Wednesday, 26 December 2018

The Flight into Egypt

Image may contain: one or more people.
The Flight into Egypt was always a popular subject with Mediaeval, Renaissance and Baroque artists. The iconography is always the same: Mary is wearing her customary red dress and blue cloak and holds the Christ-child in her arms; she rides side-saddle on a donkey, which is led by Joseph, who is much older than Mary. Usually they cross the picture from left to right: I don't know why this should be.
   The flight into Egypt occurs only in St. Matthew's gospel, along with the wise men (who are not named, or even numbered, and are certainly not described as kings), the star and King Herod, whose vengeance Mary and Joseph are escaping, having been warned in a dream. Saint Luke's gospel, by contrast, has the Angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, the Emperor Augustus's decree on taxation, The ox and ass at the crib, and the shepherds. Clearly there are two completely different traditions about the birth of Christ; the only point in common being that it occurred in Bethlehem, apparently to fulfil a prophecy that the Lord and Saviour would be born there. Only Matthew mentions the prophecy, but he does not explain how Mary and Joseph came to be there, when Jesus was brought up in Nazareth, far to the north. The gospels of Mark and John tell us nothing about the birth at all.   

Friday, 21 December 2018

Happy Christmas!

Happy Christmas to everyone!

I found this charming 15th century Nativity scene in the Petit Palais in Avignon.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Department Store Christmas

It wasn't long till closing time, but Martin was so sunk in boredom and lethargy that he couldn't even summon up sufficient energy to loook forward o the weekend. Nothing was happening; absolutely nothing. When he'd first taken up the job in the Bathroom Accessories department of BSDM (formerly the Kingdom department store, since taken over by a conglomerate) he'd put it down as something temporary; useful work-experience; but all he'd learnt to date was that he'd rather sweep the streets, or even live on the streets, than spend any longer in such an institution. More than once he'd considered simply walking out, but had rejected that as very boring and unoriginal. What he really wanted was to be sacked: not for some petty misdeed, but for something specatacular and original (but of course non-criminal; he didn't want his future prospects too blighted); something that would cause his name to be remembered for ever; to live on in legend amongst all the grey, tedious people of  BSDM. But what? He had no idea. His mind wandered round aimlessly.
    Then Muriel, his typically grey and tedious departmental head, shuffled up to him and addressed  him in her usual irritating whiney voice.
   "Oh, Michael!" she said, getting his name wrong as usual, "I wonder if I could ask the most enormous favour of you? I've got a dreadful migraine and I'm going to have to go home early. The thing is, after we close there's a meeting for the heads of department. Please say you'll go and stand in for me: there's no-one else to do it. I'm afraid you'll find it terribly dull, but someone's got to be there. Please say yes!"
   Nothing like filling me with enthusiasm, thought Martin. But before he could think of an excuse not to be there, Muriel continued, ""You'll be meeeting the new boss, Mr Armitage. He's only been CEO for a few weeks. He's a very interesting man, but a word of warning! You must never call him anything but 'Chief''; that's what he expects. Got it? And don't ever disagree with him in public; he can't stand that!"
   Martin brightened up a bit. That could be something: a man sacked for standing up to the boss, telling him he was talking rubbish and offending protocol by addressing him by his name: people would remember that! Perhaps the unions might get involved, and call a strike over unfair dismissal! Perhaps it would make the papers! So, rather against his better judgement, he agreed to go along.

He arrived at the committee room in good time. The only person he recognised was Derek, the cynical head of Books and Stationery, whosr department was on the same floor as Bathroom Accessories. Martin explained about Muriel's migraine.

   "Well well, who'd have thought it?" Derek responded. "Muriel having to go home with a migraine just before the weekend! You astonish me! I wonder whether she'll be fully recovered come Monday morning? Don't bet on it! Now, did Muriel tell you anything useful about this meeting?"
   "She said it might be boring. And I was to call Mr Armitage 'Chief' and never contradict him".
   "Both correct! You've never met our beloved fuhrer, have you? Well, he says he likes to be on first-name terms with everybody, and welcomes free discussion, but that's only to make him sound trendy and democratic. So he may call you Martin, but you must never under any circumstances call him Reggie: he hates the name!"
   Across the table a fat, balding red-faced man was holding forth loudly.
  "Roger, from Shoes", said Derek. "A foot-fetishist, naturally, but a gay foot fetishist .... My advice would be, avoid all contact. Unless you like that sort of thing, of course. It looks like he's downed a few! He despises our Reggie: he really does!"
   The people around the table rose to their feet. The Chief was arriving! Martin looked at him closely: a short man with piercing blue eyes which swept rapidly round the room. Behind him there walked a youngish lady with black hair and a surprisingly short skirt.
   "Jane, from Cosmetics", whispered Derek. "Everyone's bet to be the next Number Two. Selected on bra size. Now,she'll agree with everything Armitage says, and with a bit of luck Roger will disagree with everything. This could be rather more fun than I expected!"
   Mr Armitage took his seat at the head of the table, and said, in a strange nasal voice, "I see we've got a new face among us. Stand up and intoduce yourself, laddie. It's first names here, we're all friends, don't be shy!"
   What a revoltingly condescending way of talking, thought Martin. But he explained about Muriel's absence and how he was there to represent Bathroom Accessories. "My name's Martin, Chief", he concluded, and sat down inwardly seething. He'd chickened out! He hadn't intended to say "Chief"! He'd have to do better than that if he wanted to be remembered!

The early parts of the meeting were deadly dull. Martin knew absolutely nothing about the isues under discussion, and had nothing to contribute. He tried not to doodle too obviously on the paper in front of him, though at times this was all that was keeping him awake. Then eventually Mr Armitage announced, "Next item: the Christmas display. Now I don't need to remind you that it's a big thing in this town: all the big stores compete to have the best display with a Christmas theme; it brings a lot of kudos and it's good publicity. So this year let's really go for it with somethingtruly original. Any bright ideas tostart us off?"

   "A Victorian Christmas?" said someone.
   "Been done! Many times! Boring!"
   "American Christmas?"
   "Scandinavian Christmas?"
   "Come on, guys! This is pathetic! If that's all we can think of, we might as well go completely over the top and have an Australian Christmas!"
   No doubt this was meant sarcastically, but Roger pretended to take it seriously, and began to discourse to no-one in particular about how puzzled archaeologists of the distant future would be to discover evidence that Australians had celebrated a midsummer festival by featuring an old man dressed in furs, riding a sleigh drawn by animals not native to that country. However, Jane, perhaps alerted by an impatient look on her boss's face, cut Roger short by saying, "I think that's a great idea, Chief! Santa at a barbecue on the beach! That would be different!"
  Martin's brain suddenly started whizzing. He remembered how someone had once told him that, when confronted with a silly idea, the best counter was not to contradict it but to extend it to its logical conclusion, so everyone could see how absurd it was. At this point his surrealist imagination took over.
   "I think it's a great idea too!" he announced, "There's such a lot we can do with it! A barbie on the beach, yes! And Santa come arrive from the sea on a surfboard! Wearing a red wetsuit! Surrounded by dolphins and sharks! All smiley, and with little red and white hats! And what about his helpers? Koalas, perhaps? Or if it's a night-time scene, we don't want reindeer! How about kangaroos?"
   He was on his feet by this time, making expansive gestures, and could have carried on longer, getting more and more outrageous, but Mr Armitage said quietly, "That's fine, Martin: don't get too carried away! We'll all give it some serious thought before the next meeting; okay?"
   The remainder of the meeting contained little of interest, and as they were filing out, Mr Armitage said, "Oh, Martin, a word with you, please!"
   Now I'm for it! thought Martin. But at least I've done something they'll remember, and I can leave this dump!
   Mr Armitage took him by the elbow as they walked off down the corridor. "Now, Martin", he said, "I like a kid with some guts and enthusiasm, who has ideas and isn't afraid to say what he thinks. Have you ever thought of putting in for a job up at headquarters? We could do with some new blood and fresh thinking. Bear it in mind. Don't let me forget, Jane!"
    "Thank you very much, Chief!" said Martin..

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Grinshill Copper Mine

Last weekend I was able to go on an exploration of the old copper mine underneath Grinshill, north of Shrewsbury. I'm not sure I would have volunteered if I'd known what was involved; including climbing down a very long ladder through a manhole, traversing above a yawning gulf, and crawling 50 yards along a tunnel. It was a good thing to have done, as distinct from a good thing to be doing.

The photos are by Mike Robins.
That's me in the blue jacket and pale pink trousers.

It's definitely not me disappearing through the hole at the top of the rope!

The experience was quite different from going down a coalmine. It wasn't damp, but very dry, with a coating of fine dust everywhere. There were no dangerous gases, so the miners worked with candles rather than Davy lamps. There were several levels deep below us, which had been worked from entries lower down the hill. In the walls, we saw patterns of brownish-red, indicating the presence of iron deposits, but hardly any signs of the greenish colour of copper.
    The mine was closed in the early 1960s. 

Monday, 26 November 2018

Spofforth, the Demon Bowler

Image result for Fred-Spofforth
In the 140 years since Test Match cricket began, there have been many bowlers who were greatly feared by the batsmen who faced them, but the original Demon Bowler; the first great bowler to appear on the international stage; was the Australian F. R. Spofforth.
Frederick Robert Spofforth was born at Balmain, near Sydney, in 1853, and was brought up in the Australian bush. He grew to be well over six feet tall, lean and strong, with a piercing eye and a great bristling moustache.
   In those days, cricket in Australia was played with underarm bowling, but when the young Spofforth watched the fast overarm bowling of  the touring Englishman George Tarrant he decided to copy him. A few years later he watched another touring Englishman, Alfred Shaw, with his changes of pace and flight, and resolved to use these methods too. He experimented with different grips of the ball whilst using the same bowling action. If he can be said to have had a single stock delivery, it would be a medium-paced off-cutter, placing two short-leg fieldsmen for close catches, but often bowling batsmen "through the gate" between bat and pad. Incidentally, this shows that intelligent pad-play was still in its infancy, since at the time a batsman could not be out LBW to a ball that pitched outside the off stump.  
   He was soon taking an impressive number of wickets, and although he was not selected for the first-ever Test Match between Australia and England, at Melbourne in March 1877, he did play in the second a fortnight later; his first victim, ironically enough, being his unwitting mentor Alfred Shaw. He was then duly selected to visit England with an Australian cricket team in 1878. 
   Oddly enough, no Tests were played on that tour, but Spofforth announced his powers, and the strength of Australian cricket, when in a single day at Lord's he took 10 wickets for 20, bowling the great W.G. Grace for a duck and twice dismissing M.C.C. for very low scores. Then, when an England team returned to Australia six months later, he scored his first international triumph, taking 6 for 48 and 7 for 62 at Melbourne in the only Test. In the first innings of this match he achieved the first-ever Test hat-trick.

  It was in 1882, at the Oval, that Spofforth attained immortality. In a very low-scoring match played on a wet pitch, he took 7 for 44 in the first innings and 7 for 44 in the second, dismissing England for only 77 and winning the match by 7 runs. It was this debacle that caused a journalist to lament "the death of English cricket", with the comment that "the body will be creamted and the ashes taken to Australia"; thereby unwittingly establishingthe symbol of the oldest rivalry in Test cricket. 
   Other notable performances followed, all at Sydney: 7 for 44 in 1883; 6 for 90 in the second Test in 1885, followed by 5 for 30 in the third. On the 1884 tour of England he took 207 wickets in all matches 

Spofforth played his last Test in the 1886/7 series against England; being succeeded by the likes of Turner, Ferris and Trumble as spearheads of the Australian attack. His final tally was 94 Test wickets in 18 matches for an average of 18.41. Not long afterward his final Test he moved to live in England.

    After settling in England, he played some matches for Derbyshire, where his family had originated, and also played club cricket for Hampstead, taking a great number of wickets at less than 10 runs apiece. 
 His final appearance in first class cricket was at the Scarborough Festival in 1896, finishing with 8 wickets for 74 for M.C.C. against Yorkshire: a Demon to the very last.
   Unlike many sportsmen, he had a successful career after retirement. He became director of a tea importing company, and when he died in 1926 he left the very substantial sum of £164,000. He was clearly as effective as a businessman as he had been as a Demon Bowler. 

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

To the North

Last month we were invited to our niece's wedding, up near Inverness, so we thought we might make a whole week's trip out of it.

Our first stop was at Penrith, where I used to live. A few mikes to the south of the town, we visited Lowther Castle. This monstrous Victorian pile has been a roofless shell for many decades, though a start has recently been made in restoring the gardens.

The chapel is some distance away, and has some fine tombs of the Lowther family
The Lowthers were a dominant political force in the Lake District and beyond for many centuries, sometimes controlling as many as nine M.P.s. To this day, the Conservative colours in the area are yellow,because this was the Lowther colour.

In St. Andrew's churchyard in Penrith is the so-called "Giant's grave"

It is actually some Viking-era hogbacks between two battered Celtic crosses

The next day we drove up to Pitlochry for two nights, and spent a day exploring around

This is looking westwards along Loch Tummel; said to be Queen Victoria's favourite view.
   We then drove to the western end of Loch Tummel and a few miles south to the eastern end of Loch Tay

A shorth distance down the Tay we found Menzies castle.
This was built in the 16th century, replacing an earlier castle. Clan Menzies seems to have been Noerman in origin. Because the clan supported the government during the Jacobite revolts, their home escaped destruction.

We continued north the next day. Because were were in good time, we diverted through Grantown-on-Spey to Nairn, where a cold northerly gale was driving the breakers onto a deserted beach.
The rocky headland in the distance is the Black Isle. Inverness is out of sight round to the left.

The wedding was held at Achnagairn castle, a Victorian mansion in "Scottish Baronial" style, a few miles west of Inverness.

Here is the happy couple; Ayesha and Andrew. We wish them well.

Friday, 2 November 2018


Emily sprinkled the chocolate shards on her breakfast cappuchino and wondered what picture the random blotches would conjure up in her mind today. But she had no time to waste daydreaming, so she took a quick snap of it with her mobile and then slurped it down before hurrying off to work. Later on, she could observe it at leisure, or even discuss it with her friends to see what they made of it.
Sometimes it was a fish, and once it was a rodeo rider whirling a lariat, but most often it was a dog. Emily loved dogs. Yes, this one was a dog: a short-legged, flop-eared little mutt, standing on its hind legs and looking straight at her. A dachshund or terrier of some kind; how cute!
Examining the photo again before she went to bed, Emily noticed that the dog appeared to be wearing glasses, and carried a bag or basket in its left paw. So, a cartoon dog. Perhaps the pictures she’d seen on previous days had been cartoon creatures too. Now that was an idea: stories about cartoon animals and people that came to life on a cup of cappuchino! She could become a famous children’s author! Emily was confident that she might have the ability to do this, but doubted whether she would have the time or the energy. She enjoyed her job, which was an important and responsible one, and well remunerated, but it was very exhausting, and often she felt completely drained when she came home. This was one of those evenings. As she sat slumped in her chair, she wondered what was in the dog’s bag, and the answer came into her head, “Cocaine”. Now that would make it something very different, she mused: a cartoon for adults, dark and probably violent …..
In bed, waiting to go to sleep, she wondered; Why did cocaine suddenly occur to her then? Was it something to do with that colleague at work, a senior director, no less, whom they suspected of being a user? And didn’t he once hint to her that she might like to visit him and try some? But Emily didn’t want to go there, and she had avoided the issue by pretending that she hadn’t understood the hint.
She was still picturing the little dog with the mysterious basket when she fell asleep.      

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Hitler and the Hossbach Memorandum, 1937

After the Second World War, a curious document came to light. It was the minutes of a meeting held at the Reich Chancellery on November 5th 1937, at which Hitler addressed his senior commanders on the current diplomatic situation and future strategy. The document was christened the "Hossbach Memorandum", after Colonel Friedrich Hossbach, who wrote up the minutes. Its significance has been debated by historians ever since. Those summoned to the meeting were the Minister for War (Blomberg), the Commanders-in-Chief of the Army (Fritsch), the Navy (Raeder) and the Air Force (Goering), and the Foreign Minister (Neurath). 

Looking back over the past couple of years, Hitler would have seen many reasons for thinking that events were moving towards the benefit of Germany. Mussolini's conquest of Abyssinia had exposed Britain and France as toothless against aggression, and at the same time had driven Italy into the German orbit. "Popular Front" governments, in which Stalin had encouraged the Communist parties to collaborate with socialists and liberals, had been elected in France and Spain; but the French Popular Front government had been led by a Jew, Leon Blum, who was hated on the Right and was soon overthrown, whereas in Spain the army rose in revolt in July 1936. 
   The Spanish civil war proved exceptionally violent, and deeply divided opinion in Britain and France, with the Right supporting Franco's Nationalists and the Left supporting the Spanish government. The Anglo-French response was to adopt a policy of "Non-intervention", which was flagrantly flouted by Grmany and Italy. The Luftwaffe bombed Guernica in April 1937. Once again, Britain and France looked weak. 
   In June 1937 the Russian purges suddenly took on a new and surprising turn as it was announced that Marshal Tukhachevsky, the commander-in-chief of the Red Army, and several other senior generals had confessed to being Nazi spies and had been executed. The army purge continued with great violence over next couple of years. At the Hossbach meeting, Hitler made no reference to these improbable charges, but by 1941 he was convinced that the Red Army had been beheaded and could no longer be considered a serious fighting force.
   In the Far East, the situation also looked promising. Japanese forces had already overrun Manchuria, and in 1937 moved on to seize Beijing and attack Shanghai, a great trading base for Britain.     Hitler capitalised on these developments with the Axis Pact with Italy and the Anti-Comintern Pact with Italy and Japan. These agreements greatly weakened the strategic position of Britain and France, since both Italy and Japan had been allied with the Entente powers in the First World War. Britain was further weakened, Hitler thought, by increasing turmoil in India, where Gandhi's campaign of civil disobedience was gathering momentum. Finally, in the U.S.A., after President Roosevelt had been re-elected in 1936, he immediately renewed the Neutrality Act, which prevented America from trading with any state which was at war. Obviously this would hurt Britain and France far more than Germany. 

Hitler began his address by speaking of the need to preserve the "racial community" of Germandom, which was under threat in Austria and Czechoslovakia. More space was needed to provide food and vital raw materials, but Germany's world trade was always threatened by British control of the sea. Germany, he said, was threatened by two "hate-inspired antagonists" in Britain and France, who would always oppose a stronger Germany; but British dominance was now under threat from Japan in the Far East and from Italy in Africa. 
   Germany's problems, he argued, could only be solved by the use of force: the only questions being how? and when?  
   War, he said, must come before the years 1943-45, while Germany was still ahead in the arms race: after than the position would only get worse. His prime target, the only one he discussed at the meeting, was to be Czechoslovakia. (The Czechs had signed alliances with France and Russia, and he described Czechoslovakia elsewhere as "An unsinkable aircraft carrier in the heart of Germany). 
   He outlined possible scenarios in which a lightning attack on Czechoslovakia could be carried out without the risk of a simultaneous war with France: perhaps France might collapse into civil war, or France might be at war with another country (presumably Italy). Germany could then seize Czechoslovakia and Austria with impunity. 
   In any case, Hitler said, he believed "Britain had already written off the Czechs", and France would never go to war without British support. Italy wouldn't support the Czechs, though Mussolini's attitude to Austria wsn't clear. Poland would be too afraid of Russia to intervene.
   All this could happen as early as 1938. In the interim, the Spanish civil war should be kept going, because it so disrupted opinion in Britain and France.
   The meeting apparently ended with violent arguments beween Hermann Goering and the army leaders.

So why did Hitler call this meeting, and what significance should be attached to what he said? In the 1960s there was a fierce debate about this between Britain's two foremost historians of Nazi Germany; A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper.
   Taylor, who discounted any ideological content of Nazism, saw Hitler as an opportunist: a man with no detailed plans who was quick to improvise and take advantage of any chances that came his way. Taylor pointed out that none of the scenarios outlined in Hossbach actually came about. He wondered why Hitler would outline his plans to an audience only one of whom was a Nazi (Goering). He thought if the meeting had any purpose beyond a generalised Hitler-rant, it was to stress the likelihood of war in order to counter concerns raised by the Economics Minister, Dr. Schacht (another non-Nazi), about the cost of the rapid programme of rearmament that was now under way.
   Trevor-Roper, by contrast, drew attention to certain key points made by Hitler: firstly, his belief that Germany would have to fight not later than 1945, secondly that the first war target would be Czechoslovakia, perhaps as early as 1938, and thirdly that he did not believe that any other powers would intervene to stop it. All these predictions did in fact come true. Although some of Taylor's arguments were justified (the Anschluss with Austria in March 1938 fitted in with Hitler's general scheme, though the details were clearly improvised on the spur of the moment); on the whole I think Trevor-Roper had the better of the argument. 

Events on Germany moved fast after Hossbach. Dr. Schacht resigned and economic priority was now given to the Four-Year Plan for preparation for war, led by Goering. Next February Neurath was replaced as Foreign Minister by the Nazi Ribbentrop. At much the same time, Blomberg was forced to resign as War Minister when it was revealed that his wife, whom he had recently married, might once have been a prostitute; and Fritsch was hounded from his position of Commander-in-Chief by the wholly false accusation that he was homosexual. For the first time, Hitler now took direct personal control of the army, working through the colourless and mediocre Keitel. 
   But perhaps the most significant consequence of the Hossbach meeting happened just a month afterwards, on December 7th, in a directive from General Jodl at the OKW. The German military planners had drawn up "Plan Red", which envisaged an essentially defensive  operation against France; and also "Plan Green", for an attack on Czechoslovakia. Germany did not have the military resources to implement both plans simultaneously. Now the order went out that priority was to be given to "Plan Green", because "Plan Red" was unlikely to be needed. So: the German army was to be ready to invade Czechoslovakia; and for those in the military who asked, "What if the French attack while we're doing this?", Hitler would reply, "Don't worry! I'll make sure they won't!" Of course, Hitler had as yet no idea how he would bring this about, but he was sure that something would turn up. This can be taken as evidence for both the Taylor and the Trevor-Roper interpretations.

The climax of Robert Harris's recent historical novel, "Munich" is when the hero, a young British official, is given a pirated copy of the Hossbach Memorandum by an anti-Nazi officer. He attempts to show it to Chamberlain, to warn him about Hitler's aggressive intentions, but the Prime Minister refuses to look at it. I can strongly recommend the novel as a splendid read, but I don't believe this particular episode has any historical basis.  

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Battle of Shrewsbury, 1403

In 1399 Henry of Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, returned from exile, ostensibly to recover his vast family estates, which had been summarly confiscated by King Richard II. However, the venture quickly became a far greater matter, because Richard's support melted away, he was captured by Henry's forces at Flint in north Wales and compelled to abdicate the throne to Henry. The coup was not bloodless: the Earl of Wiltshire and others of Richard's supporters were summarly executed, and a few months later a plot to restore Richard led to the execution of the Earls of Kent, Salisbury and Huntingdon. It was then announced that Richard had died in captivity at Potefract castle, apparently of starvation.
   Nothing like this had ever happened before in English history. Edward II had been deposed and killed in 1327, but he had been succeeded by his teenage son. Richard was childless, but it was very doubtful whether this left Henry of Bolingbroke as the heir. He based his claim as being the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, a younger son of King Edward III; but in terms of strict heredity this left him behind the Mortimer family, descendants of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, Edward's second son. Richard had recognized the Mortimers as his preferred heirs. As it happened, Roger Mortimer, the head of the family, had been killed a few years earlier, leaving only an infant son.In 1400 the Welsh leader Owain Glyndwr led a great revolt, and two years later Edmund Mortimer, Roger's brother, was captured by the rebels but then married Glyndwr's daughter!

   Henry's coup was backed by the powerful Percy family, led by the Earl of Northumberland, his brother the Earl of Worcester, and Northumberland's son Henry, immortalised by Shakespeare as "Harry Hotspur". Thanks to Shakespeare we tend to think of King Henry as an old man and Hotspur as an impetuous youth. In point of fact Henry IV was only 33 at the time of his coup and Hotspur was actually slighly older, whereas Henry's son, the Prince of Wales and the future Henry V, was only 12, and still no more than 15 when Shakespeare portrays him carousing with Falstaff.

   Why the Percies now turned against King Henry is not clear. They may have felt they had been inadequately rewarded for their support of Henry's coup, especially as the King appeared to be favouring their great rivals in the North; the Nevilles of Westmorland. They may even felt some guilt at their betrayal of Richard. Hotspur perhaps had his own agenda, because he was married to Edmund Mortimer's sister, so his children had a claim to the throne. Matters came to a head after the battle of Homildon Hill in 1402.
   The Scottish border was a wild and lawless region, with constant low-level warfare that ranged from cattle-raids to full-scale invasions. The Percies were the main power on the English side along the eastern border (where the saying was that "there was no king but Percy"), and facing them was the great Scottish family of Douglas. Back in 1388 at Otterburn, Hotspur had faced a Scots  force under Sir James Douglas and been taken prisoner. Now at Homildon he defeated a major Scottish invasion and took a number of important prisoners, including Archibald, Earl of Douglas. Nobles as important as this were held in honourable captivity until a suitably large sum could be extracted for ransom.
   King Henry now demanded that the captives be handed over to him, as was technically his right as sovereign. But Hotspur insisted on keeping Douglas, with the helpful suggestion that any ransom money should be used to free Edmund Mortimer - but that of course was the last thing Henry wanted! As far as the Percies were concerned, the Douglas affair was the last straw.

   In early July 1403 Hotspur raised the standard of rebellion; and with him was Earl Douglas, now a close friend.  They marched south, picking up support in Cheshire, where King Richard had been popular, and plainly intended to seize Shrewsbury, which would be a valuable base to link with Glyndwr's forces in Wales. Northumberland was believed to be following a few days behind with reinforcements. 
   Henry Prince of Wales commanded in Shrewsbury, but the guardian of the teenage Prince was Hotspur's uncle, the Earl of Worcester, who marched out with much of the town's garrison to join the rebellion. Hotspur knew the Prince well, and had acted as his mentor in a campaign that recaptured Conwy from Glyndwr. The Prince greatly admired Hotspur as a valiant knight, but now they were enemies.
  The depleted Shrewsbury garrison looked doomed, but then in the nick of time the balance was transformed, because the King, moving at unexpected speed, brought his army to Shrewsbury first. Furthermore, there was no sign of Glyndwr, and Northumberland's promised reinforcements had not appeared. Hotspur was thus outnumbered and unable to attack the town, withdrawing a short distance to the north. He took up a position on a slightly south-facing slope, probably just west of the present A49 that runs from Shrewsbury to Whitchurch. There were attempts at a peaceful solution, but Hotspur and Worcester felt they could no longer trust any of King Henry's promises, and battle was joined on  July 21st.

   The battle would have started with the archers on both sides. Hotspur's Cheshire archers, who had the advatage of the slope, were more effective than their royal counterparts, but with Hotspur outnumbered, he knew his only real chance of victory was to kill the King. There was violent hand-to-hand fighting, the royal standard was felled and some knights who wore the King's livery as decoys were killed, but Hotspur had penetrated too far into the enemy lines, and was himself slain. The surviving soldiers of his army melted away as night fell. 
   It was a very bloody battle. The numbers killed is not known: one chronicler gives the number of dead as 16,000, which seems a gross exaggeration. It may only have been a tenth of this, but of course many of the wounded would later have succumbed to their injuries. The dead were buried in a mass grave.
   It is not known how Hotspur died. According to Shakespeare, the Prince of Wales killed him in personal combat, which is unlikely since the Prince was struck in the face with an arrow and seriously wounded earlier in the battle. Shakespeare rather brushes this aside, but in fact the arrow-head remained embedded in the Prince's skull near the nose for some time before it could be surgically extracted.

   Shakespeare has the Prince deliver a ringing speech in praise of the dead Hotspur, but this is rather at odds with what really happened. The Earl of Worcester was beheaded after a brief hearing, and his head struck on a spike on London Bridge. Hotspur's body was taken away and buried nearby at Whitchurch, but the King then ordered it to be dug up and exhibited in Shrewsbury, before being beheaded and quartered and the parts put on display in different parts of the kingdom. He could not risk any rumours that Hotspur was still alive! Earl Douglas, as a Scotsman, could of course not be condemned as a traitor: instead his fighting valour was praised and he was held in honourable captivity for the time being. But back in Scotland he was mocked as a warrior who always lost his battles!

This was far from being the end of King Henry's troubles. He never managed to crush Glyndwr, who captured Harlech and Aberystwyth in 1404 and even called a Welsh Parliament at Machynlleth, where he was crowned Prince of Wales. The Earl of Northumberland, whose tardiness in support of his son suggested he did not really approve of the rebellion, was initially pardoned; but early in 1405 he, Glyndwr and Edmund Mortimer signed a pact to divide the kingdom between them. Another rebellion was defeated, and its leaders executed, including the Earl Marshal, Thomas de Mowbray, and even Richard Scrope, the Archbishop of York. The execution of a senior cleric greatly shocked contemporaries, and the illness which afflicted Henry in later years was widely seen as punishment for this sacrilege. The Earl of Northumberland was finally killed in 1408, and a few years later Glyndwr mysteriously vanished from the scene.
    Henry IV was thus never secure on the throne, and the unprecedented slaughter of the great nobility that marked his reign set up hatreds that resurfaced in the Wars of the Roses a generation later.


Earl Douglas strikes down King Henry's standard-bearer. Sir Walter Blount attempts to intervene, while the King is urged to retreat to safety. On the ground, Lord Stafford lies dead. This is one of Graham Turner's splendidly dramatic illustrations in "Shrewsbury 1403"; a detailed account of the campaign by Dickon Whitewood (Osprey Books).

The site of the battle is now commemorated with the Battlefield Church and the Battlefield Enterprise Centre. The church is unfortunately not normally open to the public, 
but a key can sometimes be obtained from a small museum at the nearby farm shop. This features a model of how Prince Henry might have appeared with the arrow in his face. Imagine how different English history would have been if he had been killed!  

The campaign is the subject of a historical novel by Edith Pargeter (who also writes as Ellis Peters): "A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury".

Saturday, 22 September 2018

Dante meets a Pope in Hell

In one of the lower circles of Hell, Dante, guided by Virgil, meets Pope Nicholas III, a notoriously corrupt Pope, upside-down in a pit of flames.

Dante wrote the "Inferno", the first book of his "Divine Comedy", around 1310. He set the story at Easter in the year 1300, when the Pope was Boniface VIII, whom Dante particularly hated and despised. He accordingly has Nicholas mistake his visitors and exclaim, "What! Are you here already, Boniface?" 
   Nicholas then prophesies that disaster will soon overtake the Papacy. The disaster had already begun when Dante was writing, because in 1305 a Frenchman, Clement V, was elected Pope. He never set foot in Italy and eventually settled at Avignon. Dante was not to know that for the next sixty years all the Popes would be French, little more than puppets of the Kings of France, and that the Papacy would not return permanently to Rome until 1415.  

Monday, 10 September 2018

Travel: Avignon

Avignon lies on the west bank of the River Rhone. The city is famous for two things: the bridge that does not span the river, and the Palace of the Popes. 
The bridge is older than the palace. It was constructed in the 12th century by Saint Benezet (the Provencal version of the name "Benedict"), a humble shepherd boy who, according to legend, heard angelic voices calling him to go to Avignon and build a bridge. Work began in 1177 and was completed eight years later.
   The picture below gives a misleading impression of the vast scale of the project. What appears to be the far bank is in fact a long, narrow island in the middle of the Rhone, which did not exist in the 12th century. In fact the bridge ran all the way to the white tower seen on the right: almost a thousand yards long, with 22 arches, running in an S-shaped curve so as to base the piers on avialable shoals of gravel in the river bed. 

   The tower is all that remains of a castle built by Philip IV of France (Philippe le Bel) in 1302, to control the river crossing. We will meet him again shortly.
   The bridge today provides a fine view of the provided there are not too many crowds of tourists!

On the left of this picture is the Jardin du Rocher des Doms, a delightful wooded hilltop, from which there are splendid views eastwards to the bridge (as in the first picture) and south over the Cathedral of Notre Dame des Doms and the Palace of the Popes.

The cathedral was first built around 1140. 

The gilded statue of the Virgin was placed on top of the tower in the 19th century. This is the west door

After a bitter conflict between the Papacy and  King Philip IV,  the Archbishop of  Bordeaux was elected as Pope Clement V in 1305. He never went to Rome, and for the next 68 years all the Popes were Frenchmen. They built in Avignon the Palace of the Popes, which grew to be the largest building of its kind in western Europe. They lived in great luxury, which appalled and disgusted Petrach when he visited Avignon. 

    In 1417 the Popes returned to Rome, but Avignon remained papal territory. Only with the French Revolution did the city become part of France, and the Palace of the Popes was then occupied and plundered and used as a barracks. No furniture survives, and of the lavsh decorations, only a couple of chapels 

and a few of the Pope's private rooms.

However, nowadays you can be taken on a "virtual reality" tour of the Palace, where the furniture and decoration of all the main rooms is recreated for you. This will take probably a couple of hours, but it is time well spent.

Facing the papal palace is the baroque Hotel des Monnaies

   The Petit Palais, nearby, was remodelled in Renaissance style by Cardinal della Rovere, who later became Pope Julius II.
   Nowadays it contains a splendid museum and gallery, featuring Italian religious art of Julius II's period: the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

There are several other museums, which I didn't have time to visit. The Musee Calvet on the Rue  Josef Vernet is said to be particularly good.

The old city of Avignon is surrounded by its mediaeval walls and gates, but a modern boulevard has been blasted through from the Place de l'Horloge, where stands the Hotel de Ville and the Second Empire theatre, 
and runs southwards to the railway station. At the northern end, where it is called the Rue de la Republique, it is lined with open-air restaurants of all kinds; and further on, when it become the Cours Jean Jaures, you will find the main shops. To the west of the boulevard there is still a maze of narrow streets, where there are a great many small restaurants, shops, churches and museums.

Interestingly, an attempt is being made to revive the local Provencal tongue, with dual-language street names.

There is also a splendid modern building, les Halles (the market), with a green ecological exterior.

It contains excellent stalls selling food and drink, and in this case spices

A good way of seeing Avignon is to board the little street-train for tourists, which departs from near the papal palace. The trip round the streets takes about 45 minutes, with a multilingual commentary, and I thought it was good value.  

Sunday, 2 September 2018

The Corbets of Moreton Corbet

      Origins of the Corbet family.

The name Corbet is derived from the French “corbeau”: a raven, or crow (Old Scots: “corbie”). The family originated in Normandy, where they were followers of Roger de Montgomery, a great nobleman.
   Roger de Montgomery had not accompanied William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings, but when in 1069 Shrewsbury was attacked by the Welsh, with the help of Saxon rebels, he was created Earl of Shrewsbury and put in charge there. He summoned “brave and loyal men” from his own lands in Normandy to help him. One of these was a man probably known as Hugo le Corbet, and his two sons Roger and Robert FitzCorbet. They were granted large numbers of manors in Shropshire.
   By the time the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086, Hugh was dead, but Roger and Robert FitzCorbet were recorded as between them holding more than 40 manors in Shropshire under Earl Roger. The village that became Moreton Corbet was not one of these, however (see later).
An examination of a map shows how strategically important the FitzCorbets were, because Roger held a great swathe of manors immediately west of Shrewsbury and south of the Severn, with Roger’s manors further south.
In 1102 the FitzCorbets supported Robert de Belleme, the son of Earl Roger, when he rose in rebellion against King Henry I, but they were able to make their peace with the King and kept their lands; and the two brothers were still alive as late as 1121. Robert’s branch of the family soon died out in the male line; though his daughter Sibyl became one of Henry I’s numerous mistresses, and bore the king several children. But Roger’s family produced a great many descendants, of whom the principal male line became Barons of Caus, a castle in the thinly-inhabited hill country south-west of Shrewsbury, near the modern border with Wales. (The first reference to the castle was in the 1130s. It can be found on a map west of the B4386 road from Westbury to Worthen. It was destroyed by Parliamentary forces in 1645, though there are still some impressive earthworks. The site is not open to the public)

 Under Henry II, the Marcher Lordships were organised, which included Caus. The nobles who held these had special powers and privileges to deal with the danger of raids from Wales. Many of their castles, such as Ludlow, became very strong. Although Caus was only a minor lordship, with a relatively small castle, we know that Roger Corbet, Lord of Caus, refused to pay a special tax in 1159, and again in 1165, on the grounds that his predecessors had never had to pay such a tax in the past! 
In 1298 Sir Peter Corbet, Baron of Caus, serving the King at the Battle of Falkirk, is recorded as bearing the distinctive Corbet coat of arms: a black ravens on a gold shield (In heraldic terminology, “Or, a corbyn sable”). Because no two men could bear identical coats of arms at the same time, other branches of the family had coats with two, three or even six ravens.
Sir Peter’s son, Sir John Corbet, died without male issue in 1347, and the Barony of Caus became extinct.

           Moreton Corbet

The village which is now Moreton Corbet appears in the Domesday Book as part of the vast territories granted to Roger of Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury. His tenant in Moreton was a Saxon called Thorold, who held several local manors, and under him the manor was held by two Saxon brothers, Hunning and Ulviet, who had been there since before the Battle of Hastings.
The Domesday Book records:-
“They were free men. 1 hide pays tax. There is land for 2 ploughs. There are 5 slaves and 1 smallholder. In the reign of King Edward it was worth 10 shillings; now 16 shillings” (A hide would have been between 60 and 120 acres, depending on the quality of the soil)
By the start of the 13the century Moreton was held by the family of FitzToret (or Turet) and was commonly known as Moreton Turet. In 1215 Bartholomew FitzToret joined the rebellion which forced King John to sign Magna Carta. When John died the next year, leaving only his 9-year-old son to become Henry III, many of the barons thought that Louis, the younger son of the King of France, would make a much better King; but England’s greatest warrior, William Marshall, Earl of Pembroke, stayed loyal to Henry, and defeated and drove out the French at the Battle of Lincoln. Bartholomew had supported the rebellion, and forfeited Moreton as a result, but it was soon returned to him.
   About this time, Sir Richard Corbet held the manor of Wattlesborough as a fief of the barony of Caus. He married Joanna, daughter and heiress of Bartholomew, thus acquiring Moreton, which eventually became known as Moreton Corbet. But for a long time it was not the family’s principal residence in Shropshire, and they also owned land in many other counties. By 1289 their grandson, Sir Robert Corbet, was important enough to be appointed Sherriff of Shropshire, and then Member of Parliament in 1290 and 1295.

             Moreton Corbet Castle

   Western Shropshire was a dangerous place in the Middle Ages, with constant raids backwards and forwards across the Welsh border, as well as occasional major campaigns. The area thus contains a large number of castles; some large, but most just small motte-and-bailey affairs. Moreton Corbet castle was probably built in the 12th or early 13th century. It was most likely to have been a fortified manor-house rather than a real castle, though it may have had a moat. Certainly it was never under serious attack at this time. (A very splendid example of a fortified manor-house on the Welsh borders can be seen at Stokesay). There would also have been huts for the villagers, though no trace of these remain. A chapel was consecrated at Moreton around 1140, by Bishop Clinton, who also founded Buildwas Abbey on the Severn.

              The later castle

The Corbets of Moreton Corbet managed to comethrough the Wars of the Roses unscathed. They were Yorkists, and Sir Roger Corbet was made a Knight of the Bath at the coronation of Edward IV’s Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, in 1465. His son, Sir Richard, fought for King Edward at the battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 and was knighted on the field. He attended the coronation of Richard III in 1483, but when Henry Tudor landed in Wales to claim the throne two years later, he followed his relative Sir William Stanley in changing sides. He paid homage to henry at Shrewsbury, and led 800 Shropshire men at the battle of Bosworth. Later, he helped to put down a rebellion in the north in 1489, and died three years later. His son, Sir Robert, then managed to avoid entanglement in the rebellion of Perkin Warbeck in 1495, which led to Sir William Stanley being executed for high treason.
By the dawn on the 16th century, the family were rich and influential gentry. As was expected of people of their class, they played their part in governing Shropshire as Justices of the Peace, sheriffs, officers of the county militia and Members of Parliament. The Welsh border country became peaceful: Wales was incorporated into the English system of government by an Act of Union, and the powers of the Marcher lords were abolished. There was now no need for fortifications in Shropshire. Instead the Corbets decided to display their wealth and importance by building themselves a home in the latest style.
The castle today owes its current appearance to Sir Andrew Corbet (died 1578) and his successors. Sir Andrew enlarged the gatehouse, 

improved the east range and built a Great Hall. The inspiration may have been his son, Robert; a traveller who had been to Italy and probably brought back news of the new fashions in design. But sadly, Robert died of the plague in London in 1583, and his brother Richard succeeded to the property. He then pulled down part of the Great Hall for new modifications, including on the upper floor a Great Chamber, Parlour and Gallery. 
   It appears that the work was never completed. William Camden, writing at the start of the 17th century, tells us:-
“Upon the same river Roden appears Moreton Corbet, a castle of the Corbets, where, within the memory of man,  Robert Corbet, to justify his curiosity in architecture, began a noble building, much more large and splendid than the former (viz: the castle); but death countermanded his designs, took him off, so his project was left unfinished.”

Disaster overtook Moreton Corbet in the Civil War. Most of Shropshire was held by gentry and nobles loyal to the King, including Sir Vincent Corbet, and the only town supporting the Parliamentary cause was Wem.  But in 1644 Prince Rupert took many of the Shropshire royalist troops to Yorkshire. Few returned from the disaster at the battle of Marston Moor, and the Parliamentary forces at Wem were able to strike out. A contemporary source, “Jehovah Jireh, or England’s Parliamentary Chronicle”, tells us that:-
“In September 1644, Major Bridgeman, Captain Maurice and their brave force, captured Moreton Corbet castle with resolute and desperate service: one man lost and some few wounded”. The castle was badly damaged, there was a fire, and a royalist counterattack was beaten off.

Sir Vincent had not been present at the fight, but as a committed royalist who had raised local forces for the crown, he was fined the very large sum of £1588, with additional penalties of £80 per year. This put him to such financial straits that he was obliged to sell of much of his land. He and his descendants ceased to live at Moreton Corbet, (though they could still be buried there); the family home in Shropshire now being at Acton Reynald, a short distance away. Sir Vincent died in 1656.
His son, another Sir Vincent, benefited from the restoration of the monarchy to the extent of being elected M.P. for Shropshire in 1679. Moreton Corbet castle it was left in the hands of a steward and allowed to decay further. In 1690 it was conveyed to John Kynaston, whose wife is buried there. Their son, Corbet Kynaston, was a notorious Jacobite, who was suspected of the 1715 rising; though of course the rebels never got anywhere near Shropshire. More seriously, he piled up enormous debts, which greatly exceeded his assets when he died in 1740. The situation had still not been sorted out six years later, and eventually an Act of Parliament had to be passed to allow his estates to be auctioned off.
   It was this which enabled Moreton Corbet to be bought in 1748 by a relative, Andrew Corbet of Shawbury Park. When his great-nephew, another Sir Andrew, inherited the estate in 1796 he drew up plans to restore the castle, but never put them into effect: instead an artist, Thomas Girtin, was commissioned to depict the buildings.

 In 1897 the castle was described as “a noble pile of ruins”. Today it is under the care of English Heritage..


1066   Battle of Hastings
1070   Roger de Montgomery made Earl of Shrewsbury, and brings members of the Corbet family to Shropshire
1086   the Domesday Book has Roger and Robert FitzCorbet holding manors in Shropshire under Earl Roger. Moreton is held, under Earl Roger, by Thorold, a Saxon
13th Century    The Corbet family inherit Moreton through marriage
1298   Sir Peter Corbet is recorded bearing the distinctive Corbet coat of arms.
1512   Robert Corbet of Moreton Corbet, a rich and well-connected gentleman, dies and is given a magnificent tomb
1529   Roger Corbet a Member of Parliament (again, 1536)
1547   Andrew Corbet knighted. He begins the lavish rebuilding of Moreton Corbet castle
1624   Andrew Corbet M.P. for Shropshire (again, 1628)
1644   Moreton Corbet stormed and badly damaged in Civil War. Sir Vincent Corbet is fined a huge sum and is forced to sell off much of his lands. The family cease to live at Moreton Corbet.
1748   Moreton Corbet bought by Andrew Corbet of Shawbury