Write Around The World – BBC 4


This second episode in Richard E Grant’s exploration of three areas of Europe and the books associated with them (lucky Richard E Grant – I always spend ages reading books about anywhere to which I’m travelling, but it’s now 20 months since I’ve been outside Britain) saw Richard travelling around the South of France.   The first book on his list was one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s less well-known books, “Travels with a donkey in the Cevennes”, about his own journeys.  Stevenson’s donkey had been called Modestine.  Hey, that rang a bell!  Yes, I’d definitely heard of that book.  Gosh, was I cultured and well-educated or what?  Then it dawned on me that the only reason I’d heard of it was that, in “Exploits of the Chalet Girls”, the Chalet School borrows a donkey to star in its Nativity Play, and Head Girl Jo Bettany nicknames it “Modestine” after the one in Stevenson’s book.  I hadn’t the first clue what the actual book was about, other than what it said in the title.  So much for being cultured and well-educated.  Oh well.

This sort of thing has happened a few times recently.  Another example was when an book from the 1860s, “Mopsa the Fairy”, was mentioned, and I thought I’d heard of it … until I realised that I only knew the name because it was given to one of Amy Ashe’s dolls in “What Katy Did Next”.  I always thought that Amy had just made it up.  Another of Amy’s dolls was called Effie Deans, and, whilst I do now know that Effie is a central character in Walter Scott’s “Heart of Midlothian”, I certainly didn’t when I first read the “Katy” books, and, TBH, I think I was into my teens before I realised that “Heart of Midlothian” was a book as well as a football team.  Oh, and yet another of Amy’s dolls was called Peg of Linkinvaddy, and I still don’t know where that name came from.  I’ve just tried doing a Google search on it, but, for some very strange reason, I got a load of answers about, er, male medical issues.

Then there was Ellen Tree, the name given by the March girls in “Little Women” to a fallen branch which they use as a pretend horse.  Ellen Tree was the name of a 19th century British actress.  Did you know that?  No, nor did I until recently.  I’m making myself sound ridiculously ignorant, aren’t I?  I may not have read the donkey book, but I read both “Kidnapped” and “Treasure Island” as a kid, and I can still recite most of “From A Railway Carriage” after being forced to learn it off by heart by an old-fashioned primary school teacher who thought that making kids learn poetry off by heart was still appropriate in the 1980s.

Anyway, we learnt a bit about the Cevennes, and how the Presbyterian-raised Stevenson got stressed out about having to kip in a Catholic monastery because there was nowhere else to stay.   Then we moved on to Marseille, and the prison which inspired Dumas to write “The Count of Monte Cristo”.  I know all about Dumas.  “One for all and all for one, Muskehounds are always ready” … er, OK, I did actually know the story of the Count of Monte Cristo!   Blue sky, blue sea.  Lucky Richard.

Next up, “Tender is the Night” by F Scott Fitzgerald.  Er, I’m afraid that I didn’t know this one.  I did once get a good mark for an essay about F Scott Fitzgerald, although I’m not sure why because I got completely off the point and started waffling about the American Civil War in the middle of it. I don’t really get Fitzgerald. I didn’t get that Leonardo di Caprio film adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” either.  Anyway, this gave Richard an excuse to swan about at very posh hotels on the French Riviera, so it made for rather good viewing.

And then on to Carol Drinkwater, who used to be in “All Creatures Great and Small”, and her books about growing olives in Provence, where she now lives with her French husband.  This was lovely.  I don’t actually like olives, but I love olive groves.  Not quite as much as I love lemon groves and orange groves, but even so.  Gosh, I do miss Southern Europe.  I would give a great deal to be in a Tuscan olive grove just now.  Please, please, let’s get these travel restrictions lifted soon.

And finally, Grasse, the perfume capital of the world.  Ah, lovely!  I love Grasse.  The book concerned was “Perfume”, by Patrick Suskind.  I didn’t know this one, but it sounded very sunny and romantic.  Er, no.  Apparently it was about a man who went around murdering young girls.  Why would you write about so nice a place as Grasse and make it so horrible a story?!   Oh well, we still got to see the parfumeries.

It was a very aesthetically-pleasing programme, and I love the idea of combining books and travel – it’s something I like to do myself.  I just feel sad that I’ve lost two years’ travel opportunities because of this horrible virus.  We only get the legal minimum number of days off work, so it’s not as if I’ll be able to make up for that at such time as, hopefully, overseas travel gets back to some sort of normality.  But it was nice to watch!

Versailles and Knightfall and the persecution of religious minorities


By a strange coincidence, both of these (thoroughly inaccurate!) historical dramas have chosen to include major sub-plots involving the persecution of religious minorities in France – in Versailles, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which led to hundreds of thousands of Huguenots leaving the country and is said to be when the term “refugees” originated, and, in Knightfall, the Great Exile of the Jews in 1306.  Versailles even cheekily but not inappropriately chose to show a character coming out with the famous line by Heinrich Heine – who, on the subject of religious discrimination, converted from Judaism to Protestantism because Jews were excluded from academic posts in Prussia – about how burning books leads to burning people, 136 years before it was written.

The “burning books” line always sounds as if it was about the Nazis: obviously, having been written in 1821, it wasn’t. It was actually about the Spanish Inquisition – which was closely associated with the Alhambra Decree of 1492, expelling Jews from Aragon and Castile and their subject territories, and the Expulsion of the Moriscos by their great-great-grandson Philip III in 1609-14.

It was hardly just France and Spain. Religious discrimination was practised across Europe. It’s often associated with the Middle Ages – burnings at the stake et al – and with the Reformation era, but it went on long after that.  Even countries generally considered fairly liberal practised legal and practical discrimination: Catholic emancipation in the United Kingdom (then, of course, including the whole of Ireland) didn’t come about until 1829, Catholics in the Netherlands suffered discrimination until the twentieth century, and Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants includes an interesting portrayal of the persecution of non-Lutheran Protestants in nineteenth century Sweden.  In most places, things were improving by the mid nineteenth century, helped by Napoleon’s secularisation policies, but the 1882 May Laws in the Russian Empire led to a wave of pogroms and the emigration of over two million Jews.

It’s not a problem that ever seems to go away. We don’t really get new religions developing any more, and religious minorities have tended to evolve into ethno-religious minorities, so it can be difficult to say whether the issues are about ethnicity or about religion, but the point is that minorities are still being discriminated against and even persecuted.  China’s clamping down on the Uighur Muslims.  The Rohingya Muslims are suffering horrific persecution in Burma/Myanmar: that and the barbaric treatment of the Yazidi people by so-called Islamic State – who have now turned on the Druze as well –  are probably the worst examples in recent years.  Christians have come under attack in Egypt and Nigeria.  Concerns have been expressed about the attitude of the right-wing Hindu government in India towards Sikhs and Muslims, and about the effect of the new Israeli constitution on the status of the Druze.  Just a few examples.  Even in the UK, you can’t turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper or glance at the internet without reading/hearing about someone accusing Jeremy Corbyn of anti-Semitism or Boris Johnson of Islamophobia.

Neither programme comes even remotely close to being historically accurate!   Versailles has a group of Huguenots (who for some reason all have North of England accents) plotting to assassinate Louis XIV … who has just found out that he and the Duc d’Orleans are not really the sons of Louis XIII but are in fact the products of an affair between Maria Teresa of Austria and Spain, Queen of France, and the Man in the Iron Mask. Knightfall, quite apart from featuring a pope who’d died several years before it’s set, has a major plot involving Princess Isabella (the She Wolf of France, she who would eventually marry Edward II, have an affair with Roger Mortimer and overthrow her husband) having an affair with a Prince Lluis of Catalunya, son of King and Queen of Catalunya … despite the fact that the Crown of Catalunya had been part of the Crown of Aragon for nearly 150 years by this time!  Not to mention the Queen of France having an affair with one of the Knights Templar.

But the fact that they are such utter twaddle – although quite entertaining, and I’ll rather miss Versailles now that it’s finished – actually makes it even more interesting that they’ve chosen to focus so much on something as serious as this.  Really, the two situations aren’t comparable, and, in terms of both numbers and impact elsewhere, the Edict of Fontainebleau/Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the Alhambra Decree would be a better comparison, but there’s nothing on about Spanish history at the moment.  And the Revocation wasn’t an instrument of expulsion: the Huguenots weren’t told to get out of France.  But their lives were made so miserable that most of them did.

Just going back to the impact of the Revocation, it had a big effect elsewhere, and nowhere more so than here. As well as the impact of the refugees who flooded into the British Isles – and had a very positive effect on the economy – the fear of what a Catholic monarch might do, and the way in which interested parties (to use a Jane Austen expression) used that fear, played a big part in bringing about the Glorious Revolution and everything associated with it.  The Great Exile didn’t really affect anywhere other than France – but it’s worth noting that the persecution of religious minorities in Spain and, later, the Russian Empire, had a big impact on international impressions of those countries, and that the flood of emigration had a big effect – as with the Huguenots, often a positive one – on the countries to which those emigrants went.

Are the events of 1306 and 1685 comparable in terms of motive?   Was any of it actually about actual religion/piety, for a kick off?  Not really.  There has always been an idea that Louis XIV was influenced by Madame de Maintenon, who was very Catholic and disliked Protestants for religious reasons.  That idea certainly came across in Versailles.  Why do people always want to blame women for what men do??  No-one’s ever suggested that Philip IV of France was henpecked into exiling the Jews, but I’ve certainly read articles suggesting that the Edict of Expulsion of Jews from England, in 1295, was influenced by Edward I’s mother, Eleanor of Provence.  I’m not buying any of that – and I don’t think any of it was actually about religion.

Philip, like Edward I, was probably largely motivated by money: he didn’t want to pay his debts to Jewish moneylenders, and he also grabbed the money and other assets which the exiled Jews were forced to leave behind. Louis wasn’t, though, to be fair.  France actually suffered economically as a result of the expulsion of the Huguenots, who included many skilled craftspeople.

Attempt to gain popularity, maybe, in the case of either or both? We’ve all seen how “populist” politicians seek to appeal to a certain section of public opinion by railing against religious minorities, and that’s very definitely nothing new.  Toleration of Huguenots, granted by Henri “Paris is worth a Mass” IV, once a Huguenot himself, was not popular amongst French Catholics.  The expulsion of Jews from Edward I’s England has been seen as a sop to the upper classes ahead of the imposition of a new tax, and the Great Exile (one of several expulsions of Jews from medieval France, but probably the one which had the most effect) probably went down pretty well with the Christian majority.  Again, though, I don’t think it was really that.  Religious minorities are an easy target, blamed for everything from heavy taxation in Polish-ruled Ukraine (i.e. at the time of the Khmelnytsky Massacres) to the Great Fire of London, but there was nothing particular of that sort going on in either 1306 or 1685.

No: it mainly seems to have been about power and control. Maybe not so quite much so in 1306, but definitely in 1685.  And you can say the same about the “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” idea in Alexander III and Nicholas II’s Russian Empire, the drive to eradicate Protestantism in the Habsburg Empire, and a million and one other examples.  Religion and control are very closely intertwined, and it’s a lot easier to control people when you’ve got religious uniformity – when you’ve got everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, in fact, and, as part of that, when you can make everyone feel that they’re all part of a whole.  Attacks on religious minorities by random groups of people are usually motivated by hatred, or just by wanting someone to blame for social and economic problems,  but, when it’s coming from the state, from the centre of power, it does tend to be about power and control.  And Louis XIV was very keen on power and control.

Of course, sometimes, power and control involve political leaders clashing with the power of the majority religion –Henry VIII and Napoleon – but that’s another story. And we get enough programmes about the Tudors and about the nineteenth century: it’s nice to see something different!   And, whilst this again is another story, the hunted, if they gain power, often become the hunted.  All those stories about the persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire – and then, once the Roman Empire became Christian, the Christians set about persecuting minority Christian sects and everyone else!

The Great Exile and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes are far from being the worst examples of religious persecution in the history of Europe, or the history of the world. They aren’t even the worst examples of religious persecution in the history of France – the Albigensian Crusade was probably that, and the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre also springs to mind.  There were no massacres, no mass rapes and no autos da fe.  And there weren’t any gas chambers … the Nazi genocide isn’t really to be compared with the general history of religious persecution, but I want to say something (in case anyone’s actually reading this!) about the current trend for the use of very incendiary language and inappropriate comparisons with events from history, and referencing the actions of the Nazis is one of the main forms of it.

We are currently seeing a very worrying rise in far right attitudes, in many countries, but the use by the media and by individuals of inappropriate comparisons with the atrocities of the past is, in addition to being inappropriate, extremely unhelpful.  It increases tensions which really don’t need increasing – and it’s also rather insulting to the victims of those atrocities.

If you’re talking about the persecution of the Rohingya, by all means compare it to the worst incidences of persecution in the past. But yelling and screaming about how Donald Trump’s immigration policies are reminiscent of Nazi Germany isn’t helpful.  The separation of children from their parents is beyond disgusting, and deserves to be condemned in very strong terms – but not in terms which reference the murder of seventeen million people.  The blockade of the Gaza Strip has created an appalling humanitarian crisis, and is completely unacceptable, but, again, referencing the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany is completely inappropriate.

The other week, racist graffiti was daubed on the home of a black family in Rochdale. That’s utterly appalling, and I hope that the victims are getting whatever support they need and that the perpetrators are caught and locked up, but I was rather taken aback to hear someone telling a local TV news crew that we seemed to be going back to the days of slavery.  Graffiti is not comparable with the evils of slavery.

There is undoubtedly a problem with anti-Semitism within elements of the Labour Party, and Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t really have made a worse mess of handling it if he’d tried. But is it really appropriate to talk about him being an “existential threat to Jewish life” in the UK?  He’s hardly planning to re-issue the 1295 Edict of Expulsion, is he?  And Boris Johnson’s comments about burkas were extremely offensive, and have caused a completely unwarranted row – I appreciate that he was talking about the bans on burkas imposed in several Continental countries, but it isn’t an issue here, so why make it one? – but he was actually opposing the imposition of bans on burkas, unacceptable as his language was.

I wish people would just tone down the language with all of this.   Especially when it comes to comparisons with events of the past.  Possibly don’t watch Versailles and Knightfall, if you’re after an accurate idea of what went on in the past.  But do think about some of the horrors which they’re addressing, and the many other lessons of history which we need to learn and ensure are never, ever repeated.  Think about all those people who were driven from their homes, and their home countries, in 1306 and 1685.  Think about the current series of Who Do You Think You Are, which has shown both Marvin Humes and Shirley Ballas finding out that some of their ancestors were enslaved, and Robert Rinder learning about his grandfather’s experiences and the loss of many of his relatives in the Holocaust.  Please don’t reference those events, when talking about today’s events, unless it really is appropriate to do so.  But please also remember just how bad it can get.  There’s a lot of unpleasant stuff going on at the moment.  It needs to be stopped.  Far too often, it hasn’t been.



Knightfall – History Channel


A Downton Abbey reunion, the quest for the Holy Grail, and some genuinely thought-provoking points about life in medieval Paris.  Quite an interesting combination, and it was much better than I was expecting.  The pun in the title is awful, but it refers to the fall of the Knights Templar – the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, to give them their title, although poor they most certainly were not!

There are very few organisations about which there are as many myths, legends and conspiracy theories as there are about the Knights Templar. Did they have the Holy Grail, and bury it under Rosslyn Chapel?  Or maybe in Valencia Cathedral?  Or the Basilica of San Isidoro in Leon?  Did they have the Turin Shroud?  Or another shroud, the Sovran Cloth, which supposedly ended up in Glastonbury?  Were they somehow involved with the Ark of the Covenant, and is it buried in Ethiopia (and does that all sound a bit Indiana Jones?)?  Is the fact that Philip IV of France arrested their leaders in France on Friday, 13th October 1307 the reason that Friday 13th is supposed to be an unlucky day?  Was it a Curse of the Templars which caused the male line of the Capetian dynasty to die out – leading, incidentally, to the Hundred Years’ War?  Hey, did some of them even escape from France and sail to North America?  They feature in books as diverse as Ivanhoe and The Da Vinci Code.  People think there are a lot of conspiracy theories around now?  They’ve got nothing on the stories that have been told about the Templars over the years!

So what are the actual known facts? The Templars, founded in 1119, in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, and so named because their original HQ was on Temple Mount, were originally supposed to protect pilgrims.  Helped by the backing of St Bernard of Clairvaux, they became the “in” charity of the 12th century, and developed into both a powerful fighting order and an incredibly wealthy and successful business organisation – the world’s first multinational corporation, really.  The Temple Bar area of London, and the Inner and Middle Temple Inns of Chancery, for example, get their name from the Knights Templar, who used to own the land there.  So do Temple Newsam, the stately home in Leeds, Temple Sowerby near Penrith, and numerous other places.  They even owned the entire island of Cyprus, at one point: they moved their HQ there after the last Christian possessions in the Holy Land fell.  But then Cyprus was taken by the Egyptian Mamluks, in 1302-3.  So where did the Templars go from there?

Well, in 1307, as already mentioned, Philip IV of France arrested the leaders of the French Templars. And a load of others too.  They were forced to confess to all sorts of heresy and corruption, and their leaders Jacques de Molay and Geoffroi de Charnay were burned at the stake – on a scaffold in the middle of the Seine, in front of Notre Dame, just for extra drama.  The order was formally disbanded by Pope Clement V, under pressure from Philip IV, in 1312, and its assets transferred to the Order of the Knights Hospitallers.  To this day, nobody really knows what went on.  Did the Templars just disappear into history, just like that?

The series opened with the Siege of Acre in 1291. Fascinating place, Acre (Akko) – lots of remains of Crusader buildings to be seen there. The Crusaders lost control of Jerusalem in 1187, but took Acre a few years later, and it became their capital city.  Once it fell to the Mamluks in 1291 –Robyn Young’s book Crusade covers this brilliantly – the Crusaders were pretty much finished in the Holy Land, although they did hold some minor possessions there until 1303.

It didn’t actually look very promising at first. The scenes of the fighting and the Templars fleeing, filmed in Croatia, were just a bit too gloriously technicoloured, somehow – it made me think of a computer game rather than a TV series.  And no-one seemed interested in their property, in Jerusalem or even in their comrades, only in protecting the Holy Grail – which, according to this, the Templars did indeed hold.  It’s fiction, OK!  Even the Mamluks seemed more interested in the Holy Grail than anything else!   It looked as if it was going to be a cross between a 1980s action movie (not that I didn’t love the Indiana Jones films and the Romancing the Stone films, but I was looking for medieval history with this!) and some kind of semi-fantasy thing.  Anyway, the Grail was on a ship which was hit by flaming arrows and promptly sank.  We saw the Grail (and wouldn’t you have thought they’d at least have put it in a box!) sinking deep into Davy Jones’ Locker.  Oh dear.

Fast forward to … well, it wasn’t 100% clear when. Certainly before 1307, as the Templars were still going.  It seemed to be the time of the Great Expulsion of the Jews, which was 1306 (whereas England only had the one Edict of Expulsion, in 1290, there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in France, but the one during Philip IV’s reign was definitely in 1306), but the reigning Pope was Boniface VIII, who died in 1303.  Hmm.

Boniface, the Jews of France and the Templars all fell foul of Philip’s quest for money and power. There are all sorts of theories about the Templars being dissolved because they’d uncovered some mysterious secret, or were engaged in nefarious practices, but, with apologies for being boring, it was probably simply because Philip didn’t like the idea of any organisation other than the Crown holding so much wealth and power, and also because he owed the Templars a fortune.  He’d come into conflict with the Church for the same reason.  That would ultimately lead to the Schism, and had already led, in 1303, to poor old Boniface being tortured by Philip’s agents and dying shortly afterwards.   And Philip owed a fortune to France’s Jewish community, as well as to the Templars: we saw him praising the Jews of France, especially for their work as doctors, but he wanted to get out of paying his debts.   He chucked out the Lombard bankers as well.  Yes, he owed them a fortune too!

The Templars were still going, but they didn’t seem to be doing very much other than chasing women and acting as loan sharks. Our hero, Brother Landry, played by Tom Cullen from Downton Abbey (the one with whom Lady Mary spent the night in a hotel, before deciding not to marry him), was not happy about this.  It was a bit of a Downton Abbey reunion, really!   Julian Ovenden (who played another of Lady Mary’s spurned suitors) is in it as well, playing Guillaume de Nogaret, Philip’s nasty Chancellor; and Pope Boniface VIII (who will turn up in the next episode) is played by Jim “Carson” Carter.   Anyway, Brother Landry pointed out that the Templars should really have been doing something useful – such as protecting the Jews, who were being given a lot of grief (the Templars are indeed known to have protected French Jews, although more because they had a lot of Jewish tenants than anything else), helping the poor in general, or, you know, trying to retake Jerusalem.  Landry is going to make himself “useful” by having an affair with the Queen, incidentally, but we haven’t got to that bit yet.  This is not true, by the way – not least because Landry didn’t actually exist!

Anyway, the Templars did heroically intervene to save the Jews of Paris, who, having been thrown out of their homes, were then ambushed whilst on the road. However, they couldn’t save their own leader, Godfrey.  Having seen a piece of fruit lurking on a building, which was apparently a sign connected with the Holy Grail (don’t ask me), he’d gone chasing off, only to be ambushed and killed, by a group of nasties who also murdered some poor young village girl whose fiancé had tried to help Godfrey.  Landry became the new Master and Commander of the Paris Temple, and found out that, previously unbeknownst to him but known to Godfrey, the Holy Grail was actually in France.  So now, of course, our Templar pals are going to try to find it.

It’s an interesting mix of fact and fiction – and not just fiction as in having fictional characters, but as in myth/legend, with the quest for the Holy Grail tied in with the very real events of the Great Expulsion of the Jews and the suppression of the Templars. The title does sound more like a computer game or a kids’ fantasy series than historical fiction, and the opening scenes weren’t that promising, but, once it got going, I genuinely enjoyed it.  It was much better than I’d expected!




Versailles (final season) – BBC 2


It’s such a shame that the first series of this was so silly, and made it a bit of a laughing stock, because it really has improved … and now this, set at the end of the 1670s, and featuring (yay!!) the early days of chocolate consumption across Europe, is going to be the last series, meaning that we won’t get all the exciting stuff that lies just ahead.   (Or, indeed, see what happens to the Parisian proletarian with the Manchester accent.)  1683, the Siege of Vienna.  1685, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.  1688, the Glorious Revolution, and the departure of James II and VII to Paris.  1688-1697, the Nine Years’ War.  1701-1714, the War of the Spanish Succession.  Yes, all right, all right, I do know that, apart from the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, none of those events actually took place in France, but Louis XIV was up to his neck in some of it, and the fact that he wasn’t up to his neck in the rest of it was arguably crucial as well.

And they’ve scrapped the “Inside Versailles” add-on, whereby each episode used to be followed by a brief discussion of the historical background. OK, it was a bit patronising, but I still quite enjoyed it.

This third and final series of Versailles opens at the end of the Franco-Dutch War of 1672-78, with Philippe, Duke of Orleans, returning as a war hero.  I have always disliked Philippe, because I’ve always thought of him as Minette (Princess Henriette Anne of England and Scotland)’s baddie husband who treated her badly and was alleged (admittedly unfairly) to have had her poisoned.  However, I have actually softened towards him because of the way he’s portrayed in this by Alexander Vlahos – we’re getting the lighter side of him, but we’re also getting to see his intelligence and his military prowess.  And maybe this is the first time I’ve really seen him from the French viewpoint – it is rather hard not to look at things primarily from an English viewpoint when you’re reading English history books!  Unfortunately, in this series his main storyline seems to be an obsession with the Man in the Iron Mask.  OK, there was a prisoner in an iron mask, but he had nothing to do with Philippe and I don’t know what the scriptwriters had to bring him into this for.

Oh well.

And then we’ve got Guillaume, the cobbler who fought alongside Philippe – played by our very own Matthew McNulty. And his sister, played by Jenny Platt, aka Violet, the former Coronation Street barmaid who had a baby with her GBF Sean Tully and then went off with Mike Baldwin’s grandson.  They’re fictitious, but they do represent Parisian life outside the court, and I’m quite enjoying their story.  If “enjoying” is the word, given that the life of the lower classes under the ancient regime wasn’t really much fun.

Back at court, various Austrian Habsburgs, notably the Emperor Leopold himself, are visiting. The Holy Roman Empire was allied with the Dutch during the war of the 1670s, and are now in a very weak position … and, come the 1680s, Louis is going to take advantage of that to conquer most of what’s now Luxembourg, and is going to do absolutely nothing to help the Empire in arguably the biggest crisis in its history, the Ottoman Siege of Vienna in 1683.  The Poles are going to claim all the credit for driving the Ottomans off, which always annoys me because Eugene of Savoy deserves far more credit than he’s actually going to get.  But we aren’t going to see that, because this is the final series.  Boo!!

And we’re already getting all the talk about Charles II of Spain, his medical problems and his lack of an heir, and the fact that both the French and the Austrians (the Bavarians haven’t been mentioned) have got an eye on grabbing Spain for themselves. This will ultimately lead to the War of the Spanish Succession, which will see Britain surpass France as the world’s leading military power (hurrah!), Madrid and Barcelona at each other’s throats (some things never change), and Sicily, Sardinia and roughly-what’s-now-Belgium, not to mention parts of Canada, being passed about like parcels.   Oh, and the building of Blenheim Palace.  But we’re not going to get that far.  Gah!!

We also have the Huguenot lady doing a lot of preaching at court. Come 1685, Louis will revoke the Edict of Nantes, promulgated by Henri IV – “Paris is worth a Mass” – in 1598.  Hundreds of thousands of Huguenots will leave France.  Some of them will end up in Manchester.  And Bolton.  And Halifax.  Oh, and London.  And various other parts of Britain.  Others will end up in North America, in South Africa, and in various mainly Protestant parts of mainland Europe.  It’s a major population movement.  The right of return – no, that it not a 20th or 21st century thing – was granted in 1790, during the Revolutionary period, and was reiterated in 1889 , but it was a bit late by then.  It really is a very important part of European and world history.  But we’re not going to get that far.  I keep saying that.

The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and the fact that Louis had thoroughly annoyed William of Orange by defeating him in the war of the 1670s and then barging around in parts of the Low Countries in the early 1680s, were two of the contributory factors in the Glorious Revolution. Yes, OK, I know that it wasn’t very glorious for either the Scottish Highlands or most of Ireland, but it was probably a pretty good thing for England, Wales and the Scottish Lowlands … er, and this isn’t the time for the de facto/de jure/social contract/whatever debate.  Louis did actually offer to send an army to help James, but James said no.  However, he did have French help when he landed in Ireland in 1689, at the start of the campaign which would end in the Battle of the Boyne.   And French support for the Jacobites would remain an issue throughout the Nine Years’ War (which was fought in America, as well as in Europe) and beyond.

Obviously the Glorious Revolution and its aftermath is a rather sensitive subject in Scottish and Irish history, and I don’t think any TV company would choose to cover it from the viewpoint of either James or William for that reason, but it could have been covered from a French angle. Sorry, I know that sounds ridiculously Anglocentric!  But no.  There will be no season four.

Boo. Mind you, the scriptwriters would probably have chosen to ignore all of this, and write about nude paintings or mysterious prisoners, or Athenais de Montespan, with whom they seem to be rather obsessed, instead. However, the departure of Athenais for a convent did put Louis in such a strop that – I assume this was fictional, but it was good!-  he ordered one of his lackeys to organise a big party featuring something special, and the something special turned out to be “the medicine of the Aztecs” – chocolate!   Drinking chocolate, at this point.  It became popular in Spain after the conquest of the Aztec Empire, and then spread (chocolate spread … sorry, bad pun) across Europe.  Chocolate bars only really got going in the mid-19th century, thanks to Fry’s of Bristol, who later merged with Cadbury’s.  I now appear to have got completely off the point, but chocolate is always worth writing about.

It’s not exactly been brilliant, and I don’t suppose this series is going to get that much better. And some of the early episodes were just cringeworthy.  But it’s such an important, and, in English, often neglected, period of history that I really would have liked to see it carry on throughout the whole of the reign of Louis XIV.  But, alas, it is not to be.  Maybe console yourself with a cup of hot chocolate?

Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran


This isn’t actually about Madame Tussaud’s (I cannot make myself omit the apostrophe), the tourist attraction: it’s a very interesting and original angle on the French Revolution.  In terms of historical accuracy where Madame Tussaud (nee Marie Grosholtz) is concerned, it probably doesn’t score that highly: it’s based on her memoirs, which were in all likelihood wildly exaggerated, and Michelle Moran’s fictionalised them even further by giving Marie an invented love interest, a non-existent member of the Charles balloonist family.  However, the main players in the French Revolution, and the events of 1788 to 1794, are all here in all their infamy, and it’s really a very good read.   It probably works best if you forget that you know the name Madame Tussaud at all, and just think of the main character as the means through which the story’s told.

Marie Grosholtz was the apprentice of one Philippe Curtius, euphemistically described as her uncle but actually her mother’s lover.  Their wax sculptures became very well-known in Paris and, so the story goes, Curtius hosted a popular salon at which all the future big names of the Revolution were frequent guests.  Robespierre, Danton, Desmoulins, Marat, Mirabeau … the whole gang.  Even Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette made appearances.  And, through the demand for her waxworks, which were often commissioned by people wanting images of themselves or their loved ones, Marie even got to meet the Marquis de Sade.

In fact, she met anyone who was anyone in 1780s Paris!  She – so she claimed – was appointed as a tutor to Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elisabeth in order to teach her how to make wax  sculptures of the saints, and consequently became very close both to Madame Elisabeth and to Marie Antoinette.

Then, come 1789 and the following years, when all hell broke loose, she was expected to make wax sculptures of prominent figures killed during the Revolution.  Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette themselves.  And Marat, when Charlotte Corday stabbed him to death in the bath.  Suspected of being a royalist sympathiser, she was imprisoned during the Terror – and, in prison, became pally with Rose de Beauharnais, the future Empress Josephine.

  1. It’s really not very likely that Marie Grosholtz, later Madame Tussaud, was really right in the middle of everything in the way that she claimed! But the story does enable the reader to see all the major figures of the Revolution, on both sides, as all the major events were going on.  And the story which the book tells is how the French Revolution went horribly wrong almost from the off, and descended into the horror and bloodshed of the Terror.

Marie Grosholtz, as portrayed in the book, is a calm and sensible person who can see what utter rubbish is being spoken by people on both sides, and how dangerous that is.  It’s the same whether it’s the ancient regime in charge or the radical revolutionaries are in charge – there’s a self-important, self-righteous political elite, based in and around the capital city, which is only interested in its own ends and couldn’t give two hoots what the ordinary people want and need.   And an awful lot of fake news is being spread.  Hmm.  Sounds familiar, somehow, doesn’t it?

The lesson is how very easily things get out of hand.  It doesn’t take much for everything to disintegrate and horrific bloodshed to result.  How many times has it happened?  And what happened during the French Revolution is still one of the best-known examples.  It’s always a story worth telling, and this is quite an original take on it.   It isn’t gratuitously gory, but it really does give a sense of just how horrendous it was.  Liberte, egalite and fraternite?  Not bloody likely!

It shouldn’t have been like that.  It kicked off with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  But it went horribly wrong.   This book really does give a very good sense of how and why that happened.

A few minor things.   All right, the book was in English, but “Citizeness” sounds clumsy in English, and I’d rather that the author had used “Citoyenne”, which is the more familiar term anyway.  The same with the months of the French Republican calendar.  But that’s just personal preference.  And I really do wish that she’d explained that Henri Charles was her own fictional creation!

If you pick up this book expecting to learn the history of the waxworks museums, then you might be disappointed.   But, if you want something a bit different about the French Revolution, give it a go.

Paris by Edward Rutherfurd


Word PressThis is another of Edward Rutherfurd’s books telling the history of a particular place through the lives of several generations of families from different orders of its society. I’ve been meaning to read it for ages, and French Open fortnight seemed as good a time as any for it ;-). His first books, starting with Sarum, went in chronological order, but he now seems to’ve decided that he prefers to jump about all over the place; and it just doesn’t work as well. Maybe I’m missing something, but surely it makes more sense to progress chronologically through the centuries than to have a chapter set in 1883 followed by a chapter set in 1261, which is then in turn followed by a chapter set in 1885. The whole book jumps around like this. 1462 to 1897 to 1572. 1991 to 1637 to 1914. 1936 to 1794 and then back to 1936. Why??

The book’s well-written – apart from the use of some very modern expressions which don’t quite work in a historical context – and the characters come across well, but the jumping around just doesn’t work for me!   I found the choice of which parts of the history of Paris to include and which to leave out odd, as well. Obviously you can’t include every single major event/development or the book would go on for ever, but there seem to be some obvious things missing.

He hasn’t gone back further than 1261, so the Gauls, the Romans and the Franks are all completely absent. OK, maybe that was to stop the book from getting too long, but, having started in 1261, surely all the main things after then should have been included. The Hundred Years’ War is mentioned in retrospect, but not actually included as such. Even more bizarrely, the Storming of the Bastille is missing. There is a chapter set in 1794, but I would have expected a lot more about the Revolution. Nothing about 1830 or 1848 either. OK, I could have lived with that, but the entire Napoleonic era’s missing as well! He’s presumably got his reasons for steering clear of the more obvious times/events, but … well, maybe I’m too much of a Victorian Whig historian, but surely you want the big moments in there? Or is it just me?

An awful lot of the book was set during the Belle Epoque – not including the Paris Commune, although that was frequently referred back to, but during the period between the end of the Franco-Prussian War and the outbreak of the First World War. Maybe he really wanted to write a book about that, and not about the history of Paris as a whole. That’s the way it came across, anyway.

I sound as if I’m being super-critical, and I don’t mean to be, because it’s a genuinely interesting and enjoyable book, but it just didn’t really do what it said on the tin, and what his earlier books have done. Too much jumping around! I’ve had a look through the reviews on Amazon and see that quite a few people have complained that they didn’t like the jumping around format, so fingers crossed that he’ll stick to writing chronologically in future!  Maybe I am just too Victorian-Whiggish, or maybe I’m just plain boring, but leaping from just after the end of the Hundred Years’ War to the Belle Epoque and then leaping from the Belle Epoque back to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is a very weird way of going about things!  Order, order …










Versailles – BBC 2


Word PressThis wasn’t quite as OTT – “soft porn in cravats and tights” seems to be the expression doing the rounds – as I expected; but, unfortunately, it just wasn’t very entertaining. The best case scenario would have been that it was like The Borgias, which was the same sort of idea – power, intrigue, over-sexed-up, not too much regard for historical accuracy – but was well-written, well-acted, didn’t take itself too seriously and made for genuinely good watching. Sadly, Versailles wasn’t a patch on that. The Carry On films about Henry VIII, the French Revolution and Cleopatra were utterly ridiculous, but they were also brilliantly entertaining. Versailles just wasn’t. It was silly but it wasn’t meant to be silly, and nothing much happened until the end.

Some of it was just … well, stupid. Louis XIV had a dream in which he, looking rather like Adam Ant, and Athenais de Montespan, wearing some sort of 1970s loose white dress, ran through the (as yet unbuilt) Hall of Mirrors in slow motion. It looked like a 1980s advert for a naff brand of toiletries. Then he went galloping off on his horse, a silly grin on his face, and was confronted by three wolves. It was a scene which would have worked brilliantly in one of the Chronicles of Narnia – I was half-expecting Aslan to turn up with a magic bow and arrow – but didn’t work even remotely well in a programme about the 17th century French court. Also, I know that moaning about the English dialogue is a bit daft as obviously they wouldn’t have been speaking English at all, but could the writers not at least have tried to make it sound like a period drama. “We have to go” and “You’ve got my back” … seriously?!

Then it finished up with the black baby storyline. Well, at least that was a bit of drama! It’s funny how these strange stories about royalty come about. It’d be understandable if they were all from the Middle Ages, when there were all sorts of strange stories about all sorts of things doing the rounds, but so many of them are far more recent. Was George III married to Hannah Lightfoot? Did Alexander I of Russia fake his own death so that he could go off and wander around the countryside as a mystic? No, of course not. Did Louis XIV’s queen, Maria Teresa of Spain, have an affair with her black dwarf and give birth to a mixed-race child who then became an abbess – “The Black Nun of Moret”, so the story goes (and apparently an American playwright has recently written a play about it, totally unconnected to the story being revived in Versailles)? No, of course not.  “The Black Nun of Moret” did exist, and apparently she claimed to have royal connections, and this somehow seems to have got tangled up with reports from Versailles about the queen, who would not have been having any affairs with anyone, giving birth to a baby (who, like five of her six children, sadly died young) who had a dark complexion, this actually being a purplish-red-looking face presumably due to either a difficult birth or some sort of medical condition. Still, even though it’s not true, at least it was more interesting than most of the rest of the programme.

The one character who did manage to come across as being quite interesting, actually, was Monsieur, the king’s brother. Being Terribly English and therefore used to looking at the court of Louis XIV in the 1660s from the point of view of the court of Charles II in the 1660s, I only ever really think of Monsieur as being the rotten husband who made Minette (Henrietta Anne) unhappy. She was a pretty rotten wife as well, but it’s always him, because he was gay/bisexual, who gets the blame. He was seeming quite an attractive character until we saw him attacking Minette towards the end of the programme – but, sadly, that’s probably not inaccurate. He really is quite interesting, though. The gallant soldier who distinguished himself in battle … and spent a fortune on high-heeled shoes!   You couldn’t make him up.

Fabien Marchal, the Nasty Henchman, wasn’t bad either; and the fictional would-be-female-doctor character caught the attention too; but Louis himself was rather insipid, and so was the programme in general. It’ll make headlines because of the “soft porn in cravats and tights” thing, but there wasn’t even all that much of that. These sorts of programmes can be very good, in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. This one, so far, just isn’t. However, it was only the first episode, and, hey, maybe it’ll get better!

The Real Versailles – BBC 2


Word PressCardboard dolls, kissy-kissy noises and dressing up.   It’s bad enough that Channel 5 dumbs everything down like that, but now the BBC are doing it as well. Oh well. The much-discussed “Versailles” drama series, which the previews have made us well aware is not intended to be a documentary, starts tonight, and this programme, presented by Lucy Worsley (who seems to be utterly obsessed with dressing up) and Helen Castor was intended to give us the real story ahead of all the bodice-ripping.

I had to keep reminding myself that it was called “The Real Versailles” rather than “The Reign of Louis XIV”, and therefore not to moan about the fact that it didn’t cover the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the War of the Spanish Succession, Colbert’s financial reforms, etc etc.  As far as covering life at Louis XIV’s Versailles went, it was really rather good – including espionage, financial matters and culture as well as the king’s personal life and the daily life of the courtiers, and how the systems introduced by Louis brought about a unified France, although as a result a very highly-controlled France, and how France became the cultural leader of Europe during his time.

He really is a fascinating figure, and his was a very long and interesting reign. Do we in Britain still see him as the epitome of the Continental, Catholic absolute monarch and warmonger? Probably, but I think we probably admire him as well.   He’s like that saying which is being used a lot since Mourinho was appointed manager of United – “Hated, adored, never ignored” ;-).

He’s one of the monarchs. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in England, Gustavus Adolphus and Charles XII in Sweden, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great in Russia … the monarchs! Louis XIV is one of the most familiar figures in European history, and his actions affected not only France but many other countries too. It’s a shame that this programme was presented in such a dumbed-down way – for crying out loud, cardboard dolls!! – but it was interesting, and this coming series, whilst it’ll probably have those of us who consider historical accuracy to be supremely important weeping into our late evening cups of tea, is going to get a lot of people talking about a very interesting period in history. Bring it on!!


Daughter of Catalonia by Jane MacKenzie


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Most of this book’s set in Northern Catalunya, i.e. the part that’s legally part of France, rather than part of Spain, in the 1950s, and tells the story of a young woman from a well-to-do background in England going to the village in Northern Catalunya where she spent the first few years of her life with her father, a Republican refugee and Resistance fighter from “Spanish” Catalunya, and her half-English, half-French mother, and what she finds out there about events during the Second World War.

The main character does sometimes sound as if she belongs in some sort of Girls’ Own novel – nasty strict grandparents, posh family home – rather than a novel about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War and what they did to the people of a small (fictional) fishing village – but, especially if you overlook that, it’s quite a good read. This is a part of the world where the two wars overlapped and intertwined, and that comes across very well in this book, particularly regarding the plight of the refugees who fled into France from Spain. Just wandering slightly off the point for a moment, there was something nagging in the back of my mind about Eric Cantona and Catalan refugees fleeing to France, and Wikipedia has helpfully reminded me that, yes, Cantona’s mother’s family were Republican refugees who left Spanish Catalunya for France. Not that that’s got anything to do with this book, but it’s a point about the plight of those forced to flee Spain after Franco’s victory, and more of them were from Catalunya than from any other part of Spain.

In addition to the political elements, the book involves, inevitably a romance, and also the discovery of dark secrets. There must have been so many secrets after the Second World War ended … personal secrets – an affair, a child whose father wasn’t his mother’s husband – and darker secrets about treachery and betrayal, sometimes amongst friends and neighbours. It’s not the best book ever written, maybe a bit too light for the subject matter, but it’s an interesting read about a region and a time in history not often covered in novels in English.

Agnes Sorel: Mistress of Beauty by Princess Michael of Kent


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Princess Michael of Kent can write very well, but I’ve found that her novels aren’t as good as her non-fiction books; and this particular novel, the second in the “Anjou” trilogy, was weaker than the previous one. Some of it was interesting, but it was written in a rather simplistic style – a bit reminiscent of Jean Plaidy, but Jean Plaidy did it a lot better! – and in the present tense, and I sometimes felt as if I was reading a Peter and Jane book :-).   Also, I was rather bemused when she referred to John of Gaunt as a former King of England! You’d think that a member of the Royal Family, even one by marriage, would manage not to make a mistake like that!

Agnes Sorel, mistress of Charles VII of France, was the first of the “official” royal mistresses at the French court … and also a direct ancestress of Princess Michael, who, as an understandable result, seems to be rather biased towards her, and kept talking about her beauty and elegance and so on. I’m not sure what’s supposed to be elegant about wandering around in a dress with your bust hanging out of it (there’s an interesting picture on Wikipedia!), though! Maybe it was the overly simplistic style of writing or maybe it’s just that not enough is known of Agnes Sorel’s life to make a good story, but I didn’t feel that I got to know the character all that well. I think it probably was the style of writing, because a fair amount does seem to be known about her life, and about her death by alleged poisoning, and a good author of historical fiction will flesh out the facts and explain what they’ve done in an afterword.

On a more positive note, it was interesting to see various other characters at times of their lives which aren’t the best-known times of their lives, if that makes sense. I’m being Terribly English here and looking at French history from an English viewpoint, but I would generally think of Charles VII as the Dauphin in the time of Joan of Arc, of his son, the future Louis XI, as the Universal Spider making the Treaty of Picquigny with Edward IV, and, of course, of Margaret of Anjou (a lady who rather unfairly gets a very bad press in England) as the leader of the Lancastrian cause whilst Henry VI was out of it due to his severe mental health problems. So it made a change to “see” them all at the French court in the 1440s.

I’ve read the first two books in this trilogy, so I shall at some point read the third, which has recently been published, but it’s a shame that Princess Michael’s excellent style of writing non-fiction hasn’t come across into her novels.  Could do better!