 3000 heavily armed Moslem warriors taken prisoner. The Crusade was saved!
Modern historians suggest a more prosaic explanation: that many Moslem lords were jealous of Kerbugha and didn’t want him to win. The rulers of Aleppo and Damascus had refused to help him. Also, at same time, unknown to the crusaders, the Fatimid rulers of Egypt took advantage of situation to seize Jerusalem from the Turks after a 6-week siege. This division of Moslem rulers crucial for the success of the crusade: if the Moslem world ever united against them, the crusaders were doomed, as Saladin was to prove in the next century.

The aftermath of the Antioch miracle was equally strange. When the excitement had died down, it occurred to people that the Holy Lance did look suspiciously like a modern spear. Bohemond had never really believed in it anyway, and he poured scorn on its discoverer, Peter Bartholemew. Why had Saint Andrew chosen him for such an important revelation? It wasn't as if he had ever been particularly pious or holy! As more of the crusaders came to have doubts, Peter Bartholemew was made to undergo a trial by ordeal to prove his claims. Two huge bonfires were lit, and he ran through them, emerging somewhat scorched by still alive. Shortly afterwards he died, but it is unclear how; whether he succumbed to the burns or was mobbed by the excited crusaders, who decided he must be holy man after all, and perished in the crush. As for the Holy Lance itself, two were later recorded: one in southern Germany and another one in Georgia.

The crusaders were too exhausted to move on immediately, but waited for supplies and reinforcements. Bishop Adhemar died at this point, leaving the crusade with no clear unifying leader. Finally in January 1099 Raymond, Godfrey, Tancred and the two Roberts set off southwards for Jerusalem, leading about 700 mounted knights and several thousand footsoldiers and pilgrims. But Bohemond refused to go any further. He proclaimed himself Lord of Antioch, and was later invested as Prince by a papal legate, making him independent of both Constantinople and what became the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Like all Normans, and especially his father, Robert Guiscard, he was always supremely ambitious, and was never really committed to the religious aspect of crusading.

Bohemond's subsequent career was a disappointment. In 1100 he was captured by the Turks, and only released three years later. He fought against both Turks and Byzantines. Anna Comnena tells a delightful story of how he was once besieged and escaped by a vey ingenious stratgem. His followers announced that Bohemond had died, and requested permission to take his corpse back to his homeland for burial. This being granted, they carried him out in a closed coffin which also contained the rotting body of a cock, to provide a suitable stench of putefaction and deter any close examination. It was only when they were safely on board ship that Bohemond was released from his confinement. Sadly, most historians believe this story is pure fiction!
Bohemond handed over Antioch to his nephew Tancred, and in 1105 travelled to France, where he married the daughter of the King and raised troops for a new expedition; not this time against the Moslems, but against the Emperor Alexius! He attacked Durazzo (Albania) 1108, but was cut off by the Byzantine fleet. He was forced to submit and swear an oath to Alexius, following which he was formally invested with Antioch, but as a fief of the Byzantine Empire. Bohemond than retired to Italy, where he died. Nevertheless, Antioch was always ruled as a crusader state by Bohemond’s descendants until it eventually fell to the Egyptians in 1268 and was totally destroyed.

(The classic account of the Crusades is the three-volume history by Sir Steven Runciman. The best modern writer on the subject is Jonathon Riley-Smith. See also volume three of John Julius Norwich's history of Byzantium)

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Actors going in for politics

Orson Welles, the actor and film director, once gave his opinion on actors becoming politicians:
"I think Gregory Peck would have been good as President. Better than he was as Captain Ahab anyway!".
Orson Welles admitted that he had once considered politics, but had been advised that he stood no chance of being elected to high office, because he was an actor and had been divorced. He thought this most ironic when he contemplated the career of Ronald Reagan.
(Quoted by Gore Vidal)

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Ideologies and Perceptions

I once asked a lecturer in American history why the United States was the only major industrialised country never to have a significant Socialist movement or party. He replied that he thought this was due to the lack of a hereditary aristocracy: although Marxists are hostile to capitalists, it is actually hereditary wealth and privilege which provoke hostility.

This theory can be linked with the anecdote which is supposed to express the difference between British and American attitudes: when the rich man drives past in his Rolls-Royce the American worker says, "some day I'll have a car like that!", but the British worker says, "Some day we'll take that car off you!" I think there is an element of truth here. The reason, however, is that in America it is assumed that the car has been obtained by talent and hard work: in Britain the assumption is that Daddy got it for him. The British worker therefore tends to think that luxury cars are obtained not by exceptional talents but by the good fortune of having noble or wealthy ancestry, and that he, lacking these advantages,has little chance of ever owning one.

I wonder, however, how long this distiction can hold. In politics, America has far more of a hereditary aristocracy than Britain does, though they do not possess titles of nobility. What else can we call the Rockefellers, the Kennedys and the Bushes? In Britain, they would have been given peerages long ago, and forfeited all political credibility. The 2000 Presidential election was actually fought between two aristocrats, Bush and Gore, which is without parallel in Britain for the past century and a half. And Britain is thought to be a class-ridden society! David Cameron, educated at Eton and Oxford, is actually the first Etonian Prime Minister since Sir Alec Douglas-Home in 1964. Few people realise that between 1917 and 1945 not a single Prime Minister had been to either Eton or Oxford.

Making Contact

Michael gazed idly through the window of the train as it dawdled its way across the Welsh countryside in the drizzle and deepening gloom of an October afternoon. Until he arrived at his destination there was nothing he could do, but his mind was too preoccupied to settle to read a book. This was his very first mission: to locate his contact and deliver the message he had been given, which was “It’s snowing in Venice”. What might that mean? Nobody had seen fit to tell him, and he suspected he wasn’t supposed to enquire. He didn’t even have a proper address for the contact, or a physical description: only that his name was Jones and that he lived in a certain Welsh village whose name Michael was by no means sure of pronouncing even remotely correctly, since it consisted largely of Ws and double Ls. Nor had he been given any idea of what was supposed to follow once his message had been delivered.
It had occurred to Michael that this might well turn out to be not a real assignment at all, but some kind of trial to test out his reliability and usefulness. Quite likely he was supposed to display initiative in first of all locating the contact and then in following any instructions he might be given in return - perhaps another message? perhaps a package to deliver, or some other task to fulfil? Or perhaps above all he was supposed to use his judgement as to whether the contact was a man to be trusted? Maybe even now assessors were lurking and watching, to report on how he performed? - in which case the mysterious Jones was doubtless one of the assessors.
For as long as he could remember, Michael had known this was the career he wanted. As a small boy he had been fascinated by disguises and codes and invisible writing. His school friends had noticed, and had given him nicknames like “James Blonde” and “006 ½, licensed to hurt”, and he had learnt from this not to reveal his ambition to become a spy - at least, not until he met someone who might be useful in his ambition, and even then only by making cryptic hints rather than stating it openly. To this end he had worked hard to pass his exams and had assiduously sought to make the best contacts. And it had worked: eventually he had been interviewed and presumably secretly vetted. And here he was.
The train finally arrived. It was now quite dark outside. A few lights shone in the village behind the little station. No-one else left the train. The only person about was the man at the ticket window. Michael approached him.
“I wonder if you could help me: I’m looking for Mr Jones”.
“Ooh, there’s plenty of us called Jones here! There’s Jones the milk, and there’s Jones the gas and there’s Jones the bread; and me, I’m Jones the train!”
This, thought Michael, is clearly a test I‘ve been set. I shall need to show persistence and thoroughness, and at the same time be very discreet in my enquiries, so as not to raise suspicion. I’d better start here.
“I’m sorry I can’t be more precise”, he said, “The fact is, I didn’t expect to be here at all. I was supposed to be going to Italy, but it was cancelled at the last minute. The weather’s terrible there. They say it’s snowing in Venice!”
An expression of gradually dawning comprehension crept over the railwayman’s face. “Ooh, it’s Jones the spy you’ll be wanting! D’you know, you’re the third person who’s been asking for him this week?”
Somehow, Michael had not expected intelligence work to be like this.