Sunday, 26 February 2017


Cracow is an old city. It was the seat of a bishopric from around 1000 AD, and although it suffered in the Mongol invasion of 1241 (about which more later) it remained the capital of Poland until 1609. When the kingdom of Poland was obliterated in the partitions of the late 18th century, the city escaped the fate of being incorporated into the Russian empire, which was suffered by most of the country: instead it spent the 19th century as part of the less oppressive Austrian empire. In the second world war it was the seat of one of the most unpleasant of the Nazi leaders, Hand Frank, who headed the so-called "General Government" of occupied Poland. In recent years the city's most famous resident has been Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who was Archbishop there from 1963 to 1978, before becoming Pope as John Paul II.
Cracow, along with Prague, has the distinction of being one of the very few major cities in central Europe to escape major damage in the Second World War, and in consequence has a wealth of splendid old buildings. I am describing just a few of them.

  The Old Quarter of the city is enclosed within what were once the fortifications, but are now a strip of parks called the Planty. In the centre is the market area, the Rynek Glowry, where we find the Cloth Hall. This dates form the 16th century, and is now full of stalls catering for the tourist trade.

The square contains the tower of the old Town Hall,
also St. Adalbert's church, the oldest in Cracow,
 and a statue of the Polish writer Adam Mickiewicz.

     Many fine buildings line the square 

The church of St. Mary is at the north-east corner.

The story goes that when in 1241 the great Mongol army (which had swept across Russia, destroying Moscow and Kiev) approached Cracow, a bugler on the tower started to blow a warning, but was killed by an arrow through his throat before he finished his call. A truncated bugle call is still sounded from the church in his memory.

I found this splendid character busking outside the church..

There are many fine churches in the centre of Cracow. This is the baroque church of Saints Peter and Paul.

South of the Old Quarter is Wawel Hill; the site of the cathedral and the royal castle.

The cathedral is dedicated to St. Stanislas, an early Bishop of Cracow, who was murdered in 1079.

In the cathedral you can see the magnificent tombs of the 16th century Kings of Poland.
and a spectacular altar dedicated to St. Stanislas himself

This is the courtyard of the Royal Castle

In a cave below the hill there lurks a fiery dragon!

Kazimierz lies to the east of Wawel Hill. It was founded as a separate town by King Kazimierz the Great in 1335. The Jewish population of Cracow was moved here in the late 15th century. The area contains several synagogues, including one named after Rabbi Moses Remu'h
The cemetery next to the synagogue was largely destroyed in the Second World War, and a wall has been constructed from fragments of the old tombstones

Kazimierz was made famous in the film "Schindler's List". Some of the old streets and courtyards are still there.

Schindler's factory is commemorated only by a small plaque, which is not easy to find, but there is a large memorial to Cracow's murdered Jews outside the town.

If you go on a package-holiday visit to Cracow, you will probably find that a day trip to Auschwitz will be included; but it will be stressed that this is voluntary, since of course many people would find it distressing. Auschwitz is an hour or so's drive from Cracow. I have written about it elsewhere on this blog. 

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Anne Bronte

Having watched the recent television play about the Bronte family, I decided to read "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall", by Anne Bronte.
   Anne was the youngest and least-known of the three Bronte sisters. She died of tuberculosis at the age of just 28, but during her tragically short life she wrote two novels; completing this, her second, shortly before her death in 1849. At the time it was considered rather shocking.
   The story is set back in the flamboyant, amoral age of George IV, twenty years before the time it was written. The "tenant" of the title is a mysterious and reclusive lady, apparently a widow, who has rented a tumbledown house in desolate moorland. It turns out she has run away from her abusive husband, and is concealing her identity for fear that he should take away their infant son, whom she has brought with her. Most of the book is her account of an unhappy marriage.
   Her husband, Mr Huntingdon, is nothing like those other memorable Bronte men, Heathcliff and Mr Rochester. Instead he is portrayed as essentially a very weak character; unable to resist the temptations of alcohol and gambling, responding with childish petulance to any setbacks, and forever criticizing his wife and shouting at the servants. Easily bored with country life, he disappears to London for weeks at a time (presumably for a dissipated life of booze, cards and women, though Anne does not tell us), or invites his dissolute friends to stay at his house, despite his wife's disapproval of them. At the same time, we can understand why he gets irritated with her, because she is very "preachy" at times: I'm not sure whether Anne intended to give this impression.
   The structure of the novel is a bit clumsy (at a crucial point of the story three important male characters all have surnames beginning with "H", which is confusing!) and the ending is too sentimental, but even so it's an impressive achievement for such a young writer. One has to wonder, though, how on earth the Bronte sisters - maidenly daughters of the parsonage - ever conceived of such remarkable male characters!

Saturday, 4 February 2017


TRUMPERY: Showy and worthless stuff, rubbish, ritual fooling. (French: Tromper; to deceive)
       (Chambers' Dictionary definition)

Friday, 27 January 2017

The Man in the Iron Mask and the Lerins Islands

The Lerins islands are a group of small islets in the Mediterranean, close to the south coast of France. There is a fortress with a fine view across the sea to Cannes. 

The famous "Man in the iron mask" was imprisoned here in the later 17th century. After a while, his guards were so fed up with having to live in this environment that they demanded to be transferred to Paris!

The prisoner did not in reality wear an iron mask, but a velvet one. Exactly who he was, and why he was imprisoned, remains a mystery. He was arrested in 1669, when he was aged about 30, by order of the Minister of War, the Marquis de Louvois, and held first of all at Pignerol (now in Piedmont), a top-security prison for major political offenders, and then at other prisons until his eventual death in the Bastille in 1703. There it was later reported that two musketeers were always on duty in his cell, to shoot him immediately if he ever removed his mask or attempted to speak about anything other than his immediate personal needs. When he died, he was buried the very next day (under the name of "Marchioly"), his clothes and furniture were burnt and the walls of his cell whitewashed. Clearly even more than thirty years after his arrest, he was considered a danger to state security. But why?

   On the arrest warrant his name was given as Eustache Dauger, a name that means nothing to historians. This only deepens the mystery, because it was stressed that he was "only a valet". At Pignerol he was allowed to act as a servant to a genuinely important detainee, the disgraced former Superintendant of Finances Nicholas Fouquet, who was imprisoned there from his fall in 1661 until his death in 1680. But if Dauger was no more than a servant, why were these extreme measures taken to conceal his identity and prevent him speaking? Presumably there was a danger someone might recognise him for who he really was, or at least be struck by his strong resemblence to someone famous and important. Alternatively, why was he not quietly killed, to save all this trouble?  

   Inevitably there have been sensational theories about his identity. The most famous stems from the great French novelist Alexandre Dumas, who suggested (in a follow-up historical novel to "The Three Musketeers") that he was the elder twin brother of Louis XIV, and should by rights have succeeded as King. A completely opposite theory is that he was Louis XIV's biological father (Louis XIII having been estranged from his wife for some time before her unexpected pregnancy) and had been attempting to blackmail the French government with this revelation. If the mysterious prisoner did in fact strongly resemble Louis XIV, it would certainly explain the mask, and the possibility that he was a close relative would explain the King's reluctance to have him killed. But we shall probably never know the truth behind the legend.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Harlech Castle

Harlech is one of four mighty castles (along with Beaumaris, Conwy and Caernarfon, all of which I have described in previous entries) built by Edward I in the late 13th century to secure his conquest of Wales. Like the others, Harlech was designed by his master architect and engineer, James of St. George, and cost the equivalent of many millions of pounds in today's money, but unlike the others it was built very quickly; in just seven years, between 1283 and 1290.
   This photograph, taken from a postcard, shows the immensely strong position chosen by Master James. It stands on an outcrop of rock, with the sea to the west (the direction from which this was taken). There is a moat and a low outer wall, with the only entry being from the east, where the modern town is situated.

The castle is in the form of an inner courtyard, or bailey, almost square in shape, with four massive round towers at the corners. Within the bailey were placed the great hall and other buildings.
The dominant feature of the castle is the massive gatehouse on the eastern wall. Its walls are up to 12 feet thick, and the entrance is guarded by twin cylindrical towers, between which would be several different gates and portcullises. Their impact on the visitor is impressive even today 

The gatehouse is entered by staircases from the bailey.

This is the view down on the western side. When the castle was built, these precipitous steps led down to the sea, and there would have been boats at the bottom, so in emergencies the castle could have been supplied by water. The sea has retreated since then and is now on the far side of the railway line.

The Northern wall provides a view all the way up the coast to the Lleyn peninsula, showing once again the strategic value of the site.

Harlech's defences were soon tested by the Welsh prince Madog ap Llewellyn in 1294, and proved their worth when a garrison of just 37 men successfully repelled the assault. But then over the next century the magnificent fortress was allowed to decay, and is described in cotemporary sources as "weak and ruinous". At the start of the 15th century it was besieged by Owain Glyndwr, and although he was not able to take it by storm, he eventually starved the garrison into surrender. Owain then made Harlech his headquarters in his campaign to free Wales from English rule. However, in 1409 King Henry IV sent a strong force which was able to retake Harlech. Owain managed to evade capture, but the days of his power were gone.

The stirring partiotic song, "Men of Harlech", which serves as virtually an alternative Welsh national anthem, was first published in 1830, but was probably much older. Various English translations have appeared since then, and can be heard on youtube.  

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Playing Cards, part 4: colourful packs

I have been collecting playing cards for around fifty years. This pack, from Sweden, is one of the first I had. It shows famous Kings and Queens of Sweden, with soldiers of the appropriate era as the Jacks.

This next pack was made by Piatnik of Vienna for the anniversay of Shakespeare's birth, and features the Wars of the Roses,with the red suits as the Lancastrians and the black as the Yorkists; so we have Henry VI as King of Hearts, Henry VII as King of Diamonds, Edward IV as King of Spades and Richard III as King of Clubs, togther with their Queens and ministers or soldiers. The Jokers are executioners! The modern suits hace been ingeniously fused with the old tarot suits of Cups, Swords, Money and Clubs. 

This is another pack I bought back in thee 1960s, which features English Kings, Queens and famous people. It was produced by Piatnik: the quality of the printing is amazing!

Another very beautifully-printed pack, this one by Fournier, featuring the native peoples of North and South America.

There are many packs featuring the two World Wars. This is a French pack illustrating the armies of the Western Front in the First World War, with the Kings as generals (Foch, Hindenburg, Haig and Pershing), the Queens as nurses and the Jacks as soldiers ("Fantassins" in French)

These are from a pack called "Jacob's Bible Cards", with names given in English and Hebrew.

And to end on a light-hearted note: the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, with a different girl on each card! 

Nowadays a great many packs like these can be found, and they are cheap and colourful things to collect.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Playing Cards, part 3: Political Packs

In England of the late 17th and early 18th centuries there was a craze for packs of cards illustrating some famous event, with a different picture on each card. Here are some examples. All are taken from modern reproductions, since the originals are extremely rare.

These cards are from a pack called "The Knavery of the Rump", produced soon after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. (The "Rump" was the nickname given to the House of Commons after the expulsion of all the anti-Cromwellian members)

 The cards constantly denounce or ridicule Cromwell and his friends and military commanders, often drawing attention to their humble origins, sometimes inaccurately. Thus, the Seven of Clubs shows Major-General Thomas Harrison, who was in fact a lawyer, not a carpenter. Harrison was a "Fifth Monarchy" man; believing from prophesies in the Book of Daniel that Christ was shortly to return to earth and initiate the "Rule of the Saints". Harrison was hanged, drawn and quartered after the restoration. I particularly like the Four of Spades, with the Earl of Argyle, chief of Clan Campbell, described as "A muckle Scotch knave in gude faith sir"!

The next set is entitled "Marlborough's Victories", and celebrates England's triumph, led by the great Duke of Marlborough, over the French in the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13) in the reign of Queen Anne. (It is worth remembering that this was the first major successful war that England had fought on the continent since the Middle Ages). The cards are in no particular sequence, and feature battles, famous incidents and leading personalities, and also make propaganda points. Anne is shown triumphing over Louis XIV of France, and also over the Pope, as on the Six of Clubs and the Ace (One) of Hearts 
The Five of Spades, where the devil is shown knocking together the heads of King Louis and the Pope, makes a crude reference to the fact that Louis, at the age of well over seventy, had had to undergo an operation for an anal fistula. The Knave of Hearts shows a government official embezzling money intended for the army. A spectator exclaims, "Oh rogue!", to which the official responds, "I am not the first!", and the lines underneath invite the reader to reflect whether he would have behaved any differently,given the opportunity.  Finally the Knave of Diamonds shows three nations each fighting for what each loves: The Frenchman exclaims, "Ambition!", the Englishman, running him through, exclaims, "Honour!", and the Dutchman, scrabbling on the ground between them, "Money!"

This card is from a pack of 1720, illustrating the "South Sea Bubble"; the world's first-ever stoack exchange "boom and bust". Each card illustrates some ludicrous prospect offered to gullible investors, with an appropriate verse underneath.
This one concerns one of the oddest invention of the time: "Puckle's Machine Gun", which was to fire round bullets against Christians and square ones against Turks. The verse below reads:-
   "A rare invention to destry the crowd
    Of fools at home instead of foes abroad:
    Fear not, my friends, this terrible machine,
    They're only wounded that have shares therein".

The nearest approach to these in my collection is this series, produced in the U.S.A. around 1970, with a different political figure on every card. The black suits are Republicans, the red suits Democrats.
Here we see President Nixon as King of Spades, Henry Kissinger as a puppet-master pulling the strings, Billy Graham with his flock, and Ronald Reagan (then Governor of California) jumping on a hippy. Below are Jane Fonda as Joan of Arc, Mayor Daley of Chicago (the ultimate "machine" politician, George Wallace of Alabama as a cop, and Teddy Kennedy as the would-be King Arthur, completely failing to pull the sword from the stone.

Nowadays a great many commemorative packs of cards are produced. They are colourful and inexpensive things to collect.