V2

A fascist dictator is losing the war that he initiated. With one last throw of the dice, a brand new and unstoppable weapon, he aims to turn the tide, but it turns out to be one last defiant gesture.

November 1944, the Nazi armies are in retreat as the Allies advance across Europe. But the Germans under Werner von Braun have developed a rocket that can send bombs across the channel, but without accurate aim. A launch programme aims to terrorise the population of London.

In his book V2, Robert Harris tells the story of the ‘successes’ and failures, particularly from the point of view of an English woman trying to track down the launch sites, and a German man somewhat half-heartedly engaged in the launch processes. Their two stories are effectively interweaved in a compelling narrative – Harris is a great storyteller.

At the end of the war, the engineers under von Braun were of course transmitted to the USA, and became the core of the subsequent space programme, leading to the first Moon landing in 1969. They were always more interested in creating rockets to fly into space than they were in warfare.

The consequences of war are many and unpredictable.

Featured image is of a V2 rocket awaiting launch.

1965 Berlin

On our chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia we crossed the iron curtain between West and East Germany. On the way out there was minor drama, when the easy-going West German border guards had taken the original of a key document listing the 24 members of our party, leaving only a photocopy for the dour  East German guards. They were not happy, but ultimately let us through. It was all a bit of a drama for me, as a totally inexperienced tour leader. Fortunately, we were subsequently in the safe hands of the Eastern student organisation that was running the trip for us.

On the return journey, we went through then-divided Berlin. After a long rail journey across Poland, we arrived in Berlin early evening, and hastily dismounted onto the platform. We soon realised that something was wrong. The station was deserted. A couple of us went seeking help, and found ourselves emerging into totally darkened streets. The light dawned – we were in East Berlin and the train had gone! Back in the deserted station, we saw that there was another train due to go to West Berlin in a few minutes time. We embarked onto this one and soon arrived in West Berlin, without further trouble, other than checking of documents. Was it really that easy to cross the curtain?

West Berlin was a huge contrast – lively, brightly lit, people going about their business as in other European cities – a graphic illustration of the difference between lives on the two sides of the curtain. Of course, many in the East wished to escape to the West. As we saw the next day, the Berlin Wall was massive and surmounted with barbed wire, before the no man’s land where would-be escapees were regularly shot.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, manifestation of the thawing of the hearts of men and women. Thank God for that, and what joy was in our hearts at that time. This makes it all the more tragic that Vladimir Putin now appears intent on dragging us back to those days of European division.

Featured image:  Berlin Wall from Potsdamer Platz 1965.
For the rest of the trip, see 1965 Prague, 1965 Kiev, 1965 Odessa, 1965 Moscow.

1965 Prague

The first match of our chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia was actually in Prague. I was struck by the similarities of Prague with Vienna, which I had had the good fortune to visit on a school trip a few years earlier. The spirit of the people seemed similar, yet more depressed. Many of the magnificent buildings bequeathed by history were in much need of repair. Prague was not thriving at this time.

During our time off we explored some of the great historic sights – the powder tower, cathedral, astronomical clock, but my main memory is of doing all this sightseeing while playing blindfold chess with friend Brian Kerr. Maybe we did not adequately attend to the magnificence around us.

Little did we know at that time, but the spirit rising that we sensed was soon to be inflamed by the Prague Spring led by Alexander Dubček‘s reforming government and then crushed by the Russian invasion in August 1968. We later learned in horror and admiration that in January 1969 Jan Palach set himself on fire in protest, in the very same Wenceslas Square we had wandered through.

The parallels with the current invasion of Ukraine are all too apparent. Russia seeks to rule by fear and compel compliance, and punishes those who will not submit.

There is an echo of an earlier religious reformer, Jan Hus, who died by burning at the stake for heresy, by order of the Catholic Church in 1415, memorialised in this statue before the Tyn church.

The cycles of history go on and on.

Featured image is from cathedral door at Prague.

1965 Moscow

The final stop of our 1965 chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia was Moscow, then capital of world chess. Of course, we lost the matches, as we were each playing against significantly stronger players. But what stays in memory is the impressions of the then-capital of a mighty empire – the USSR.

1965 GUM

The people seemed drab and depressed, compared to Western Europe, and compared to Ukraine (see previous posts 1965 Kiev and 1965 Odessa). The GUM department store had queues and empty shelves; the system did not appear to be working well for people here at the centre.

This suggested to me that the USSR was not a great success for its own peoples. It had clearly not recovered from WW2 as well as the West, and the people had not correspondingly benefited. Why would Russians wish to go back to those supposedly glorious days through the current ventures in Ukraine and other parts of the Russian border?

Paradoxically, there was also evidence of good organisation, modern technology and buildings suggesting a glorious history.

Worker and collective farmer

All this intermingled with drab buildings and worthy statues to the glory of the working man, rather strange to Western eyes. This was, after all, supposedly a communist state.

So I have very mixed impressions of Moscow at that time, a period when nuclear war between USA and USSR was only narrowly averted – times of peril that the Putin regime seems determined to go back to.

Tsar bell

My only other photograph from that visit was this one of the huge Tsar Bell, considered to be the largest bell in the world. The bell was cast in the 1700s but never struck for real, because a fire caused a bit to split off before it could be hoisted into position to ring. That somehow seems to sum up Russia.

Fleeing Ukrainians – why does it never stop?

Jane Fritz gives insight into the history behind Ukraine’s current suffering, with some superb Chagall paintings included.

Robby Robin's Journey

When we think of paintings by the famous French painter Mark Chagall (actually Russian-French), we typically think of his dreamlike themes and brilliant use of colour.  Always imaginative.  Often free-floating.

But he also painted powerful paintings that didn’t dance and weren’t dreamlike.  Powerful, yes, but free-floating, no.  One such powerful painting has been posted many times on social media recently, and appropriately so.  It’s entitled La Famille Ukrainienne.  The Ukrainian Family.

UkrainianFamily

Only, of course, Chagall didn’t paint this work of art in the past 6 weeks, since the Russians invaded Ukraine and started unleashing such devastation, brutality, and death.  He painted it sometime between 1940 and 1943, when Ukrainians were fleeing the war and destruction brought about by another Russian, Stalin’s “Great Terror”.  It is uncanny – and heartbreaking – to realize that this scene could just as easily be depicting what is going on right now, 80 years…

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At Garner State Park

We visited Garner State Park mid March. This Texas State Park lies on the Frio River, an hour or two’s drive from San Antonio. There are extensive camp grounds and many recreational opportunites afforded by the river and surrounding hills. On a very hot day we could just get a flavour of this picturesque area, see the following photos.

This impressive and popular park was built as a New Deal job creation project and is named after John Nance Garner, who served as Roosevelt’s vice-president from 1933-1941. This is a model for government action when times are hard for the people. Thousands benefit from this historic government investment every day.

The good old Texan attitude to covid-prevention is shown on the sign on the back of a camped pickup, see featured image.

Sapiens

Daughter left a copy of Juval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014) lying around. I finally got around to reading it. What a great history of humankind: from the early variants that led to Homo Sapiens, to the great flooding; from the nomadic life to agriculture, cities, pyramids and early civilisations; to the dominance of religions and empires; to banks and money, the renaissance; and the development of science and capitalism; the industrial revolution and its empires, and the modern world of ‘permanent revolution’.

It’s a rollicking, engaging and informative tale that runs apace. Harari tells a good story and clearly knows a lot about the subject.

Unfortunately his description is one of surfaces, rather than of the spiritual depths of humanity – in a word, materialistic. Try this quote from page 263:

“…a huge gulf is opening between the tenets of liberal humanism and the latest findings of the life sciences… our liberal… systems are founded on the belief that every individual has a sacred inner nature… which gives meaning to the world… the life sciences have thoroughly undermined this belief… Scientists studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there.”

This is of course nonsense. Science explicity deals with what can be ‘objectively’ measured, which explicitly avoids any question of inner experience and the soul. By definition it cannot understand ‘the sacred inner nature’ of every individual.

This does somewhat question the validity of Harari’s later speculations about the relationship of machines to future intelligence and possible supplanting of homo sapiens.

That aside, this book is a great read, and his speculations are stimulating!

As he indicates at the end, humans have become almost like gods in their powers, and yet we are wreaking havoc on the earth. He ends with a salutary note:

“Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”

Could that be because we have lost touch with that sacred inner nature, and hence lack wisdom?

Seeking Jean Gebser

“We partake every moment of our lives in the originary powers of an ultimately spiritual nature.”

Jean Gebser

Jean Gebser, philosopher, linguist, poet, who described the structures of human consciousness. Born Hans Gebser in Poznan, then Germany, 1905. Left in 1929 for Italy/Spain/France, changing name to Jean. Escaped to Switzerland at the outbreak of WW2. Died 1973.

Having seen many references to the work of Jean Gebser, I wanted to find out more about the man himself and his ideas. His main book The Ever Present Origin seemed difficult to get hold of, and is reputed to be ‘difficult ‘, so I tried the summary of the man and his ideas in Seeing Through the World: Jean Gebser and Integral Consciousness, by Jeremy Johnson (2019).

Basically, Gebser’s work is about human consciousness and how it has evolved and is evolving. He categorises five stages of its evolution, which I roughly describe in the following gross over-simplification.

  • Archaic – original consciousness of the whole, without differentiation.
  • Magical – perfect identification of man with the universe, without separation, all appears magical, a part of ‘the dreaming’.
  • Mythical – becoming conscious of the universe and others through stories and myths.
  • Rational – mental, logical. Man is separated from the world and reasons about it.
  • Integral – becoming aware of, transcending and yet benefiting from the perspectives of all the previous levels.

As stressed by Johnson, this is not intended to be a developmental schema, although it clearly describes the stages of development of humanity to date. But then, neither Johnson’s book nor Gebser’s work are easily read or understood – Gebser has his own specific terminology that I will not attempt to go into here. Johnson has made a heroic attempt to lead us into the thinking of Gebser, and his book is well worth reading, if you are so inclined. Each effort to understand helps us to get in touch with the inspirational quality of this work. He quotes Gebser, giving an indication of the true poetic scope of this work.

“The simple is in us. It is participation—participation in that which is unknown yet evident to us: a tiny seed in us, which contains all transparency—the diaphanous world, the most irradiated and most sober beatitude. It is so completely comprehensive and whole that neither our intelligent, super-clever, caged-in thought nor our pitiable-pitiful and needy-strong longing—how much poverty it renders visible!—can even divine it. And yet, it is within us.”

Jean Gebser April 26 1973

Of course, there are parallels between Gebser’s analysis and the work of Iain McGilchrist, referred to in other posts. The current left-brain-dominant mode of being is the equivalent of the rational stage, and the co-operating left and right brains that McGilchrist envisages are the equivalent of the integral stage. See Scott Preston’s post Gebser and McGilchrist for more insight.

Jean Gebser is also referred to extensively in Ken Wilber‘s work, such as in the lengthy masterwork Sex, Ecology and Spirituality. All these guys are on to something fundamental about what it means to be human, and the direction of any New Renaissance of the human spirit.

1965 Odessa

Another tragic atrocity is apparently beginning with Putin’s recent first shelling of Odesa, third city of Ukraine. I spent a couple of days there during our chess tour of Czechoslovakia and Russia in 1965, when the Russian name Odessa was used.

At the time this Black Sea resort was a playground for the upper echelons of then-communist Russian society. I’d never seen so many overfed people before we went on that beach.

The harbour at Odessa is linked to the city by the Potempkin Steps, created in 1841 and made famous in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent film Battleship Potemkin.

Potempkin steps

Look down the steps at the port, and you can see why this city might be regarded as strategically important.

I recall that this was an attractive city to walk around, all now at risk to Putin’s cowardly cruise missiles.

Opera House

These four photographs are the only ones I have from that trip. Such insanity that one man and his cabal could apparently be on track to destroy all this. For what? Some illusion of Russian greatness, a phantasm of Putin’s imagination? There is nothing great about destroying the work and life of millions.

1965 Kiev

Today’s Russian assault on Ukraine and its capital Kyiv brings to mind my one experience of visiting that city, in 1965. The city was then behind the Iron Curtain, part of the USSR, and had its Russian name, Kiev. The featured image is the one photograph I took at that time in Kiev, showing the River Dnieper flowing through the city – the fourth largest river in Europe.

This visit was part of a combined Oxford/Cambridge Universities chess tour, venturing behind the Iron Curtain, because that was where the strongest chess players then were.

After interesting encounters with friendly West German and dour East German border guards, we began our tour in Prague, Czechoslovakia, and were quite surprised to find that city reasonably free and spirited, a bit like a rather subdued Vienna.

We then moved on to Ukraine, its capital Kiev and the Black Sea resort of Odessa. Differences from Western Europe were more marked. We were still clearly in Eastern Europe, but the lively spirit was a bit more subdued, and material conditions much worse. I was pursued half way across the city in an attempt to persuade me to sell my pursuer a ballpoint pen!

Finally, we arrived in Moscow, where the best chessplayers were. This no longer seemed like Europe. The people seemed drab and depressed, and there were empty shelves and queues in the shops. Despite some beautiful buildings, this seemed a more fearful place, the capital of an unhappy empire.

Just 3 years later, 1968, I was delighted to see the emergence of the Prague Spring, when Alexander Dubcek led in establishing more liberal reforms. This seemed to correspond with that feeling I’d had in Prague in 1965 – its seemed natural for Prague to be more aligned with its sister Vienna. Then I recall the Soviet tanks rolling in to Prague to crush the reform movement. How terrible to see that beautiful city of spirit crushed by the Soviets. After that, Czechoslovakia remained controlled by the Soviet Union until 1989, when the Velvet Revolution peacefully ended the communist regime, around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall – a time when anything seemed possible.

Although a founding member of the USSR in 1922, Ukraine regained its independence in 1991 following the dissolution of the USSR. In 1995 Kyiv became an authorised spelling of the capital’s name, and was strongly adopted recently because of the associations of ‘Kiev’ with Russia. Now, it seems, that Ukraine is suffering a similar event to that crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, 54 years later. For reasons unclear to us in the West, Mr Putin seems to have decided that he will not allow Ukraine to continue its path of alignment with the more liberal Western Europe – it must again be forced under Russian control, in an apparent attempt to restore the supposed glories of that USSR.

We weep for them, and the unnecessary and untold miseries that will ensue.

Parkgate and Mostyn House School

The village of Parkgate on the north bank of the Dee Estuary presents a beautiful aspect on a sunny day. The continuous quay of what was once a port, before it silted up, gives a fine aspect on the white buildings set against the nature reserve of the estuary itself. On this occasion we saw lapwings, marsh harriers, great egrets, kestrels, and varous ducks and geese.

The most striking building is Mostyn House School, which I’ve photographed before (for example in this post). This time I looked for more detailed shots against a stunning blue sky.

History of Mostyn House School

The building was not always thus, and has an interesting history. The original building was a hotel for 100 years, linked to the success of Parkgate as a holiday resort, when there was had an outdoor lido. The Mostyn Arms Hotel even had a ballroom. In 1855 the hotel was sold to one Edward Price of Tarvin, who moved his school to Parkgate, but the structure was deteriorating.

“I have never seen such a horrible hole in all my life…” was the comment in 1863 when a new owner’s wife, a Mrs Grenfell, first saw it.

By 1899 the building, again according to her husband, was a ‘decrepit, insanitary wreck’. It was pretty well rebuilt over the next ten years to become the building we see today. A fine job they did, but clearly the building is not as old as you might think!

The school closed in 2010 and the building was subsequently converted to apartments. See timeline.

At the National Memorial Arboretum

A sunny day was forecast, so we decided to visit the National Memorial Arboretum, near Lichfield, Staffordshire. The arboretum is part of the Royal British Legion, dedicated to passing on the baton of remembrance of those who served and suffered in Britain’s wars. We did not have any great expectations, other than for a pleasant day out in the sun at a memorial that is but 20 years old.

What a revelation, we were blown away by the rural setting, the trees and natural areas, and particularly the art works that have been created as part of some of the memorials, evocative of many of the less considered victims of war. Most are connected by tarmac paths. And the dog could go most places.

Here’s a small selection showing favourite images from our walk.

Particularly sobering was the large memorial (top left), containing the (around 16,000) names of all those who have died since 1945, in the many wars that the UK has engaged in over my lifetime. Was this all really necessary?

Yes, the experience does bring home the reality and the futility of war.

We will go again.

Featured image is a detail of the police memorial (bottom left), rotated 90deg.
Looks pretty ordinary until you catch the sunlight at the right angle!

Modes of knowing

In his magnum opus, The Matter with Things, Iain McGilchrist identifies Henri Bergson as a major contibutor to the understanding of the way we human beings know about the world.

Essentially, there are two modes of knowing, which I will characterise in a word as intuition and rationality. Intuition is to do with direct perception of the world and understanding what is needed; rationality is to do with language and analysis, rationalising about the world. Intuition ‘presences’ in the world; rationality ‘re-presents’ the world in its own terms.

These two modes were well understood by many thinkers of the past. In the early 1900s these included Bergson, William James, Einstein (see featured quote) and other quantum pioneers. In earlier times, for example, the Romantic movement of such as Wordsworth and Coleridge strove to emphasise the continued importance of direct perception in an encroaching world of rationality. The two modes are also well understood in the world of astrology, where the planet Jupiter represents the faculty of direct perception/ intuition, whereas Mercury represents rational/ analytical intelligence.

What neurologist/psychologist/philosopher Iain McGilchrist adds to this picture is the correlation of the intuitive intelligence with the right brain, and of rationality with the left brain – emerging from modern studies in neurology.

Humans evolved with these two different capabilities because they were necessary for survival. For instance, a hunt might have involved analytical planning to get in the right place to hunt, but intuitive perceptions of the dangers posed by other wild animals in the area. We rely on the combination of these two intelligences.

However, contrary to what you might think, there is no symmetry between the two in terms of their function. Intuition grounds us in the real world; rationality theorises about it. Our intelligence is powerful because the two co-operate – intuition suggests an approach; rationality evaluates and proposes the way to go; then intuition confirms – intuition is the Master.

The disturbing thing about left brain rationality, spotted by Bergson and others, is that it does not necessarily see the need for grounded intuition at all. In this extreme case it usurps the role of the right hemisphere, the intuition and the connection with the real world. The map becomes the territory. A world of abstraction is confused for reality itself. This was the theme of McGilchrist’s previous book The Master and His Emissary – the left brain messenger taking over and ignoring the right brain connection with reality.

Looking at today’s world, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is essentially what has happened to humanity in the large. Our connection with reality, with planet earth, is being slowly destroyed by the left-brain machinations of politics, capitalism, business, technology, consumerism. It will all end in tears for many people and many species of life; indeed it already has.

Yet we still each have those intuitive right brains and there will always be those who know the way to go, who love nature, the earth, their fellow beings, who fight the good fight against left brain extremism. This is the dance of life, and the peculiar destiny of human beings…

The first traffic jam on Broadway

I’ve owned the book Time and Free Will by French philosopher Henri Bergson (1859-1941) since university days – but regretfully never quite got around to fully reading it. It still resides on my bookshelf, awaiting the day… I was also interested in American polymath William James, and did at that time read some of his work, including The Varieties of Religious Experience, which proved quite influential. These philosophers were reverently referred to by other thinkers I was also reading at university, notably Colin Wilson’s then-popular The Outsider. So I was quite interested to come across this story about Bergson in Iain McGilchrist’s seemingly infinitely giving book The Matter with Things.

In 1907 Bergson published the book Creative Evolution, which built on Darwin’s idea of evolution, but rejected ‘natural selection’ as the main means of progress, proposing instead the idea of the life force, or elan vital, which was notably the source of human creativity. It seems that these ideas generated great interest in the US at the time, related as they were to the work of William James, who had died two years previously. Bergson was invited to Manhattan to give six public lectures on ‘Spirituality and Freedom’.

It is said that the lectures were well over-subscribed, and the number of vehicles trying to gain access caused the very first traffic jam on Broadway. This was actually two years before John D.Herz started the first Yellow Cab Company in 1915.

According to an essay by historian Larry McGrath both Sigmund Freud’s 1909 and Bertrand Russell’s 1914 visits to the US met with popular excitement similar to Bergson’s. How different from today, when such major thinkers largely do not meet with such popular acclaim. It appears that it was perhaps the scientists, such as Einstein, who took over the public imagination.

It’s not really my purpose to explore why this might be the case, in this brief post, but I will be coming back to Bergson in a future post, as his ideas are strikingly relevant today.

Featured image of Henri Bergson by unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Hailes Abbey

We visited Hailes Abbey last summer. This former Cistercian abbey near Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, was founded in 1246 by Richard, Earl of Cornwall, elected King of the Romans and brother to King Henry III. The abbey soon acquired a relic of the (supposed) Holy Blood of Christ, ensuring that it became a popular place of pilgrimage.

Of course, Hailes Abbey was surrendered to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, in 1539. All that remains today, in a peaceful country location, is romantic grassy ruins – very pleasant to stroll around and admire the Cistercian architecture, and much enjoyed by the dog.

We come across Cistercian ruins all over England. The massive extent of Henry VIII’s Dissolution is really brought home by this Wikipedia entry listing all the English Cistercian Abbeys.

Hailes Abbey is now managed by English Heritage on behalf of the National Trust.

The White Ship

Charles Spencer’s book The White Ship tells the story of the first Norman kings of England, and the shattering effect that one event – the sinking of a ship – had on the course of English history.

Of course, 1066 is the one date burned into the mind of every English child – when the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror effectively turned England into a province of Normandy, and the land of England was shared out between William’s favoured knights.

The job of every king at the time was to produce a male heir. If there was more than one boy, there was often conflict between the brothers. William had three sons, so there were years of conflict after his death in 1087, complicated by the fact that the English Channel split the ‘nation’ or empire.

Eventually William’s youngest son prevailed to become the dominant monarch, King Henry I, of the re-integrated country. After the final battles on the continent that assured his dominance, Henry returned to England from Barfleur in Normandy in late November 1120.

Henry and his wife Matilda had just one son, William Ætheling, and a daughter Matilda. There were also a number of illegitimate sons. Henry left for England early evening, on a favourable tide. William was to follow Henry back later in the evening, on a faster, White Ship, along with many of Henry’s supporters and heroes of the campaign. The story tells how drunkenness and revelry led to the ship running aground on rocks off Barfleur, losing all but one on board.

Henry I now had no male heir. The rest of the book details the contortions as he tried to get his daughter Matilda accepted as the next monarch, and the ensuing conflict and anarchy after Henry’s death in 1135, between his nephew, Stephen of Blois, who actually became king of England, and Matilda based on the continent. When Matilda’s son Henry took on the battle, Stephen was eventually forced to concede that this Henry should become the next king, Henry II, who became a dominant monarch in 1154 in the same mold as William and Henry I.

Similar tales have been recorded over the ages – the problems of succession, the intervening of natural disaster or folly. This one has a particular ring about it, at a key point in the history of England, Normandy and associated territories. It is well told by Charles Spencer in this book.

Featured image of the White Ship was produced in 1321, public domain.

Barmouth viaduct

We were out of season in Barmouth, and the railway bridge/viaduct over the Mawddach Estuary was closed for refurbishment work.

The bridge/viaduct was constructed of timber in the 1860s, and is being repaired over 3 years using similar materials, except that concrete is used to protect vulnerable wooden parts from attack by marine worms. In season, passengers and cyclists can cross over, which I recall doing with the children many years ago. It is quite a tourist attraction, and rather photogenic.

Chinon

One of the joys of motorcaravanning is to stay overnight in some small town, often French, sample the atmosphere, perhaps enjoy a local restaurant or visit a tourist attraction. Chinon, on the River Vienne, is one such place.

The town’s raison d’etre is the restored 11C Chateau of Chinon, which became the favoured residence of King Henry II of England and much else. Henry’s tomb lies at nearby Fontevraud.

The castle came under French control in 1205, as it has remained since. In 14C it was used to imprison some of the Knights Templar, in 15C it was used as a residence for French King Charles VII, and in 16C it became a prison, after which decay set in. The restored building is now a fine visitor attraction.

The riverside setting makes for good photographic opportunities.

The heavily tree’d promenade by the Vienne provides for a popular and atmospheric evening walk, to build up an appetite for a meal in the town. The route includes the spectacle of a number of fiercely contested boules matches (featured image).

Click on images to enlarge.

Chinon is well worth a detour, as the old Michelin Green Guides used to say.

Fontevraud, Royal Abbey

The historic Benedictine abbey of Fontevraud lies between Chinon and Saumur, in the area just south of the River Loire. We were lucky, it was an annual French jour de patrimoine, when entry to national museums is free – a great way for a government to encourage interest in local culture and history.

The necropolis

Fontevraud is designated a royal abbey because it was here that Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of the first Plantagenet King Henry II, established in the church a necropolis containing recumbent statues of the dead Plantagenets (from bottom, left to right, then top) Henry II, Eleanor herself set higher than her then-dead husband, their first son Richard I ‘the Lionheart’, and Isabelle, wife of Richard’s brother John. This was intended as a similar idea to the necropolis of French Kings in the church of St Denis in Paris, celebrating the continuity of Plantagenet reign over England/parts of British Isles/Normandy/Aquitaine (the so-called Angevin Empire). The necropolis never really developed after John, then king, ‘lost’ most of the French possessions to the French King Philip in 1204 – an early forced ‘Brexit’ which led to decades of scheming and warfare. The Plantagenets remained kings of England until the death of King Richard III in 1485.

A major feature of this abbey was that it contained both male and female monks/nuns, and was always overseen by a woman. Close links with French royalty ensured its survival until the French Revolution, when the abbeys were dissolved and taken over by the State, and where possible sold off. This was 250 years after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in England.

The abbey at Fontevraud was founded in 1101 by Robert d’Arbrissel, 3 years after founding of the Cistercian movement. This soon developed into a similar chain of monasteries across France, with a few in Spain and England. So controversial was the involvement of women, that  Robert was never canonised by the Catholic Church.

Evraud Tower

The architecture is quite remarkable, as you can see.

After the Revolution Napoleon decreed that the buildings be converted into a prison containing prison workshops. Even the abbey church was adapted to contain first 3 then 5 storeys. The experience of this prison is well described in exhibits at the abbey. The prison was only closed in 1963.

In the meantime, restoration work was recreating the essence of the original abbey. The kitchen/ Evraud Tower was rather imaginatively restored early on. Today, most traces of the adaptation of the abbey buildings to serve as a prison have been removed.

As well as being a tourist attraction in their own right, the abbey buildings now serve as a cultural centre for Western France, with many events and exhibitions.

Today Fontevraud looks magnificent. It provides a great day out to immerse yourself in this aspect of French/English history.

Featured image shows tombs of Henry and Eleanor.

Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell is on my mind, having just finished reading Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the last of her award-winning trilogy on his life.

Born around 1485, of humble origins in London, Cromwell rose to become an MP, then in 1524 an advisor to Chancellor Thomas Wolsey, right hand man of King Henry VIII. Somehow Cromwell survived the fall of Wolsey in 1529, when King Henry blamed Wolsey for the failure to get the pope to agree with annulling his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon, who had not produced a son and heir.

In 1530 the King appointed Cromwell to the Privy Council and over the following years gave him many other titles, including Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Privy Seal and Great Chamberlain. Thomas Cromwell became the second most powerful man in England, second to King Henry of course, but always resented by the traditional aristocracy. He always had jealous enemies.

In 1532 the supremacy of the king over the church in England was confirmed, the Lord Chancellor and anti-protestant Sir Thomas More resigned and was subsequently executed. The marriage to Catherine was annulled at Dunstable Priory, delegitimising her daughter Mary as heir. Henry married Anne Boleyn in 1533. All was orchestrated by Cromwell. In 1534 he was formally confirmed as first minister (compare today’s prime minister).

In 1536 came the act for the suppression of the lesser monasteries, Cromwell’s scheme to seize the wealth and lands of the monasteries, which provoked rebellion in the north of England with first the Lincolnshire Rising and followed by the Pilgrimage of Grace. These rebellions were seen off by Henry and those loyal. Those responsible were first persuaded to delay and later pursued and executed.

Anne Boleyn had not agreed with the religious changes, there were rumours of affairs, and she had also not produced a male heir. Cromwell was instrumental in her trial, fall and execution and the annulment of this marriage, delegitimising her daughter Elizabeth as heir. Henry married Jane Seymour.

Queen Jane died in 1537, after the birth of her son Edward, the longed-for male heir.

In 1538 the religious reform extended to the larger monasteries, which were invited to surrender, a process completed by 1540. Those that resisted, such as Richard Whiting at Glastonbury, were executed. The wealth and lands went to the King and his favoured lords. But the king resisted further religious reform.

Also in 1540 Cromwell had succeeded in arranging a ‘political’ marriage of Henry with Anne of Cleves, which was never consummated as neither party seemed to regard the other with any favour. But political winds were changing on the continent and it is believed that Henry blamed Cromwell for this alliance and the failure to extricate him from the marriage. Conservative forces briefed against Cromwell and the king allowed him to be arrested, tried and executed by July. At the same time, Anne agreed to annulment of the marriage and Henry married Catherine Howard.

Ten years was all it took for the once-humble Thomas Cromwell to dissolve the great monasteries of England and be instrumental in the king undertaking his second, third and fourth marriages, and for others to follow through with the fifth. Whatever we think of his dissolution of the monasteries, he seems not to have deserved the fate of beheading eloquently described by Hilary Mantel.

In fact Mantel’s books tell the whole story of Cromwell’s period in power, from the imagined perspective of the man himself. The whole trilogy is a tour de force, requiring great stamina for a complete reading, but very rewarding.

At the end of the day, Thomas Cromwell was a mere pawn on the European chessboard, in the game being played out by the English, French and Holy Roman kings/emperor, the Protestants and the popes of the Roman Catholic Church. He was dispensable when no longer convenient for his master.

King Henry VIII was a monster ego, who manipulated all to his own perceived personal advantage. We have not a jot of sympathy for him. Just beware today’s monster egos that seek similar over-arching power.

Featured image: Thomas Cromwell, by Hans Holbein

Hilary Mantel trilogy: Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, The Mirror and the Light