Friday, 27 January 2017

The Man in the Iron Mask and the Lerins Islands

The Lerins islands are a group of small islets in the Mediterranean, close to the south coast of France. There is a fortress with a fine view across the sea to Cannes. 

The famous "Man in the iron mask" was imprisoned here in the later 17th century. After a while, his guards were so fed up with having to live in this environment that they demanded to be transferred to Paris!

The prisoner did not in reality wear an iron mask, but a velvet one. Exactly who he was, and why he was imprisoned, remains a mystery. He was arrested in 1669, when he was aged about 30, by order of the Minister of War, the Marquis de Louvois, and held first of all at Pignerol (now in Piedmont), a top-security prison for major political offenders, and then at other prisons until his eventual death in the Bastille in 1703. There it was later reported that two musketeers were always on duty in his cell, to shoot him immediately if he ever removed his mask or attempted to speak about anything other than his immediate personal needs. When he died, he was buried the very next day (under the name of "Marchioly"), his clothes and furniture were burnt and the walls of his cell whitewashed. Clearly even more than thirty years after his arrest, he was considered a danger to state security. But why?

   On the arrest warrant his name was given as Eustache Dauger, a name that means nothing to historians. This only deepens the mystery, because it was stressed that he was "only a valet". At Pignerol he was allowed to act as a servant to a genuinely important detainee, the disgraced former Superintendant of Finances Nicholas Fouquet, who was imprisoned there from his fall in 1661 until his death in 1680. But if Dauger was no more than a servant, why were these extreme measures taken to conceal his identity and prevent him speaking? Presumably there was a danger someone might recognise him for who he really was, or at least be struck by his strong resemblence to someone famous and important. Alternatively, why was he not quietly killed, to save all this trouble?  

   Inevitably there have been sensational theories about his identity. The most famous stems from the great French novelist Alexandre Dumas, who suggested (in a follow-up historical novel to "The Three Musketeers") that he was the elder twin brother of Louis XIV, and should by rights have succeeded as King. A completely opposite theory is that he was Louis XIV's biological father (Louis XIII having been estranged from his wife for some time before her unexpected pregnancy) and had been attempting to blackmail the French government with this revelation. If the mysterious prisoner did in fact strongly resemble Louis XIV, it would certainly explain the mask, and the possibility that he was a close relative would explain the King's reluctance to have him killed. But we shall probably never know the truth behind the legend.

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.

This is the view down on the western side. 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 by water. 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 into 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.