Archive for the ‘Castles!’ category

Tretower Court and Tower: An Appreciation – and the Heraldry of the Vaughan Family

April 15th, 2024

Reduced to farm buildings, then left to wrack and ruin, the once-grand Tretower Court, in the Usk Valley, was saved for the nation in 1934 and is now in the safe hands of Cadw. The house has been beautifully restored and is presented to visitors with outstanding flair and imagination.

The two long ranges of Tretower Court, an attractive mixture of stone and timber-framing, were constructed in the mid-fifteenth century by Sir Roger Vaughan. It was either Sir Roger or his son, Sir Thomas, who added the battlemented curtain wall and gatehouse (with its huge wooden doors) to create the full courtyard plan of today.

The charm of Tretower, apart from the tranquil courtyard, is that the north range is virtually unaltered. The apartments on its upper floor are still accessed through a wooden side gallery. The west range, attached to it at a right angle, probably looked rather similar, but has acquired the elegant, late seventeenth-century façade that is the first thing one sees through the entrance arch.

The interior is unchanged, however, with the kitchen and service rooms at one end and Roger Vaughan’s private quarters at the other. The centrally-placed great hall, with its large fireplace on the west wall, is open still to its gloriously timbered roof. The timbers have been dendro-dated to 1455-6.

It was in this setting that Roger maintained ‘a court of royal style, the maintenance of a hundred men’. The wine flowed at his banquets and the itinerant ‘poets of the nobility’ were always on hand to sing his praises. Cadw have restored these rooms ‘as faithfully as possible, with new partitions, and plaster applied to the walls as appropriate’ (David M. Robinson, Tretower Court and Castle, Cadw, 2018, p.14). They have also filled them with replica furniture and fittings.

However well researched, such an approach is often deplored by purists, but for me, the result is very pleasing. There are hangings of say in the blue and red stripes of the Brigade of Guards, two trestle tables with benches arranged lengthwise for the retainers and, raised on a dais at the far end, a third table facing them which was for the lord and his family.

Covered with white table cloths, these are arrayed with glass- and pewter-ware and trenchers (slices of inferior bread that served as plates) that are less convincing. (They look like off-cuts from a breeze-block.) There are a dresser and a ‘cup board’ at the screen-end. With the aid of these props, it is quite easy to imagine the feasting and carousing that went on in this room.

Best of all is a painted cloth behind the high table, specially commissioned by Cadw, that depicts incidents from the Vaughan family history. On the extreme left we see Sir Roger’s father, Roger Vaughan of Bredwardine in Herefordshire, and his maternal grandfather, Dafydd Gam (‘the one-eyed’), at the Battle of Agincourt, where both men perished. Dafydd has been suggested as Shakespeare’s model for Fluellen in Henry V. As a prominent opponent of Owain Glyndŵr, he is anathema to Welsh nationalists, but his family had served their English overlords for generations, and would never have regarded themselves as traitors.

Sir Roger’s mother, Dafydd Gam’s daughter Gwladus Dhu, was remarried to Sir William ap Thomas, whose first wife, a Bloet, had been the heiress to both Raglan and Tretower. Known as ‘y marchog glas o Went’ (the blue knight of Gwent), Sir William was chief steward to the lord of Usk – the English Duke of York – and a member of his military council. From 1432 he had begun the transformation of Raglan, raising the present South Gate and Great Tower, which was surely painted. The court poet Guto’r Glyn refers to this five-storey moated fortress, accessible only by a drawbridge, as the ‘Yellow Tower of Gwent’.

Presided over by the remarkable Gwladus, the whole family, including young Roger, had taken up residence in these spacious quarters. When Gwladus died in 1454, her funeral was attended by 3,000 mourners, for she had been ‘the strength and support of Gwentland and the land of Brychan’. The court poet Lewis Glyn Cothi refers to her as ‘y seren o Efenni’ (the star of Abergavenny), though elsewhere she is sun-like, a ‘pavilion of light’. They were a close and united family. Roger was particularly attached to his younger half-brother, William Herbert, the future Earl of Pembroke, who on succeeding his father in 1445, settled Roger at Tretower as his castellan.

The motte-and-bailey castle of the Picards and Bloets stood in flat meadowland. The old shell keep had been gutted in the mid-thirteenth century and a great round ‘tower’ (from which Tretower is named) had been raised within. The polygonal outer walls of the shell keep had been retained, however, to form an impressive outer defence. Tretower Court is the comfortable modern residence that Roger built in the purlieus, some 200 yards from the castle walls.

As committed Yorkists, the Vaughans and the Herberts had often to strap on their plate armour and march to war. The next scene on the painted hanging is of Roger at the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross (1461), but it omits the gruesome aftermath, for Roger is said to have led old Sir Owain Tudor to his execution at Hereford. Sir Owain’s head was placed on the market cross, where ‘a madde woman kembyd hys here and wysche a way the blode of hys face’. (James Gairdner, The Historical Collections of a Citizen of London in the Fifteenth Century, Camden Society, 1876, p.211.) Roger was knighted in 1465, an event that is also depicted on the hanging, acquired great estates including Merthyr Tydfil, and is said to have built the ‘royal palace’ at Cardiff. In a final scene we see him with William Herbert at the Siege of Harlech (1468).

After the victory at Tewkesbury in 1471, Roger was charged by King Edward with the pursuit of Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford, but himself falling into Jasper’s hands, was summarily executed at Chepstow. He could hardly have expected mercy from Owain’s son, but the court poets were incensed. Calling on the family to avenge him, they ‘cursed Jasper’s marrow for this wicked deed … May [we] see the traitor’s skullbone/Used in Tretower to tune the harpstring,’ they sang.

The patronage of poets endured under Roger’s son, Sir Thomas, who was unstintingly eulogised by Lewis Glyn Cothi and others, both for his courage in arms and for his liberal hospitality. Though a supporter of Richard III, he was luke-warm in the months before Bosworth, earning himself a general pardon from Henry VII.

His descendants never ascended in rank, but lived the relatively obscure lives of minor gentry, occasionally filling the office of High Sheriff, until in 1783 Charles Vaughan sold Tretower to a local farmer. By the 1850s it had been entirely given over to agricultural purposes, and the roof of the north range was on the point of collapse.

The Boy’s Head and the Snake

The figures on the hanging are always identifiable by their heraldry, which Cadw have put to excellent use at Tretower. Dafydd Gam, Roger Vaughan and William Herbert all wear armorial surcoats. Dafydd bears Argent three cocks gules, William Herbert Per pale azure and gules, three lions rampant argent. As for Roger, his coat of arms is the distinctive Sable three boys’ heads, couped at the neck proper, a snake about the neck of each one Vert – or so it appears here. The arms of Vaughan were inconsistently blazoned among the various branches. The tinctures vary and sometimes a chevron argent appears between the heads. (Michael Siddons ed., Visitations by the Heralds in Wales, Harleian Society, New Series XIV, London, 1996, pp.43, 54, 90; Burke’s General Armory.)

According to A.C. Fox-Davies (A Complete Guide to Heraldry, London, 1929, p.169), ‘The boy’s head will seldom be found as a charge except in Welsh coats, of which the arms of Vaughan and Price are examples’. To this list I would add the Watkins of Cwrt Robert in Tregear, Monmouthshire. Their ancestor, Lewis ap Gwatkyn of Painscastle, a contemporary and perhaps near relation of Roger of Tretower, is described by Lewis Glyn Cothi as a scion of the Vaughans of Bredwardine. (See

But why the snake? It commemorates their supposed descent from Moreiddig Warwyn (‘white neck’), and thence from Drymbenog ap Maenarch, lord of Brycheiniog. Legend has it that Moreiddig emerged from the womb with a viper entwined around his neck, a sure sign of his princely birth. In reality it may have been the umbilical cord, rather than a viper, that was so entwined. Moreiddig was also the fychan or ‘second born’ son. The surname Fychan, adopted by his descendants, was subsequently anglicised as Vaughan.

I particularly loved the projections that were automatically triggered in one of the old storerooms of the north range, an animated viper appearing from behind a row of shields to give an account of the house and family; or it was an almost tangible Lewis Glyn Cothi and a cast of animals, explaining their connection with the Mabinogion (an edition of which is on sale in the Tretower shop). My young son was enchanted, and so were the many other young visitors, who joyfully scaled the ramparts and coursed through the empty rooms in their unending games of hide and seek.

Au hasard, Balthazar! The Château des Baux de Provence and its Lords – Ancestors of Elizabeth Wydvill

November 7th, 2019

The proud and fractious lords of Les Baux were named for the eagle’s nest, the great yellow castle on a precipice – or ‘balc’ in the local speech – from which they reigned.

The donjon

Before the end of the twelfth century, an alternative story was proposed, thought up by some ingenious clerk or minstrel: that ‘Baux’ derived from Balthazar (Bautezar in Provençal), one of the three magi or wise men, whose son, they said, had come out of Ethiopia to settle in those parts and was the founder of their line. The arms of the family are thus gules, a comet with sixteen rays argent, representing the very star that had guided the magi on their journey ‘from the east’. In their war-cry, ‘à l’asard Bautezar’ (to chance, Balthazar), they succinctly proclaimed their sanctified ancestry along with the recklessness of their ambition.

The castrum Balcius is first cited in a charter of 981, when the head of the family, Pons, held the office of ‘vicomes’; whilst their line can be traced back to a Germanic-sounding Count Liebulfe – no Ethiopian he! – who was born in the late 700s. Sovereign lords for a spell, minting their own coins, the Les Baux came to rule over 79 dependencies, ranging from Vaccarès in the Camargue to the principality of Orange. Yet that was not enough. They must also contest the countship of Provence, to which, admittedly, they had a sound claim; but years of bitter conflict with the rival House of Toulouse ended with their utter defeat in 1162, the ravaging of their lands and the razing of their Château des Baux. Au hasard, Balthazar! Everything chanced on the roll of the dice.

A spectral ruin, like an abandoned city of troglodytes

The castle rose again, and was occupied by the family till 1426. In 1632, on the orders of the king, it was comprehensively slighted by the application of gunpowder. The remaining habitable parts were destroyed in 1793, the hateful charters burnt. Hewn out of the very rock, Les Baux is now a spectral ruin, like an abandoned city of troglodytes. The dressed stone that fronted each range of buildings has been removed, exposing their cave-like interiors. There is barely a single room with its four walls intact.

Military headquarters and court, this was once a throbbing community, with its capacious stables, stores and refectories (‘tinels’), and subsidiary residences for important vassals. Searching for any recognisable feature, one notices stonework up above resembling a giant honeycomb: a pigeonnier of course, for all these people must be fed. There were fishponds, too, and a windmill, and the castle supported a large hunting establishment. The plains below were not the neat vineyards of today but were forested for deer, a vast sporting ground.

The walkways on the ramparts are picturesquely worn and weathered. The narrow, slippery staircase that leads to La Tour Sarrasine is dissected by a deep gutter, an attempt to channel the torrents of rainwater. Best preserved are the service rooms cut deep into the rock below the donjon. The blackened fireplace in the kitchen and the empty bread ovens are powerfully evocative of the former life here.

The ruins of Les Baux are difficult to read but one can make most sense of the donjon, which is relatively well preserved. This thirteenth-century reconstruction of its damaged predecessor is a simple, but very grand and rather elegant two-storied structure. It has only a few small windows and was poorly insulated. The huge fireplaces of which we see traces would have been very necessary to raise the temperature and control the humidity in winter. Beam holes mark the position of the floors. There were reception rooms at ground level, and fifteen chambers above, with names like the chambre de la Tour (that of the Lady Alix des Baux in 1426), the chambre de la Rose and the chambre du Pape (after Pope Clement VII, who used to visit from Avignon).

A reconstruction of the castle in the twelfth century

Despite the sumptuous tapestries on every wall (mentioned in an inventory for Lady Alix), these rooms were sparsely furnished (the odd coffer and trestle table) and rather forbidding. They would, however, have been crowded with people and there was always the softening presence of troubadours – Raimbaut d’Orange in the twelfth century, Paulet de Marseille in the thirteenth. Think of the stamping of feet to their estampidas or dancing songs, the endless gallantries, the rapt attention to their tales of unhappy love in the uvularising Provençal.

Perched vertiginously on its rock – one shudders to think of prisoners being thrown to their deaths in 1394 – Les Baux is beautiful but unnerving, an expression of brutal feudalism. Its prideful lords were driven by their greed and ambition, launching pointless wars that destroyed countless innocent lives. Like most of their kind, they were lovers of strife, and of the spectacle of strife.

The arms of Les Baux - the Star of Bethlehem

Marguerite des Baux, Grandmother of Elizabeth Wydvill

Their ambitions thwarted in Provence, the Les Baux sought a new destiny in Italy. Barral des Baux (patron of the troubadour Raimbaut d’Orange) took the cross and enlisted with Charles of Anjou in 1252. His younger son Raimond led the cavalry charge at Benevento in 1266, the battle that won the kingdom of Sicily for Charles. Barral was appointed Grand Justiciar; his elder son, Bertrand, Count of Avellino. Bertrand’s descendant Alix was the last of the line to reside at Les Baux, where she died in 1426, in the chambre de la Tour.

Their cousin, another Bertrand, also shared in the spoils, becoming duke of Andria, a fair city on the coast of Apulia. Bertrand’s son François, Duke of Andria, married Sueva, daughter of Niccolo Orsini, Count of Nola, in 1381. The Orsini were a Roman senatorial family whose line can be traced back to the tenth century; as Scott Fitzgerald described them (Tender is the Night, Book II, Chap.XXII), ‘they’re the ones who got possession of the temples and palaces after Rome went to pieces and preyed on the people’. They picked up some interesting connections along the way. Sueva Orsini’s mother, Jeanne de Sabran, was the great-grand-niece of St Thomas Aquinas; her grandmother, Anastasia, the daughter of Simon de Montfort’s exiled son Guy.

François des Baux (who died in 1422, aged over ninety) had a son by Sueva, Guillaume, who succeeded as Duke of Andria and was also the designated heir to his cousin Alix des Baux, last of the senior line. Louis III of Anjou, Count of Provence, refused, however, to honour the terms of her will, seizing the territory for himself and finally severing the troublesome House of Les Baux from their ancestral home.

The dragon-eyed Elizabeth Wydvill, queen of Edward IV

The couple also had a daughter, Marguerite, who married Pierre de Luxembourg, Count of St Pol. Marguerite’s daughter, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, contracted an illustrious first marriage with John of England, Duke of Bedford, which was childless. Her second marriage was to someone far beneath her, an aberrant love-match with one of the old duke’s retainers. Sir Richard Wydvill was an obscure Northamptonshire knight, though he was later created Earl Rivers and appointed a Garter knight. Those honours would not have come his way but for the even-more-scandalous marriage, in secret, of the beautiful, dragon-eyed Elizabeth Wydvill, Sir Richard’s daughter by Jacquetta, with King Edward IV of England. From Elizabeth, her brother and her sisters (who all quartered the arms of Les Baux) there are numerous lines of descent to the modern day.

The noblest families of southern Italy and Sicily invariably descend from the companions of Charles of Anjou, like those of Corbera and Falconeri in Lampedusa’s Leopard. The ‘del Balzo’ line subsists in several branches in Italy to this day, still holding ducal rank, but far removed from the precipice in Provence for which they are named.

[Paul Pontus, Les Baux (Paris, 1971); Famille des Baux at; Steven Runciman, The Sicilian Vespers (Cambridge, 1982), pp.73-6, 84); Lt.Col. W.H. Turton, The Plantagenet Ancestry, pp.228-9.]

Le Duche d’Uzès: Remembering Proust in a Ducal Fortress

September 6th, 2019

Le Duche d’Uzès: ducal abode in the middle of a city

When Proust was travelling ‘the Guermantes Way’ in the 1890s, charming the aristocratic hostesses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and frequenting their salons and soirées, one of the families he encountered was that of Crussol d’Uzès. The duc d’Uzès (creation 1565) was the second most senior duke in France, only a short head behind the duc de La Trémoïlle (1563). That line died out in 1933, so the duc d’Uzès has since been France’s premier duke and peer.

Ducal carpet in the salon

The Crussols had been intimates of the royal family since at least the fourteenth century, the holders of high office and active on many a campaign. Their motto, indeed, is Ferro non auro, ‘By steel, not gold’. Louis XVIII once expressed his surprise that none of them had ever been a Marshal of France. ‘Sire,’ replied the duke, ‘nous nous faisons tuer avant (we always seem to get ourselves killed beforehand).’

The first part of the family name recalls their long-abandoned stronghold in the Rhône valley, opposite Valence, while the second marks their lordship of Uzès, an ancient city in Occitania. They also maintained an hôtel in the rue Montmartre, for these places are in the deep south, far indeed from Paris and the court. ‘Uzès!’ said André Malraux, General de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture and a friend of the family, ‘but that’s even further away than China!’

Inside the courtyard

The dominant member of the family in Proust’s time was the ‘Grande Duchesse’ (born Anne de Rochechouart de Mortemart), a talented sculptress who contributed the figure of Saint Hubert to Sacré Coeur, a yachtswoman, a feminist and a fanatical rider-to-hounds; also the first woman in France to hold a driving licence (1889) and the first to receive a fine for speeding (1893), after her Delahaye had topped 15km per hour in the Bois de Boulogne. Whilst admiring this formidable lady for her varied achievements, Proust was unable to detect in her any of the famed ‘Mortemart wit’. She was, however, the granddaughter and sole heiress of the Veuve Cliquot, and thus introduced an intoxicating and enriching dose of bourgeois blood to the Crussol line.

Determined that her son Jacques should avoid a more flagrant mésalliance – he ‘became infatuated with the cocotte Émilienne d’Alençon, who was exhibiting a troupe of performing white rabbits – though nobody had eyes for the rabbits’ – she packed him off to Africa, where he died of enteric fever in 1893. The last straw had been Émilienne’s disporting herself in public with the family jewels. The episode made an impression on Proust, for in his Recherche it apparently ‘suggested Saint-Loup’s exile to Morocco as punishment for his extravagant gifts to Rachel’. (George Painter, Marcel Proust: A Biography, I, New York 1959, pp.163-4;

The dining-room

Though it is usual to pronounce the final ’s’ in Uzès, Proust discovered that the gratin had their own rendering of this and other famous names, whether from long tradition or as a way of enhancing their exclusivity. In Sodome et Gomorrhe (Bouquin edition II, Paris 1987, p.665), the snobbish outsider, Mme de Cambremer, is disconcerted to hear an acquaintance speak of ‘ma tante d’Uzai’ and of ‘mon onk de Rouan’, not immediately recognising the famous names that she herself pronounced ‘Uzès’ and ‘Rohan’. The very next day, when a friend refers to a bust of the duchesse d’Uzès, Mme de Cambremer is delighted to correct her. ‘Vous pourriez au moins prononcer comme il faut (you could at least pronounce it correctly),’ she says haughtily: ‘Mame d’Uzai.’

The snobbery that Proust encountered in the Faubourg – and documented in his novels – was breathtaking. The present duke, however, is a man of the people. I am reliably informed that the taxi that conveys him from Nîmes airport for his monthly visits to Uzès is instructed to call first at McDonald’s restaurant, whose ‘drive-thru’ facility is conveniently located on the edge of the modern city.

The Duché d’Uzès: An Appreciation

His modest address in the Place du Duché, Uzès, hardly prepares one for the grand residence of France’s premier duke and peer. Approaching through a narrow side street, one glimpses a turret on a tall building ahead, a fluttering banner, an elaborate escutcheon worked into the brown tiles of a steep roof. Emerging into the Place, one is suddenly confronted by a full-blown castle in the middle of the historic city, one that, most unusually, is occupied by its original family as it has been for a thousand years.

The three elements to the castle are instantly laid bare in the main courtyard that is accessed through a door from the Place. The oldest and most prominent of these is La Tour Bermond, a massive square keep, fifty metres high, named for the lord of Uzès who built it in the twelfth century.

Then there are the fourteenth-century ramparts, projecting from one side of the keep, which were added by lord Robert after his elevation to vicomte in 1328. Robert’s apartments, the so-called ‘vicomté’, which are built into these ramparts, are disguised behind a nineteenth-century façade, though with a tall hexagonal turret at one end.

Simone d’Uzès: prized heiress

Finally, another medieval range that projected from the keep was aggrandised in fine Renaissance style by the Crussols, for Charles de Crussol, Grand Pantryman of France, had in 1486 married Simone d’Uzès, the prized heiress to Bermond and Robert’s line. Their grandson, Antoine, became the first duc d’Uzès in 1565. An associate of the sinister Catherine de’ Medici and a trimmer, renouncing his Protestantism in timely fashion in 1572, Antoine employed a sensitive and learned architect on his renovated apartments, ‘le Duché’, the striking façade of which features Doric, Ionian and Corinthian columns in layers for each floor.

His father Charles had already paved the way with the splendid vaulted staircase of c.1515, quite taxing to any but the nimble, that now leads to these rooms. The first of them is a hallway containing two exceptional treasures, laid out on cushions: a helmet from the time of Joan of Arc, in excellent condition; and – a great curiosity – a lamp said to be a relic from the Crusades, lords of Uzès having participated, as vassals of the Counts of Toulouse, in the Fourth and probably also the First Crusades. It seems to me very rare that a family should preserve any artefact of so early a date.

Crussols in ruffs and lace gaze down from the walls (including the Grand Pantryman Louis with his trim beard, last of the family from whom I myself am directly descended). The room is simply furnished, even austere, as is fitting in a living fortress: ‘In our halls is hung armoury of the invincible knights of old,’ as Wordsworth puts it. The theme is continued in an adjoining vestibule, where there are portraits of more recent Crussols, including a full-length one of the present duke, a sleek and elegant figure in a dinner jacket, his arms casually folded.

Louis de Crussol, Grand Pantryman and Governor of the Dauphine (died 1473)

These rooms lead to a grand ‘state’ room, a Wedgwood-blue salon with a lot of white-and-blue porcelain and Louis Quinze chairs with red and gold covers. Despite the warm colours, there is a coldness to rooms of such conventional formality, and the modest fireplace tucked into one corner would hardly have raised the temperature. I was struck, however, by the elaborate carpet commissioned by the present duke that bears his achievement of arms, with its multiple quarterings, which, indeed, is ubiquitous throughout the castle; and was tempted by the glimpse of a more intimate room beyond, all in red, into which one is not invited.

Instead, one is steered through a long, cool passage into one of the many bedrooms that lead off it – the ‘Yellow Room’, with its memories of ‘la Grande Duchesse’ – and the dining-room, where an immaculate Aubusson tapestry is framed by hunting trophies (hers, probably). A large, fifteenth-century triptych depicting members of the royal house hangs nonchalantly above a sideboard, on which a portrait of that precious commodity, Simone d’Uzès, has been propped – a happy-looking girl with rosy cheeks and a hint of a smile. The fifteenth-century chapel beyond was refurbished in 1838 and includes a colourful wall-painting of the family’s heraldry.

There is only a small, formal garden at the back of the Duché. The park, watered by the river Alzon, is across the city, outside the walls, and is a public amenity.

The charming and expertly trained guides at le Duché, looking like matelots in their white denims and T-shirts, are as well-versed in heraldry and genealogy as any Guermantes. Le Duché is a carefully managed stage-set, a romantic anachronism, yet is perfectly pitched at anyone, like me, who thrills in Grand Pantrymen and crusader lamps.

Crusader lamp

Shalfleet: Church Tower or Castle Keep?

August 28th, 2017

The Tower of Shalfleet Church is the oldest on the Isle of Wight, and the most remarkable. Were there not a church attached to it, one would assume it was a defensive keep. The walls of this massive structure are over five feet thick, and there was originally no means of access from ground level: one had to climb an external ladder and scramble over the parapet. It is a structure that takes one’s breath away and has been described as ‘practically unique’. (Percy Stone, The Architectural Antiquities of the Isle of Wight, II, London 1891, pp.51-2.)

The Old Vicarage, Shalfleet: was it the site of the Saxon church? The Norman foundation is on the left.

The Tower was built in the later eleventh century, probably between 1070 and 1085, and may have been positioned at a distance from the Saxon church, the cemetery for which was in the garden of the Old Vicarage. (Ruth Waller, Archaeological Excavations in Shalfleet (Shalfleet, 2008.)

William fitz Osbern, the Conqueror’s cousin and close friend, to whom he had granted the lordship of the Island, had presented the manor of Shalfleet to Gozelin fitz Azur, his own subordinate knight who had probably fought beside him at Hastings, while the church was part of his endowment to the Abbey of Lyre in Normandy. The Tower that they quickly raised would not have been free-standing for long, for it was soon connected to a new church on the present site, with an arch giving access to the Tower from the nave. Apart from the Tower, their North Door has survived the subsequent alterations to the building, with its ‘quaintly carved tympanum … an ordinary Romanesque enrichment’. The best guess is that the curious scene of a man with two lions represents Daniel in the Lions’ Den.

It has been suggested that a tower of such strength was intended as a refuge, for Shalfleet, with its flat shore, was particularly vulnerable to raiders from France (Stone, II, p.52; Brian Mead, The Church of St Michael the Archangel, Shalfleet, 2004). However, what Frenchman in the 1070s would have dared to invade the newly-annexed territory of William the Conqueror, given that he was the ‘strong man’ of northern France and notoriously swift in his retribution? Moreover, how would the frail and elderly have been expected to scramble up the Tower in times of danger? Although it undoubtedly served later as a defence against the French (and was equipped with its own three-pounder gun until 1779), it seems to me most unlikely that that was its original purpose.

Was it not, rather, an outpost of the lordly control that was now being exercised from Carisbrooke Castle? Conspicuously more solid and expensive than the usual motte and bailey, a commission worthy of the Island’s central authority and ideally placed to hold sway over the West Wight, might it have been intended not to shelter the local populace, but to cow them into submission?

The Tympanum, probably illustrating Daniel in the Lions' Den

The Flight of La Vouivre from Dole to Vadans: Reflections on the House of Poitiers-Valentinois

August 1st, 2017

Continuing my quest for the serpent-fairies of France, whom I have traced from Lusignan in the Poitou (via the Starbucks logo) to Sassenage in the Dauphiné. Now I track down a monstrous specimen in the Franche-Comté …

The domed clock-tower of the Collégiale at Dole, completed in 1596, is one of the landmarks of the Jura, visible from miles around. When one squints at it from a distance, it often appears to be crooked. The folklore of the region offers a ready explanation: that La Vouivre, the serpent-woman of local legend, has carelessly knocked it with her wing. She prefers to train her single, luminous eye on the ground below, scouring it for evidence of buried treasure.

In mortal life, she was a lady of the house of Poitiers, lords of Vadans on the far side of the mighty Forêt de Chaux, whose name she had tainted with her avarice. The ‘Noblesse de Poitiers’ was proverbial in Franche-Comté, and indeed was the family’s adage, a sort of secondary motto. In those days, great people were expected to be generous with their hospitality. At the Château de Menthon, in neighbouring Savoy, passing pilgrims were regaled at a massive board (which still exists) in the so-called Salle des Pèlerins. At cheerless Vadans, alms were refused to the needy, and none was made welcome by Madame de Poitiers, for which she was condemned by the good fairies to take this terrible shape. Vouivre is a corruption of the Latin word, vipera, for a serpent.

Every Christmas, at midnight, she passes Dole on her flight from Mont Roland to the circular donjon of Vadans, pausing at the village of Falletans to drink and bathe in the stream. A true franc-comtoise, la Vouivre is a good housekeeper, careful to remove her monstrous eye and to conceal it in the undergrowth before dipping her head. If only one could catch her at this moment and take possession of the eye, it would be the key to great riches, yet she always manages to slip away, usually tipping her would-be abductor into the icy stream with a flick of her tail. (Livre d’Or de Falletans 1950.)

The Poitiers of Vadans were a cadet branch of the comtes de Valentinois in Provence, whose line stretches back to the twelfth century (Europaïsche Stammtafeln, III/4, t.740-43). They are thought to have taken their name from Peytieux, near Châteauneuf-de-Bordette, and in early Latin documents are called ‘Pictavinus’. Though the family was unconnected with the town of Poitiers in the Poitou, ‘Poitiers’ and ‘Peytieux’ are etymologically the same, both places formerly inhabited by branches of a wandering Celtic tribe known variously as the Pictavii or Pictones.

Vadans was the dowry (and favourite residence) of Marguerite de Vergy, wife of Comte Louis, who died in 1345, and was inherited by his nephew Philippe. Also lord of Arcis-sur-Aube, near Troyes, Philippe de Poitiers was killed at the Battle of Agincourt, and is one of the 500 out of the 6,000 French casualties whose names are known to us. Among those 500 are representatives from all the northerly regions of France, though the Seigneur d’Andelot, from Pesmes, is the only other franc-comtois to be listed (

Diane de Poitiers - unabashed nudist (by François Clouet)

The line of Philippe’s grandson Charles, Baron de Vadans, was soon thoroughly assimilated into the noblesse of the Franche-Comté, intermarrying with local families like that of the Chancellor Jean Carondelet, who is commemorated by an impressive tomb in the Collégiale, and whose daughter married Charles’s son. The Poitiers of Vadans died out in 1717, but have left numerous female-line descendants. They include, for example, the seigneurs de Faletans, whose connection with the illustrious Poitiers was recited in the letters-patent on 1712 that elevated them to the rank of marquis. Their seat at Falletans was hard by the stream that la Vouivre is said to haunt annually on her Christmas migration.

An elder brother of the Philippe who died at Agincourt, Louis de Poitiers, succeeded their father as lord of Saint Vallier (on the River Rhône, 19 miles north of Valence). Louis’s son, Charles, was one of the companions-in-arms of Joan of Arc, and played a leading role in the assault of occupied Paris in 1429. The last of the Saint Vallier line was Charles’s great-granddaughter, Diane de Poitiers, the charming mistress of King Henry II, a woman schooled in Latin and Greek, a natural athlete and an unabashed nudist, as her several portraits suggest.

As for Vadans, the forty-metre-high keep alone attests to the former strength and importance of the castle, which overlooks the old Roman road from the site of a Roman encampment. A handsome residence of 1667 occupies the grounds.

See also and

Upper House, Painscastle, Radnorshire – A Court fit for King Arthur

January 9th, 2017

Radnorshire, an obscure Welsh county bordering Herefordshire, is small and mountainous, a place of mainly pastoral farming, where, historically, gentry were sparse and the farmers were content to live as their fathers had done. As a result, it stills abounds in ‘unimproved’ houses which are often of considerable historical interest. An example is illustrated here – the seemingly unprepossessing, and decidedly forlorn, Upper House at Painscastle.

A planned medieval town with a stupendous castle in its midst, Painscastle, or ’Castell-Paen’, is named for a Norman adventurer called Pain fitz John, who died in 1137. Pain’s motte and bailey are still impressively intact, but nothing remains of the imposing masonry that was added by Henry III – a round tower keep, a curtain wall with flanking D-shaped towers and a gatehouse at the east end, of which even the foundations have been grubbed up. Traces of Roman pavements have been found, however, and the rectangular shape of the site suggests that it was originally a Roman fort. (Mike Salter, The Castles of Mid Wales, Folly Publications, 2001; Paul M. Remfry, The Castles of Radnorshire, Logaston Press, 1996;, with illustrations.)

The castle of Painscastle was comprehensively robbed by the locals of its stone, which was used to construct buildings like Top of Lane Cottage, pictured here, said to date from the fifteenth century

Upper House nestles against the outer bank of the castle, on its east side. It is thought to date from the mid-fifteenth century, when the castle, by then a possession of the Earl of Warwick, was already in decline. Upper House was a fitting new residence for the earl’s constable, Lewys ap Gwatcyn, a Welsh gentleman of the line of Roger Fychan of Bredwardine. It was a classic H-plan hall-house, consisting of a mini-Great Hall of two full bays, open to a roof of massive and dramatic timber work, set between the two cross-wings, each with an upper storey. The position of the house on sloping ground helped to emphasise its hierarchical plan. There was a step up from the dais-end of the hall to the upper cross-wing, leading into the lord’s parlour on the ground-floor, from which there was access to his solar above. The lower cross-wing – that furthest from the bank – was the service wing.

Other houses of similar age and status are to be found in this area, but, remarkably, there is a surviving praise-poem by the Welsh bard Lewys Glyn Cothi that describes Lewys ap Gwatcyn in the newly-built Upper House, referred to as his ‘white hall’, for most impressive to the bard were the large, infilled panels of the box-framing that would, indeed, have been gleaming white. The master of the house is described as ‘the tower of Bredwardine, a chieftain for Warwick’s seal (pendefig dros Warwig sêl), the lion’s claw, and a leader’, who, above all, ‘is kind to the court poet’. He keeps a traditional house. It is a place of ‘wine and feasting, drunkenness and carousel, braggart and wassail’, even at dead of night. There are games of chance with dice and cards, there are chequers, dances, carols and friendship, and seemingly unlimited supplies of mead and beer. (For a translation of the poem, see

Upper House is overshadowed today by its grander neighbours

Lewis Glyn Cothi progressed from one great marcher house to another, laying on the flattery as the price of his supper. At Cefnllys, he sang of its constable, the ‘famous’ Ieuan ap Phylip, and of another newly-built ‘triple court’ in the midst of the castle, which no longer survives, but was apparently very similar to the one at Painscastle. Lewis Glyn Cothi’s description of a roof ‘with close-fitting shields to protect it in thunderstorms’ is thought to refer to a tile-stone roof that would have been common to both houses. Lewis rhapsodises the ubiquitous ‘pale oaks’ that are such a contrast to the encircling stone walls of the old castle, and he even names the master carpenter, Roger ap Owen (Rhosier ab Owain), who may also have built Upper House. Ieuan’s hall, too, was the scene of unrestrained hospitality, like a second Ehangwen, as King Arthur’s hall is traditionally known. As many as sixty guests were gathered there on one occasion, bedding down afterwards on the floor of the hall, sustained by the luxury of white bread and an ocean of drink.

Such houses subsequently fell out of fashion and Upper House at Painscastle was inevitably reduced to a farm-house. The lower (service) wing was rebuilt and projections for a porch and stair have been added at both the front and the rear of the hall. An upper floor, and a stair, have been inserted into the hall. In recent years the magnificent roof timbers of the hall were severely charred by fire damage, to the extent that accurate tree-ring dating is now impossible. The house today is sadly derelict. One hopes that it will soon be restored in the manner of similar houses in the region – and that the jovial shade of Lewys ap Gwatcyn may animate it once more.

Cefnllys and Upper House are described in Richard Suggett, Houses and History in the March of Wales: Radnorshire 1400 – 1800 (Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales, Aberystwyth, 2005), pp.37-43.


Additional Note (15 April 2024): Lewis ap Gwatkyn’s descendants, the Watkins of Cwrt Robert, and Their Arms

It seems that Lewis ap Gwatkyn gave rise to the ‘Watkins’ family of Cwrt Robert in Tregear. By a vague tradition they bore the arms of Prince Moreiddig Warwyn, Sable three boys’ heads, couped at the neck proper, a snake about the neck of each one Vert (pictured above), such as were borne also by the Vaughans of Bredwardine, Tretower and Hergest.

At their visitation of Monmouthshire in 1683, the English heralds were unimpressed. ‘Mr Watkins alledgeth that their name was anciently Vaughan, and that these arms belong to them, but produce nothing in justification thereof.’ (Michael Siddons ed., Visitations by the Heralds in Wales, Harleian Society, New Series XIV, London, 1996, p.196.) However, Lewis Glyn Cothi makes it clear that Lewis ap Gwatkyn was of the line of Roger Fychan of Bredwardine, and, in view of their heraldry, it seems highly likely that the Watkins were descended from Lewis.

For further accounts of the Vaughans and their heraldry, see…e-vaughan-family/.

Looking north from the Begwyns, the earthworks at Painscastle can be glimpsed on the right-hand edge of the picture

The Legend of Mélusine at the Château de Sassenage in the Dauphiné

August 28th, 2015

Further to my previous article, a host of ‘bonnes dames’, or fairies, seem to have survived the Christianisation of Gaul, continuing, in the imagination of superstitious locals, to haunt their grottos and springs.

Thanks to her association with the mighty Lusignan family and to the popularising of her legend by Jehan d’Arras, Mélusine is the name that has been given to many of them by default. At least three other great families claim descent from her (though Proust, who was clearly fascinated by the legend, adds a fictional fourth, the Guermantes), namely the Luxembourgs, the La Rochefoucaulds and the Sassenages.

Mélusine in her bathtub above the main entrance to the Château de Sassenage. The gyronny device to the left is of Bérenger, whilst the bars and lion to the right are of Sassenage. Identical arms were borne by the Lusignans and Luxembourgs.

Kinship with the Lusignans is suggested in their heraldry. All four bear for arms barry of ten argent and azure. The Lusignans, Luxembourgs and Sassenages have each added a red lion rampant with a golden crown, tongue and claws, whilst the La Rochefoucaulds superimpose three chevrons, that in chief couped, gules. Delightfully, there is a Mélusine de La Rochefoucauld in our own time, born in 1996.

The Sassenages, actual offspring of the counts of Lyon and Forez in the tenth century, were rooted far away from Lusignan in the Dauphiné, and took their name from the lordship of Sassenage, near Grenoble. As at La Rochefoucauld, there are impressive grottos nearby that Mélusine was said to inhabit, although she was said to emerge from the grottos of Sassenage, in dignified human form, three days before the death of the seigneur, as an obliging premonition (Léo Delaivre, Mère Lusine ou Mélusine dans la littérature et les traditions populaires, Arbre d’Or, Geneva, 2004, p.85).

It seems likely that the Sassenages had always claimed descent from the local fairy of the grotto, but that it was only after acquainting themselves with Jehan d’Arras’s work that they had attributed to her the name of Mélusine. The accepted version of events was that Mélusine must have fled from Lusignan to the Dauphiné, to re-marry there after the death of Raymondin and to found the line of Sassenage (Delaivre, Mère Lusine, pp.99-100). It would be interesting to know when they first adopted the arms of Lusignan, but that information is not to hand.

This stern Bérenger was a Knight of St John.

The Château de Sassenage was built in the 1660s, in white dauphinoise stone, close to the ruins of the medieval fortress. In a carving above the main entrance, Mélusine is depicted in her bathtub, alongside the arms of the Sassenages and the Bérengers. The family motto proudly asserts: Si fabula, nobilis illa est – ‘A legend, perhaps, but a noble one’.

The château today, though crammed with family treasures and a rich archive, is a rather forlorn place, left to the care of the ever-penurious Fondation de France in 1971 by the widow of the last Marquis de Bérenger-Sassenage. The adjacent suburb is singularly unlovely and has the desperate air of a zone artisanale. The once-magnificent park is maintained, but otherwise neglected. The house itself seems fossilised, a little cobwebby, apparently unrenovated in years (apart from the kitchen, where work is currently in progress), and peopled only by the spectral, sometimes alarming images of former Sassenages. Guided tours are offered by a courteous and knowledgeable curator.

A kindlier shade

Read my previous article on Mélusine at

The Legend of Mélusine: How the tutelary fairy of the Lusignans came to reign over Starbucks

August 27th, 2015

The fairy Mélusine - unacknowledged symbol of Starbucks Coffee

Once upon a time, a knight called Raymondin, who had been responsible for the death in a hunting accident of his uncle, Count Aymon of Poitou, was wandering alone, a disconsolate outlaw, through the forest of Coulombiers. Coming in the middle of the night upon a magical fountain, he encountered the beautiful Mélusine and her attendants. Mélusine promised that all would be well if he married her, and that they would found a great dynasty. A single condition was imposed: that he must never attempt to enter her chamber on a Saturday.

With Mélusine’s help, Raymondin raised the magnificent castle of Lusignan in only fifteen days. It perched on a steep, narrow promontory of great strategic significance, guarding the marches between Poitou and France. They settled there happily, and she bore him bore ten fine sons.

Raymondin discovers Mélusine's secret by peeping through a hole in the door: from a late-fifteenth-century edition of Jehan d'Arras's 'Le Roman de Mélusine' in the Bibliothèque nationale de France

One Saturday, however, Raymondin’s jealous brother persuaded him to spy on her, hinting that she might be seeing another man. Mélusine was innocently bathing, but, to Raymondin’s horror, her lower half had been transformed into that of a serpent or fish. With an anguished cry she assumed a different form, that of a dragon, and flew out of the window, never to return.

The fairy Mélusine was nevertheless to be proudly claimed as their ancestress by the later lords of Lusignan. Her line included the crusader kings of Jerusalem, Cyprus and Armenia, and the four sons of Hugh de Lusignan, Count of the March, by Isabella of Angoulême, the widow of King John of England. The favourites of their half-brother, Henry III, the Lusignan brothers – William, Aymer, Guy and Geoffrey – were hated by the English and expelled from the kingdom in the rebellion of 1258, having encouraged Henry in the belief ‘that a prince is not subject to law, and so justice itself was banished beyond the boundaries of the realm’ (Annales Monastici, Rolls Series 36, I, pp.463-4, cited in Clanchy, England and its Rulers, London, 1983, p.222).

The town and castle of Lusignan, the favourite residence of Jean, Duc de Berry, depicted in his 'Très Riches Heures' in the calendar entry for March. Mélusine, in the form of a dragon, hovers over the tower that bears her name

The direct line of the Lusignans expired in 1314 with the lady Yolande, who in 1308 had sold her estates to King Philip IV of France. It was thus as a part of the royal demesne that Lusignan was acquired by Jean, Duc de Berry, to whom the Limbourg brothers dedicated their Très Riches Heures (c.1412 – 16), the finest surviving specimen of French gothic manuscript illumination. In a famous depiction in the manuscript of Lusignan, which had become the duke’s favourite residence, Mélusine in the form of a dragon can be seen to hover over the tower that still bore her name, within which the spring that was sacred to her still flowed. Meanwhile, Duke Jean’s secretary, Jehan d’Arras, had been entranced by the ‘spinning yarns’ of the local women, which had inspired his Roman de Mélusine (c.1382 – 94), the earliest literary version of the legend.

According to an entry in La Chronique de Saint-Maixent, the castle was actually built in the mid-tenth century by Hugh II ‘the Kind’, Lord of Lusignan, no doubt on the site of a Roman oppidum. Naming their town after their general, ‘Lucinius’ or Licinius, the Roman colonisers had adopted the tutelary fairy of the spring and had called her mater Lucinia, ‘mother of Lucinia’, as a nod to their chief, Gallo-Roman divinities being invariably called ‘Mother’. The medieval lords of Lusignan had in turn adopted the cult of the fairy who reigned on the rock where they had built their castle (Léo Desaivre, Mère Lusine ou Mélusine dans la littérature et les traditions populaires, Arbre d’Or, Geneva, 2004, pp.18-19).

Julius Hübner, 'Die schöne Melusine', 1844

Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France from 1547 to 1559, visited Lusignan and was fascinated by its myths, quizzing the elderly local women as they came to do their washing at the spring. They swore to her that Mélusine was often to be seen there, still beautiful in her widow’s weeds, majestically gliding along the pathways or furtively bathing. If one were only able to catch sight of her of a Saturday, one would see her serpent’s tail.

The castle played an important role in the Wars of Religion and was besieged in 1574, after which it was largely demolished, but the legend endures at Lusignan, whose inhabitants are called Merlusins, and where special cakes called ‘Mère Lusines’ are, or used to be made. The town is certainly still known for a type of confectionary called ‘Raymondins’ (Desaivre, p.51;

It would be appropriate if such cakes were to be sold at Starbucks, the American coffee-house chain, founded as a single store in Seattle in 1971 but now with 22,551 outlets in 65 countries, which – unwittingly, it seems – has adopted a representation of Mélusine as its logo.

Woodcut illustration of Mélusine from 'Das Buch von einer Frawen genant Melusina' (1480), reproduced in Cirlot's 'Dictionary of Symbols' (1971 - the year that Starbucks was founded)

The company’s earliest design of a crowned, bare-breasted mermaid with two tails has been ingeniously traced to a woodcut in Das Buch von einer Frawen genant Melusina. This is a translation of Jehan d’Arras’s Roman de Mélusine that was printed in Augsburg in 1480. ‘When we were originally looking for a logo for Starbucks in 1971’ – reads the official version – ‘we wanted to capture the seafaring tradition of early coffee traders.’ To this end, one of the founders ‘pored over old marine books until he came up with a logo based on an old sixteenth-century Norse woodcut’.

In fact, there is no such thing as a ‘Norse’ woodcut from that period. It seems more likely that he had lighted upon J.E. Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols (English edition, 1971), in which the German woodcut is reproduced. It is almost identical to the prototype design for Starbucks. See

It is thrilling to discover that an ancient legend, the inspiration for artists over the centuries, has such currency and prominence in the modern world. Mélusine is not a nautical mermaid, but is associated with an inland spring, so for Starbucks to acknowledge her now would be to spoil their own ‘founding myth’.

The original Starbucks logo appears to have been directly copied from the illustration in Cirlot's book

Having a Saint for an Uncle: The Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard (Haute-Savoie) and its Family

August 11th, 2015

The 'improvements' of the artist Comte René de Menthon in the 1880s seem almost too 'Disney', but he was determined to adapt an austere fortress for modern living

What is there not to like about the Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard? The craggy twelfth-century fortress (the name in Celtic means ‘rock bound’) of the mighty Menthon family, set on a platform high above Lake Annecy; three great stone-and-mortar towers with Sleeping Beauty turrets (added by the artist Comte René de Menthon in the 1880s), all jumbled around an inner courtyard (which, regrettably, was reduced in size by the same Comte René, albeit in the cause of adapting the castle for modern living); an ancient chapel (first mentioned in 1262); an austerely splendid library stuffed with rare pre-Revolutionary volumes – the Histoire des Sires de Salins and the Senatus Dolani, inherited from the Richardots of Dôle, caught my eye – old parchments with royal seals and incunabula; ubiquitous heraldry; a Grand Salon with stupendous views over the lake and a vast hooded fireplace, surmounted by one of the many inscriptions here of the family’s cri de guerre (‘Toujours Menthon, Partout Menthon’); fine family portraits and a gorgeous Tapisserie des Gobelins; a lady’s chamber sealed for warmth with a remarkably verdant set of Aubusson tapestries; the highly atmospheric Salle des Pèlerins, on the first floor of the tour du lac, still equipped with its great fifteenth-century oak dining table, where meals were prepared and consumed by all the members of the household, along with any pilgrims who happened to be passing this way; and, most satisfyingly, an eponymous family in occupation since at least 1150 (when they are first documented), though they may well have been in possession since the ninth or tenth century; a family which credibly claims St Bernard of Menthon, the patron saint of mountaineers, as a member, and the castle as his birthplace in 1008; one that was as powerful as it was prestigious, its dependencies reputedly stretching in the thirteenth century from the shores of the lake at Talloires to the very gates of Geneva; one to which, moreover, I am connected in various ways, having a double descent (through Viry, Montjoye, Klinglin and Faletans) from a sixteenth-century Hélène de Menthon (who assuredly would have dined at that great table in the Salle des Pèlerins), and even closer cousinship through the barons de Klinglin, a line that diverged in the eighteenth century. This, for me, is castle heaven!

The urbane Comte Bernard de Menthon had already softened the lakeside aspect of the castle, installing in 1740 the salle à manger and Grand Salon

‘Uncle’ Bernard

It was the ambition of the young Bernard de Menthon to become a monk, but his parents had other plans, pledging him in marriage to a lady of the house of Miolans. On the eve of their wedding, he had slipped out of the window of his chamber and fled to Aosta, where he took orders.

As Archdeacon of Aosta, he later founded the hospices of the Grand-Saint-Bernard as refuges for Alpine travellers, who were the constant prey of marauding Saracens and brigands. St Bernard’s hospices revolutionised Alpine travel, allowing the development of commercial and pilgrim routes between France and Italy. He died in 1081 but has given his name to the enormous dog, first bred by the fifteenth-century ‘canons of Saint-Bernard’, that, with a barrel of cheering liquor tied to its neck, used to rescue travellers buried in avalanches.

Lake Annecy from above seemed irresistible. It was only a short drive to Balmettes where we immersed ourselves in its waters - said to be the cleanest of any lake in Europe.

The Normans – Conquest and Legacy: The Isle of Wight

November 17th, 2014

The ruins of Quarr Abbey, Isle of Wight

A short film to promote my latest lecture, ‘The Normans – Conquest and Legacy’, can be viewed on my new Youtube page –

In the film, I visit four locations on the Isle of Wight – Binstead Church, Carisbrooke Castle, the ruins of Quarr Abbey and Brading Church – to demonstrate that the physical impact of the Normans was considerable, even in the remotest corners of our landscape.

Why might the Tower of London and Winchester Cathedral be the pride of the Isle of Wight? What saucy reminder of themselves did the Normans leave over a church door? Why was a powerful Island abbey the legacy of a marauding Norman giant who was hardly a model Christian? Why is the descendant of another Norman settler remembered as a swarthy Turk? These and other questions are answered in the film.

It was shot by Roger Lowe on 21 October 2014, while England was still being ravaged by the tail-end of Hurricane Gonzales – hence the dramatic skies and the slightly windswept appearance of the presenter!

The Norman motte at Carisbrooke, Isle of Wight