Thursday, June 30, 2011

Beginnings and Endings

Coming from Caen, Dol is one of the very first towns in Brittany. It was also where the independent Breton state really got started, where Nominoë was acclaimed ruler of Brittany in 848 after throwing off the Carolingian yoke. There is a rather pathetic statue of the man (left) on the green outside the cathedral, about 4’ tall, as tall as a Breton is allowed to stand under French rule. Maybe Nominoë really was a midget, but somehow I doubt it.

On the Grande Rue des Stuarts, the town hall flies the Breton flag, along with those of France, Europe and Dol-de-Bretagne itself. Most mairies I passed flanked France with Brittany and Europe, something unimaginable not so long ago. It is a fact that Europe, for all the anti-centralist criticisms that can be and are made, is also the chisel with which to break apart the unitary state. France and Brittany? A public assault on the constitution. France and Europe? A public sign of sound diplomacy. France, Europe and Brittany? Well, alright then. Next time I change the car, I’ll be having a Wessex flag sticker and a European one. The British and the English can forget it unless they grow some manners. Is there a wyvern in the picture? The van is advertising some Arthurian eatery and Arthur appears to be wearing the Wessex wyvern. On closer examination it turns out to be a very badly drawn lion but it was worth taking the snap to find out.

The cathedral at Dol is a sacred site of special importance to Bretons. It was founded by a Welshman, St Samson, in the 6th century and its bishop was raised to the status of archbishop by Nominoë. Three hundred years later, in 1199, Pope Innocent III, pressed by Tours, nullified the decree. In the 7th century a Church Council held at Tours had excommunicated the Breton clergy for holding Mass in the home and travelling with their women. No wonder they weren’t to be trusted with self-government. Bishop Thomas James, who died in 1504, has a magnificent Renaissance tomb in the cathedral, one of the few monuments to survive the Revolution. It was the work of two Florentine brothers, one of whom went on to design the tomb of Louis XII and Anne of Brittany at St Denis. The two virile satyrs (above) are a rather unusual motif for a bishop’s memorial but this is Brittany.

If Dol represents independent Brittany’s beginnings, then its endings are to be found in Dinan. With its nearly-complete mediæval walls, its streets packed with half-timbered shops, this is one city that has stepped straight out of dungeons-and-dragons. St Saviour’s, the older of its two main churches, was founded by a returning crusader and offers an eclectic mix of styles, including Byzantine and Persian influences. Not to mention a couple of camels (above).

The newer church, St Malo’s, was begun in 1490 under the patronage of the Duchess Anne and completed in the 19th century. Anne makes an appearance in brightly coloured glass on the north wall, depicting her entry into the city in 1505 (left). As a Queen of France, Anne of Brittany may be the one Breton ruler of whom French people have heard. Named after Brittany’s patron saint, she was also, for 25 years, its last truly independent ruler. It is traditional to refer to her as ‘La Bonne Duchesse’, who worked tirelessly to maximise concessions to Brittany ahead of an inevitable annexation. She died at the same age as Princess Diana, a sure way to saintliness. A less sympathetic modern assessment has her as a sentimental teenager whose vanity cost Brittany its independence.

The truth may be somewhere in between. Along with the trail of French gold that led to her advisers. The French records are unreliable and the Breton ones were conveniently confiscated. Strange to relate, it may be that Breton history will be more easily tracked down in the archives of England, Spain or Austria. They are as good a place to begin as any.

Democracy in Chains

“The French identity swings between euphoria linked with contemplation of its own wealth and diversity, and anguish that this very diversity can be the cause of dismemberment. In the end, it is simpler to be Breton than French.”
Jean-Pierre Le Mat, History of Brittany (2006)

Strictly speaking, it is no longer a crime to advocate Breton nationalism. But the French penal code continues to give special protection to ‘the fundamental interests of the nation’ – its own – and defines these to include its territorial integrity. That of Brittany gets no protection whatsoever, regardless of what the residents of Nantes may think. France claims to be the fount of all universal values, yet upholds them only when expressed in its own preening image. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights specifically allows for free speech to be curtailed where it touches upon territorial integrity. Such stubborn resistance to the will of the oppressed is a significant cause of conflict worldwide. Why do states still find it so hard to ‘let my people go’?

The illustrations I have chosen were captured in St Malo (1 & 2), Rennes (3 & 4) and Dinan. Each in its own way suggests that the Breton identity is alive and kicking. But these are the kinds of thing to be found in any Cornish tourist town too and the Cornish identity can be a shrinking shadow at times. (Not even Cornwall’s MPs make it their job to defend Cornwall.) Is the Breton identity something put on for the tourists, something ‘folklorique’ that makes a nice tea-towel? Something that melts away into the mist if politics is mentioned? Undoubtedly there’s an element of that but also much that will be invisible to the short-term visitor, apart from occasional graffiti demanding Brittany's freedom. The Internet is one place where folk can be themselves that lies largely beyond the homogenisers’ grasp. French law defines the Breton language as an anachronism left over from the ancien régime but in cyberspace it is possible that the tables will be turned.

Rennes, seat of the regional council, appears much less Breton than Cardiff appears Welsh. In Edinburgh, the tartan shortbread shops run the length of Princes Street but there is no Rennes equivalent. If a tourist comes to Rennes, looking for Brittany, what do they find? Rennes has been looking east for centuries. Gargantuan civil engineering and town planning schemes during the 19th and 20th have transformed it into a miniature Paris. (One impressive benefit is that Rennes has a metro system, for an urban area comparable in size to Bristol.) Yet to compare the Michelin town centre map of today with one from 20 years ago does reveal important changes. The House of Culture is now the National Theatre of Brittany. The Museum of Brittany has a purpose-built new home (though all the best items will still be in Paris). And the Palais de Justice is now marked by its old name of Palais du Parlement.

In 1994, fire devastated the 17th century parlement building, originally paid for by the province levying a tax on wine and cider. All has been carefully reconstructed (left) and today it houses the regional appeal court, its jurisdiction happily coterminous in area with that of the former parlement. The royal arms on the ceiling in one of the main rooms show three lilies of France alongside the ermine field of Brittany: a reminder that it was as Duke, not as King, that power was exercised. It was here during the 18th century that La Chalotais first made explicit the cause of Breton nationalism. Here too, in 1764, the magistrates ‘went on strike’, refusing to register the law for a new tax, a last act of defiance before the Revolution made dissent unthinkable.

I travelled both ways with Brittany Ferries, outward from Plymouth to Roscoff, homeward from St Malo to Portsmouth. To look at the map of routes is to see how the western Channel is becoming a community of interest, distinct from the eastern Channel with its focus on the Tunnel and the three capitals which that serves. One more reason for Wessex to make its own way in the world and not be imprisoned by a mindset that always has to prioritise English or British unity, even at our own expense. Regional councils in France are now responsible for many of their ports and airports: they’ll soon be buying up ours in Wessex too if we’re not quick to adapt to new realities.

Coming into Roscoff, I was awoken through the speakers by music, Celtic music with pipes and a harp. Brittany Ferries then is clearly Breton, but it tries equally hard to be French. I have to ask why France needs any help. To see what a grip it has is to confirm that for the sake of liberty, of equality, of fraternity, the French State, like Prussia before it, must disappear. At the very least in Brittany. The first steps have been taken. Brittany Regional Council has four autonomist councillors out of 83, following an electoral breakthrough in 2004. What Brittany needs now is its own Alex Salmond. And he or she cannot come soon enough.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Castles That Never Were

Last weekend I was in Wiltshire with the Glastonbury Antiquarian Society, visiting the two Wardour Castles, neither of which is a castle in the true sense of the word.

Old Wardour Castle (left) is an English Heritage property. It was built in the late 14th century as a showy fortified house rather than a fortress with real military potential; later additional comforts like larger windows made it less defensible still. Despite this it was besieged and captured in the Civil War. The owner then besieged it again in an attempt to get it back but the gunpowder went off at the wrong moment. He got his home back. Or rather, what was left of it.

The master mason at Wardour was William Wynford, who also worked on Windsor Castle and the cathedrals at Wells and Winchester. (We do do ‘W’s in Wessex.) In this case inspiration was drawn from contemporary French hexagonal castles, a fashion import that resulted from the Hundred Years War and which in this precise form is unique in Britain. The Elizabethan alterations appear to have been the work of Robert Smythson, designer of Longleat for the neighbouring Thynne family.

The owners of Wardour from the 16th century until modern times were an old Cornish family, the intensely Catholic Arundells. (Sir Humphrey Arundell was the leader of the Cornish forces in the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549; Anne Arundell was the wife of Lord Baltimore, the founder of Maryland.) Their other estates were at Lanherne in Cornwall; my great-great-grandparents were married there in 1833, theirs being the only Catholic marriage among my recent ancestors. Wardour, like Lanherne, was an estate populated by Catholics, following the example of the squire. On a small scale, cuius regio, eius religio. By the late 18th century, this part of Wiltshire was reported to have the largest Catholic population outside London.

At the Dissolution, Sir Thomas Arundell obtained several of the estates of Shaftesbury Abbey, possibly to hold in trust for a restoration of the old order that never came. In 1873, the family owned about 182 acres (plus manorial rights) in Cornwall and 6,037 in Wiltshire. After the destruction of Old Wardour Castle they had settled nearby at Breamore in Hampshire, before returning in the 18th century to build the ‘new’ Wardour Castle, a severe Palladian mansion with grounds by ‘Capability’ Brown. In fact, a most unlikely building to which to give the name of ‘Wardour Castle’. The choice reveals a traditionalism that runs very deep.

The house is now flats but its chapel in the west wing survives in all its finery. It was designed by James Paine and extended by the young John (later Sir John) Soane (after whom the extraordinary London museum is named). The multi-marbled altar (left) was designed by Giacomo Quarenghi, who later worked on St Petersburg for Catherine the Great. The sarcophagus enclosed by the altar contains bones from the Roman catacombs. These were a gift to the Arundells from Pope Alexander VII, rather unconvincingly identified as those of the martyrs Primus and Secundus. The whole edifice is a reminder that while Catholicism was frowned upon in 18th century Britain, and its adherents subjected to a wide range of disabilities, it was far from being actively persecuted. Indeed, in 1780 the Gordon Riots occurred in London in protest against increased leniency. The date falls between Paine’s work at Wardour and Soane’s.

The chapel possesses an exceptional collection of vestments, including the so-called Westminster Chasuble (left), parts of which are 15th century Flemish work and bear the arms of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (encircled with the collar of the Golden Fleece) and those of his wife, Margaret of York. The couple were married at Westminster Abbey in 1468 by Richard Beauchamp, Bishop of Salisbury and the original chasuble is thought to have been their gift to the Abbey.

Other features are later ornamentation – the lily of France, the Tudor rose, the portcullis of the Beauforts and, giving the date away, the pomegranate, the badge of Catherine of Aragon. The word ‘pomegranate’ comes from the Latin for ‘seeded apple’ but the fruit was also used as a heraldic pun, the ‘apple of Granada’ and appears today in the royal arms of Spain. In Greek myth, the pomegranate is a symbol of the indissolubility of marriage. With that precedent held in mind, that Catherine was never going to leave quietly.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Glastonbury Rediscovered

Post-excavation reporting is the Achilles’ heel of archæology. While the data recovered remain in private hands, or inside the diggers’ brains, the risk of loss is such that you might wish it had all been left in the ground for later. When Dr C.A. Ralegh Radford excavated Tintagel in the 1930's, he made careful notes but most were destroyed, still unpublished, in the Exeter blitz. After the war, he led several seasons of digging at Glastonbury Abbey but was still writing-up his findings in his nineties and died in 1999 with the work unfinished.

Fortunately, the papers were rescued for the National Monuments Record in Swindon and are now the subject of a trans-Wessex research project led by Reading University that will see the report published at last and placed on-line for all to view. Last week, the Abbey trustees hosted a symposium to report on progress. Experts gave guided tours of the ruins before those attending – several hundred people – crammed in to the Town Hall to be treated to presentations both scholarly and entertaining.

Sorting out the mess left by the 20th century diggers is only one part of the project. Complementary studies are also underway that will enable future excavations to be far more focused in their objectives. A surprising amount can be learnt from the stones themselves, both standing and fallen. Geology reveals economic relations with specific quarries, sculptural style links with other areas, while unexpected changes of pattern in the masonry can enable distinct campaigns of building to be highlighted. The pottery finds – tens of thousands of fragments – have been analysed and dated, some to the Roman/Saxon transition and earlier. Where the products of known kilns across the region can be identified, it is possible to reconstruct and map Glastonbury’s bulk-buying policies through the centuries leading up to dissolution.

Glastonbury is a geophysicist’s nightmare, with layer upon layer of building and rebuilding, punctuated with inaccessible areas where trees get in the way or ferrous objects like the visitor information plaques cast magnetic ‘shadows’ up to 7 metres wide. The best results from the recent survey are therefore obtainable away from the abbey church and among the domestic quarters. Some clearly indicate the ghostly outlines of features previously unsuspected and which will give plenty of food for thought for generations to come.

It is to be hoped that this project will mark the beginning and not the end of research into this precious and complex site. If so, then Glastonbury may acquire a reputation for serious scholarship to match its more dubious association with ‘New Age’ fantasy.