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Posts tagged ‘French History’

He watches from his mountain walls

When we have visitors or, as often, without and just because I can, I  go and have a little tête-à-tête with Napoléon.  He sits on his mount, ‘Marengo’ surveying Lac Laffrey about half an hour out of the city.  The statue of him was originally installed in Grenoble in 1868 and was moved to it’s present site where he can look out over the water and the mountains in 1929.

On a recent visit one of my daughters asked me why people  still think Napoléon was a  such a great man.  Of course that is a major simplification and I don’t intend to go into a detailed account of all the pros and cons of his undoubtedly iconic era but it would be wrong not to note that it includes the institution of the Napoléonic Code (or French Civil Code) parts of which are still in use around the world today.  It forbad privilege based on birth, allowed freedom of religion and stated that government jobs must be given to the most qualified all of which might sound pretty musical to modern ears, I would contend.  These facts might be received with some surprise by those brought up with the British version of history which tends to tell of his war-mongering and unabandoned desire to dominate the planet.  The joy of Nelson’s triumph over him at Trafalgar ranks high as does his catastrophic mistake in trying to conquer Russia in winter.  And of course Waterloo where he might have quoted the equally iconic Benny and Bjorn of Abba, in admitting that he was ‘finally meeting my Waterloo’.

So I told her the story of what happened at Laffrey in 1815.  After the messy mistakes of 1814 when his armies had been frozen and starved into submission in Russia and simultaneously the British had made rather more headway than was cozy on French soil, he surrendered.  The allies had him sent to the Island of Elba in exile.  It’s not far from France – in fact rather appropriately it lies between Corsica, where he was born, and Italy from whence his parents both haled.  Unfortunately for the European allies who were collectively breathing a sigh of relief, patting themselves on the back for a job well done and adjourning to a jolly fine restaurant to celebrate their undoubted brilliance,  this was not a man who was going to wear a stripey prison suit and stare wistfully at the nearby mainland coast dreaming of prior greatness.  Not a bit of it.  Even before he was dispatched he had negotiated what might seem rather decent terms.  He was allowed to keep his trusty and, by all accounts magnificent, Marengo, he dressed everyday in his customary cashmere culottes fresh pairs of which were shipped in weekly, his fine military jacket and crucially his trademark hat which he always wore in a jaunty horizontal,  jutting out right and left far beyond each ear rather than the traditional North-South in order that he could be picked out instantly by his troops.  He strutted around content that he was simply taking a little rest, a retreat if you will, and he plotted.

In March 1815, just a year after his surrender, he made his move.  Abetted by his so called guards, he sailed back to France (complete with horse) landing in Golfe-Juan on the Côte d’Azur his plan to march with his 900 fusiliers back to Paris.  Waiting for his arrival were plenteous  faithful on standby for the word that it was game on.  Avoiding Marseilles where the ‘desiré’, King Louis XVIII, had a copious barracks full of his own soldiers, he landed and processed through Grasses, Digne les Bains and Sisteron en route through the high French Alps.  This passage forever after and to this day known as la Route Napoléon is, to be frank,  not the easiest of drives in a modern car  and I can barely imagine what it must have been like on horse-back and foot over 200 years ago in March which is frequently still wintry and bitter in the mountains.  Admittedly it was probably a wise move not to insist on elephants as Hannibal had in 218 BC, but I equally don’t doubt that there was a nod to that feat, our Bonaparte being well disposed to all things Roman, even their defeat at the hands of a mighty strategist in them there hills. As he proudly progressed, more and more soldiers joined his ranks and by the time he reached Laffrey he had a very decent batallion with him.  But here stood a problem for here stood the Kings men, guns pointed and cocked, swords ready to swash out of their well-oiled buckles and swipe lethally at the merest deft twitch of a hand all under orders from their Monarch to stop him.  And stop he did.  Slowly, Napoléon dismounted his horse and stood, cashmere culottes giving him the comfortable and familiar feeling of Emporordom, west to east hat reminding all fore and aft that they were facing or following Napoléon himself and uttered calmly:    ‘Soldats ! je suis votre Empereur. Ne me reconnaissez-vous pas?’ – ‘soldiers, I am your Emperor, do you not recognise me?’.  Then he took several steps forward, stuck out his admittedly rather fine example of a barrel chest and declared ‘S’il en est un parmi vous qui veuille tuer son général, me voilà !’ – ‘if any of you want to kill your General, here I am!’  There followed the tiniest nano-nod to the briefest micro-pause and then a riotous and tumultuous cheer.  The entire troop, all the kings men themselves, fell in behind him to march decisively onwards and later that day he descended triumphant into Grenoble.

Now what stands out to me about this story is the sheer force of personality, the charisma and the brazen confidence that he was indeed the leader and that no-one would dare to stop him.  We are, of course led to believe that he was a tiny man though I understand that this was British propaganda and that he was actually of average height for the day, but nonetheless and whatever his stature, really that is quite a stunt and I adore the story.

The picture is taken from le Vercors looking over to the slopes of le Grande Serre and specifically Taillefer.  Look closely and you can see that the forest on the slope is in the shape of an eagle.  Some say it is a natural phenomenon but it seems to me quite a strange coincidence that the trees should have naturally taken the form of Napoléon’s preferred emblem by happenchance.  I was told that he ordered a forest be planted in the shape of two eagles and if you look to the right of the intact one you can make out the wings of a second which has seemingly and rather unfortunately lost it’s head in all the unfettered excitement.  Perhaps he didn’t have the time to issue such grandiose orders, after all he only relit his fire for a further hundred days before  succumbing to Wellington at Waterloo and being summarily dismissed to live on Saint Helena, remote in the South Atlantic where he died supposedly of stomach cancer. In fact many believe he actually died of arsenic poisoning.  I tend to believe the latter theory – after all, who was going to risk this hypnotically powerful man casting his charming spell on a fresh batch of conspiritors and causing a mighty headache to Europe all over again?  If that is my given, then I prefer to believe that the people themselves either planted or felled trees to create the eagles that would forever remind those casting their eyes towards Laffrey that it’s place in history was earned at the hands of this mesmerizing and magnetic man.

History, you see, is not entirely finite, it lies in the hands of the storyteller.  Is it myth, legend, a story so old that no-one can remember what is true any more?  Probably.  And I rather like my version.  It sits kindly and if you would kindly remember, out of all things can come good if we let it.  No one wants another Napoléon hawking his desire for conquest across a continent, but in the end it must be reconciled that he left a legacy that benefitted not just his own kinspeople but those that live, for example in Western Europe  – even if he would have preferred the whole of Europe to be called la France ….

And what has promted this little detour into French history as retold by me?  The weekly photo challenge is titled ‘Story’ and since recanting stories is what I do, I thought I would go for a big one and leave you to spot the eagle(s).  You can find a glittering gallery of entries to the field, here.

Disclaimer:  No-one has been harmed in my retelling of this tale so whilst begging your pardon for my poetic licence I beg you not to throw rocks at me for any sins of omission or erroneous embellishment


PS:  My title is taken from Tennyson’s powerfully simple poem ‘The Eagle’:

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
The Eagle
Alfred, Lord Tennyson

And your bonus …. The Eagles – well I would, wouldn’t I?  Desperado seems to fit the mood of those last hundred days and the film has horses and guns and you can by all means make the rest of the story up for yourselves … personally, I find it a lovely diversion.

Coup de Cœur – Part Eight: As if a hand has come out and taken yours

This giddying excitement is almost too much for a girl to take so I can’t imagine how you are coping!   Here we are on the second Monday in a row and I’m still keeping the promise that I will devote each start of the week day to a post in the series chronicling the tale of our restoration of a former Medieval Watch Tower in Southern France.

Today, by way of wrapping up the satiating feast of retrospective posts I delivered last week, I thought I would write a little about the history as we now know it, which, it turns out, is rather different to the original tale we were told at the start of this neverending story.

When we first laid eyes on the reality of the place on a freezing cold late January day in 2013 we were assured that the tower, built in 1203, simply fell into neglect and disrepair over the years and the that villagers had, quite understandably, swiped what they fancied and upcycled it into their own abodes.  Not so, mes braves.  In fact the tower was wilfully destroyed at some point in the early 1790s when news filtered through that the revolution  had brought down the Monarchy and flattenened (for a while) the old feudal systems, replacing them with a République that had no need for visible signs of the rule of church and king, hand in glove.

The correct name for the tower as it stood was ‘un tour seigneurial’.  Ours was the first place built in what would become the village of Marcolès.  It was inhabited by a feudal Lord who was, as in many cases, also the priest.  After it was constructed, and satisfied that he could survey everything around him, a church was built, and then another.  I think we can rest content that our Seigneur was a man of some excess.  Two churches within what is a tiny city wall seems a trifle indulgent. Rather the medieval equivalent of those, so much richer than I, who bring out my most churlish streak by insisting on parading an endless array of unfeasibly expensive motor cars a single one of which would buy me a perfectly good house in which to live a quiet and unobtrusive life.      At this time, the population was several thousand in the minuscule area that constitutes the walled ‘cité’ … these days in the whole commune, which is one of the largest in hectarage in the whole of Cantal, we number barely 500  in the village and all it’s hamlets.  It must have been quite something.

The present Eglise de Saint Martin was built in the XVth Century and at that time was one of two churches surveyed by the Tour Seigneurial

Thus, during the revolution the tower was deliberately toppled but in fact much of it remained.  To attic level for a little less than half of the building and up to first lintel height for the rest.  My mind conjures an image of zealous villagers, positively inebriated with joy at the  news of the fall of the Monarchy and the old-guard, advancing vigorously on that ancient and extremely sturdy construction and giving it utter hell for some while, bearing off their plundered stone with fervored delight.  After the first flush of frenzied looting I imagine them losing steam, scratching weary heads and agreeing that honestly?  Honestly, enough was enough, they’d done their bigger than needed bit and shrugging they retired to a hostelry to congratulate themselves over jugs of rough red wine.  Vive la France! Now to get on with the important things.  It’s entirely imagined and wholly affectionate, but I have a sneaky feeling there might be a bitty grain of truth in the notion.

Fireworks at the village fête de quinze août represent the fervour of the revolution

It should be noted that by now there was a fine chateau called les Poux, built in the early 17th Century which had hopped about between owners as such places often did at the effect of tussles and scurmishes but which, hold the thought,  had been snaffled by Huguenots early on.  By 1666 as London fried to cinders, its lethal combustion blamed for ever on an unfortunate baker who, in turn, protested his innocence for the rest of his life, yes, as London blazed, the present owners were already the incumbant lairds.  I find this significant.  It means that they escaped with their heads intact as the villagers, enraged and full of hope that the rich would no longer dictate to them, razed the tower that stood as a symbol of all things archaic and readied themselves for their brave new world.

The tree-lined avenue at Les Poux and a view back to the village from it’s land last winter

In the early 1820s that same sassy seigneur decided something should be done about, what must have been something of an eyesore in the middle of the village.  It was surely safe to pop his head above the parapet by this time since the Republic had been abolished in 1804 in the run up to Napoleon declaring himself Emperor.  This is not a French history lesson but suffice to say we are, at present, languishing in the fifth Republic of France and that 1824, which is credited as the year this chap decided it was safe to rebuild, was nestled neatly between the first and second.   I rather think he thanked God himself for the fact that he still had a head.  I think this not because I am harboring pious thoughts but rather because what he did, was to order the building you see now, but not as a house.  Instead he created a hospice.  Nursing nuns were installed to tend to the sick of the parish and to debilitated nuns from their Mother Priory in Aurillac which lies about 25 km North East of Marcolès and was, and still is, the most important town in the close area.  In fact these days it is the préfecture, county town if you will, of le Cantal. 

The priory still stands in Aurillac though these days it is occupied as apartments.  Gerbert of Aurillac became France’s first Pope in 946 AD declaring his papal name to be, rather splendidly, Sylvester II

The nuns worked gently and serenely, one hopes,  for the rest of the century administering to the needy.   In 1914 as yet another war, that war that was to end all war, which I still find the most tragic epithet of all time, seered and permanently scarred the   fields of Northern France, they departed.  I have much research still to do, but I imagine that, skilled as they were, they were summoned to tend the wounded and maimed boys despatched as cannon fodder from France and around the globe.  The building became empty and silent.


In 1917 another bevy of revolutionaries, this time in Russia unleashed hellfire on the Czar and aristocracy.  They overthrew their own feudal rulers and a chaotic bloodbath ensued.  That is the nature of revolution. Sitting and intellectualizing its manner and outcome is fine and dandy but the reality will take it’s own messy course peppered with unknowns and unthought ofs. Some years earlier the daughter of  the Chateau les Poux had been dispatched to Russia to be governess to an unfeasibly rich family.  She loved her Russian life, took to it like a little French duckling to water and had no intention of ever returning to the middle of no-where-land to pass her days as a spinster.  That French was the first language of high-born Russians at the time and that all things French were considered to be the most elegant and sort after of treasures amongst the wealthy, explains why she would have been an appealing appendage to the family she served.  It was actually very common for well-educated desmoiselles who had been unsuccessful in securing a husband, leaving all around them scratching their heads and wondering what on earth to DO with such an embarrassment,  to be floated discretely off to Russia to live the fine life as an educator of the children in that strange limbo that governesses inhabited – something between family member and servant.  1917 therefore must have come as a colossal blow to her …. the family would necessarily have packed hastily and in their own chaos pointed her back towards France on the turn of a sixpence.  All fine and dandy.  Except of course France was at bloody and terrible war.  Take a moment to imagine what her journey might have been like over sea, overland and eventually, in heaven knows what state, returning to the familial home in far-flung,  and blissfully erased from her mind, southern France.


What we do know is that she turned up at Les Poux and was soon installed in the now empty Maison Carrée as it afterwards became known.  There are still people who remember her.  She habitually wore long, rather old fashioned clothes complete with astrokhan or fur-trimmed coat sweeping the floor, her unusual height exentuated by a tall velvet or fur toque depending on the season.  She was a forbidding woman by all accounts and insisted on speaking Russian even though no-one understood a word she was saying.  I rather fancy that when this apperition turned up at the bucolic chateau, her sister-in-law ordered her husband to get rid of her, and that is why he cunningly requisitioned the house for her, given it was conveniently empty of nuns.  Wholly unsurprising that she was what the French call un peu spécial,  which translates as odd, weird or barking mad depending on context.  Poor love, she was sent to Russia, fell in love with the place and who knows, maybe with a beau too, only to have to rudely flee for her life back to a place that was less than welcoming and which by then had little to do with who she had evolved into.  I have a huge fascination with her, not least because I too, am frequently the lankiest bird in plain site  and am, undeniably foreign.  Not forgetting odd.   If the toque fits, I’m happy to wear it ….

Our not-Russian Russian lady  lived in the house til her death, around the time that I was born, when it was inherited by a woman, widowed or divorced, no-one can remember which, and which fact I find quite charmingly indicative of the lack of busybodiness that is part of the fabric of being French.  But whichever had rendered her alone she had two daughters and was, in some way yet to be discovered, related to those pesky poux. On her death the house was sold to the aberration of a man who preceded us in tenure, his wife and their two daughters.  Therefore, since the destruction of the tower and it’s rebirth in 1824, my husband is only the second man to have resided there.  I am comfortable that, wherever he registers on the eccentricity richter scale and which I am far too decorus to have an opinion on,   he is also the only vaguely sane man ever to have lived in the building since the Revolution of 1789.

Finally Cast your minds back to the early 17th century.  I mentioned the Huguenots.  I have spoken before about my father-in-law, cheese guru and eccentric delight.  His name was Patrick Rance.  Therefore my name, since he was my father-in-law was also Rance at that time.   In fact, had I not chosen to revert to my maiden name after that husband and I terminated our matrimonial bond, I would have been Mme Rance at the time I first set foot in Marcolès. The name is Huguenot.  It derives from de Rance, a family of that provenance who lived in southern France.  The river that Marcolès is built above is called la Rance.  Sometimes, things just feel as though they are meant to be …..

PS:  The quote is Alan Bennett from his glorious play ‘The History Boys’ :

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you.  Now here it is, set down by someone else, a  person you have never met, someone who is long dead.  And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

Discovering the history of this place feels exactly like that.  Even though it is not written in the conventional sense, so much of it is being pieced together from scraps of records and jumbles of recollections often told by extremely old people, we feel led towards it by the hand.  And the hand undeniably belongs to la Maison Carrée

Only the dead have seen the end of war

Isn’t it funny how you come across things just at the right time.  Or maybe it’s just that one can make things fit when one needs or wants to.  Yesterday was 11th November.  Remembrance Day (or Veterans Day if you are in the USA or Canada and I imagine territories which I am too uneducated to know about).  It can have escaped no-one’s notice that this year marks centenary of the start of World War 1.  La Grande Guerre.  Yesterday, therefore the world stood and still silent to mark with gravity the huge death toll of the following four years.   And much was written and much will be written.  Rightly.

After 11:00 we set off to the village of Anglards de Salers south and a tiny bit east of home by about 45 kilometres.  After a light picnic we toddled off on our walk and passed the little Chateau de Trémolière making a note to return and visit when it is open (outside of the big cities and the heavy hitting sites, many places of interest are closed from Toussaint to Easter in France). It houses a  collection of Aubusson Tapestries, fabric and needlecrafts are passion of mine and besides it has the oddest tower I have ever seen.  We also passed the 12th Century Eglise de Saint Thyrse which features on the list of Monuments Historique de France and made similar mental notes and then an ancient stone fountain which represented the only water in the village until 1904 when the two fountains in the middle of the square were built.  The plaque on the now dried up ‘font’ declares that those Anglardiens who exodussed to Paris would recognise one another by statement that they had been ‘baptised in the stone fountain’.  The connection to Paris is something I will write of another time … the historic links between the Auvergne in general and Cantal in particular to Paris are fascinating and unexpected.

As we walked the leaves danced in the wind.  It was a classic Autumn day – north of nippy, the air clear as anyone’s bell and the views from the 800 or so metres up above the Vallée du Mars absolutely spectacular.   In good spirits we came across a cross.  A stone cross with the figure of Christ depicted, as is typical in the area, quite tiny with a disporportioned head and massively oversized hands.  What stopped us in our tracks was the panneau next to it.  According to legend (and legend, as my children were always reminded is a story so old that nobody can remember whether its true or not), there was a battle fought on this land between Attila The Hun and the Gallo-Roman forces led by Flavius Aetius (Roman) and Theodoric I (Gaul).  This was in the 5th Century.  Hundreds of years later at the turn of the 18th Century a group of men from the pays came across what they believed to be Attila’s encampment and a dispute broke out when they found a cross there. This stone cross.  Presumably the argument arose as to who could rightfully lay claim to it.  Good old compromise prevailed and agreement was reached that it would be placed between La Mars and L’Auze hence it has stood where we happened upon it for the last 300 years.

IMG_1404 IMG_1403

That’s the history or the legend but what stood out to me, was the body count in 451 AD.  120,000 men.  In one battle.  Of course I don’t have accurate figures for what the  populations of France, Italy and Germany were at the time but I am pretty sure that they were a tiny fraction of the populations in the early 20th Century.  Fifteen hundred years, ago all that loss of life.  One hundred years ago all that loss of life.  Present day all this loss of life.  I am but a helpless little voice but maybe if all the helpless little voices gather together – maybe we could try to give to peace a chance and prove Plato, whose words I have annexed for my title, wrong.


PS:  When we got home and did a little intersleuthing on the net, we realised that this picture is not simply of a rock but of the ruins of a 5th Century fortress which stood on top and around it – you can see some of the stone-work in the foreground.  Sometimes you have to look a little harder to see the fact that war has been all around us for all time.