The Abbey of Alet-les-Bains

Often described as one of the most beautiful ruins in France (and that’s saying something as far as ruins go) the Abbey of Alet-les-Bains nestles in a sheltered spot in the High Valley of the Aude in the centre of the little town of Alet-les-Bains.

 

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It is generally thought to date from c813, founded by Béra, the Viscount of Razès for the Benedictine order.

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During its early years the Abbey flourished. In the 11th century it was endowed with a fragment of the True Cross of the Lord. The monks received a visit from Pope Urban himself in 1096 and the abbey’s possessions increased substantially. During the 12th century it became an influential and popular site for pilgrims.

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Just when everything was running smoothly, in 1197 the abbot, Pons Amiel died. As the abbey was founded by the Viscount de Razès it fell to him, according to custom, to appoint the new abbot. Unfortunately the Viscount was only nine years old. His guardian Bertrand de Saissac took on the responsibility on the young Viscount’s behalf.

However the monks elected their own candidate without reference to Bertrand and elected Bernard de Saint-Férréol. Bertrand was less than happy with the monks’ choice and threw Bernard out of the abbey.

And this is where the plot thickens because there are two slightly different versions as to what happened next and both are a bit grisly.

One version reveals that Bertrand appointed his own candidate, Boson who then had the body of poor old Pons Amiel exhumed, dressed him in all his abbatiale regalia, sat him in the abbot’s chair and tried the corpse under church law and condemned him. But for what? To what?

Apparently these trials, strange as they seem, were not uncommon. There is one documented case of a Pope suffering a post-mortem trial and condemned to suffer posthumous mutilation. Since he had been dead for quite a while one wonders how this was carried out!

The second version of this tale follows along similar lines. However in this version Bertrand dis-inters Pons Amiel, places him on the abbot’s throne and gathers together those monks who supported his choice of Boson. Under the eyes of the corpse these few monks elected Boson. After he was elected Boson sent a sweetener…er…important donation to the archbishop of Narbonne who confirmed his election.

But this story doesn’t quite end here.

In 1222 Conrad, the Pope’s legate condemned Bozon (again – for what?) and ordered that all the monks be chased from the abbey. The abbey was secularised and became a dependence of the church of Narbonne.

There was a happy ending for those monks who had not supported Boson. They appealed direct to the Pope who set up an enquiry and a year later in 1223 the abbey was restored to the monks.

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‘Like an Owl of the Desert – Lady Anne Clifford

In 1590 at Skipton Castle in Yorkshire the Countess of Cumberland, Margaret Russell gave birth to a daughter, Anne. Her father was George Clifford one of England’s heros; explorer, commander of ships during the Spanish Armada, favourite and champion of Queen Elizabeth I. However, whatever his public reputation, privately he was not much of a husband and father.

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Skipton Castle Gateway

George Clifford died in 1605 when his daughter was just fifteen. His final act of neglect was to disinherit his daughter of all the land, titles and possessions of the Clifford estates. Why he did this is not clear. Perhaps he felt that the responsibilities were too much for a young lady to carry. The estate was substantial encompassing the old county of Westmoreland and parts of North Yorkshire. Five castles stood within the boundaries – Skipton to the south, Brougham in the north  with Appleby, Brough and Pendragon in between – in all some 90,000 acres.He willed his estate to his brother, Anne’s uncle Francis and his brother’s male heirs. The problem was that legally, he could not disinherit his daughter. By an entail made by an earlier Clifford, the estates were to be left to direct descendants regardless of gender. In effect George Clifford’s will was invalid and the fight was on!

George had reckoned without his daughter’s persistence, even stubborness and her very acute sense of what was due to her. Together with her mother they start a legal action in the earl marshall’s court which is dismissed. A year later in 1607 they demolish her uncle’s case and the judges decide that half the estate is rightfully hers. Her uncle however refuses to yield any of the estates.

In 1609 Anne marries the Earl of Dorset, Richard Sackville.

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Richard Sackville

Like her father he is a courtier with expensive tastes and frequently empty pockets. He takes charge of the lawsuit and in 1615 the courts decide she can chose one or other half of the estates Skipton or Westmoreland but she cannot have them both. But no, Anne is adamant, she wants what she is entitled to and that is that.

The situation hots up. Anne is now subject to criticism from her friends who urge her to settle. Her husband uses both threats and fine words and she suffers an hour and a half of sermonising from the Archbishop of Canterbury. She digs her heels in.

In 1616 she buys time to relieve the pressure on her. She insists that she must discuss the settlement terms with her mother. She goes north to meet her and the response she sends back is ‘a direct denial’ to agree to the settlement. Now the situation really sizzles.

In May that year her husband tells her she may no longer live in his houses, Knowle and Bolebrooke. He sends a message saying he will see her one last time. A further letter is sent telling her to send their only child to London, to be separated from her. Then her husband changes tactics. He tries to sweeten her and delays the separation from her child. The whole affair becomes the talk of the London society and she comes in for heavy condemnation for her intransigence. All the while she is quite alone, living quietly in the country, suffering ill health whilst her husband enjoys himself, expensively, in London. She writes sadly,

‘Being condemned by most folk…I may truly say I am like an owl in the desert.’*

At the end of the month Anne loses her only ally, her mother who dies at Brougham castle.

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Brougham Castle

Her husband, ever with an eye to the main chance, sends her to Brougham to take possession. Fights break out between Anne’s faithful retainers and her uncle’s men. Her husband and her cousin are set to fight a duel. The king, James I steps in. He tells her husband to fetch Anne back from the north and he, the king himself, will settle matters once and for all.

So, in January 1617 Anne finds herself back in London and summoned to the king’s presence. He asks both Anne and her husband to trust him and leave the matter in his hands. Her husband readily agrees but Anne beseeches the king to:

‘pardon me for that I would never part with Westmoreland while I lived under any conditions whatsoever.’

The king subjects her to both fair and foul means of persuasion yet still she resists. Two days later she is sent for again. This time she has not only the king and her husband to contend with but also her uncle and cousin plus any number of other nobles.  Everyone agrees to submit to the king’s judgement…except Anne. At this, she is subjected to much harassment. In Anne’s words:

‘The king flew into a great chaffe’

at which point, fearing that she might be publicly disgraced, her husband puts her out of the room. After which a settlement is agreed upon. Her uncle gets all the estates and she is awarded £17,000 compensation which is quickly snaffled by her husband. In effect she has nothing. The fight is over.

However, in all good stories there is a twist in the tale. Anne’s great great grandfather Henry was a keen astronomer and astrologer. There is a tradition that on the birth of his grandson (Anne’s grandfather) he read the stars. He predicted that this new grandson would have two sons ‘between whom and their descendants there would be great lawsuits and that the heirs male of the line should end with these two sons…or thereafter’.

And that is what happened. Anne’s uncle Francis died and the estates passed to his only son, her cousin Henry who died without a male heir.

Nearly forty years after it all began Lady Anne Clifford regained her inheritance and as she approached her sixtieth year she moved back north to claim her lands and never again left them. She died in the great chamber at Brougham castle in 1670.

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Lady Anne at 58 years old

 

*’I am like an owl of the desert; loving solitude, moping among ruins, hooting discordantly.’ Psalm 102:6

 

 

Charles Waterton 1782-1865

Charles Waterton, naturalist, explorer, environmentalist and true English eccentric. I mean how else would you describe a man who, expecting dinner guests, hid under the table, growled like a dog and bit his guests’ legs?

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Born in 1782, into a devout Catholic family. He lived at Walton Hall in West Yorkshire, England – the house built by his father on the remains of an earlier one. He attended Stonyhurst College before completing his education abroad.  As a non-Conformist Waterton did not have the usual opportunities open to him that a man of his class would normally enjoy. He was unable to hold any public office, army commission or attend an English university.

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Walton Hall, Home of Charles Waterton

So, in 1804 he travelled to British Guiana to manage his uncle’s estates near Georgetown. In 1812 he began a series of what he called “Wanderings” in South America where he recorded the local flora and fauna and hunted animals to take back to Walton.  Over time, he amassed a large collection for which he developed new a method of taxidermy and some of this collection, remarkably lifelike, survives today. He also used his skills to poke fun at the Church of England and the State.

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One of Waterton’s taxidermy creations – John Bull carrying the national debt and surrounded by devils

In 1813, returning from his travels, Waterton appears to have experienced an epiphany in his relationship with wildlife.  He began to turn the park around Walton Hall into a wildlife reserve, permitting no hunting and excluding no animal except the fox and badger.  He nursed the old trees on his estate, keeping them standing when most would have felled them and planted holly hedges and ivy for nesting sites.  Wildfowl were enticed back to the lake surrounding the Hall.  He railed at his neighbours for killing dwindling species of birds.

In the 1820’s he started his most ambitious project – building a nine-foot high wall around three miles of his park to create a sanctuary not only for wildlife but also for himself.  He states in one of his essays:

“having suffered myself and learned mercy, I broke in pieces the penal laws which the knavery of the gamekeeper and the lamentable ignorance of other servants had hitherto put in force”.

In 1829 Waterton married 17-year-old Anne Edmonstone who was a granddaughter of an Arawak Indian. She died shortly after giving birth to their son Edmund when she was only 18. After her death he slept on the floor with a block of wood for a pillow,

“as self-inflicted penance for her soul!”

His two sisters-in-law came to live at Walton to look after the young Edmund. As the child grew up Waterton found it increasingly difficult to develop a father-son relationship. As a young man Edmund was lavish with money that he did not have, he had little or no interest in his father’s activities. It is quite possible that he was embarrassed by his father’s eccentricities – an embarrassment that developed perhaps into contempt as indicated by Edmund’s later actions.

Apart from family difficulties there was also the problem of the impact of growing industrialisation in the country but events brought it right to his doorstep.  Adjoining his estate was Walton Soap Works, owned by William Hodgson and Edward Simpson.  Soap manufacture, one of Victorian England’s growth industries, used particularly noxious chemicals that generated harmful pollutants and by-products.  Waterton had co-existed peacefully with his neighbours – a peace based on a gentleman’s agreement to refrain from manufacturing the actual chemicals required to make soap – a practice that made production cheaper.  However, growing consumer demand proved hard to resist.  Hodgson and Simpson reneged on the agreement.

When Hodgson died in 1840, Simpson took over entirely and the soap works flourished. He built a new chimney that belched out sulphuric acid fumes. This acid rain killed trees and hedgerows. Stinking toxic effluents accumulated in drains and oozed into nearby watercourses. Crops failed and livestock sickened.  Even the men at the works were affected.  Waterton writes in a local newspaper:

“Simpson’s operatives are the very personification of death alive.  There is not a single cherry-cheeked fresh or healthy looking man among them”.   

In 1847, Waterton declared war, starting the first of three legal campaigns against “soapy” Simpson.  This was to be no gentlemanly conflict.  Simpson was a formidable enemy.  The soap works made him a wealthy man.  He had gained respectability, becoming a local councillor, a partner in a bank and a property owner.

Simpson did not attempt to defend himself.  He was astute enough to know it was fruitless to deny, directly, the claims made against him. Instead, he used personal attacks and ridicule to undermine Waterton’s credibility. When the case came to court, it was referred to arbitration.  In the time leading up to the hearing Waterton suffered volleys of personal abuse together with random acts of violence to property and livestock.

At the eventual hearing in 1848, the verdict was double-edged.  Simpson was found guilty of negligence and given a warning.  Waterton received £1100 compensation but had to bear part of the legal costs.  Simpson carried on his business and the pollution continued unabated.

A few months later Waterton launched his second attack.  He presented a vast quantity of evidence and Simpson brought in a great squad of witnesses (who received suspiciously high expenses for their trouble) to deny the works were harmful or polluting.  This time, the arbitrator merely warned Simpson to maintain high safety standards.

In the final battle of 1850, Waterton took a more subtle approach.  Perhaps he learned a few tricks from his adversary. He discovered that Simpson wanted to expand his works and Waterton’s sister-in-law, “by chance” owned a house with land away from Walton.  How she came to do this is unclear.  Possibly Waterton bought it secretly, with a view to inducing Simpson to leave.  Waterton offered terms – the land and house in exchange for the complete closure of the Walton Soap Works.  Simpson accepted the terms and paid all legal costs.

It was a Pyrrhic victory for Waterton.  He lost trees, hedges, birds and other wildlife. Pollution fouled his lake and watercourses. He spent considerable time and money on the lawsuits. His health suffered.  Yet Simpson prospered, merely taking his work and pollution elsewhere.

Charles Waterton died in 1865 after a heavy fall. His coffin was taken across the lake to his chosen burial place. In a final ironic twist his estranged son, Edmund sold off all the valuable timber, mercilessly slaughtered the birds and game and did his best to obliterate all traces of his father’s conservation legacy.  Ultimately, he sold the estate to none other than the son of Waterton’s bitter enemy, “soapy” Simpson.

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Charles Waterton’s cortege

Today, Waterton’s home is a hotel and part of Waterton’s park is once more a wildlife sanctuary.  The nearby Walton Park Wildlife Discovery Centre promotes the values of the man who advises us:

“Look close with a quiet mind.  Learn from all that you see and so try not to assert your power…”

 

 

Gainsthorpe – A Village Lost in Time

You may wonder why I’m posting pictures of fields full of lumps and bumps but be patient …

 

Do you know what it is yet? Does this help?

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(Photo: English Heritage Library©)

These are photos of Gainsthorpe deserted village in Lincolnshire – one of the best preserved in the realm of deserted mediaeval villages in England.

The village is noted in the Domesday Book; later, in 1208 a windmill and a chapel were recorded but the last mention of its name was 1383. 17th century records refer to well- preserved earthworks with a couple of hundred houses and up to half a dozen streets.

It was an irregularly planned village, much of which has now been lost to farming and quarrying, but once was a thriving medieval settlement of small houses  – one or two-roomed – built of stone.  Each house was separated from its neighbour by a low bank with plots at the front – ‘tofts’ – which would have had buildings or workshops. At the back of each house was a ‘croft’ – a garden for growing vegetables and fodder. Streets ran between the houses and field strips for growing crops surrounded the whole village.

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Sunken roadway

Over time the village changed as villages do and there are indications of the merger of some of the houses into larger ones which surround a courtyard. The experts believe this to indicate a shift in farming practices and the development of a manorial complex with a home farm complete with fishpond and dovecotes.

Today the streets look like deep tracks behind which are the remains of the houses, indicated by their low turf foundations. The field strips have been lost to later ploughing.

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SO WHAT HAPPENED?

The simple answer is we don’t really know. We do know from an early 17th century source that the village was already deserted by 1616:

 ‘there is nowe neyther tofte, tenemente or cottage standinge… it keepes neer 1500 sheepe.’

Other villages nearby suffered from the outbreak of the Black Death – the plague that ran amok in England in the 1340’s. Perhaps that contributed to the village’s demise. Deliberate depopulation is also a possibility when landowners forced out their tenants and used the land for the more lucrative sheep farming.

One theory offered by antiquarian Abraham de la Pryne in the late 17th century was:

Tradition says that the town was, in days of yore, exceeding famous for robberys, and that nobody inhabited there but thieves: and that the countrey, having for a long while endur’d all their villanys, they at last, when they could suffer them no longer, riss [rose] with one consent, and pulled down the same about their ears.”

He then concludes with a more prosaic explanation:

“But I fancy the town was eaten up with time, poverty and pasturage.”

I fancy he is correct.

 

The Power of the Press

Happy New Year to everyone and I hope it will be all that you hope. After lying dormant for most of the festivities I had a belated present from a most unexpected source.

Yesterday I was doing some housekeeping on this blog site when I noticed that the day’s statistics on viewing numbers were shooting through the roof. As I squinted at the numbers going upwards all the time I tried to figure out what was happening. In one day I received as many views as I have in some years!

Finally I noticed a “pingback” message. Basically a pingback tells you that another site has inserted a link that comes to a post on my blog. Intrigued I checked it out. It was in The Guardian. There were just two words “Ravenser Odd” and, given the subject matter of the article – flooding and sea defences – the puzzle was solved.

I incorporated the post –  Ravenser Odd – The Town Under the Sea into my local history book – Close to the Edge: Tales from the Holderness Coast. It has proved to be one of my most popular posts.

Whilst theoretically I understand how quickly and how far the press can spread the word, when it comes to spreading some of my words, it’s quite breathtaking. I hope all those who came to read the post had a good snuffle around the site. As a bonus, sales of the book have suddenly shot up too.Lovely start to the year.

The Principality of Andorra

The Principality of Andorra – one of the oldest and smallest countries in Europe, squashed between Spain and France. It is an independent country whose heads of state are the President of France and the Bishop of Seo de Urgel, Spain. Probably, the country is best known for winter sports and its biggest “industry” duty free shopping.

It is a mountainous land tucked in the Pyrenees; small fields scraped out of the mountainsides support cattle or are used for tobacco growing; vertiginous roads and tracks twine through the landscape. It was, in early times, a smuggler’s paradise, often carried out under the cover of the transhumance – the movement of sheep and cattle up to the high pastures in spring and back to softer ground in autumn.

It was a pretty open trade which boosted the subsistence level of many families. One Andorran priest remarked:

“It is a hard country…The cattle begin to straggle down from the hills when the snow falls early in September. The winter is long and very cold and my people are so poor. But for the smuggling they would suffer. What would you?”

American author and traveller Herbert Corey visited Andorra and watched the trade openly carried out. In 1918, he wrote:

“the public square was filled with men putting impatient feet against the ribs of rebellious mules in the effort to pull tighter the ropes of the diamond hitch. Loads were going across the hills, fête day or no. Other tired men straggled in at the heels of tired mules, the pack-saddles empty, after a successful trip into France. Small boys were importantly aiding. Girls clung to the arms of the contrabandista, and old women waddled about with parcels that looked like provisions for the departing.”

Accounts of 19th century smuggling tell of houses set up as receiving points for goods inwards and outwards. Often there was a “master” who paid the smugglers about 7 francs a day. If the men were caught they went unpaid and, as there was no defence against smuggling, went straight to jail.

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The goods were transported as 25kg loads in a canvas bag reinforced by a wood frame. This made it easier for the smugglers  to dump the load and take to their heels if necessary, hiding out in the rocky mountainsides.

The men travelled over French or Spanish “ports” – these were the little-known, narrow and often dangerous tracks and pathways through and over the mountains which ultimately led into France or Spain. Sometimes mules were used to carry the contraband or the men hefted the packs themselves. The men wore rope soled shoes which were light and quiet and usually made their silent way through the “ports”  in small groups.

Tobacco and Spanish wine were popular contraband but market demands could change. During the First World War mules were an important cargo. Mules from Spain were in high demand by the Allied armies so much so that their exportation was frowned upon by the Spanish government. Although the smuggled mules were ultimately purchased  for use by the French army, there was French import duty upon live stock. This created a unique opportunity for Andorran smugglers who obtained mules from Spain by any means they could and led them over the mountain paths, at night into France. The French gendarmes  were persuaded to look the other way for a small percentage per mule.

The Spanish civil war brought a demand for smuggled foodstuffs, chemicals and pharmaceuticals and there was an inflow of refugees who crossed the border from Spain. Many children and wounded fighters died in makeshift camps set up just over the border.

Similarly during WWII smuggled goods entered Vichy France via the mountain passes and from 1942 onwards, cross-border networks, established along tracks not closely monitored, were set up so that smugglers could help families to escape from occupied France.

Nowadays, illicit free-trading has turned into duty-free shopping and the mountain passes are left to the hikers whilst those in search of cheap booze and fags take to the relative safety of tarmac roads.

Will the Real Nicholas Flamel Please Stand

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Page from Flamel’s Notebook

Last week was the week of the “great sort out” since I was running out of storage space for files. I came across my old notes for the book “Close to the Edge” and amongst them were the notes I made for the story of the monk and alchemist George Ripley of Bridlington Priory. In the margin of these notes I had scrawled – ‘check out Nicolas Flamel’. I never did check him out…until now.

So who was Nicolas Flamel?

He was a Frenchman (c1330-1418), a scribe and seller of books and manuscripts who apparently discovered (according to 17th century accounts) the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone – although that rather depends on which texts you read.

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19th century image of the man himself

His life is well documented…by himself. He had two shops in Paris, married a well-endowed widow and in their later years together they were both wealthy and philanthropic. Like many educated men in Medieval days he dabbled in alchemy and knew of the existence of a book which, once deciphered would reveal the secrets of the universe, how to make gold from base metal and how to live forever as a bonus.

One day, as all good stories go, a man came into his bookshop wanting to sell a book. Flamel recognised it immediately  (because an angel told him about it in a dream the night before), handed over a couple of florins without a quibble and became the proud owner. The  book was that of Abraham the Jew, written part in arcane symbols and part in ancient Hebrew.

For more than twenty years Flamel worked diligently trying to translate the text before deciding that he needed a bit of help from learned men within the Jewish community. At that time Jews were persecuted in France and many had fled to Spain and so, to Spain our hero must go. He dressed as a pilgrim and on his journey met a merchant who, just by chance you understand, was able to introduce him to a venerable Jewish scholar. He recognised the book for what it was and agreed to go to Paris with Flamel to work on its translation.

Three years passed, the old scholar died, but Flamel managed finally to decode the book. He writes of his success in changing mercury into silver and then into gold. Apparently he put his new found skill to good and charitable uses, living quietly with his wife, working in his bookshops and dying at the age of 80. He was buried in the Church of St Jacques la Boucherie in Paris.

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Flamel’s tombstone

He was not allowed to rest in peace though. Treasure hunters from near and far came looking for the red powder that acted as the catalyst to the transmutation. His house was ransacked and many of the sculptures he had commissioned were damaged with inscriptions and symbols torn off and carted away.

And what happened to the book of Abraham the Jew?

Flamel bequeathed his papers and his library to his nephew and for 200 years these were passed down from father to son and nothing more is heard of the book. Then, in the 17th century we hear of an hapless heir of Flamel who was daft enough to demonstrate to King Louis XIII the transmutation process. Cardinal Richelieu, the King’s advisor, took a keen interest and soon after said heir was carted off to prison, tried and ultimately executed. This gave Richelieu the right to confiscate all the man’s property. It is alleged that Richelieu had possession of the book until his death and after that it vanished.

Perhaps one day, some book lover fossicking in the second-hand bookshops of Paris will stumble upon it…or perhaps not