Solar power

King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV

Philip Mansel, London: Allen Lane, 2019, 568 pages, £30

British historian Philip Mansel is fascinated by splendour and eclipse – the firework ascent of cities and courts, their fizzling out and falling to earth. After the Bonapartes, Louis XVIII, and the entire Levant, now it is the turn of Louis XIV, who more than three centuries after his death feeds France’s view of herself, and the world’s views of France.

Depending on perspective (and year), Louis was the divinely sanctioned ‘Sun King’, the new Apollo, cynosure of Europe, courageous marshal, gifted tactician, patron of the arts, embodiment of perfection – or bankrupter of France, disturber of European peace, bearer of grudges, bigot, despot, a man more interested in dancing than the destitute. Mansel shows all the facets of this spangled enigma, and evokes wonderfully an era that was both brilliant and brittle.

There have been many studies of the ‘gift from God’ (he was christened Louis Dieudonné). The quantity reflects his longevity, and the glamour of his France, his period – the artistic achievements, febrile politics, stylised warfare, cynical aphorisms, gossipy intrigue, and poised élan of bejewelled and long-haired leaders as depicted by Le Brun and Van Dyck – monarchs processing towards modernity armoured in ancient chivalry.

The first biographers were contemporaries – like the Marquis de Dangeau, whose lifetime reputation as ‘the best card-player in France’ is borne out by the careful insipidity of his Memoirs. The Duc de Saint-Simon’s account is livelier, if less reliable. Saint-Simon’s father had been an intimate of Louis XIII, but Saint-Simon fils had Frondiste sympathies (favouring the nobility over the monarchy), and resented Louis’ promotion of talented bourgeois ministers (although sometimes genealogy-obsessed Louis prioritised blue blood). He nonetheless acknowledged the King’s courage, grace, handsomeness, and ‘grand mien’.

Madame de Sévigné’s Letters are famously astute, but even she was capable of being hypnotised by Versailles, or the costliness of a diamonded décolletage. Voltaire portrayed Louis’ age as one of gathering enlightenment, even though he had been imprisoned for satirising the royal family. Prussian ambassador Ezekiel Spanheim’s recollections were coloured by Protestant as well as national biases, but he too marvelled at the splendid symbology. Female chroniclers have included Nancy Mitford (1966), Lucy Norton (1982), Anne Somerset (2004) and Antonia Fraser (2007), intrigued by the remarkable women who orbited the monarch, but also possessed strong personal gravity fields. Beyond biography, Louis’ fame was burnished and refracted through the scintillating writings of Boileau, Corneille, La Fontaine, Molière, Racine and Rochefoucauld – while countless later writers have paid tribute to his state’s swaggering potency, exemplified by the sinisterly mysterious affair of ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’.

The ‘Sun King’ soubriquet stemmed from a masque of 1653, in which the teenaged Louis danced gracefully as Apollo, wearing a spectacular costume embroidered with a sun-in-splendour. Besotted watchers saw the brightest and highest star in Europe’s firmament, bringer of heat and light, harbinger of universal harmony after the terrible Fronde rebellions. Louis was a lifelong dancer, and was instrumental in the codification of ballet as art form. The young King’s courts were exuberantly alive; when Cardinal Maldacini first saw the laughing, chattering court, he exclaimed delightedly, ‘But this is just like a brothel!’ Louis’ life was set to a glorious soundtrack – the highly disciplined, intricate, lovely works of Jean Baptiste Lully, director of the Académie Royale de Musique, devoted royalist and fierce defender of musical ‘Frenchness’ despite being a Florentine.

In 1660, Louis married his cousin Maria Teresa, Infanta of Spain, ending a war, and extending French influence southwards. But she was not beautiful, and was pious, proud and stiff, unable to accommodate herself to freer French manners. Louis sought solace in mistresses, some of whom became famous in their own right – especially Mesdames de Montespan and de Maintenon – comets in his constellation, falling in and out of favour between shorter-lived mistresses, bearing bastards who became Princes of the Blood, to the helpless chagrin of the Queen. There is an apocryphal anecdote about an encounter between old and new mistresses on the king’s private staircase, in which Madame de Maintenon enquired superbly of de Montespan, ‘You are going down, Madame? I am going up.’

Louis was publicly attentive to Maria Teresa, and customarily retired to her bed (for a while). She bore him six children, of whom Louis was genuinely fond – and about whom he was distraught, as all but one predeceased their parents. When Maria Teresa died in 1683, he was ruefully reflective – ‘This is the only time she has ever given me any trouble’. Soon afterwards, he married Madame de Maintenon – discreetly, because Madame de Maintenon liked to be mysterious, after Louis’ death burning the letters he had sent her, a great loss to history.

Some women would do almost anything to get to, or stay at, court. In 1676, the Marquise de Brinvilliers was beheaded and burned after confessing to crimes ranging from incest to ordering Black Masses and killing her brothers and husband. She complained she was only one of many ladies involved in such activities, so Louis launched an enquiry, the Chambre Ardente, under Paris’s Chief of Police, Nicholas de la Reynie. Reynie uncovered a netherworld of abortionists, astrologers, counterfeiters, defrocked priests, kidnappers, procurers, prostitutes of both sexes, vendors of philtres and ‘succession powders’ (poisons), and witches.

There were sensational trials, like that of the Duchesse de Bouillon, who answered Reynie’s question whether she had seen the Devil, and what he looked like, with ‘Small, dark and ugly, just like you!’ She was acquitted – but 36 less well-connected people (many probably guilty) would be burned, 34 banished or fined, and four sent to naval galleys. When enquirers got as far as the private apartments of Madame de Montespan, they became less ardent, and the enquiry was wound up. The King ordered the papers burned, but luckily copies were kept, testament to the limits of his reach and the superficiality of the era’s supposed sophistication. There were more than reputational ramifications. Louis’s refusal to employ Eugene de Soissons, whose mother had been implicated, impelled him to transfer allegiance. As Prince Eugene of Savoy, he would inflict devastating blows on French forces at Blenheim, Malplaquet and Oudenarde.

If Louis was Apollo, he was also Mars, presiding over five wars. His early kingship was marked by near-constant campaigning, in which he displayed great courage. He surrounded himself with personally loyal guardsmen, and interested himself in everything from their ancestry to their uniforms. He prized Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, whose star-shaped fortresses and theories on siege warfare set the European standard for a century, and whose fortified ports sheltered ever more French-flagged vessels, traversing the globe from La Rochelle to Louisiana, Marseilles to Martinique. Louis was less insightful about the vessels themselves, insisting on using slow and cumbersome galleys after other navies had moved on – while French-made cannon were notoriously liable to explode. Mansel avers that the average height of French soldiery decreased over Louis’ reign – the dysgenic effect of placing one’s jeunesse dorée always in the vanguard.

The King was a hugely popular spectacle, almost a cult figure. In 1698, the English poet Matthew Prior marvelled at the ‘strange veneration’ in which he was held by the poor. Versailles was famously open to any Parisian ‘monkeys and rabbits’ (as one snob sniffed), so long as they were respectably dressed. Swords could be hired at the gates by anyone who wanted to play at being a courtier, hob-nob with princes, and watch the King eat. The monarch whose reign became a byword for absolutism, whose own children trembled at his approach, was often ironically accessible.

Versailles was worth seeing in its own right, a marvel of the age, and ours – the former hunting lodge in a state of constant transformation, being made and re-made on the most lavish of scales, even in wartime. Louis saw it as a place to keep potential aristocratic enemies close and as setting for himself and his gem-encrusted retinue. He was goaded into action by seeing finance minister’s Nicolas Fouquet’s new, too-lavish-to-be-borne Vaux-le-Vicomte chateau in 1661. He was heard murmuring to his mother ‘Ah Madame, should we not make these people disgorge?’ Fouquet was arrested soon afterwards on convenient (but perhaps justified) charges of corruption, and died in prison. His architects were moved from Vaux to Versailles, with fixtures, including 1,000 orange trees. A hydro-engineering tour-de-force, the ‘Machine de Marly’, carried water ten kilometres from the Seine to the new fountains of Versailles and Marly – nature conquered, nature ruled, His Most Christian Majesty exercising Biblical dominion over unreason. As Ehrenfield Kluckert observes in European Garden Design, Versailles was envisaged as,

an image in miniature of a new spatial organisation, signifying a new political order, indeed a new world order…the world appears as ordered space, a world of sun and light.

Versailles was an anteroom to Louis’ idea of Paradise, its ponderous elevations reproaching restive Paris (and concealing often inconvenient and unhygienic rooms). The garden’s alleys, boskets, parterres, pergolas, pools, statuary, visual axes and winding paths offered moral lessons as well as vistas – all infinitely reflected in the famous Hall of Mirrors. Beyond, there were extensive forests offering good hunting, and opportunities for classical allegory. In the background there were always builders and gardeners – in the foreground, a constant coming and going across marble floors. Aristocrats, artists, beauties, card-players, charlatans, churchmen, envoys, financiers, generals, intellectuals, ministers, musicians, petitioners, princes and wits came together in a cushioning of Savonnerie carpets and Gobelin tapestries, surrounded by stone national heroes, the King’s dogs, and fresh flowers, the whole ensemble lit by countless gilt chandeliers.

The King and his vision melded so completely that even now Versailles epitomises France at her apex. Versailles inspired palaces from England to Russia, and escaped destruction during the Revolution. Prussia’s Wilhelm I chose it as his symbolic base whilst besieging Paris in 1870, and the following year it was the setting for the Proclamation of the German Empire – which is why it was gloatingly chosen for the Germany-gelding 1919 Treaty. Today, eight million tourists visit annually to marvel at its magnitude, and marked contrast with today’s etiolated État.

Louis never forgot the Fronde rebellion, and never fully forgave those who had played prominent parts. After Cardinal Mazarin died in 1661, he became his own first minister, forbidding the sealing or signing of documents or the making of payments without his permission. Ministers were chosen partly for their capacity for loyalty – his choices sometimes fortunate (Colbert), other times less so (Mansel singles out Louvois, Chamillart and Villeroy). Anthony Hamilton’s Memoires de Comte du Grammont describes accurately how

The great became small under an absolute master…those who had behaved like petty tyrants in the provinces and on the frontiers were now no more than governors.

Yet Louis always knew there were limits to the most puissant king’s powers, and almost certainly never said ‘L’etat, cest moi’.

Autocracy was probably inevitable. Less so, and much more damaging, were his religious policies. In private, Louis could be nuanced, and his relations with Rome sometimes strained – even occasionally his relationship with God. After a major defeat at Ramillies, he complained ‘God seems to have forgotten all that I have done for him’. He was also aware of falling short of the Christian ideal of marriage. Nancy Mitford derides Louis’ religious views as ‘those of a clever child’ – ostentatiously observant, and well-versed in theology, but lacking humility, repentance or social concern.

But the enlightener was also an avatar, even in his own opinion, divinely appointed, thought capable of curing smallpox by touch. The rational founder of the Academy of Sciences and the ground-breaking Saint-Cyr school for girls could be deeply superstitious. Saint-Simon recounts a mysterious 1699 episode in which the King granted two hour-long private interviews to a Provençal farrier who claimed to have seen Maria Teresa’s ghost. The King was always capable of being edified by brave preachers, or Madame de Maintenon. His earnest desire to bring order and unity to ‘the eldest daughter of the Church’ deeply harmed French interests.

His detestation of Jansenism was a time-wasting fixation – but his 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (by which his grandfather had guaranteed the rights of Protestants) was worse than a crime, it was a mistake. The harassed Huguenots were disproportionately wealthy and well-educated, and when they fled they took their knowledge, skills and wealth, combined now with resentment. Exiles embedded themselves in the banking, business, cultural, military and political lives of France’s growing roster of enemies, and exerted all kinds of pressures against their persecutor.

Stubborn belief in the divine rights of kings also made Louis support the exiled Stuarts, ruining relations with Parliamentary and then William and Anne’s England. His brain stiffened with sermons, as his body was swelling with gargantuan meals. By the late 1690s, Nancy Mitford notes,

The king in his new found piety now only admitted virtuous men to his Council, and as a result public affairs were by no means flourishing.

By summer 1715, France’s finances were shot to pieces – revenues were spent four years in advance – and the star round which worlds had revolved was going supernova.

Louis’ health had generally not been bad, his huge food intake partly counterweighed by dancing, hunting, and walking while inspecting works. When he had had problems he had faced them with superlative stoicism. During a 1686 operation to deal with an anal fistula, he was cut eight times with scissors and twice with a lancet, and didn’t even alter his breathing, or say anything except to encourage the surgeon, C. F. Felix. An hour later, he held his usual levee. Felix was subsequently besieged by courtiers asking him to perform the operation on them, so they could have something in common with the King. Those who did not require the procedure were reportedly greatly annoyed – while those who did ‘could not conceal their pride and joy’. Felix was Louis’ only capable medical man. Other doctors prematurely dispatched his wife, son, eldest grandson, grandaughter-in-law, two great-grandsons, and eventually even himself. (His great-grandson, the future Louis XV, might also have succumbed had not his governess kept the quacks away.)

But now, the balletic legs had gone numb, and black with gangrene – especially the left, so prominent in Hyacinthe Rigaud’s famous 1700 portrait. Overeating was overtaking him at last, and his stomach was ‘on fire’; a post-mortem would show his intestines were grossly distended. Doctors only suggested bleeding or drinking asses’ milk. But he retained his famous sang-froid, apostrophising his five-year-old successor, holding long, calm conversations with weeping courtiers, Madame de Maintenon and his nephew, the Duc d’Orléans (whom he wisely appointed regent until Louis came of age). On 27 August, Mansel records admiringly, he

gave orders to the Ministre de la Maison for the transport of his heart to the church of Saint-Louis in Paris, as calmly as if he was ordering a new fountain for Marly.

Albert Serra’s 2016 film The Death of Louis XIV gives a moving portrait of the dimming sun. Sometimes he would rally, and Orléans’ apartments would empty – only to fill again whenever the King relapsed. He snuffed out suddenly at 8.23 am on 1 September, and an era was over – to the profit of London gamblers, and jubilation from those same Parisians who had once afforded him ‘strange veneration’. Saint-Simon shook his head sadly,

The King was but little regretted…The people ruined, overwhelmed, desperate, gave thanks to God, with a scandalous éclat.

Jean-Baptiste Massillon’s funeral oration at the Sainte-Chapelle on the Île de la Cité praised Louis as ‘more magnificent than Solomon’, but went on to lament

an entire century of horror and carnage, the elite of the French nobility precipitated into the grave, so many ancient lines extinguished, so many inconsolable mothers…our countryside deserted…our towns laid waste; our peoples exhausted…burning, bloodshed, blasphemy, abomination and all the horrors of which war is the father.

Louis had expanded and shaped France’s frontiers, incorporating Alsatians, Burgundians and Flemings fully into the national family, with major towns like Dunkirk, Lille and Strasbourg. Autocracy plus his personal qualities had cemented French identity. He had put Bourbons on Spain’s throne, and taken territories across the globe. But the cost had been astronomical – and he had picked the wrong side in too many conflicts. England, Austria, Prussia and Savoy all grew more powerful as a result of his mistaken policies, and his acquisitions in India, Canada and Louisiana had to be given up. The dictatorial powers he had assumed would be even more abused by his successors, and as late as 1789 the economic effects of his profligacy could still be felt, becoming, in Mansel’s view, ‘the trigger for the Revolution’. Louis’ armorial crests and statues were smashed in towns across France, and Versailles, the once throbbing heart of Europe, was downgraded to a museum.

Between the Bourbon restoration and the end of the Second Empire, he was viewed more sympathetically, while post-1870 Presidents have all benefited from his centralisation of powers, and mantled themselves in quasi-monarchical mystique. De Gaulle – from a royalist family, with Jacobite connections, from Lille, one of Louis’ conquests – owned portraits of Louis and described the Fifth Republic as ‘an elective monarchy’, and his ‘certain idea of France’ lingers sadly still. Versailles is again one of the great sights of Europe, and its creator is more admired now than a century ago – ironically, just as the country he sought to serve tilts towards cultural and demographic denouement. At times, Louis’ world feels infinitely far from ours – but by shining such strong lights on it Philip Mansel unexpectedly illuminates modernity.

This review first appeared in the November 2019 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission

Spirit guide

Ghostland, Edward Parnell, London: William Collins; 2019, £16.99

‘Always the ghosts’, Edward Parnell remembers, looking back over his Lincolnshire childhood. After the daydreaming 1960s, the sudden uncertainty of the 1970s manifested itself in bitter tension and a fascination with all things folkloric and paranormal. Into an unsettling world of candle-lit houses and angry political noises off came the films Penda’s Fen, Wicker Man and Robin Redbreast, Tales of the Unexpected and BBC Christmas ghost stories, children’s series such as The Children of the Stones and sensations about demonic possessions, lake monsters and poltergeists. The author absorbed this atmosphere unthinkingly; since then, he has become even more haunted.

England reputedly has more ghosts per square mile than any other country, as well as literary ghosts going back at least as far as Hamlet. A fusion of Christian, Germanic, Nordic and British beliefs, and a passionate interest in the past, have deposited thick supernatural seams. These were mined extensively in the 19th century, as conservative, Romantic and Theosophical thinkers reacted instinctively to changes that threatened to strip away charm and mystery and invalidate ideas of revelation and afterlives. As Peter Ackroyd observed in The English Ghost (2010): ‘The quintessential English ghost story is alarming but also oddly consoling’.

Parnell has an encyclopaedic knowledge of this eldritch tradition, from Victorian table-tappers seeking news of beloved dead to modern psychogeographers. With great lyrical power, he carries us by astral plane to bewitched backwoods from Alloway in Ayrshire to Zennor in Cornwall, noting coincidences, connections, time-slips and unifying motifs such as earthworks, labyrinths, lighthouses, open tombs, sleeping guardians and standing stones. Birds are hugely important to the author, because they are themselves ghost-like, and were to early Christians symbols of souls. His birds are airy wraiths, rare and restless revenants – whether choughs overflying megaliths, the kingfisher in A L Barker’s Submerged (2002), the owl he always sought in Dorset or the ominous ones on Alan Garner’s Owl Service (1967).

Bound up intimately with folk-tales, Gothic novels, Spiritualist tomes, tweedy Edwardian fantasies and Hammer horrors are closer ghosts, in the shape of the author’s brother, father and mother, stolen away by diseases as irresistibly malevolent as any entity imagined by Algernon Blackwood. His family’s actuality, the solidity of the country he and they inhabited, seem to him almost as illusions—a terrifyingly thin superimposition over a vast randomness as cold as the thing that sleeps beneath the Fens in John Gordon’s Giant Under the Snow (1968). Ghostland seems as mirage-ridden as Eliot’s waste, with even less possibility of escape. Where are the dead who loved us, whom we have loved? Parnell demands to know. He expects no reply, but nevertheless keeps knocking on the ground.

Memory may be the greatest ghost, fey, flickering, seductive, selective and unreliable. It is akin to the sensitivity that makes some see spectres and others remain oblivious. Which memories are real, which half-remembered, which assembled afterwards? What has been forgotten, what suppressed? In his earnest quest to understand, Parnell brilliantly enlists writers as unlike as Walter de La Mare and W. G. Sebald to plumb the pits and possibilities of personal (and collective) memory. Memories are illogical, shapeshifting, and often unnerving.

As with one of M. R. James’ over-curious antiquarians, the author can’t stop digging into his overthrown walls. He knows there may be dangers in delving too deeply, but it would be more dangerous to forget: ‘If I stop looking back everything that ever happened to us will cease to exist’. Time turns in on itself, everything alters and now, whichever way he looks across this haunted realm, he seems to see his family flitting in front.

This review first appeared in the 30th October 2019 issue of Country Life, and is reproduced with permission

New Country Life and Quadrant reviews…

The 30th October issue of Country Life carries my review of Edward Parnell’s Ghostland – British eeriness seen through a deeply personal prism. Perfect reading for the season (or any other time).

The November issue of Australia’s renowned Quadrant carries my jumbo review of Philip Mansel’s brilliant Louis XIV biography, King of the World. Really ought to be owned by anyone interested in French, monarchical or C.17 history.

Stream of national consciousness


Lara Maiklem, Bloomsbury, 2019

The 1950 B-film The Mudlark tells of an urchin who ekes out an unpleasant existence scavenging the slimy Thames foreshore. He finds a coin bearing the head of Queen Victoria, and creeps into Windsor Castle to see the sequestered sovereign for himself. Through sheer goodhearted pluck, he succeeds where sophisticated politicians have failed, appealing to the Queen’s feelings and reawakening her sense of public duty. Modern mudlarking is a hobby rather than a necessity, but chance finds of apparently insignificant items can convey powerful emotions.

Over 23 squelchy years, Lara Maiklem has amassed a battered and stained collection of everyday things turned talismanic by time, and immersion. The Thames is the longest archaeological site in the world, running from the obelisk at Teddington marking the limit of the tidal Thames to its battered cousins on the Yantlet Line between Southend and Hoo. She has prospected as much of this frequently feculent, sometimes toxic Troy as she can, often on hands and knees, blasted by easterlies, disoriented in fogs, or almost cut off by tides. She has crossed from Middlesex to Surrey dry-shod, pried among the ribs of broken ships, seen Traitor’s Gate from water-level, and considered the course of riparian history from Greenwich, ‘where time begins at the Prime Meridian’.

She disdains metal-detecting as disrespectfully predatory. Her trove nevertheless encompasses amber, garnets, pieces of Londinium hypocaust, beads, tiles, boar tusks, gold lace-ends, handmade bricks, nit-combs, thimbles, buckled shoes, shards of bellarmines and clay pipes, hand-blown bottles, toy soldiers, and letters of the drowned Dove typeface, tipped into the Thames by its high-minded creator in 1913 to avoid its use on lesser texts (she has perhaps presumptuously used it for chapter headers). Other finds are too redolent to be retrievable – recent wedding rings, or the heavy box labelled ‘Remains of the Late…’Another time, she watched the ‘peaceful, angelic’ body of a girl sailing gracefully seawards. 

Henry Mayhew appears inevitably, documenting a sad cadre of coal-picking and rope-thieving teenagers, and even sadder ‘old women of the lowest grade’. As in other books about the Thames, there are stock characters – homesick Romans, Viking marauders, Tudor theatre-goers, Georgian watermen, Pip from Great Expectations – plus Henry VIII, Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn, and Captain Kidd. But this author augments the Thamesian tally, summoning old Londoners out of silty suspension from a discarded Victoria Cross or a pot-lid. There are other mudlarking books, but this one offers engaging insight into an amphibian ambience of strongly-marked characters, semi-secret exploits and outlandish theories. Maiklem is not alone in resorting to the river for salvation as much as salvage – ‘It healed my broken heart’. Centuries earlier, Edmund Spenser similarly ‘walkt forth to ease my payne / Along the shoare of silver streaming Themmes’.

The author is attuned – glimpsing faces in walls, sensing ‘ghostly essences’, especially of her boat-builder ancestors, seeing the river almost as a deity requiring propitiation. The key to spotting objects, she reflects, is ‘to relax and look through the surface’ (a prosthetic eye once stared startlingly back). But she also tells how to dry out old iron, and contributes knowledgably to antiquarian archives. Today’s Society of Mudlarks is a learned and unexpectedly exclusionary body infinitely far from Mayhew-era connotations.

The foreshore is falling away, as seas rise, and the city subsides. The ‘sacred river’ classicised by Turner and commemorated by Peter Ackroyd, repository of Englishness, medieval pilgrims’ tokens, modern Hindu statuettes, and peace-seeking suicides, is also a sewer. The river is cleaner than it used to be, but after rain, all outfalls ooze cotton buds, nappies, condoms, tampons, medical waste, and gobbets of fat. The sediments that hold sentiment leach arsenic, mercury and cadmium. Today’s coins are pinchbeck, fizzling after a few years, oxidising Elizabeth II into anonymity – while interloping mussels and crabs devastate native species.

The further downriver, the more evident England’s erosion; recent trash at Tilbury ‘tells a story of overconsumption and wanton waste’. Vast mounds of soiled, single-use junk befit a recent past whose voices cry ‘loud and angry’ on the estuarial wind. It is hard to imagine such stuff ever feeling evocative, but while we hope for transmutation we can follow Lara Maiklem’s footprints down to the tideline and back.

This review first appeared in The Spectator, and is reproduced with acknowledgements

Territorial waters

The Way to the Sea

Caroline Crampton, Granta, £16.99

The Frayed Atlantic Edge

David Gange, William Collins, £18.99

Confluence of the Thames and the Medway, by J. M. W. Turner

Seawater pulses through the veins of our islands, the tang of open water reaching to the furthest points inland. Insularity has always been our destiny, determining daily life and deepest meanings even before Albion loomed out of the haze. Early Britons took to boats from necessity, but also from sheer curiosity about what lay behind horizons, whether markets for goods, countries for converting or lands of eternal youth.

These two books compare the Kingdom’s coastline in its vastness and variety, and show the marked contrast between ambiguous east and tumultuous west. Their longitudes are different, but both authors share a passion for re-orienting mainstream histories and making us look to our littorals.

Caroline Crampton’s source-to-sea exploration of the Thames starts in Gloucestershire, at the unexpectedly indeterminate spot where the river seeps forth from Stygian springs to start its 215-mile descent through the English imagination. The river gathers significance and strength as it passes William Morris’s Kelmscott, Oxford’s ‘lost causes’, Paul Nash’s Wittenham, Wind in the Willows country, Stanley Spencer’s resurrections, brooding Windsor, Magna Carta’s meadows, dissolved abbeys and Cardinal Wolsey’s hubristic Hampton Court, before even reaching London. There, it gains innumerable new tributaries before escaping out the Essex side, to flow through ever-widening flats until somewhere beyond Shoeburyness, where brackishness finally turns full salt.

The author’s parents owned a yacht in the Medway and many of her youthful days were spent between places and states of mind, channel-finding, watching ships and seeing the banks change, tacking and thinking, yawing and yarning. She saw the Docklands ‘regenerated’ and learned indignantly of earlier displacements of superfluous communities. Her Thames is tainted with secret shames, its course a palimpsest of lingering class resentments, its estuary a repository of industrial toxins, unmarked graves and unexploded bombs. But she also finds treasures, such as aquamarine 5th-century glassware retrieved from sucking ooze, discovers fascinating stories, and recalls enchanted hours when sea, shores and sky combined in brilliant tableaux. 

Duntulm in the Inner Hebrides. Picture: Derek Turner

Like his chosen coast, David Gange’s book is harder-edged. He resorts courageously to a kayak, entrusting this cockleshell to the rigours of the Atlantic, from Out Stack to Land’s End. By day, he combats cross-currents around the feet of Scylla-like cliffs, creeps awestruck through sea-arches reminiscent of cathedrals, is glared at by gannets, meets whales uncomfortably close to and tries not to turn turtle, until his shoulders and torso ache with tiredness. At nights, he reads and rests beside desolate tidelines or casually ascends some summit, almost as if he believes he might wake to the sight of Avalon. Orcadian navigators, Irish saints and Welsh pilgrims paddle out from his pages, taking us to reaches that were roads when London was a rumour.

He conjures up cruelty and ‘dark histories’. This is an intensely political book, ruing the ‘urban, inland ascendancy’ that has made the far west culturally as well as geographically marginal, in the interests of commerce and the name of modernity.

But there is also uncomplicated beauty, and wonderful descriptions of elemental moments when survival depends on skill and the boat becomes the author’s homeland. His sea is stormy, but it is also ‘a great heart’, its islands wombs as much as tombs. Strewing poems in his wake, he finds keening sadness along these frayed fringes, and causes for righteous anger, but also optimism in a world wanting landfall – new ways of living and of viewing the future, with more space for small communities and individual freedom. As he struggles to stay afloat, he dreams of a time when the wave-battered west is less a land of legend than a launch-pad into immensity.

This review first appeared in Country Life, and is reproduced with permission

A million acres, six thousand years

Roman Canal, Lincolnshire, by Peter De Wint

The Fens – Discovering England’s Hidden Depths

Francis Pryor, Head of Zeus, £25

‘Very flat, Norfolk’ drawls a character in Noel Coward’s Private Lives – a supercilious condemnation of another character, and by inference all eastern England. Francis Pryor proves that while the Fens may be level, their gentle undulations and cubist planes hold stories as absorbing as anywhere.

Mr Pryor is well-known as excavator and interpreter of the massive prehistoric site at Flag Fen near Peterborough, and from television’s Time Team. In childhood the Fens were a tantalising grey-blue smudge on his horizons – then when he was studying archaeology at Cambridge, an intriguingly unknown landscape conveniently close to town. He has come to know the Fens from the inside out, and the surface down. For him, this is literally hands-on history – a deeply felt discovery of a million underestimated acres extending from Lincolnshire to Suffolk.

The author’s father scanned RAF photographs for V1 launch sites, and his son applies comparable care to the study of silts – sometimes almost causing accidents by swerving into the side of the road to fossick in drainage ditch upcast. He adores the Bronze Age, when the Fens were well-populated and highly-organised – the stains and traces of banks, boats, bodies, boundaries, drove-ways, fish-traps, middens, and sluices proof of complex adaptations to this environment where land was drier rather than dry. Through phosphate analysis, we can even tell where cow manure splattered thousands of years ago, and suddenly we smell the Age in imagination.

The Fens, with their huge and numinous firmaments, have always been a ritual landscape – perhaps once with many monuments like ‘Seahenge’, the upturned oak surrounded by a ring of 55 closely-set posts, salvaged providentially in 1989 from the shrinking shore at Holmes-next-the-Sea in Norfolk. The British Museum’s famous Witham Shield shows that for Celts fenland rivers were mystical as well as tribal frontiers. Ely Cathedral, Croyland Abbey, the Boston Stump and many other superb edifices were raised on long-hallowed ground, their soaring stone a defiance of uncertain earth. These attest to ancient prosperity; Boston and King’s Lynn once rivalled London, and 12th-century Peterborough was nicknamed ‘Gildenburgh’, city of gold.

Boudicca ruled roundabout, Hereward the Wake legendarily resisted the Normans around Ely, and feudalism never became firmly established. Mr Pryor speculates that local traditions of independence may help explain the later appeal of puritanism, Parliamentarianism and modern intellectual enquiry to both ‘Slodgers’ (southern fenlanders) and ‘Yellowbellies’ (their Lincolnshire equivalents).

Dissolution opened monastic estates to entrepreneurs, and encouraged agricultural improvements, turning piecemeal efforts to keep water out of particular fields into a vast geometry of reclaimed ‘dearbought’ land, and half-tamed waterways (the Ouse Washes are visible from space). Fenlanders resisted, and the author empathises, but he also finds this titanic engineering inspiring. In some places, he observes, people seem insignificant, but not here, because without humans there would be no fens.

But ‘improvements’ have had adverse consequences, symbolised by the Holme Fen Post near Peterborough, inserted with its top at ground level in 1848, but now standing over 13 feet above, thanks to the drainage of Whittlesey Mere, formerly England’s largest lake. Shrinkage and drying of primordial peats are causing carbon release, soil degradation and erosion, increasing flood risk, and wildlife loss – while rising sea-levels menace huge tracts of prime farmland, and Boston, Spalding and Wisbech. The author watches an overflying Lancaster bomber from nearby RAF Coningsby, and ponders today’s threats.

The Fens are trembling on history’s brink, but then they always have. For now at least, they retain much of their brooding, enigmatic character – and those who wish to understand their unique importance can now call on an articulate and avuncular guide.

This review first appeared in Country Life, and is reproduced with permission

Staffordshire – ‘England in little’

Horn Dance antlers in the parish church at Abbot’s Bromley

Staffordshire – ‘England in little’

Arnold Bennett opens his 1908 novel Old Wives’ Tale describing the “natural, simple county” surrounding his Five Towns – a quiet countryside containing “everything that England has”, from hideous industry to Arcadian tranquillity. Staffordshire, he emotes, “is England in little, lost in the midst of England, unsung” – and all the better for being unsung. Seven decades later, Henry Thorold restated the syndrome in his Shell Guide to Staffordshire

Except to the initiated, Staffordshire remains a mystery. Even to the initiated it reveals its secrets slowly…Its cathedral is under-estimated, its parish churches unknown. Its castles are unheard of, its great houses and gardens too little visited.

As in 1908 and 1978, so still.

Part of the ‘problem’ is physical geography. Staffordshire is landlocked, its boundaries marked by rivers in the north and east but elsewhere less obvious, surrounded by more celebrated counties, and at its southern end eliding into industrial West Bromwich, Walsall and Wolverhampton, that tranche subsumed in 1974 into the bland new ‘West Midlands’. Insofar as Staffordshire impinges on wider awareness, it is often in unedifying connection with Stoke-on-Trent, long sadly synonymous with mismanaged decline, or the Alton Towers theme park. But this underrated “England in little” has made many contributions to England in big.

Below the industrial and post-industrial, the county is quietly rural, sometimes archaically so. Palaeolithic axes, bone tools, Neolithic barrows, Bronze Age jewellery, and hill-forts suggest human habitation predated the last Ice Age. The dominant Celtic tribe was the Cornovii (probably meaning “People of the Horned One”), and they resisted Romans pushing slowly north through forbidding terrain, its gloomy physicality suggested by the Romans’ name for Lichfield – Letocetum, derived from a Celtic word meaning “grey wood”. “People of the Horned One” rings true as ethno-descriptor, as one of the most evocative sights to be seen anywhere in England takes place every September in Abbots Bromley.

Horn Dancers circa 1900

Although written accounts only go back to Robert Plot’s 1686 Natural History of Staffordshire, the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance is unquestionably older. A twelve-strong troupe – six men bearing reindeer antlers, Robin Hood astride a hobby horse, Maid Marian, the Jester, a boy with a bow and arrow, a triangle-player, and a musician – take the antlers from the parish church early in the morning and spend the day making an exhausting eight-mile perambulation with many halts to dance at villages and houses, gathering money along the way for local good causes.

The horns, which have been carbon-dated to circa 1065, are mounted on carved wooden heads and supported by hand-staffs that rest on the shoulders. Support is necessary; the largest pair, borne by the lead Dancer, weigh 25 pounds and have a span of 39 inches. The antlers are also weighed down with ancienter connotations – divinity from Cerunnos and Pan up to the horned Moses, fertility, nobility, pride, power, protection, wilderness – psychic reverberations from the old impenetrable forest associated with Gawain and the Green Knight.

The totemic advances and retreats and sideways steps of the Dance, as the boy affects to fire arrows, are probably a pre-Norman reminder of the rights of the men of Needwood Forest. It was not only commoners who wished to conserve the trees; one impecunious Georgian Lord Bagot, asked why he would not sell £50,000 worth of oaks, replied proudly ”The Bagots are not timber merchants”. Other eighteenth century luminaries were less sentimental, and the Forest had almost all been enclosed and grubbed up by 1804, this process rationalised piously –

An extensive forest is not favourable to the virtue and industry of its poorer inhabitants; it affords temptations to idleness and dishonesty.

There is one extant tract, Bagot’s Wood, and descendants of its one-time defender still reside at Blithfield Hall, their coat-of-arms featuring appropriately another horned ungulate, the Bagot Goat, probably brought from the Rhône by a crusader Bagot, which persists in farm parks as a designated rare breed. The family’s motto is apposite – Antiquum Obtinens (“Possessing antiquity”).

Needwood still rustles in local toponymy, suffixed in Barton-under-Needwood, acknowledged at Marchington Woodlands, and honoured in absentia at Hanbury Woodend. Did Uttoxeter-born Henry Yevele (1320-1400), master mason at Westminster Abbey and Canterbury Cathedral, have vague memories of Needwood leviathans in mind as he upreared Perpendicular columns to branching fan vaults?

Like the Romans, Anglo-Saxons battled through trees to conquer Staffordshire, taking it for Mercia. At first worshippers of Wotan – remembered in Wednesbury and Wednesfield – later they built churches at Ilam, Lichfield, Stafford, and elsewhere, and a frequently used palace at Tamworth. An estimation of seventh century importance can be gauged from the Staffordshire Hoard, found in 2009 near Lichfield, 3,500 pieces adding up to 15 pounds of gold and silver, the largest Anglo-Saxon treasure ever discovered in England – a notably martial assemblage of bosses, buckles, gems, panels, rivets, studs, sword hilts, pommels and scabbards, and wire. But they were unable to resist the following century’s Danish “Great Heathen Army”, which captured and long kept central and northern Staffordshire, while the rest was subsumed into Wessex.

War passed across again – Wessexers-becoming-English against Danes, these new English against Normans, the rebellious shire feeling twice the mailed malice of the Conqueror, only becoming inured after 1070’s dread “Harrying of the North”. The Normans too transmuted, emblematised by the knight Ralph de Toeni’s rechristening as de Stafford, his descendants destined to play prominent parts in national history from the Hundred Years’ War on, marrying, supporting or subverting claimants or kings. By 1640, the heir to the earldom of Stafford had fallen into “a very mean and obscure condition”, and sold his title to Charles I for £800. Charles created a new viscountcy, but its possessor fell under suspicion during 1680’s “Popish Plot” hysteria, and was beheaded.

Between 1640 and 1680, there had of course been civil war, and Staffordshire’s religious divisions were complex. There had been sturdy resistance to Elizabethan reforms, imposed through such means as the 1588 martyrdom of Robert Sutton, who was (according to a local diarist) executed

in a most villainous Butcherley manner by one Moseley who with his axe cutt of his head (while he had yet sence and was readye to stand upp) through his mouth.

As late as 1620, Bilston was “much infected by popery and infested with popish priests”, while in 1624 Wolverhampton, hyperventilated a Puritan preacher,

Rome’s snaky brood roosted and rested themselves more warmer and safer and with greater countenance…than in any other part of the kingdom.

But the county had also been an early centre of dissent. Edward Wightman, the last heretic burned at the stake in England (1612), came from Burton-on-Trent – and there were strong Presbyterian, Baptist and Unitarian presences. George Fox visited Lichfield in 1651, and in his Journal recorded a vision he had, of blood flowing through the streets while he went up and down crying “Woe to the bloody city of Lichfield”.

Lichfield Cathedral

Peers were naturally royalists, but the Protestant gentry leaned towards Parliament, while rank-and-filers followed the leads of landlords. A mob of desperately poor moorlanders armed with fowling pieces and clubs, and led by someone styling himself “The Grand Juryman”, failed to dislodge Stafford’s royalist garrison in February 1643. All were preyed upon and plundered by King and Parliament alike, and churches were desecrated, most notably at Lichfield, whose ancient three-spired church in red sandstone was captured in March 1643 by Parliamentary troopers, after a siege during which their leader Lord Brooke was killed, shot through the eye by a deaf-and-dumb sniper on the spire, appropriately on St. Chad’s Day (Chad is Lichfield’s patron saint, and an eighth century copy of his Gospels is still used for special services). Revengeful Roundheads subsequently

broke up the pavements, polluted the choir with their excrement, every day hunted a cat with hounds throughout the church, delighting themselves in the echo from the goodly vaulted roof, and to add to their wickedness, brought a calf into it, wrapped in linen, carried it to the font, sprinkled it with holy water and gave it a name in scorn and derision of the holy sacrament of baptism.

Following the Battle of Hopton Heath near Stafford later that month, Prince Rupert recaptured the city – the first use of a land mine in an English battle – and the King held it thereafter until the end of the war.

The end of the first phase was in 1648, its scene Uttoxeter, where the last major Royalist force in the field, commanded by the 1st Duke of Hamilton, surrendered to Parliament’s General John Lambert. Hamilton had always been more interested in Venetian paintings than British battles, who confessed he was “To Much Bewiched with Thoes Intysing Things”, owning 300 by 1643. It would have been better had he been less dilettantish; he was decapitated in 1649, and some of the Royalist volunteers captured with him were impressed into military service for the Republic of Venice, an ironic twist they could doubtless have dispensed with. In 1651, a Stafford man named Izaak Walton played a powerfully significant role after the Battle of Worcester, entrusted with custody of Charles II’s “lesser George” jewel, which he helped convey to the exiled monarch.

Two years later, Walton published an utterly un-military masterpiece, The Compleat Angler, the second most reprinted book in English. Walton, who had already attained celebrity as biographer of Donne and Wotton, and knew Aubrey, Browne, Evelyn, Jonson, Milton, and Pepys, kept editing and reissuing the book for 25 years. The consolidated text starts in the Home Counties, its protagonist (Piscator) stretching his legs “up Tottenham Hill” to strike up conversation with a falconer (Auceps) and a huntsman (Venator). They dispute good-naturedly about the merits of their pursuits to delightful effect, retreating into rusticity as antidote to 1642-1651’s horrors. Walton’s advice is often of doubtful utility, but as literature it is priceless; as Venator remarks to Piscator, “Your discourse seems to be music, and charms me to an attention”.

In Part II, the scene shifts to the River Dove, “one of the purest crystalline streams you have ever seen”, which delineates the Derbyshire-Staffordshire border. The Dove, famous for trout and grayling, was also haunted by Walton’s young friend Charles Cotton, who raised a Fishing Lodge on its brink, with his and Walton’s initials intertwined above its door, and contributed a section on fly-fishing to the expanded Angler. Walton had in 1644 bought land at Shallowford, on the Meece Brook near Stafford, although he had to spend much time in London (and would be buried in Winchester). His house, which he left to the people of Stafford, its rent to be used for the poor, burned twice but was restored by the town. It is now a museum dedicated to the biographer’s own life, and the history of fishing, its sequestered appearance sadly affected by the rush of trains running between Stafford and Stoke – urgency at odds with his limpid placidity.

The Dr Johnson memorial at Uttoxeter – detail

Staffordshire’s most brilliant product was an admirer, engaged by Walton’s personality, struck by his skill, and sympathetic to his politics. Samuel Johnson emerged disconcertingly silently into life in Lichfield on 18 September 1709, and was baptised hastily at home in case he did not live. Soon his bookseller father and doting mother realised their son was not only physically resilient, but even a child-prodigy.

Johnson was bored by his father’s trade – so absorbed in perusing the books that he ignored customers, and on one occasion refusing to man his father’s stall at Uttoxeter market. This pricked at his conscience for decades, as he confided in 1784, impelling him to make a solitary penitential journey to Uttoxeter, around 1780, where he stood in the market square for several hours, hatless with his head down in heavy rain, seemingly oblivious of public curiosity and impervious to the elements. Did the goggling locals know that the large, ungainly lunatic was “Dictionary Johnson” of European fame, doyen of English letters?

Whatever his feelings about his father’s business, Johnson returned to Staffordshire after Oxford, to open a school at Edial. One of his three (!) pupils was another Lichfielder, David Garrick, who persuaded Johnson to swap provincial pedagogy for a wider stage. But Johnson often returned, and retained his accent; Garrick would mimick him, Boswell relates,

…squeezing a lemon into a punch-bowl, with uncouth gesticulations, looking round the company and calling out, ‘Who’s for poonsh?’

It is also surmised that the Happy Valley in Rasselas was inspired by Dovedale. Lichfield is proud of him, his birthplace a museum, outside which is a bronze of Johnson seated as if enthroned, with plinth panels showing him at mythologised moments – the three year old on his father’s shoulders listening fixedly to firebrand Cannock clergyman Henry Sacheverell, raised on other shoulders as scholar, by admiring classmates, and in1780 at Uttoxeter, when for a change the world weighed heavily on him. I bought a secondhand Oxford University Press Greek-English Lexicon in his birthplace’s bookshop, provoked by Johnson’s parapsychological proximity into some vain hope of self-improvement.

As Johnson was setting the way we spoke, smoke came to Stoke. Pottery had always been made thereabouts (there are Bronze Age beakers in Stoke museum) thanks to the local availability of clay, salt, lead and coal. But now, Stoke and nearby villages started to become an entity, “The Potteries” – a choking sprawl of grimy factories and bottle-shaped chimneys issuing an endless variety of crockery, from naive earthenware flat-backs for cottage mantelpieces to exquisite neo-classical designs coveted by royalty.

These latter were produced by Burslem-born Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), capitalising cleverly on the 1760s revival of interest in classical antiquity, combining romantic retrospection with new materials and glazes, and pushy sales techniques. His Etruria works poured out boxes, bowls, candelabras, cups, dishes, plates, reliefs, and vases in generic Hellenic vein on a variety of materials, famously ‘black basalt’ and jasper, and plaques representing “Illustrious Moderns”, including Johnson. (A less modern claim to fame was the White Rabbit of Etruria, a ghostly lagomorph that was seen in a secluded grove, accompanied by human cries for help – popularly supposed to be the revenant of a murdered 14 year old.) Many of Wedgwood’s designs stemmed from Sir William Hamilton, art-obsessed ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, husband of Nelson’s Emma – and distant relative of Charles I’s equally aesthetic Duke of Hamilton.

The fortune Wedgwood amassed cascaded down descendants, and would allow a grandson, a certain Charles Darwin, leisure time to formulate his ideas. Entangled in here are faint echoes of cauldrons, pots and vessels, ancient symbols of life – and clay, from which men were once thought to have come. There were revolutions rather than evolutions when we visited – a young man was performing parkour in the centre of town, as oblivious to passers-by as Johnson had been at Uttoxeter, they as unheeding of the daring athlete as the peasants of the dying aeronaut in Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.

Trentham near Stoke must be the only place in England where one can walk among Barbary macaques, 140 of them living semi-ferally among tangled trees at the edge of a Capability Brown dreamscape, disconcerting as monkeys always are in their similarity to and utter difference from us. Where monkeys now search each other for lice or look dignifiedly into futurity, was once a ducal palace, home to Leveson-Gowers from 1540 to 1907, rebuilt by Houses of Parliament architect Charles Barry – “in its own way architecturally as important”, concedes the difficult-to-please Nikolaus Pevsner. Trentham’s owner, the Duke of Sutherland, was so rich that in 1873 the Persian Shah told the future Edward VII, only half-humorously “you’ll have to have his head off when you come to the throne”. Yet by 1907, the house was unliveable, because of the stench from the industry-defiled Trent, a victim of Stoke’s success. The family decamped, the contents were sold, and most of the structure demolished, leaving a great emptiness in manicured space – and on the Stoke road a great gateway to nothing, and an 1807 mausoleum in the severest Greek style, a suitably Wedgwoodian coda.

More everyday evolutions than Darwin’s were seen in Tamworth, where Sir Robert Peel was M.P. from 1830-1850. His 1834 Tamworth Manifesto is credited with reviving the Tories after the 1832 Reform Act – a politic blend of accepting reforms with restated antidisestablishmentarianism and opposition to what Peel called “a perpetual vortex of agitation”. Peel was calming the country – the opposite objective of Shakespeare’s Earl of Richmond (later Henry VII), in King Richard the Third, who while encamped outside Tamworth, exhorts his “Fellows in arms, and my most loving friends, / Bruis’d underneath the yoke of tyranny” to rise against the “foul swine” occupying the throne. Peel was interested in actual swine – the Tamworth pig, whose bloodline the two-time P.M. oversaw in rare spare time at Drayton Manor.

Even more unusual animals are reported from Cannock Chase, a 26 square mile expanse of heathland southeast of Stafford – lonely despite the proximity of large villages, traces of centuries of mining, grazing and army training, and many visitors. When I traversed it, for hours I saw no-one, and had long silent moor tracks, soughing Scots pines, odd rock formations, brown ponds, small valleys, and seven foot high bracken to myself, two dogs, and fallow deer (thoughts of Abbots Bromley). In under suffocating bracts and contorted trees, I found a ‘face’ in birch bark. Signs warn of “sudden mining subsidence” and names like Camp Field, Dumps Covert, Dark Slade, Cold Man’s Slade, Dick Slee’s Cave, Gospel Place, and Deadmans Walk suggest crepuscular history.

There is shadow indeed – a model World War I battlefield constructed by prisoners-of-war and briefly exposed in 2013 before being reinterred, a German cemetery, a Katyń memorial, and the ruins of the Pagets’ aptly named Beaudesert. There is also folk horror, oddly comforting eeriness – the wolves that padded here into the 1280s transmogrified into werewolves and Gabriel Hounds, tales of the Wandering Jew, big cats, black-eyed children, a mini-Sasquatch called the Man-Monkey (thoughts of Trentham), will-o’-the-wisps, knockings in mines, spaceships, murders, satanism, vanishings and appearances – like at the Four Crosses, hyperbolised by the Daily Star in 2014 as “The haunted pub everyone’s too scared to buy!”

Postmodern creepypastas, premodern leitmotifs of belonging and loss, old wives’ tales and Prometheanism – I thought as I walked through a net-curtain of rain that Staffordshire was neither “natural” nor “simple”. But Bennett was right that it could stand for all England – anomalous, engaging, indeterminate, wrapped up in irony and understatement.


The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus by Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen

Gothic architecture

The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus
Hans Jakob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen

Introduced by Kevin Cramer, translated by J. A. Underwood, Penguin, 2018, 462 pps., £12.99

On 23 May 1618, Bohemian Protestants pushed two Catholic governors and their secretary through the windows of Prague Castle, in protest at the anti-Protestantism of Bohemia’s King Ferdinand, soon to be elected Emperor Ferdinand II. The defenestration was only injurious to dignity, and had farcical aspects, a rebel shouting ‘We shall see if your Mary can help you!’, only to exclaim ‘’By God, his Mary has helped!’ to see the men land in a midden.

This sparked what C. V. Wedgwood termed “the outstanding example in European history of meaningless conflict” – the bloodiest campaign ever waged on German soil. It was long thought 70% of Germans had died during those decades, particularly 1630-1638’s ‘years of annihilation’; recent scholarship favours 33%, even that equating to 6.5 million fatalities. ‘Fire, pestilence and death my heart have dominated’, Andreas Gryphius repined on behalf of a continent, in Tears of the Fatherland, Anno Domini 1636.

A troubling trace-memory persists in German minds, recalled in re-enactments like at the little Protestant burg of Memmingen, where Catholic field-marshal Wallenstein pitched ominous camp in the summer of 1630 – art by Wouwerman, Callot and others – folk-songs like Wenn die Landsknechts trinken (‘When the Mercenaries Drink’) and Das Leben ist in Würfelspiel (‘Life Is a Game of Dice’) – and Simplicius Simplicissimus, seen as the first great German novel. This subtle translation has returned to the 1669 original, restoring immediacy, making it oddly modern.

Simplicius went into seven editions in Grimmelshausen’s lifetime. That the author was respectably obscure – it was not until 1838 that he was established as author – did not lessen its‘realism’, because clearly the author had really seen some of the mayhem he describes. It borrowed from wider mock-heroic and picaresque traditions, but added elements now called ‘Gothic’ – coarse humour, deep forests, fantastical incidents, gore, grotesquerie, and introspection. It influenced Defoe, Schiller and Manzoni, and is held to herald the Bildungsroman, and masterpieces like Good Soldier SvejkCatch-22, and Brecht’s Mother Courage. Always in print, it was seized upon by nineteenth century Romantics seeking a Volksschriftsteller (‘writer of the people’) to codify pan-German consciousness, and has since been utilised by propagandists willing to overlook earthiness and subversiveness.

Protagonist ‘Simp’ is a ten year old churl, whose sole accomplishment is being a ‘fair bagpipe-player’. When his family is erased by Swedish soldiery, a hermit educates him, and inculcates religion. Then Imperialists impress him, and he is carried off to multiple fronts and no-man’s lands, whirled through an upended universe where preachers mingle promiscuously with princes, prostitutes,  psychopaths, quacks, starvelings, thieves, and witches (and mermen, and Jupiter).

Meanwhile, chancellors and counsellors constantly rearrange all geo-strategic pieces, and kings can fall to musket-ball, like Gustavus Adolphus at Lützen. Simp adapts to survive – trooper, gigolo, mountebank, highwayman. But he is always armoured with simplicity – ignorance counterbalanced by innocence that lets him blunder through all trials, and at the end find
absolution, albeit in a Europe still at war.

This review first appeared in the 31st March 2018 issue of The Spectator, and is reproduced with