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.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Sir Thomas Fairfax Pt. 2 - The Road to War

Last month I wrote about the background to one of the greatest generals of the English Civil War, Sir Thomas Fairfax. This month, I hope you will pardon a little self indulgence if my blog comes by way of a short story, in which I bring to you, through the eyes of a fictional bystander, the actual events that turned Yorkshire against the King and set England on the irretrievable path to war. (I apologise for the formatting, blogger is not very sympathetic when it comes to format!). The pictures are the famous equestrian portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck and a still from the film TO KILL A KING with Dougray Scott as Thomas Fairfax


“We are late, Jack.” Matthew Cowdray chided his brother. “I told you we would be.”
Jack smiled at his brother’s chiding. Their tardiness could not be blamed on Matt’s infirmity but was due entirely to Jack’s carousing the previous night.
“It doesn’t look like we have missed much,” he said.
At the far end of the room, Jack could see the grey head of Ferdinando, Lord Fairfax, above the crowd. Fairfax held up his hand and silence rippled through the room until it reached the far corner where the Cowdray brothers stood.
“Gentlemen. I welcome you to Bishopshill,” Ferdinando began. “I think you all know why you are here?” There was a low murmur of assent throughout the room. “It is time for the King to be persuaded to return to London. He cannot govern the country from York while Parliament sits in London. The King must make peace with Parliament before it is too late. His presence here in York is inflammatory. While he attempts to raise arms from honest county men such as yourselves, he gives no indication of intending to restore peace in this land. It can only lead to one thing…”
War. The unspoken word hung in the warm air of the chamber. Despite himself, Jack shivered. Beside him he felt Matt shift his weight from his twisted leg and with the relief of a distraction, looked around for a chair for his brother.
Lord Fairfax spoke again, holding up a parchment high above his head so all could see it. “Tomorrow the King is attending a gathering on Heworth Moor. We are asked to attend as a show of support for his cause…” There was a rumbling of dissent among the gathering. “We will attend-- but with one course in mind. To present His Majesty with this petition signed by us all.”
“Who will present the petition?” someone called out.
“Who else but Tom Fairfax!” Another voice declared.
There was a roar of assent.
“If that is what you wish?” A quiet voice with the unmistakable note of authority came from the tall, dark haired man who stood behind Lord Fairfax.
“It is agreed.” Lord Fairfax said. “My son Tom will present the petition.”
“You know what this will mean?” A voice of dissent came from the floor. “Tom, you Fairfax and those others of you who sign this petition. You are setting yourself at odds with the King.”
A babble of noise broke, silenced by Lord Fairfax’s raised his hand. His face was quite still and grave. “It is the King who is setting himself at odds with his people. Let us not forget how he abolished Parliament, attempted to rule by imposing unjust taxes. Now we face the threat of Irish troops being brought into the country. Gentlemen we can no longer afford to sit idly by while the clothing trade suffers in this county and our King sits here in York like a bird of prey. Will you sign this petition?”
There was a unanimous roar of assent and the crowd pressed forward, all eager to sign the petition.
Matt looked up at his brother. “Well Jack we have talked about this often enough, are you ready to take sides?”
“It seems we must. Let us wait until the first enthusiasts are done.”
“Matthew Cowdray!”
Matt’s face lit up and he rose awkwardly to his feet at Thomas Fairfax's approach.
The two men seized each other warmly by the hand.
“It is good to see you, Matt.”
“And you, Tom.” Matt paused and gave a mock bow. “Or should I say Sir Thomas, for did not the King knight you in the recent affray with the Scottish?”
The other man flushed slightly. “Not so recent,” he mumbled. “Events have overtaken us.”
“That is why we are here. I don’t believe you have ever met my brother John?”
For the first time Thomas Fairfax turned to the younger man. Jack did not consider himself a short man but Fairfax stood nearly half a head taller than him. He had a long, lean, intensely serious face, and dark thoughtful eyes. His swarthy looks had already earned him the nickname “Black Tom. He smiled at Jack and held out his hand. Jack knew this man by reputation. Although not yet thirty and a contemporary of his brother’s at Cambridge, he was already emerging in Yorkshire from his father’s shadow, as one of the new generation of leaders.
Jack had been a soldier for some years and had met many leaders of men in his life but few, in his experience, had that mystical element, that spark that could inspire men to follow them through thick or thin. It was in the eyes-- a calm, a certainty of the rightness of the cause. Jack looked into Tom Fairfax’s eyes as he took his hand and from that moment if Tom Fairfax had told Jack to follow him to hell, he would have gone willingly.
“My friends call me Jack, Sir Thomas,” he responded. “I am honoured to make your acquaintance.”
“And I, yours.”
“Jack has been responsible for raising a troop of horse from my estates,” Matt said.
The dark eyes rested thoughtfully on Jack. “Have you some military experience?”
Matt, as was his want, answered for his brother. “Jack has served five years on the continent in the wars. He returned home after the fall of the Palatinate and has been helping me with the estate.”
A dark eyebrow lifted. “Indeed? Well, your experience and those men you have trained, Jack, will be called upon I fear in the next few months.”
“You think it will come to war?” Jack ventured.
Tom gave a heavy sigh. “I fear war is now unavoidable.”
“Perhaps he can still be persuaded. Tomorrow…” Matt began
“Tomorrow I shall present the King with this petition.” Fairfax gestured towards the table where the Yorkshire gentry shuffled each other in their haste to sign it.
“That will please Savile. He may get the wrong idea if we all turn up in force.” Matt smiled.
“No doubt but we shall disabuse him of any such thoughts when he sees what I carry. Can I rely on your support on the morrow?”
The Cowdray brothers bowed their assent and Fairfax was gone, swallowed up by the convocation of Yorkshire gentry.

The next day, June 3, was one of those precious early summer days when the wind blows off the moors sweet with fresh growth. Bright banners fluttered in the breeze and a small band of musicians struggled manfully beside a marquee set with refreshment for the King. The gathering had been organised by Lord Savile as an expression of the support that Yorkshire showed to its newly resident King. It was a gathering notable only in its absence of Yorkshire gentry.
Jack had ridden out with Fairfax’s supporters. Only Matt’s disability prevented him from being there. He did not ride with any ease or comfort, his twisted leg ill suited for the saddle. The brothers had long since developed an easy partnership in which Jack took on any physical work.
“Well well, look who is here? By my faith it is Jack Cowdray.” Jack turned in his saddle to see the smiling, handsome face of John Hotham, son of the governor of Hull.
“Hotham.” He inclined his head in greeting.
John Hotham rode up to be level with him. The two had crossed paths on several occasions and Jack had always disliked the younger man for no reason which he could put a finger on, other than something untrustworthy in the other man’s eyes.
“Well we have a fine day for our little robust resistance.” There was an acid tone to Hotham’s voice.
“You do not see that it will be effective?”
“The Fairfaxes are fooling themselves if they think the King will pay them the slightest heed. The time for talking is past. It is time for action.”
“Such as shutting the city gates of Hull in the King’s face?”
Hotham turned to Jack his eyes bright at the mention of his father’s disobedience. “Exactly. My father knows how to curb this upstart monarch and it isn’t by waving pieces of paper at him. I, for one, have three hundred men waiting for the word.”
“You are eager for war, Hotham.”
“I am. It is the only way to settle this matter once and for all.”
Jack looked at him with all the wisdom of his years of soldiering. “I wouldn’t be too anxious if you knew what war will do to this country.”
But Hotham wasn’t listening. He had already urged his horse forward to talk to someone else.
“Do you know young Hotham?” Hotham’s place had been taken by Sir Thomas Fairfax.
“I do, Sir Thomas.”
“And what does he have to say for himself this fine morning?”
“He thinks it is time for war, not talking.”
Fairfax shook his head. “He is young.”
“And he has not seen war at first hand as we have,” Jack remarked.
Fairfax nodded. He took a deep breath as if he were a man going to the gallows. “I may need a good hand beside me today. Jack, would you …?”
Jack felt himself flush with pride. “Of course, Sir Thomas, just say the word and my sword is yours.”
“Well hopefully I shall not have need of your sword.” Fairfax remarked drily. “Ah, I see Lord Savile himself has come out to greet us. I wonder what fine words of welcome he has?”
“Fairfax.” Savile greeted Tom’s father, Lord Ferdinando Fairfax, with a notable chill in his voice. “You are only welcome here as a loyal subject of his majesty.”
Ferdinando’s beard jutted. “There are none more loyal to His Majesty than those of us present. Do you intend to make a scene and prevent us expressing that loyalty?”
Savile hesitated. To have turned Fairfax and his party away would have created a scene and the addition of the Fairfax’s following certainly swelled the numbers of the otherwise dismal turnout.
“Where is the King?” Jack leaned towards Thomas.
“Yonder-- on the chestnut gelding.”
It was the first time Jack had set eyes on the Charles I, King of England by Divine Right. He sat straight in the saddle, a small man of immense dignity dressed soberly in midnight blue satin, the Order of the Garter glinting on his chest.
The King had begun to address the gathering but Jack could hardly hear a word that was said. Charles, it seemed, was a poor speaker and his attempts to reassure the gathering of his determination to uphold the law and maintain the Protestant religion was being drowned out by the vocal dissenters in the crowd. Intending to move closer, Jack dismounted and tied his horse to a tree. As he turned back towards the King, he felt someone touch his elbow and saw Tom Fairfax standing beside him, the rolled paper of the petition in his hand.
“Are you with me, Jack?”
Jack nodded and the two men pushed through the crowd. Lord Savile, seeing them advance, turned his horse to block our path.
“Where are you going, Fairfax?” he demanded in a low, ominous voice
Tom held up the petition. “I have a petition from the King’s loyal subjects to present to him.”
“You shall not pass!” Savile went purple in the face with rage and indignation.
“I do not see how you can prevent me.” Tom smiled disarmingly and gave Jack a nod.
Jack seized the bridle of Savile’s horse giving time for Tom to slip around behind him.
“I’ll not forget your impudence, Cowdray. Unhand my horse.” Savile brought his riding crop slashing down. It missed Jack’s face, striking him painfully on the shoulder. Jack released the bridle from his nerveless fingers. However the horse alarmed by the crack of the crop took to its heels
Jack gave the departing Lord Savile a mock bow and, rubbing his shoulder followed Fairfax. The tall Yorkshireman had reached the King’s presence. The little man on the tall horse, glanced down at his two loyal subjects with eyes bright with anger and indignation.
Thomas bowed low. “Your Majesty. I have a petition from your humble subjects…”
He got no further. The King making a pretence of ignoring him had turned his horse’s head and rode away.
Undeterred Tom took after him. The King’s supporters attempted to intercept him but with the agility of a man on foot, he managed to evade them. The attempt to present the petition was repeated twice, both times the King steadfastly refusing to meet Tom’s eyes or accept the paper. Finally Tom strode straight up to the King’s horse, thrusting the petition on to the pommel of the saddle.
For a brief moment their eyes met. The King’s face revealed nothing but his hands visibly tightened on the reins of his horse. The huge animal reared and plunged forward, its great iron clad hooves flashing dangerously close to the head of the King’s petitioner. With superb agility Tom managed to jump clear as the horse crashed to the ground. There was a momentary hush and then a great outcry of fury from the Fairfax supporters.
“Well the King has certainly left his impression in the minds of the Yorkshire gentry.” John Hotham appeared at Jack’s shoulder again. “King or no King, you do not try to ride down a Yorkshireman and expect to be loved for the act.”
Tom picked himself up from the ground. He imperturbably brushed the grass from his breeches and turned to the two men beside him, his face grave.
“Well, gentlemen,” Thomas Fairfax said quietly. “We shall see what tomorrow brings.”
© Alison Stuart 2009

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/