Thursday, 27 September 2012

Bold Sir John - Medieval Man of Action

What ho, merry readers! I thought I would share with you today the story of Sir John Chandos, as gallant an Englishman as ever there was, who deserves to be better known; overshadowed as he is by the reputations of the kings and princes he served so well. Sir John was a scion of an ancient and noble house, his ancestor Robert Chandos had been a companion in arms of William the Conqueror. Bold in battle and wise in council, Sir John was prominent amongst the companions of King Edward III and tutor to his son the Black Prince.

At the Battle of Sluys, of which I have previously blogged, bold Sir John was in the thick of the action, having already done great service by stealing ashore to spy upon the French fleet. Upon the bloody field of Crecy he stood and fought beside the Black Prince as he was sorely pressed by the charges of the enemy after his father the King had refused to reinforce him and cried out instead ‘Let the boy win his spurs!’

Both lived to fight another day. Two years later Sir John was made a founding member of the Order of the Garter.

At the battle of Les Espagnols sur Mer in 1350 in which an out numbered English fleet outfought a force of Castilian galleys, Sir John was on the king’s ship when it was sunk from under him. Those aboard were forced to fight their way onto an enemy ship to avoid going to the bottom.

Sir John is credited with masterminding strategy at Poitiers in 1356; a day upon which an outnumbered English army under the Black Prince turned likely defeat into victory against the pursuing army of King John II of France. As the French king wavered, having seen his first division routed and his second flee the field, Chandos called for the final decisive charge of the English men at arms that was thrown against the forces of the French King, crying out ‘Sire. Charge and the day is yours!’

Chandos continued to campaign in France and for his efforts was made Constable of Aquitaine and Lieutenant General of France. He fell in battle in 1370, following an ill-advised attack upon the rebellious stronghold of St Salvain as the people of Gascony rose up against the harsh fiscal exactions of the Black Prince. Caught in the field by a superior French force, Sir John offered battle. Tripping in the mud upon his long cloak in the midst of battle, Chandos was run through the face by a mere squire. His death was mourned by both sides as  a true knight and a man who could perhaps have helped to bring about peace between England and France. Alas for bold Sir John.

The Death of Sir John Chandos

Monday, 24 September 2012

A sign from the Gods?

Fellow struggling writers, this will warm your cockles.

I was in a foul mood last week, after some mean spirted individual had lambasted my book on Amazon; having the temerity to describe it as boring. May their bones rot. Having assessed the cut of their jib and concluded that they were not the sort to usually read anything decent and having further deduced that anyone who goes by the handle of ‘Earbasher’ is likely to be of a generally beligerent and critical nature, I dismissed them from my mind as a worthless worm.Yet still it rankled. I cared not a jot for Earbasher’s opinion, for others have praised my efforts mightily, but it is annoying not being able to defend one’s literary efforts once they are fully exposed in the pillory of the Amazon customer review page, helpless in the face of any idiot who comes along and decides to throw a rotten cabbage in their direction.

And so I sulked. But then a remarkable thing happened.

On wednesday I received a phone call from my Granny who told me a remarkable story:

She related how she had been sitting in the doctors’ surgery awaiting her appointment and noticed that the lady next to her was reading one of those new fangled Kindle devices. Being a rather chatty and socialable type, Granny enquired as to what it was. The lady explained that it was a device for reading books.

‘That must be handy.’ Opined my Granny.

‘Yes’ said the lady. ‘I bought it to take on holiday; its much easier than taking loads of books with you.’

‘Reading anything good?’ asked Granny, just being polite really.

‘I’ve just read a fantastic book called The Battles are the Best Bits.’ The lady replied, and went on to say how much she had enjoyed it and how interesting and well written it was.

At this point she wondered why my Granny had burst into tears.

Through her swelling grandmaternal pride Granny explained that the book had been written by her Grandson.

So what are the odds of this chance meeting between reader and author’s grandmother? If I was E L James it would be pretty unremarkable, but since I’ve only shifted around a thousand copies so far they are pretty astronomically high. It was clearly a sign from the Gods, I concluded; sent to cheer me up in a moment of doubt.

So frankly Mr Earbasher, I don’t give a damn. If you run into my Granny you’d better watch it – she’ll give you a clip round the ear.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

The real Lucrezia Borgia

One of the better things on telly at the moment has to be The Borgias. I find it splendid entertainment and unusually for me I don’t worry too much about the historical accuracy. Not knowing much about the era helps. I tend to look up the facts later to fill in the blanks and thought I would share with you my findings.

Now one of the many things I like about watching the Borgias is the delectable Miss Holliday Grainger, a little too sweet for some maybe but I think she’s lovely.

Holliday of course plays the infamous Lucrezia. A woman who legend has it was as scheming and vicious as her siblings, given to poisoning her enemies and whose name is a byword for scandal, incest and debauchery. Bring it on in spades I cry, let us be entertained! But is this reputation fair?

It seems Lucrezia was a pawn in the dynastic machinations of her father Pope Alexander VI from a very early age. She had already been twice betrothed by the age of twelve, only for the engagements to be called off as new dynastic imperatives called for new alliances. Her marriage to Giovanni Sforza may not have been quite as unhappy as it seemed in Season One when Lucrezia sought solace in the arms of Paolo the stable boy! Indeed, when her father decided that the Sforza alliance had outlived its usefulness and sought to get rid of her husband who was now surplus to requirements, Lucrezia warned Giovanni of her family’s murderous intent and he fled Rome: Hardly the act of a woman who wanted her husband’s heart on a plate. Applying political pressure, Alexander eventually succeeded in getting Giovanni Sforza to agree to an annulment on grounds of non-consummation due to impotency.
Now I had assumed Paolo the stable boy to be fictitious plot device but it seems that there was indeed such a young man who captured fair Lucrezia’s affections. Perotto was a messenger boy in the employ of Pope Alexander and it is believed that it was he who fathered the mysterious child Giovanni Borgia who was presented first as the illegitimate son of Cesare Borgia and later of Alexander himself. Shortly after being attacked in St Peter’s by Cesare, Perotto’s body was pulled from the Tiber and it seems likely that he paid with his life for his indiscretions. It was suspected that Lucrezia, who had spent some time secluded in a convent, was the mother of the child. Two and two were therefore put together by many resulting in the rumours of incest, fanned by some rather ungallant remarks from the bitter Giovanni Sforza, that haunt Lucrezia’s reputation to this day and are hinted at in the series.

Two marriages and many affairs later Lucrezia achieved a measure of respectability as Duchess of Ferrara; a loving mother and enthusiastic patron of the arts. She died in child birth at the age of 39. In her own lifetime she had restored her reputation but posterity it seems has been less kind to her.
You may also enjoy - Pope Julius II - Warrior Pope

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Beating the French

You cannot have too much of a good thing it seems and I have been learning this week that this includes great naval victories over the French. The noble English tradition of trouncing our rivals across the channel extends back to the Middle Ages and in my delvings into medieval French history I have come across some early encounters between our great nations which deserve to be better known alongside the famous battles of Nelson’s age.

In the summer of 1217 England lay exposed to the threat of French conquest following the disastrous reign of King John. Forces commanded by the Dauphin Prince Louis had landed in support of English rebels, but now with John dead and the nine year old Henry III on the throne, the French looked set to capitalise and overrun the kingdom.

In response, the regent William Marshall had assembled a fleet at Sandwich, which set out to intercept the larger French fleet bringing vital reinforcements to Louis. Having manoeuvred up-wind of the French, the English ships came about and closed with the French fleet. The French ships were heavily laden with the materials of war and the English ships rode higher in the water. This gave them a distinct advantage in being able to fire down into the French ships. In addition to a hail of arrows the French were bombarded with jars of quicklime.

The capture of the French flagship signalled the end of resistance and the French commander Eustace the Monk was executed on the spot. The loss of his fleet effectively doomed Louis’ campaign to failure.
Battle of Sandwich

In 1340 the Hundred Years War was in its early stages. King Edward III was determined to press his claim to the French throne, but faced the threat of invasion from a large French fleet massed in the estuary of Sluys on the Flemish coast. Edward decided to lead his fleet in an offensive action against the French. Rather than engaging in the open sea the French commanders elected to stay put in the estuary, forming their ships up in line and even chaining them together in order to present a formidable floating wall against the English attack. This tactic was criticised by the commander of the Genoese contingent who recognised the danger and slipped away before battle was joined.

With the wind behind them the English ships bore down upon the French and crashed into them with great destruction. The English ships were arranged in fighting squadrons of three – with two ships filled with archers supporting one filled with men at arms. In the ensuing battle the murderous fire of the English longbowmen wrought havoc on the decks of the French, just as they would on the battlefield of Crecy six years later. At least one of the French ships carried cannon and these succeeded in sending one English cog to the bottom in what must be one of the earliest examples of naval gunnery. Ultimately the battle was won through fierce hand to hand fighting in which the English men at arms triumphed over their French counterparts with heavy casualties on both sides. As at Sandwich, with the capture and execution of their leaders the fight largely went out of the French, although fighting continued into the night. The following morning found most of the great French fleet captured, burned or sunk, although a few ships managed to slip away in the night. With victory at Sluys Edward III gained the upper hand in the war and would follow up his success with devastating invasions of French territory culminating in the Crecy campaign.
Battle of Sluys

We’re all friends now of course. But the next time you feel like jingoistically sticking your fingers up at a Frenchman in the spirit of friendly rivalry you could invoke the memory of Sandwich or Sluys.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

A trip to the zoo - Part 2

Here is another interesting animal fact for you. All white Bengal tigers in captivity in the west, including Hammerton’s magnificent white tiger Blizzard, are descended from a single animal. Mohan the white tiger was captured as a cub by the Maharaja of Rewa during a hunting expedition in 1951. Mohan was subsequently kept in a disused palace in the courtyard of what had once been the harem. Several attempts were made to breed further white specimens from Mohan, but due to the recessive nature of the gene which determines the white colouration, this was only successful when Mohan was bred with one of his female offspring. The resulting litter of four white cubs, attained the status of  a national treasure and the government of Indira Gandhi moved to prevent any of the white tigers being sold abroad. The sale of one of the cubs, a female named  Mohini, to an American businessman circumvented the ban by being presented as a gift to ‘the children of America’. Mohini met President Eisenhower at the White House in 1960 before moving to a new home in the national zoo close to Washington DC. Despite the tiger being caged, the former Allied supreme commander flinched noticeably when Mohini lunged in his direction!

Other gifts of animals to US presidents have included elephants, bears, lions and even a pigmy hippo.

For more Presidential pets see the slightly out of date link below.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Forza Ferrari

Today is the Italian Grand Prix, one of the great classics of the Formula One calendar; held in the former royal park of Monza since 1922. As a fully paid up member of the Tifosi; loyal supporters of the Ferrari team, the Italian Grand Prix is one of the races I always look forward to in the hope of seeing a home win. This seems a somewhat faint hope today with Fernando Alonso stuck back in tenth place. Never mind. It is a glorious occasion none the less. So why Ferrari? As you might expect, it’s because of the history.

Enzo Ferrari was born in Modena in 1898. He served in the artillery during the First World War before coming close to losing his life to Spanish flu. After the war Ferrari worked as a mechanic and tried his hand as a racing driver, joining Alfa Romeo in 1920. By the late 1920’s Ferrari had switched from driving to managing and had founded the Ferrari racing team which fielded cars on Alfa Romeo’s behalf.

The 1930’s were dominated by German manufacturers who gained the high profile backing of the Nazi regime with the less quick and less reliable Italian machines struggling to get on terms. Enzo Ferrari broke with Alfa Romeo in 1937, ironically enough just as the marque was about to return to winning form with the legendary 158 ‘Alfetta’.

This superb little car would emerge after the Second World War as an unbeatable machine, with three cars having spent the war hidden in a cheese factory. In 1950 Alfa Romeo finished 1st , 2nd and 3rd in the first Formula One Grand Prix at Silverstone and went on to take the world championship by storm. Enzo Ferrari also entered the championship with his own cars although they were no match for his old employer in that first year. In the following year however, Froilian Gonzalez won the British Grand Prix at the wheel of a Ferrari. Ferrari would go on to win the world championship with Alberto Ascari in ’52 and ’53.

The prancing horse emblem of the Ferrari racing team, proudly displayed on that first winning car and on all subsequent models, had been acquired by Enzo back in his racing days. It had originally adorned the aeroplane of cavalry officer turned First World War fighter ace Francesco Baracca, who claimed no less than 34 kills in operations against the Austro-Hungarians. Baracca lost his life in 1918; killed by a lucky shot from the ground. His mother presented the emblem to Enzo Ferrari in 1923.

Although there will be other prestigious racing teams lining up on the grid at Monza today, none of them come close to possessing this depth of history. That’s why I’m a Ferrari fan. Forza Alonso!


Thursday, 6 September 2012

A den of exotic totty?

Ah the harem. Such images are conjured up by that word. Images of wanton, lusty concubines, semi-clad in silken garments, draped on couches amongst tinkling fountains. We imagine a place of intrigue, whispers and plots. We picture the subtle political manoeuvring of eunuchs and courtesans and fancy to overhear their hushed conversations in perfumed gardens.

No doubt all of this went on, but the image above owes more to western imagination than to historical veracity. I have therefore been reading a little of harems of late, since I am about to thrust my heroine into one and I did not want to do so based purely on clichés, although I fully intend to incorporate all of the above and more besides!

The institution of the harem is an ancient one. At its most innocuous the word refers merely to ‘the women’s quarters.’ This dispels the great preconception that a harem was exclusively a den of pleasure for the ruler, stocked with exotic totty. Whilst this comprised an essential element of any harem worth the name, the term encompasses a far larger community, which included female members of the ruling family; mothers, wives and daughters as well as secondary wives and also concubines and numerous servants. The harem of the Persian ruler Khusrow II, for which my heroine is destined, allegedly contained 3000 wives and 12,000 concubines and other women. I find this a staggering figure. The harem was a city within a city, and however great the libido of the ruler, a great majority of the women kept within must surely never have graced the royal bed. Certainly this seemed to be the case in that most famous of harems; the Seraglio of the Ottoman Sultans. Here a girl was considered over the hill at just 22. If she had failed to catch the eye of the Sultan by the time she reached this age, she was effectively on the scrap heap; condemned to live out her days, a sad and forgotten thing, rotting in her gilded cage.

So much then for the orgies, what about the plotting?

Here we are on a surer footing. The keeping of a multitude of wives ensured that a ruler begat a multitude of heirs and rivalry between would-be queen-mothers inevitably ensued. One famous example of a harem conspiracy comes from the reign of Ramses III of Egypt; struck down at the instigation of one of his principle wives in a failed attempt to secure the succession of her son, who was not the preferred heir to the throne. The recent discovery of the large gash in throat of Ramses' mummy has revealed the likely cause of death.

When it comes to the art of intrigue we imagine the figure of the devious palace eunuch at the centre of every conspiracy. As the only ‘male’ trusted within the confines of the harem by virtue  of his mutilation, the eunuch was in a unique position and there are many examples of these courtiers being drawn into or fomenting plots against their masters. The most infamous eunuch from the pages of history has to be Bagoas; who poisoned not one but two Kings of Persia before finally being undone in the act of attempting to poison a third, Darius III, who compelled the treacherous eunuch to drink the poison himself.

The harem certainly makes a fine setting for all manner of shenanigans and I am greatly looking forward to cooking up my own harem conspiracy.

You may also enjoy - Ctesiphon - Fallen City of the Sassanid Kings


Monday, 3 September 2012

A Trip to the Zoo - Part One

 On Saturday my wife and I decided to take a trip to our local wildlife park at Hammerton; a hidden gem in the Cambridgeshire countryside. Jolly good fun it was too. Ostensibly we went to see their recently acquired giant ant-eater; a beastie I have  never clapped eyes on before and what a magnificent beastie it was. Some animals are so outlandish in appearance that they have to be seen to be believed. The giant anteater is one such fantastical creature; evolution at its most creative.

Amongst laughing at the antics of marmosets and meercats and other furry favourites my mind was nevertheless seeking out bloggable gems of knowledge to share right here.

Hammerton is dedicated to the preservation of endangered species large and small and another remarkable animal which they are working to bring back from the brink of extinction is the Poitou Donkey. Also known as the Mammoth Donkey due to its unusual size and shaggy appearance, this gentle giant was a stalwart of the Medieval agricultural economy; used as a stud animal for the breeding of mules.

A native of the historical French region from which it takes its name, the Poitou Donkey was highly prized by landowners and was even regarded as something of a status symbol amongst the landed elite. The Poitou Donkey retained its importance as a stud animal up to and throughout the First World War but the rise of the automobile ended the reliance on beasts of burden and almost spelled the end for the species. By the 1970’s only 30 animals remained. Now thanks to conservation efforts their numbers are recovering.
More slightly historical animal facts later in the week.