Wednesday, 18 August 2010

My incarceration in Castle Beynac

A Stairway to...?   Well - The Blogga-Sphere for one, and my 'first ever blog post!'....

Da Daaaaaa!!!!

This particular stairway leads to the upper ramparts and turrets of the magnificent Castle Beynac perched some 450 feet up a cliff, overlooking the Dordogne river and commanding one of the most breathtaking views in southwest France. These stone steps were first set in place during the 12th century and led directly off the upper level of the main spiral stairway and thence on up to the highest sentry turrets. They would have been trodden by several generations of war lords, dukes and monarchs alike. One of the most famous and celebrated  keepers of this castle was our very own King Richard Ist - Richard Cœur de Lion, better known in popular English folklore as Richard the Lion-Heart.

A view of just part of Beynac taken from the main road that runs alongside the Dordogne river, with its guardian castle perched high up on top of the cliff. Of interest to film buffs - the light coloured door in the house near the bottom of the ramp is where Juliette Binoche exited wearing a red coat, on a cold and wintry day, in the opening scene of the film 'Chocolat'.
The castle passed briefly to King Richard, who was more French than English by birth, when the owner incumbent died without a natural heir. However, the transition was short lived since our poor, brave Richard also died soon after from an infected and eventually gangrenous crossbow bolt wound to his shoulder - sustained at the siege of Chalus Castle, some 120 miles to the east, on March 25th of 1199. At 6.05pm. Approximately. The castle was then entrusted to the late King Richard's companion, the mercenary captain Mercadier, but alas he too died just a short while later, after being assassinated one dark night, by a rival in Bordeaux.

The castle was then returned to the Beynacs. During the Hundred Years War and the many battles between the English and the French, Beynac remained in French hands while just a few hundred yards to the south, Castelnaud remained under English control. Inevitably this led to a large number of skirmishes during the period. In 1214 the castle was taken by Simon de Montfort, but soon fell back in the hands of the Beynac family. A few decades later, the part of France containing Beynac was ceded to the English, meaning that this castle and much of the Dordogne, was for a while - the southern most border of England.

Looking south from the Castle, along the Dordogne towards the towers of Castelnaude, which was where the 'bad guys' lived. Meaning - Us - The English.

In 2008 I had the opportunity to travel solo throughout Spain and southwest France for a while. For five days of my crusade I stayed in a pretty converted barn within the small hamlet of La Treille Haute, a couple of miles north west of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle, perched upon a hillside directly opposing Castle Beynac, just a couple of cables south of the Dordogne's river bank's. On the afternoon I chose to explore this magnificent and imposing looking castle there were no more than a handful of visitors, so I was able to roam around freely and get a truly stark and realistic feel for the place, with few obvious visual references to modern society.

By the time I'd camera'd and camcorder'd my way up to the highest ramparts, I was not to know that I had become the only remaining visitor within the castle and grounds. Attempting to capture some moody photo images, I became totally lost in my pseudo medieval musings - 'stepping back in time' - without a care for the present world, detached and completely out of sight to the wonderful Beynacian residents who look after the Castle.
A view south west from the castles upper battlements, across the Dordogne towards the tiny hamlet of La Treille Haute where I was based. The house next door to my barn lodgings had been the headquarters and operational base of a daring resistance leader and SOE officer - Jacques Poirier - during 1944. With much deadly activity being exchanged between his resistance group and the german forces before and after the D-day invasion. I also managed to get myself lost for some hours one evening, in the densely wooded hills that surrounded La Treille Haute. Sad eh.

I sat quietly at the top of the main spiral staircase, in the semi darkness, listening to the lonely wailing symphony of wind murmurings creeping upward from the pitch black void below me - trying to imagine the real guise and voice of King Richard. Men and their peers alike, whose lives, adventures and ideologies were to define the future and in turn shape our medieval history - and who had once trod the very same steps...as I was sitting on right now.


As I exited the top of the stairway in this image, it occurred to me that they may be about to close it all up fairly soon and I was probably at the furthest point away from the main entry gates way down below. I even spoke to my camcorder saying "wouldn't it be great if I got locked in here".

I'm not making this up, but just a few moments later I heard in the distance - an ominous, wailing, groaning cacophony of huge iron hinges closing some impressively heavy, ironclad doors - and then a series of deep, resonating 'booms...' - as each of the doors closed home...


Ooops.

I had now become quite literally locked in by the gatekeepers as they were shutting up for the night, believing there to be no-one else still present in the castle except the bygone spirits of intrepid knights and warring crusaders. But they'd not reckoned on 'me'. Incarcerated by the French no less. It had been nearly 800 years since an Englishman had been imprisoned here against his will - but whose counting. They'd got 'me'.
Believe it or not - I laughed and laughed, from the top of 'my castle' - staring out over 'my domain' across the Dordogne as the sun set over the Perigord Noir. A real life adventure was apparently just unfolding. Right up my rampart and just my cup of mead! An Englishman alone in his castle - his home for just one night maybe - but a chance never the less to share these mighty walls with the memories of countless legions of brave and earnest souls, long since etched into so many parchments and fables from medieval history.

So here was I, swaggering along the parapets, recklessly gouging great manly bites from my tuna and sweetcorn sarnie, swinging my fairly large plastic bottle of Evian with gallant panache and defiantly bellowing out a meagre ensemble of the Bards most stirring rhetoric...."The Games Afoot!"...."Once More Onto The Breach Dear Friends!"....and then as I coughed out a truly nasty big piece of sweetcorn....."Cry Havoc!! - And Let Slip The Dogs Of War!!!".

That's when I doubled into convulsions of coughing on a morsel of wholegrain bread crust, now firmly lodged in the back of my throat. Made my eyes water too it did. How unlike the rousing speeches of Richard the Lionheart, King Henry V and even Sir Laurence Olivier. No rising chorus of cheers or warrior chants from my brave and loyal compatriots . No beating of drums and battle swords against worn and battered breast plates... just a sad little caw from a tired old crow, as he fixed a wanton stare at the fallen remains of my tuna  & sweetcorn sarnie.  My only tongue in cheek, though most respectful regret, was that I didn't have a great big 'Cross of St George' to hoist over Beynac. 'That' might have caused a few Beynacians to choke on their croissants in the morning! Mon Dieu!

Mais - Vive Les Beynacs !!

The fuller narrative of my incarceration - and - far more interestingly, the dashing manner in which I 'escaped' in the dark on my derriere - has now been adopted and somewhat embellished, into the oral narrative of the castle's tour guides for all to gasp in astonishment and wonder at. Modern folklore. Phillipe d'Murphee - perhaps the last known prisoner and escapee of Beynac Castle. Spoken of in the same hushed and reverent tones as our very own Richard the Lionheart. Phil & Rich. Sharing a piece of history together.

Dream on Macbeth.

Hmmm....

p.s - Just in case you weren't aware... Richard the Lionheart spent only six months of his ten year reign in England, and although born in Oxfordshire in 1157, he grew up as a child in Aquitaine - south west France, becoming the Duke of Aquitaine at age 14 - and throughout most of his life, rarely spoke English.

p.p.s - Having taken the English Crown at Westminster Abbey in 1189, his first deed was to free his mum - Eleanor, Queen of Aquitaine - from 15 years of incarceration by his nasty old dad - Henry II. He also became the first English monarch to use the title 'King of England', as opposed to 'King of the English'. Very soon after, he shoved off from England again claiming it was "cold and always raining". Nothing new there then - ho hum.

The Loyal and Wonderful - 'Aida' - Holder of the Keys, Keeper of Castle Beynac, My Jailer and Ultimately - with a little regret cos I was having fun...! - My Saviour.

p.p.p.s - To raise funds for the Third Crusade, he initiated the 'Saladin Tithe Tax' throughout England. Although on his return journey from the Crusade, he was shipwrecked in the Adriatic and then ran into a spot of bother when he was captured by Leopold of Austria, who quite astutely sold him on to the emperor of Germany for 75,000 marks. That's alot of strudel. After some eighteen months of tedious incarceration in Austria and Germany, interference by the French King Phillip and the now minted Leopold once again -who were continually conniving to prevent his release until the Pope eventually intervened - Richard the Lionheart finally returned home to - 'France!!' - upon England's payment of a huge 'Kings Ransom' to Germany. The sum of which all but bankrupted England for many years to come.

p.p.p.p.s – In March 1199, King Richard laid siege to Castle Chalus-Chabrol, just south of Clermont Ferrand in the Haute-Vienne of central France. His objective was to enforce the collection of a recently discovered treasure trove of Roman gold from the dissenting Viscount Aimar. It was said that while riding around the puny castle walls on March 25th, Richard was seen taunting the archers and laughing at the very strange attire of one of the young knights, who was spotted wielding a crossbow in one hand and….a large iron frying pan as a makeshift shield in the other. Just then, another crossbowman – Pierre Basile, also known as Bertran de Gurdun - shot the bolt that hit King Richard in the upper left shoulder. Some time later, while still in the surgeon’s tent, Richard forgave the now captured crossbowman Pierre Basile, and even awarded him 100 shillings as a final act of clemency.

Unfortunately the surgeon botched his work and a few days later Richard's wound turned gangrenous. On the 6th April 1199 – King Richard the Lionheart died, and in a fit of rage and grief, his closest friend Mercadier overturned Richards final act of mercy and had Pierre Basile flayed alive and hanged.

Eeeuuww!!

p.p.p.p.p.s – “Yeah…I know, you’re tired and you want to go to bed” – Just one more little morsel then I’ll quit. Promise:

In 1907/8, a bright and determined eighteen year old student called T.E.Lawrence, spent a couple of years and a couple of thousand miles, cycling his way through France studying medieval castles - including Castle Beynac and Chalus - and in particular the journeys and conquests of Richard the Lionheart.

Young 'Lawrence' eventually gained a first class honours degree for his thesis entitled ‘The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture – to the end of the 12th Century’, based on his own field researches in France and the Middle East. Little did this young Englishman know at the time that his own future life and destiny would become immortalised into history and boy’s own hero folklore, as a direct result of his gallant and intrepid wartime activities in the deserts of Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Jordan during WW1.

Although nowadays we know him far more famously as - ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.

From one great English warrior legend....was so inspired another then.


That's it. Well done! .....You can go now.

2 comments:

Valerie said...

Ahhh - so this is how it all began. I can't stop. I want to go now, but ... it's either this or write some more drivel of my own. Yours is hella-funny!

Phil said...

Hello Valerie and Velcome to my first ever attempt at blog scribing! Thank you for your comments. You're very kind. You can come and play with me and my blog as often as you like. Honest.

Yes Sir-eee, this is where it all began one day last august, out of pure impulse by the way. No plan, no idea at all, just typed in to Google the word 'Blog' cos in truth I'd never ever read one. Nor a twitter (still havnt) and I just couldnt be bothered to join Facebook.

So I thought 'what the hell' and down loaded the Blogger programme and started to idly play around with all the templates and toys. Five o'clock the next morning I launched my blog. Hurrah!!

Though it didna look quite like this at the time. Then I sat back and thought "maybe I'd better actually blog about something...?

And that's about where I started with this rambling blogopic about my 'lock in' at Beynac Castle. Although in fairness it did grow and grow over the following few weeks - and anyway, no-one in the Bloggashere was reading it, cos no-one knew I was here!

Then I spent the next several months, mostly reading and searching other bloggers blogs to see what everyone else was doing, and find my own kind of theme, cos I did'nt really have a clue.

All I knew was that I enjoyed the light hearted comedic approach. The alternative and slightly irreverent take on life, and so it gradually turned into 'whatever it now is'?

And I still don't really know 'what it is' other than my playground, my bloggerzine, my blogger pub or what ever.

But I definitely enjoy it now, and by that I mean visiting and reading other Blogger's blogs, learning more and more and more about this fascinating rock we live on and all the amazing views and activities of all the tribes people I share it with.

Oh, and the odd bit of daft commenting too. Ho ho.

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