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