Tuesday, 29 September 2009

La Marquise: beloved of playwrights

I've been reading quite a bit about the French 17th Century actress Marquise du Parc: she known for having enamoured the three great men in theater at the time: the playwrights Molière, Corneille and Racine.

So who was this beguiling creature?

A marquise she certainly was not, for she was raised on the streets. But her parents — likely her Italian charlatan father — had the gumption to name her Marquise-Thérèse. If they had only lived to see how she had lived up to her name!

It was Molière who spotted her, dancing and performing acrobatics in the market square in Lyons, while her father sold dubious "remedies" and pulled teeth. Over ten years older than the 20-year-old, and in a settled relationship with a member of the troupe, it's said that the Marquise gave Molière the cold shoulder, preferring, instead, jolly du Parc — known as Gros René, "round in every way" — the fat comedian of Molière's troupe.

They were married, and the Marquise du Parc joined the travelling troupe. This was in the spring of 1653, and by the fall she had attracted the attention of yet another writer: the poet Sarazin. It was through Sarazin that the troupe got their first important royal commission, invited to play before the Prince de Conti.

She was known to be beautiful, and from the one portrait we have of her, her features were Romanesque, true to her Italian ancestry. She was said to swing her hips in a mincing way and to have a queenly and imperial bearing. She was natural and unaffected.

She would have a lifetime of courtships by star-struck writers and actors and painters, and although, no doubt, a flirt, she was never unfaithful to her husband. In Rouen, it was the staid, very-married, older (at 52) and distinguished Pierre Corneille suffered a terrible infatuation over her, writing her love poems, begging her to overlook his wrinkles, but reminding her that he could make her famous.

In Paris, with Molìere's troupe, she played comic roles, but in 1665, she was given a role in young Jean-Racine's tragedy, Alexandre. Abruptly (and unethically) Racine took his play to rival theater, the Hôtel de Bourgogne. A year later, likely at Racine's urging, the now-widowed Marquise du Parc left Molière's troupe to join their rivals ... and Racine, who was, by this time, her lover.

Jean Racine was about six years younger than the Marquise, and far, far poorer. Indeed, she was, to him, a glamorous, rich, older actress. They might have even secretly married -- in any case, they weren't to have long together, for the Marquise died eighteen months later.

The Marquise had, for friends, the "witch" Catherine Monvoisin (known as La Voisin) and Voisin's maid-midwife, Manon. They all, no doubt, shared the 17th century passion for fortunetelling and charms. This milieu would have come naturally to the Marquise, who was the daughter of a charlatan. Catherine Monvoisin, however, was a professional in this respect, a favorite with many members of the Court. (For this she would be burned at the stake.)

Shortly after the Marquise became involved with the impoverished, young writer Jean Racine, she was courted by Louis de Rohan, a handsome, young aristocrat (much to the dismay of his family). He wished even to marry her, and it's possible, if not likely, that she got pregnant by him. At some point — perhaps she was dumped by Rohan? — she reunited with Jean Racine. However, no doubt, the "growing" evidence of her infidelity must have been a strain on the couple.

How things went bad is not known. The Marquise died. On her deathbed, she'd apparently asked to see Catherine and Manon (the midwife), but Racine had not allowed them close to her. After her death, the Marquise's step-mother and her step-sisters claimed that Racine had poisoned her and stolen her expensive jewellery. Later, when Catherine Monvoisin was herself arrested, she accused Racine. A warrant was prepared for his arrest, but it was never acted on.

These, then, are two mysteries that will never be solved.
One: what was it about her that so attracted these three playwrights -- the geniuses of the French theater? And Two: how and why did she die?

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Counterfeiters and Clippers

Sir Issac Newton

During the reigns of James I (1603-1625) and Charles I (1625-1649) coins were hammer struck rather than milled. Prior to 1662, these silver coins had been ‘clipped’ around the edges, reducing their weight so they were no longer a viable tender, especially abroad.

These machine struck silver coins produced by the Royal Mint in the Tower of London were thought to be protected from clipping by an engraved, decorated and milled edge. However forged dye stamps were made to get round this and by 1696 forged coins constituted 10% of the nation’s currency.

Another threat to the currency was that its value as silver bullion in Paris and Amsterdam was greater than the face value in London, thus vast quantities of coins were melted and shipped abroad. On the creation of the Bank of England, this situation triggered William Lowndes of the treasury to ask Isaac Newton for help.

One of the most famous coin forgers and clippers of the late 17th century was William Chaloner. Also a confidence trickster, swindler, charlatan and sham plotter, his career in scamming and counterfeiting took him from poverty in Warwickshire to great wealth, and a house in Knightsbridge. Apprenticed by his parents to a nail maker in Birmingham, a town notorious for coining, he became skilled in the production of ‘Birmingham Groats’. At this time groats (worth 4 pennies) were in short supply, so the forged version constituted a significant proportion of the national coinage.

His "trick" for recovering stolen property was "to steal it in the first place". As a result, he made his first appearance in the public record in 1690, as a suspect in a burglary case. But the "tongue-pudding" and the knack for playing two sides against each other were established as hallmarks of his criminal enterprises.

Challoner was part of one of the many coining gangs that existed. He was taught the subtle techniques of moulding 'milled edges' and counterfeiting coins by Patrick Coffey, a goldsmith. Thomas Taylor, a master engraver and printer made the dyes. In 1691 Chaloner produced French Pistoles worth about 17 shillings each, using an alloy of silver. Then he produced English guineas that were gilded by Patrick Coffey and Chaloner's own brother-in-law Joseph Gravener. The chain was completed by Thomas Holloway and his wife who passed the coins to petty crooks for circulation.

Chaloner’s next scheme was to forge the mint's "machine-struck" coins, outside the (legal) boundary of London, and where the noise of machines would not be suspicious. To this end he recruited Thomas Holloway, bought a house in Egham, Surrey and set-up coining and hot moulding machines, and began production.

He employed John Peers, a metal and moulding specialist, but on the 18th May 1697 Peers appeared before magistrates on an unrelated charge, and denounced Chaloner's Egham operation as part of his plea. Newton heard about this by accident three months later so arrested Peers for questioning and the recruited him as an agent.

In December 1694 Chaloner made an attempt to become an overseer at the Royal Mint , by issuing pamphlets describing "solutions"' to currency problems such as restrict/licence access to coining tools; coinage should be struck with an impression deeper than coiners' tools or presses would allow; use a deep groove along the edge; extend the treason law; and adjust the silver value.

This attracted the interest of Charles Mordaunt, Earl of Peterborough, Earl of Monmouth ex-Lord of the Treasury, and ex-king's confidant, who had fallen out of favour with William III. Mordant wanted an opportunity attack Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1695 Mordant arranged for Chaloner (still an active counterfeiter!) to address the Privy Council about corrupt practices. This caused the Royal Mint to instigate its own investigations, which thus thwarted Chaloner's ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ ambitions as they discovered evidence that incriminated him.

Thrown into Newgate in January 1696, Chaloner petitioned Charles Montagu, Chancellor of the Exchequer, with details of a conspiracy at the Royal Mint. Released from Newgate, he went on to testify to the Lord Justices in Whitehall about the crimes of the "moneyers" within the Mint. He claimed that they coined false guineas, struck debased blanks sent in from outside, and sent out stamps for coining (he boasted privately to have benefited from both), and regularly produced underweight coin. He named other coiners, Thomas Carter, John Abbot, and Patrick Coffee, including his own alias, "Chandler".

In 1693 he was tempted by Government rewards to act as an "agent provocateur", providing information about Jacobite activities, plots and printing presses.

By January 1699 Sir Isaac Newton was devoted to a complete investigation of Chaloner, using a network of spies and informants, and took many statements from his old contacts. The trial was held at the Old Bailey on 3 March, the Judge was Sir Salathiel Lovell, who had a reputation as a "hanging judge". Chaloner faced two indictments for treason—coining French pistoles in 1692, and coining crowns and half-crowns in 1698.

Whilst awaiting trial, Chaloner pretended to go mad, but in court he resorted to insulting all parties and claiming they were committing perjury to save their own necks. The jury needed only a few minutes to reach a guilty verdict.

Challoner was executed at Tyburn on 16th March 1699.

L to R Charles II Half Guinea, Charles II Crown and James II Crown

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Margaret Fell & George Fox

Pendle Hill will forever be associated to the Pendle Witches who live on in the undying soul of the landscape and its folklore. Pendle Hill also gave birth to the Quaker movement.

In 1652, George Fox, a weaver’s son and cobbler’s apprentice turned dissenting preacher, wandered across England on a spiritual quest. When he climbed Pendle Hill, his revelation came to him—an event that would change both Fox and the world forever. He envisioned a “great multitude waiting to be gathered.”

As we travelled, we came near a very great hill, called Pendle Hill, and I was moved of the Lord to go up to the top of it; which I did with difficulty, it was so very steep and high. When I was come to the top, I saw the sea bordering upon Lancashire. From the top of this hill the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered.

George Fox: An Autobiography, Chapter 6

Later when he walked on to Firbank Fell and met with the Westmoreland Seekers, he found his “great multitude” and the movement had its genesis.

Wandering still further, Fox came to Swarthmoor Hall in Cumbria where he hoped to discuss his new religion with the lord of the manor, Thomas Fell. Mr. Fell being absent, Fox met Margaret, the mistress of the house, a woman who had been searching for spiritual direction for the past twenty years.

From the first time Margaret Fell heard Fox preach, his vision became her own. In the following three weeks, Margaret, her children, servants, estate workers, and many inhabitants of Furness became a part of burgeoning Quaker movement. When the lord of the manor finally returned, he found himself in a Quaker stronghold.

A skilled mediator, Margaret managed to reconcile her husband to the lowborn preacher who had taken such outrageous liberties. Though Thomas Fell never converted, he allowed Margaret to use Swarthmoor Hall as a meeting house for worship. Through the 1650s, Swarthmoor Hall became the powerhouse of the early Quakers. Thomas Fell died in 1658, leaving the estate to Margaret.

Regarded by many as the co-founder of the Society of Friends, Margaret devoted her life to her religion. One of the few early Quakers who was a member of the gentry, she interceded on behalf of her co-religionists who were arrested for illegal preaching or refusing to take oaths. In 1660 and 1662 she traveled to London to convince King Charles II and his parliament for freedom of conscience. In 1664, Margaret herself was arrested for failing to take an oath and for allowing Quaker meetings to be held in her home. She was sentenced for life imprisonment in Lancaster Gaol and forfeiture of her property. While in prison she wrote religious pamphlets and epistles, including her most famous work, Women’s Speaking Justified, a scripture-based argument for women’s ministry. From its very inception, the Quaker religion insisted on gender equality, women’s right to preach, the abolition of slavery and the fundamental injustice of war. One can imagine that Margaret played a leading role in the Quaker commitment to equality and social progress.

In 1668 Margaret was released from prison by order of the king. The following year she married George Fox. Returning to Lancashire, she was arrested again, and shortly after her release, Fox departed on his mission to America, only to be imprisoned upon his return to England.

Surviving both her husbands, Margaret remained a religious activist into her eighties and finally died in 1702 at the age of 88. Her last words were, “I am in Peace.”

Bernard Picard's 18th century engraving shows a woman preaching at a Quaker meeting in London.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

The Paspahegh

Early in May 1607, the English explored the James River in present-day Virginia and first contacted the Paspahegh (possibly pronounced pa-spa-hay), a Native tribe that was a tributary to the paramount chief Powhatan. They were greeted by the werowance (translates to chief; not understanding chiefs' roles, the colonists referred to them as kings) Wowinchapuncke with a speech.

Continuing on with their exploration, the English sailed up the river into Appamattuck territory before returning downriver a couple of weeks later. On Jamestown Island, they began building a fort. At that moment in history, the Paspahegh became the first Native tribe to fall victim to English expansion in the Chesapeake area of Virginia.

While erecting the fort, the colonists were observed by scouts. The Paspahegh resisted the encroachment, setting the stage for back and forth fighting between the groups. In spring 1610, a new governor arrived in Virginia, Lord De La Warr, upping the stakes even further.

In August on orders from the new governor, George Percy with the reluctant help of an Indian guide led a party of seventy colonists in the predawn hours to the Paspahegh town. The guide attempted to lead the group in the wrong direction and was threatened to have his head cut off. He then altered his course and took the colonists to the town, where a surprise attack was launched, killing sixteen people of their "deadliest enemies" as they left their houses. The colonists continued by burning houses and cutting down the Paspahegh's corn.

A man, the chief's wife and children were captured. The man was beheaded. A "council" agreed to put the children to death. On the short sailing trip back to Jamestown, soldiers threw the children overboard, then shot them in the head. Later, the children's mother was stabbed to death to "save" her from being burned to death by Lord De Le Warr.

Before this time, the Powhatan people did not kill women or children even in warfare as it was against the law of nations. These actions changed tactics among Virginia Indians. Wowinchapuncke was later killed in an encounter near the Jamestown fort, and in 1611, the Paspahegh town was listed as deserted. Thereafter, sadly, the tribe disappeared from the historical record.

Kim Murphy

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

The Hope Diamond meets the King of Bling

According to legend, the famous Hope diamond was cursed when it was stolen from the forehead (eye) of a Hindu statue of the goddess Sita. Thereafter, bad luck and death was believed to fall to its owner, as well as to anyone who touched it.

The truth:
in the mid-17th century, Jean Baptiste Tavernier, a French jeweler, went to India in search of diamonds. Here, is his description of meeting the Emperor there:
"In the middle of this hall, and near the side overlooking the court, as in a theatre, they place the throne when the Emperor comes to give audience and administer justice. It is a small bed of the size of our camp beds, with its four columns, the canopy, the back, a bolster, and counterpane — all of which are covered with diamonds."
Clearly, he had come to the right place. Tavernier traveled on to the Golconda region, the center of India's diamond mining. There, sixty thousand slaves dug for diamonds, dressed only in loincloths — so that they could not steal. (Although it seems to me that one could manage to hide a diamond or two rather nicely in a loincloth.)

Golconda diamonds were known for their size and beauty, and they include some of the world's most famous stones: the Hope Diamond, the Orlov Diamond, the Darya-i-Nur Diamond, and the Koh-i-Noor Diamond are all Golconda diamonds. Tavernier claimed to have handled a nine hundred carat diamond there.
(The rough equivalent of nine hundred engagement rings.)

It was likely here that Tavernier bought a crudely-cut 112 3/16 carat diamond. The jewel was so blue that at first Tavernier thought it was a large sapphire, describing its color as a beautiful violet. He traded ornate goldwork for diamonds — including the big one — and slowly made his way back to France, arriving twenty-six years later, in 1668. There, he found the perfect client: Louis XIV, the Sun King.

Some have called Louis the King of Bling. That's rather unfair, in truth. Louis XIV had a refined eye for — and passionate love of — beauty. One can only imagine his feeling of awe seeing 1,200 diamonds spilled before him. (One can also imagine the resistance of his sensible Finance Minister Colbert to the price: I've seen one estimate — unverified, I should note — that it equaled seventy-five million dollars today.)

At that time, European royals favored pearls. The Sun King set a new trend — for diamonds. He had the smaller stones set in buttons and shoe buckles, and gave away diamonds as gifts: the Court rained in diamonds for a time! French jewellers had refined a stone-cutting technique, and the King had the biggest diamond — the Tavernier it was called at the time — re-cut to enhance its brilliance. It was reduced to a "mere" 67 1/8 carats . . . but oh, the light it gave off! Described as an intense steely-blue, it was renamed le bleu de France — the French Blue — or the Blue Diamond of the Crown. Set in gold, Louis would wear it on a long ribbon around his neck on ceremonial occasions.

Thereafter, the diamond was passed from king to king until the French Revolution, when Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, tried to escape the country — with the crown jewels. They were stopped, and the jewels were returned to the French National Assembly, which put the crown jewels on public display. Unsecured, the crown jewels were stolen; over time, all but the French Blue were recovered.

And thus began the French Blue's long journey: to England (where it was owned for a time by King George IV), to the United States (where it acquired the name the Hope Diamond after one of its owners, Henry Philip Hope), to London again, then to New York city, France, Washington, D.C., eventually ending up at its present home at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

Soon the Smithsonian plans to remove the Hope Diamond from its current setting (shown) and display it for a period of time on its own. Then it will be reset. In accord with the democratic nature of our times, the Smithsonian suggested three possible settings and offered the public the opportunity to vote for one or another on the Net. (The Smithsonian may have changed their mind on doing this: the vote site is not functioning at the time of this posting.)

As for the so-called "curse" — it is true that everyone who ever owned the Hope diamond died . . . in good time. I don't think the Smithsonian employees need to worry.

Related links:

•From Novelist Catherine Delor's excellent blog, Versailles and More: her post on the Smithsonian's plans to reset the Hope Diamond, and another on the diamond's history.

"Dressing a Rock Star; a New Look for the Hope Diamond," NPR's coverage on the Smithsonian's plans.

•Check the Smithsonian site for further news.

Sandra Gulland

Author of the Josephine B. Trilogy and Mistress of the Sun

Blog: http://sandragulland.blogspot.com/
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Sandra-Gulland/6284613175
Twitter: http://twitter.com/Sandra_Gulland/