Pierre Terrail LeVieux, seigneur de Bayard, 1473-1524: Le Chevalier sans peur et sans reproche

“Without fear and without reproach.”

It’s one of those phrases that crops up in romantic literature,  all very Arthur and Camelot and such.   However medieval it may sound, the title didn’t really enter the language until his fans had to describe the sixteenth century knight and warrior de Bayard.  Not a lot of dragons by then- most fighting was over politics.

Bayard was a native of Dauphiné in south east France and a faithful subject of the king of France.  This was not necessarily a given at the time, when loyalty was fluid and power unpredictable. 

He was from a military family and he first honed his skills on horseback and tilting as a page for Louis de Luxembourg.  Presumably he worked on his wit and charm as well, features which seemed to follow him throughout his life.  Good looks were just an afterthought. Continue reading

Count Sergei Witte, 1849-1915: Another Man of Steel

Tales of Imperial Russia: The Life and Times of Sergei Witte, 1849-1915, Francis Wcislo, Oxford University Press.

A minor Russian aristocrat of German-Baltic roots, hence the surname, and a cousin of Madame Blavatsky.  His own mysterious powers were  a little more earthbound  than hers.

Witte was one of those provincial top-of-the-class boys who was smarter than you and he knew it.  He shamed his parents by opting to study mathematics rather than law at U of Odessa, with the aim of teaching at the college level.  That was apparently too low an ambition for the family, and therefore scotched.

Instead he went into the high tech hot subject of the day – railroads. Continue reading

Colonel Francis Maceroni, 1788-1846: On the Road Again

When London roads are paved with wood,
Long live Maceroni.
We’ll go in for something good
Saved out of our coal money.

The doggerel was chanted by the good people of London on the subject of recent advances in street coverage, and yes, it was wood.  Wooden blocks were as a kind of cheap and sturdy paver for the otherwise dirt lined streets of London.  Problem was that, unlike, say, bricks or Belgian blocks, they could be burned – and it was cheaper to heat the house with public wooden blocks than private coal. The Maceroni in in question in his book Hints to Paviers (sic) 1827, which, while recognizing macadam though fine for the country road, found it less successful in the more traveled city, and lays out the benefits of wooden pavers already used successfully on the continent. Continue reading

Ira Aldridge, 1807-1867: The African Roscius*

Beatles’ fans are generally hip to the figure of Pablo Fanque, black circus entrepreneur and accomplished acrobat.   It’s all laid out in the song and the poster.

Not a lot of contemporary posters for Ira Aldridge, whose stage career was a bit more upscale.  Certainly in his time he was better known.  Pable Fanque was a star of England.  Aldridge was an international star.

He was a New York native, son of free blacks and beneficiary of a classical education at the African Free School of New York.  He also spent time at the Park Theatre in lower Manhattan and was soon working at African Grove.

In a path that became to all too familiar (think Josephine Baker and Nina Simone among others) , he thought he would find more opportunity in Europe than in America.  He was right.  He attended the University of Glasgow for a period, but was soon back on the stage.  At first assumed to be a novelty – fancy an actor who could play black without burnt cork! – Aldridge tended to be somewhat typecast:  (The Ethiopian, or the Quadroon of the Mango Grove; The Negro’s Curse; The Death of Cristophe, King of Hayti). Continue reading

Thomas Becket, 1115-1170: Separation of Church and State, Act One

Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel by John Guy,  Random House.

The Jean Anouilh play Becket pretty much confirms the power of art on an unsuspecting public.   Think Henry II and the reasonably educated person will get an image of King Peter O’Toole and his one time drinking buddy Richard Burton.  While Peter is always an engaging sort of rogue, Richard does really have the power of right on his side.  He being a saint and all.

So basically the fix has been in since 1959. Probably time enough for another look-see.  To that end, Mr. Guy’s book gives us a more historically accurate but just as entertaining a rendering of reality.

Continue reading

Henriette Caillaux, 1874-1943: Behind Every Great Man….

On March 16 1914,  Parisian socialite Henriette Caillaux went to the office of Gaston Calmette, editor of the French journal Le Figaro.  No appointment. Might she be allowed to see him? It was late, but the fellow agreed to the unusual request. How could he help the lady?

She got straight to the point.  From her muff she pulled a Browning automatic and fired four shots into the low-down dirty dog of a journalist.

A passionate woman, clearly. Old fashioned, too.  She was doing no more than standing by her man, her man being the center-left Radical Party politician Joseph Caillaux who was widely expected to be the Prime Minister in the up coming election.

That is, until the papers went to press.

Continue reading

Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, 1756-1829: Privilege Done Right

Look him up and the subject will immediately turn to dogs.  Dogs and boots and dinner parties.

“At his table, which was celebrated, Sir Henry invited companions of more than one kind. Bijou and Biche, the two favourite dogs, were often there seated on chairs, with imposing napkins around their necks, and to them each plate was solemnly offered. One day, however, their behaviour not conforming to the ideas of their master, they were punished in the most terrible manner! A tailor was immediately summoned.

” ‘ These blackguards have deceived me,’ said their eccentric master. ‘ I have treated them like gentlemen, they have behaved like rascals. Take their measure! they shall wear for eight days the yellow coats and knee breeches of my valets, and stay in the anteroom, and be deprived of the honour of seeing me for a week.’ ”

Nevermind these two, there were plenty of other dogs as well, for each of whom expensive boots were hand made, along with clothing.  All the dogs would sit at table, a servant for each one of them, and let the feasting begin.  They, and the household cats, were also given free use of the earl’s numerous carriages, much to the amazement of their Parisian neighbours.  Ils sont fous, ces anglais!

The writers of potted biographies tend to leave it there, which is very wrong of them.  Truth is, the fellow had a good deal more on offer,  much of it remarkable. Continue reading

Margaret Lambrun, 1570?- ?: Courage of Conviction

By 1821, Napoleon had been defeated and peace seemed to spread out on the horizon for the foreseeable future.

Some people are never satisfied.

William Hazlitt in his essay “Guy Faux” bemoans the lack of passion and machismo in the post-war milquetoasts compared to the stalwart firebrands of earlier ages.  Nothing manly for Britain’s youth to get up to (one imagines the same sort of dismay as serious men compared World War One gave way to the Roaring Twenties)

A progressive sort of fellow (or perhaps he just wanted to shame the menfolk), Hazlitt cites admiringly the story of Margaret Lambrun  (“as it is but little know, I shall relate it as I find it”).

Briefly, the story is as follows: Continue reading

Catherine Dickens 1815-1879: His “Dearest Pig”

 There are fatal encounters in this life some of which do not turn out well for either of those appointed by time and fate to meet.  Catherine Hogarth and Charles Dickens probably met at the home of her father George Hogarth in 1835.  They quickly became engaged.

Charles was on the rebound from a failed courtship of a determinedly flirtatious girl named Maria Beadnell who had, after the manner of flirts, ended up marrying a young man with greater expectations than his own.  He was at a loose end and he was invited home to one of his editors’ houses, and the rest was history.

Catherine at about nineteen or so was an early Victorian pin up with brown hair, big blue eyes, a pink face and a curvaceous figure that was going to run to fat in later life.  She was captivated almost at once by Dickens’ energy and his humor, his bright waistcoats, may have helped as well.  He, on the other hand, liked Catherine’s “calm”. Continue reading

Samuel Boyse 1702/3-1749: A Tale of Old Grub Street

He was the son of a dissenting minister in Dublin and clever enough for school and even university (Glasgow), though lacking in sobriety and diligence.  He dropped out after two years and married a tradesman’s daughter; the two events are presumably connected.

In any event, there he was, aged twenty, liberally educated and in his own mind deserving of the patronage of others. What to do with his life?  He started off by moving back home with his new with and his sister-in-law to live off his long suffering father until that man died in 1728.

Times, if not great, were at least adequate.  He wrote  poetry and even managed to sell subscriptions for it (sort of an 18th century Kickstarter arrangement).  Scottish aristos were an obvious audience.   On the occasion of the death of the Viscountess Stormont, Boyse wrote “The Tears of the Muses” for which a grateful widower gave him a considerable sum.*

As business models go, it was perhaps not the best.  Aristocratic taste is fickle, dead wives are not always beloved (nor do they die on a predictable schedule) and wealth and generosity do not always go hand in hand.  Perhaps he could find a real job? Continue reading