The hard way to Heavens: Dialogues des Carmelites, Poulencs achieves immortality.

Now, you think about opera and something epic comes to mind. You think about French composers and something beautiful but somehow light is expected. You think about nuns and silence and boredom are words that could come to mind. Not that nuns are usually welcome as great historical characters. You think about Francois Poulenc and you may think: Francois who?, the man being not so well-known as some other composers. You think about classical music and it seems it all ended with Mahler and Strauss in the first half of the 20th Century. Maybe you should think less, and listen to some music instead.

Dialogues of the Carmelites is a quite unusual opera, we have to concede that. It is based on a play which in turn is based upon a short piece, which is based upon an almost forgotten episode of the French Revolution period. It was composed by a composer appreciated for his high-spirited music but not really regarded as a master of serious composition. It was also intended to be a ballet, first, and not even based on that particular story but, some may say, fate was dictated from above to get the terrible story of these people to the stage.

One of the main aspects of the social upside downs which take place during the French Revolution was the triumph of anti-clericalism and the suppression of religious belief. Well, at least that was intended, and somewhat accomplished from the institutional point of view: measures were taken, religion abolished, abbeys and nunneries suppressed, clerics lost their jobs (some like Talleyrand to no loss and, in fact, outstanding careers in the Civil service), all in the name of Reason. In July 1790 a new law was passed, known as the Constitution civile du clergé or Civil constitution of the clergy. In it, after the confiscation of land and other property and the banning of sacred vows by previous regulation, was enforced the dissolution of every order, both regular and secular. In fact, French Church became an instrument of the Revolutionary Government.

The Government required all clergy to show allegiance. An Oath must be sworn, But not every member of the clergy was willing to do so (in some areas with strong support from their flocks). Just five bishops (again, Talleyrand) and more or less half the clergy complied. The idea was for the Priests to become some kind of Civil servants, in charge of religious matters but, of course, on behalf of the Government. But there was no place in the new France for the idle nuns and monks, who were not really needed for the cult. They just have to go home, leaving behind the properties the Government was also coveting to fill some big gaps in the budget. But then, in Compiegne (a small provincial town which would become famous in both World Wars), there was a group of Discalced Carmelite nuns, lay sisters and externs (these being in charge of community’s business outside the Monastery) and they simply will not leave.

That was the layout of the story Poulenc was about to set to music. It was intended to be a ballet on the life of Saint Margaret of Cortona, commissioned by La Scala at Milan. The composer began working on it but found the ballet not feasible. In any case Poulenc, who was increasingly focused on religious and vocal music and, at the same time, showing some frustration with his public consideration as a lightweight composer, suggested in its place an opera on a religious theme. The Italian publisher who was supporting the commission, Ricordi, seemingly suggested a play by Georges Bernanos called “Dialogues of the Carmelites” on the advice of her wife, later producer of the opera. Poulenc really liked the play so he began working on the music at some point in summer 1953.

Fittingly, the composition of this opera was to become a period of grief and endurance for Poulenc. First, trouble with the rights to the play arose. Then his partner Lucien Roubert became ill. And the illness was serious enough to make him fear for his life. Coping with all this was too much for the composer and a year after he started the work he had to be interned in a clinic outside Paris with a nervous breakdown. He finally recovered after some rest and heavy sedation made effect and could resume work at a steady pace, somewhat interrupted by the need of giving recitals every so often to earn a living. With Roubert health declining rapidly, Poulenc was forcing pace to finish the opera. Both ended almost at the same time (Poulenc even wrote to a friend indicating that he had finished work just as Roubert was expiring) leaving our composer, one can guess, exhausted and mournful.

We had left our nuns refusing to comply with the orders, clinching to their monastery in spite of the threats and the suggestion of violence. They were, it seems, willing to face martyrdom. In the end, they got it. Authorities grew tired of their resistance and decided to enforce the Constitution, so nuns were arrested and, after a brief stay at Cambrai along with a group of English Benedictine nuns, taken to Paris to await trial. Four years had passed since the promulgation of the Constitution, and events in France had developed against the nuns: the Government had fallen in the hands of the Jacobin faction and, by the time of their detention, the Reign of Terror was marching full throttle. And that meant no-nonsense: everyone considered as an enemy of the State could be sure that his head was at a stake.

In what at the time passed for trial, they were found guilty of treason and sentenced to death, the execution to take place almost immediately, on 17 July 1794. There, at the scaffold, the whole group stopped and jointly and defiantly they all renowned their vows (that vows banned by the revolutionary laws) and sung the Hymn used for the profession of vows ceremony, the Veni Creator Spiritus. Then, as they kept on singing, they mounted the scaffold one by one to meet their martyr’s death, from novice to prioress.

On the event of the Terror ending soon after this events, the now released, and still alive, English nuns at Cambrai decided that it had to be a miracle secured by the martyrdom of their Compiegne colleagues, thus beginning their devotion focusing  on the lay clothes they were forced to wear in prison- given for the same reason to the English Benedictines. In 1906 the Compiegne Martyrs were beatified by the Pope.

That was the real story. Obviously Bernanos and then Poulenc himself who was also responsible for the libretto fictionalised the facts to provide a suitable background for the operatic depiction. The main (and fictional) character, Blanche de la Force, is an aristocrat’s daughter seeking refuge in the monastery who, after leaving the community, will go back at the last-minute joining them in martyrdom while singing the Veni Creator spiritus by herself, the others singing Salve Regina. The prioress died an untimely and painful death in the first act, setting the tone for the rest of the congregation seeking the martyr’s death even if, as the new Mother Superior says, it is God who decides who will be martyred. As the nuns vow to die as martyrs and Blanche escapes, Mother Marie follows her so avoiding detention and martyrdom (being, as it seems, spared by God), albeit, as we have seen, Blanche herself will accept her destiny and join the congregation at the end.

Poulenc’s music is light, but not because of the joy of living, as it had usually been, but with the grave joy of those seeking martyrdom. At some points we could easily call it ethereal. The dialogues are set in recitatives, avoiding somehow the monotony of everyday life in a nunnery. Small groups of instruments are used here and there to bring out some particular effect, and above all, a magnificent vocal music, moving when it needs be, powerful yet frail, underscoring each nun’s characters and their defining and contrasting personalities. Dialogues des Carmelites still is one of the most staged “modern” operas, and Poulenc’s credit as a fine master of vocal, religious music has done nothing but increase since its first performance in 1957.

So, in the road to martyrdom, our Compiegne nuns found some source of inner peace and maybe happiness while, in the road to composing the opera depicting the nuns’ last days, Poulenc traveled through hell, and ended up achieving a well deserved place between music’s greatest. Transcending oneself is, it seems, a matter of will and endurance.

Iron Maiden in World War Two with ‘Aces High’

It is for a love of a song that I am currently blogging outside of my happy place of all things Medieval. For music month I want to discuss the historical meaning behind one of Iron Maiden’s most well-known songs ‘Aces High’. Here is the link to the music video to play before, after or during reading:

Written by their bassist Steve Harris in 1984, this songs tells of the exploits of British RAF fighters against the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940. As one of their most popular songs from the album Powerslave it has been extensively covered and remains a staple of the Heavy Metal genre today. The Battle of Britain (BOB) occurred one year into the Second World War where Germany attempted to gain access to the skies over England, and maintain excessive bombings across the British Isles. Instead of defining one battle on a single day like most Medieval and Early Modern skirmishes, the BOB lasted for several months over late summer and early autumn of 1940.

To begin with the Germans focused on sea ports and trade ships across the Southern bays of England such as Portsmouth. After a few months the tactics shifted to cover RAF bases in the hope to prevent there being retaliations from the British Air Force. This further went to include aeroplane factories and centres of political activity. This entire battle was fought airborne, although a later amphibious and sky attack was cancelled by the Germans, originally meaning to be double attack on British ports. The battle consisted of four types of planes in the fighter section and several other bombers. The Luftwaffe used Messerschmitt Bf 109E and Bf 110C against the British Hurricane Mk I and Spitfire Mk I. A spitfire pilot is the main protagonist for the Aces High song as those planes remain the best remembered to history. Only one is known to be in good condition, and flew in the 2014 Royal International Air Tattoo this year over London to commemorate it. The planes responsible for bombing the English territories are the German Heinkel He 111, Dornier Do 17, and Junkers Ju 88, not including the Junkers Ju 87 for diving techniques.

Aces High begins with a riveting beginning giving you the sense of the adrenaline a pilot would feel when creating the battle formation against the Germans. The title comes from the fact a pilot becomes known as a ‘flying ace’ and their prestige and governmental policies differed across the world. It is known that a German or Japanese ace had to keep going into the cockpit for all battles until they died in the air, as the early planes were very temperamental. However the Allied forces during the Second World War sent their aces back to training to educate new RAF cadets.

The lyrics detail the action such as:

Jump in the cockpit and start up the engines

Remove all the wheelblocks there’s no time to waste

Gathering speed as we head down the runway

Gotta get airborne before it’s too late.

The rush and speed of the song lasting 5 minutes signifies only a quarter of the average life expectancy of a new RAF pilot during the two world wars. Most new aces experienced minor training and would have a technical difficulty or would be shot out the sky with 20 minutes of a new air raid.
The chorus runs:

Running, scrambling, flying

Rolling, turning, diving, going in again.

Running, scrambling, flying

Rolling, turning, diving.

Run, live to fly, fly to live, do or die

Run, live to fly, fly to live. Aces high

The average flight would be frantic and fraught with tension possibly showing the panic an inexperienced flyer would be. A bomber would have to fly to its target and then remove itself from the vicinity as shown as possible before flying again. After dropping a bomb a pilot has to escape the upsurge of heat and force that escapes a bomb that’s hit its target, otherwise, it will cause the plane to malfunction and send you completely off course and crash hence “fly to live”.

The image of the cover sheet of the album is of a skeletal pilot showing determination in battle. It is unclear if the pilot is of the Allied or Axis force, but it could be assumed to be Allied considering the song is thought to fighting against the Luftwaffe. Although the symbolism could be that a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain was unlikely to live, skeletons were typical of Iron Maiden vinyl covers.

iron maiden

Around the plane it shows planes ascending and those crashing, assuming they are ones the featured pilot has just bombed or shot. As the first battle to have been fought completely airborne its remembrance in history is a strong one as it is the forerunner of modern remote warfare. Iron Maiden cover a few historical events in their song, yet since the World Wars still leave scars on modern society today, the pull in even stronger in the emotion and discussion of the pilots during the entire battle. Most of them lost their lives due to unsafe technology, bombings or just plain inexperience.
This is one of my favourite songs and I highly advise a listen and this concludes my foray into modern history for now. Aces High.

Trench Engineering in WW1!

Although this month is dedicated to music and such, we still keep up our monthly updates on WW1!  So without further ado I  welcome you to a blog post on WW1 trench engineering.  The trenches made a big part of what we know of WW1.  Trench warfare however was not new; this has to be made clear.  Trench warfare had been used in the American Civil War and previous wars, and is still used today.  However I will be discussing them as in WW1 terms.  Now this post will cover a few points; firstly how were trenches designed, and how where they made.  Secondly how did engineers work, this includes mine work as well as the use of barbed wire and the like.  I would like to point out before I continue, that I am no engineer, and won’t be able to give you many technical specifications, I could always ask my sister, but she will be way to be busy doing her MA!  So grab a drink, relax and enjoy the read.

So as I mentioned in my short introduction, trench warfare was not new, it had been developed in the American Civil war.  Battles such as Gettysburg are well known for their trench systems, and can still be visited to this day!  You would think that the horror of that civil war would have deterred people from using trenches?  Sadly not, they are good for defensible positions, and as the First World War was a war of attrition (who would run out of men first), trenches seemed the best way to win.

So a WW1 trench, what did it look like?,  Well I could use words to describe one, but that would take too long and would no doubt be really tedious and boring, so I will share with you an image which explains their layout.

trench layout

Notice how the trench zig zags?  Well that is for defence purposes.  They were dug in a zigzag pattern so that if an enemy entered the trench, he could not fire straight down the line.  Makes sense, you don’t want an enemy to kill all your soldiers in one go!  It made trenches more prone to melee combat, which meant troops reverted to medieval style weaponry in these areas.  Spikes, handmade gauntlets and such, to help fight the enemy in these close in spaces.  Also notice the barbed wire?  That is anti-infantry, it made little impact on tanks, but men used to get caught on these and would be easy to shoot and kill by the opposite side.  It would also hurt and could kill you if landed on.  The sandbags were used to reduce damage to the trench, but to also protect the men from enemy fire and to ensure that the walls of the trench did not suddenly collapse.  So how did a soldier look over the top in a trench I hear you ask me, especially with all these sandbags in the way!  Well the answer is that they used Trench Periscopes to see over without being shot, and when attacked they would stand and peer over the top to fire their riffles.  The Machine guns had specially designed areas to fire from.

The area in between the trenches was known as no man’s land.  An area of land in which you certainly do not want to end up.  It ranged from around 300m to as little as 50m.  So some trenches were extremely close to one another!  This area was the killing ground, where machine gun fire blazed across the land killing hundreds or thousands of men in one assault.  It was the area where dying men were left screaming and where medics (in the early part of the war) were roaming to find wounded men to save.

So a normal trench system for both sides included a set of three or four trenches: you had the front the support trench, and the reserve trench.  Each was linked with a trench known as the communication trench which men would walk through to move through to the front.  However this was not always useful and became very crowded, some units used to run over the top to get to the next trench line, in some cases all of the men were killed.  You may call them idiots for doing this, but it made sense, the communication trench were sometimes badly designed and were chock a block full of men, the wounded, the dying and just others moving to and from the front lines, therefore going over the top seemed the only logical thing to do.

So what side had the better trenches?  Easy to answer!  The German trenches were away better than those of the British and French.  Why do you think the Somme failed so badly?  The Germans were hid down in their well-built bunkers that could take a pounding from the British guns, if the Germans had done the same, the result would have been different!  Whilst looking for some information I learnt that in the German dugouts in the Somme Valley in 1916, there were toilets, electricity, ventilation, and even wallpaper.  There were also built using better materials.  This does not make their experience any better and certainly by the end of the war, these would not have been available as trenches changed hands more often.

The Trench conditions as we know were terrible, and there was little or no drainage, they used to be full of water during the winter months, and this had a poor medical effect on the soldiers themselves, as they had to stand and sit in muddy, cold, wet trenches.  They were hastily made, dug by the soldiers themselves; they did not have time to make them homely, but quickly so they could repulse any attacks made by the enemy.

So how could you assault a trench in engineering terms then?  Well the most common way was by an infantry assault of course.  But why not mine underneath them!  What could go wrong!  Oh there was the occasional cave in and men being buried alive, nothing much.  Mining was a dangerous task, underwent by either professional miners or the sappers.  These were to become part of the Royal Engineers (go check out their museum by the way, it is amazing!).  There heroic sacrifice sometimes blew holes in the enemies’ defences which made the job for the infantry a bit easier.  However they were usually wrong and blew up miles before the enemy trench.  In fact miners on both sides used to look out for each other, if they heard another set of miners nearby, they would try and collapse their tunnel!  Its horrid to think, but it was either them or us.  I am sure you have seen footage of a mine blowing up, but if you haven’t you can search for it on Youtube, or you can look up the Battle of the Somme film (a propaganda film made in 1916, which had the opposite effect on which it was supposed to!) which has a mine explosion in!

Trenches were to be later added with anti-aircraft guns, which were crude in design but could still take out a low flying aircraft.  One of Britain’s aces was lost by flying to close to the ground.  The trenches were fitted with as much as possible in order to make them defensible.

When we look at the trenches, we must remember Verdun was a completely different story, they were a number of fortresses connected and staggered.  They would require their own blog post.  But I will mention briefly that they seemed impregnable, especially when the Germans took them and fortified them, they lost fewer than 100 men taking it, and the French lost hundreds of thousands taking it back.  A prime example of a great defence and stupid generals.

To conclude, Trenches were made to be as defensible and as impregnable as possible.  They certainly had many design flaws and were an awful piece of work.  They proved to be killers in the 19th century, but they were still relied upon.  Of course it doesn’t help that generals were still using Napoleonic tactics in a 20th century war, but the advent of the trench certainly led to more deaths.  The trenches changed warfare though, they led to the development of the tank (or land ship as they were called!) and they led to the formation of the storm trooper, who attacked trenches before the main attack with flamethrowers and the like.  Eventually trenches could be overrun quicker and the great German offence of 1918 shows that.  As I have said at the start, I am no trench expert, or engineer expert, If you want more technical specifications I would advise you to contact a place such as the Royal Engineers museum or ask someone more gifted in numbers than I am.  That being said I do hope this has been an interesting read, and has shed some light on trench warfare.  We must remember that Trenches are stilled used today, it is not a old tactic, but a common one.  Also as I write this the Armistice Day had just passed, so I would like to take the opportunity to thank those who died for my freedom and especially to those who lived and served in those trenches, what horrors they faced is unimaginable.  I often wonder, do they make men like they used to.  I don’t think I could have survived one day in a trench!


If you have any questions or want to know more, just let me know, I would be happy to answer any questions and any feedback is welcome!



Timur and Bayezid I: Vivaldi’s Turkish Delight

Today’s musical November post takes us back again to Italy, however this we will be promenading down the 18th century alongside the music of one of my favourite composers since I was a child: Antonio Vivaldi. My dad used to play a lot of classical music to me when I was little, and I grew big in my affection for Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, being Autumn- fittingly enough- my chosen one. Nevertheless, I will be talking in here about a piece of his, which perhaps is a bit less known, which is the opera Bajazet. Bajazet, also known as Il Tamerlano was composed in 1735, and tells a story of love and war during the 14th century, with the stage for the action being Turkey and the Balkans area. From the musical point of view Bajazet is a very interesting piece of its period due to its arias. In the 18th century, it was quite a common practice to re-use areas from other operas and musical pieces, creating what is known as a pastiche: so a pick-and-mix of your suitable and favourites from other artists- a bit like creative plagiarism. This may sound bad, but it was quite common; not only Vivaldi but other great composers such as Handel used this technique in their work. However, this is not to say it was not an original piece- it was- and in fact Vivaldi himself did compose the arias for some of the characters in his opera, mainly those for Bajazet, Asteria and Idaspe.

So what is this opera about? Very quickly explained, it narrates the event during the conflict between Tamerlano, ruler of the Tartars, and Bajazet- better known in history as Bayezid I- who was the lord of the Turks. Bajazet is presented as the now captive of Tamerlano, who is instigating him not only for his land but for his daughter’s (Asteria) hand in marriage, even though he has already made arrangements to marry Irene, princess of Trebisond. To sort out the problem, Tamerlano- a real charmer- gives Irene to his Greek ally, Andronico who, of course, happens to be in love with Asteria too. With the setting for a classical tragedy, Asteria ends up with Tamerlano, which alarms his father as he fears his daughter has betrayed him, however only to find out that Asteria actually plans on murdering the tyrant that has her father captive. Unfortunately, the plot is revealed and both father and daughter are jailed, but Asteria has not given up yet, and as servant of Tamerlano, tries once again to poison him…She would have succeeded if it wasn’t for Irene, who notices and warns him, getting into Tamerlano’s good book again with a bran new and shiny promise of marriage. All three, Bajazet, Asteria and Andronico are then taken away…Bajazet unable to cope with this torture kills himself. His daughter, in despair, comes back to their cruel lord to beg for her death, but in a sudden twist of events Tamerlano decides to forgive her and Andronico and let them be together…Poor Bajazet, is the only casualty of this story, yet his name is in the title…So who was Bayezid I?!

Bayezid was indeed the Sultan of the Ottoman empire from 1389-1402. He came to the throne right after the Battle of Kosovo, which made Serbia become a vassal of the Sultanate. In essence, he was engaged in continuous bellicose acts trying to pacify and gain control over the Ottoman areas of influence. He reinforced Ottoman power in the Anatolian peninsula, and conquered Bulgaria and norther Greece by 1395. But his desire for conquer took him further up to Wallachia, where he dared crossing the Danube and going to war with Mircea the Elder. But Wallachia did not fall to his control, and Bayezid had to push back after the defeat at the Battle of Rovine. Going back home, Bayezi then turned his interest to the ever lasting power in the Middle East: the Byzantine Empire. Thus he launched what is known as the Second Ottoman Siege of Constantinople, that lasted until 1402. He was effectively the man with the most powerful army in the Middle East and the Muslim world…But such a power makes more enemies than friends rather quickly. The Anatolian beyliks had been subjugated to Ottoman control for a long time, and as it happens in history, people who are oppressed for long, wait for any opportunity to turn the tables. Fate’s name was Timur (Tamerlano in Vivaldi’s opera), and he was determined to see the Sultan’s army crushed and turned to dust. Timur’s base of power was in Central Asia. He was aware of the issue between the Sultan and the beyliks, so he rallied his men and joined forces with the oppressed….Fate knew his name…

At the Battle of Ankara, 1402, Timur’s army walked over the troops of Bayezid I and captured him, creating therefore the plot for our musical piece. As an interesting side note, it has been disputed by specialists on the subject that the accounts show a bad treatment of Bayezid by Timur and his people, which fits perfectly with our story. Nevertheless, it seems that there are some records from Timur’s own court that suggest this was rather the opposite and that the Sultan was well treated and cared for even at his death. But, of course…History is written by the winners…is it not? Such a juice story has been reinterpreted thousands of time. Not only Vivaldi brought back to live these two warlords. As an example, the Habsburgs commended a cycle of paintings narrating his story, shortly after the Ottoman Empire pressed onto Europe once more, and  in fact at the Habsburgs doorstep…Whether you prefer the facts to the idealized version of the story, or even if you are skeptical about who was the bad guy in here, if there was a bad guy at all, one things still prevails: Western delight with the stories from the East, either as lovers or as evil tyrants, has been fascinating the minds of musicians, artists and writers, up to our current times.


Richard Wagner: Rienzi

As part of our Musical November month, and as my first contribution to the Winchester History blog, I will be looking at the story of Wagner’s Rienzi. First performed in  1842, Rienzi, der Letzte der Tribunen (usually shortened to Rienzi) is an opera by Richard Wagner. It tells the story of Cola di Rienzi in his attempt, and temporary succession, of overthrowing those in power to restore, what he considered, a failing Rome.

The opera was written by Wagner after the publication of Lord Lytton’s novel, Rienzi, a fictitious tale of Rienzi’s life. The opera follows a similar suit, perhaps not completely true to the facts, but certainly in keeping with the ‘revolutionary’ themes.

Before reading – or to the listen to while reading – here is a clip of Wagner’s Overture from Rienzi:

Who was Cola di Rienzi?

Born in 1313 in Rome, Nicola di Lorenzo was an Italian leader most famous for his attempts in restoring Rome to the greatness it had long before achieved.

The collapse of the Roman Empire had caused unrest across Italy – as there was no hegemonic power to oversee events, this caused a fragmentation of political identities and relationships. When Rome lost its papal authority in 1305, when it moved to Avignon in France, this only heightened the loss of pride the people of Rome had once felt, but it also sparked some response, most notably from Rienzi.

His father, Lorenzo Gabrini, was a Roman tavern keeper, and also from where the name ‘Rienzi’ was derived from. Not much is known about his mother, other than that she died when he was very young, in around 1323. After his mother’s death Rienzi moved out of Rome to live with his uncle, not to return for another 10 years.

In 1343 Rienzi was sent by the city’s government to make a pledge on behalf of the Roman popular party to Pope Clement VI in Avignon. The party had just reached ascendency and Rienzi was adamant in creating change within Roman society. Despite the fact Pope Clement sent him away with nothing more than having made him notary of the Roman civic treasury, Rienzi returned to Rome with his passionate ideas still in motion – and began plans for a revolution.

Taken from Google Maps:,+France/@43.941557,4.8332525,6z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x12b5eb8739bc9d07:0xe6429b6efa1d7b36

Taken from Google Maps

This revolution, he claimed, would lead to the return of the greatness of Ancient Rome. The events that followed would depict the story of Wagner’s Rienzi.

The events

On May 20th 1347, Rienzi held a meeting on Capitoline Hill, a summoning of people to a parliament which would discuss his ideas for this new Rome, the return of it as a capital to a “sacred Italy”. This “sacred Italy” was to be an Italian brotherhood, which would promote and spread peace and justice across the world. He proclaimed his administrators would be “tribunes of the peace…and liberators of the sacred Roman Republic.” Perhaps ideological and romantic views, but this certainly stirred something in those whom this parliament threatened.

During the meeting, as well as discussing reforms of political structure in Rome, Rienzi had announced a number of legal proclamations against the nobles of Rome. In doing so, many of these, led by the Orsini and Colonna families, rose against Rienzi and his claims. Despite initially repelling their attacks, on November 20th 1347, Rienzi was forced to flee, at first to the Maiella Mountains of the Abruzzi region. This was due to a decline in his popularity and support in his ideas. The stir he had caused was now dying down. This, alongside continuous attacks by nobles and the Pope labelling him as a heretic, caused him to resign barely a month after the initial attacks.

Distance of the Maiella Mountains from Rome Image taken from Google Maps:,+Majella+National+Park,+67030+Pacentro,+L'Aquila,+Italy/@42.05,14.05,7z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x133043a6c54550e3:0xb48866617e9360d8!5m1!1e4

Distance of the Maiella Mountains from Rome
Image taken from Google Maps

Still on the run, Rienzi ended up in Prague in 1350, hoping to gain the sympathies of  Emperor Charles IV. His attempts were unfounded and instead led to him being handed over to the Archbishop of Prague, who later handed him to Pope Clement in July 1352.

However, Pope Clement soon after died. With the arrival of a new pope, Innocent VI, Rienzi was absolved of heresy, freed and sent back to Rome in order to help Cardinal Gil Albornoz in his challenge of returning Rome as the papal authority. He returned to Rome on August 1st 1354. In some ways, it was a triumph for Rienzi, who was cleared off his charges and allowed to return to the city he had once loved so much. In others, as shown by following events, it was the beginning of the end of his ideals and of his life.

His Last Stand

Though he returned to Rome with the title of senator, and was there by the Pope’s own command, there was still much anger and resentment against Rienzi from aristocratic families. As well as continued harassment from the Colonna family, he also struggled in terms of money and therefore used this as an excuse for his rulings to be made solely by his own discretion. Due to what appeared to be a dictatorial system growing, riots broke out in Rome on October 8 1354. In his attempts to calm protests, he was met with missiles and other attacks. Fearing for his life and in an attempt to escape, he disguised himself in amongst the crowd as a rioter, but was recognised, and killed.

His death with a brutal one, his assassins gleeful at his demise. They stabbed him multiple times and apparently joked as they dragged his body to the Piazzo San Marcello, near the Colonna palace. His biographer claims that ‘because he was so fat, he burnt easily and freely.’ Not the most pleasant of pictures nor the most heroic of deaths.

His death is far more romantically portrayed in the opera, and despite the Roman people turning against him, Rienzi stands firm with his beliefs, and he perishes refusing to move from the burning Capitol square.

Further Reading

Cola Di Rienzi Proclaims Himself ‘Tribune’ of Rome

The Plot of Rienzi 

Cola Di Rienzi

Cola Di Rienzi Murdered

Simone Boccanegra: Verdi’s Doge

As part of our musical November theme, we are covering historical events that are related with some exceptional and interesting modern pieces of music. Our case for today offers us with a window into the 14th and 19th century, to learn about a powerful Italian man, and from the point of view of another Italian; an opera master. How this concoction came to happen? Well, keep on reading :)

Only in Italy a pirate could become ruler, or more precisely Doge, of an important city such as Genoa. For those unaware of the power politics of this geographical area, Italy was divided in two factions: the Guelphs and Ghibellines, supporting the Pope and the holy Roman Emperor respectively- the north of Italy had been and would be a political war zone for years, even centuries. The situation was tame down with the Concordat of Worms in 1122, but this division and game of allegiances continued well into the 15th century. So, time came to decide who was going to be boss in Genoa in 1339, and the Ghibellines put forward this interesting fella, Simone Boccanegra, who according to Verdi’s opera was a pirate. In the opposition sat the Guelph candidate, who was an old school aristocrat. But as it stands up until the 16th century the Doge was elected by popular vote in Genoa, and thus our man comes to power.

Boccanegra managed to expand Genoa’s borders up to the north towards the French and Italian Rivieras. However, his background put him in a fairly complicated and dangerous situation: there were several attempts to get rid of him. For that reason, he used to carry around a personal guard of 103 armed and mounted men. These guards seem to have been sent from Pisa, traditionally a Genoese enemy, but that was now influenced by  Simone’s brother Niccolo. Eventually, the pressure on Boccanegra forced him to give up power in 1344, but it was not for long that he was out of the office as he came back in 1356 for his second mandate. Yet, once again, he was not destined to last too long at the top…And in fact it seems that he was brutally murdered by poison in 1363, although the details around his death and this event are somewhat sketchy…He was then buried at the church of San Francesco in Castelletto.

So in this fairly bleak and brief story of power and ultimate failure, Verdi found the right scenery for a love story, as Boccanegra accepts this position of power to rescue his lover Maria, daughter of the patrician Fiesco, who has imprisoned her as the result of their union bore an illegitimate child. Maria is found dead as Simone is proclaimed Doge, leaving him hollow inside and in a path for vengeance. His daughter, Maria as well, is long-lost, but she will make a reappearance, unknown to both her father and grandfather of her true identity she will become a key character of the play and the political scene of Genoa, whose lover Gabriele, yet another patrician is plotting in secret with Fiesco to bring down Boccanegra.

This set of twists and turns, almost Shakespearean in essence, took not one, but two attempts for Verdi to be happy with the production. The original version was composed in 1857, and it was meant to be the musical creation of a libretto written in prose but the piece did not enjoy much success, potentially due to some production and composition issues. However, several years later, with the encouragement and revisions suggested by Giulio Ricordi and the exciting opportunity of working alongside Arrigo Boito- who interestingly enough had just been working on an adaptation of Othello- Verdi decided to give the piece one more chance. And thus, this magnificent piece became of the classics within the modern operatic repertoire, and Simone Boccanegra’s story is perhaps not so forgotten.

..And if you want to know how it sounds, then here you have a sample- Placido Domingo on the stage.



An Exciting look into C18th Winchester!

Welcome to a blog post on C18th Winchester.  What does the C mean you ask?  Well it means century!  So I am brining you to 18th century Winchester!  Now I cannot replicate sight and sound in this, I wouldn’t dare try, but I can show you some interesting facts about the city in which us students live in!  So as I seem to be the resident 18th century historian on this blog, I have been assigned to talk about Winchester in this time period.  It will be good just to give you a flavour of 18th century Britain, just so you have some context.  Basically in a short way, Britain had invited George I of Hanover to become King, after the death of Queen Anne.  His successors carry on his name until William IV in the 19th century.  His instalment as King however, caused problems within the nation.  People were upset; many people were still in support of the deposed monarch of James II.  Riots and rebellions were rife in this century.  Hence we see the Jacobite rebellions, sporadic throughout the entire period, but famous for the rebellions specifically in 1715 and 1745.  Also at this time, the British navy was restructured and Georgian hierarchy challenged.  Georgian class structure was very rigid and disciplined, and thus is not very flexible.  Walpole would be Britain’s longest serving Prime Minster and although corrupt, he as quite an influential man.  Methodism was a growing also, with the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield bringing the world of God to the people of Britain.  Laws were made restricting people’s rights, and people could be hanged for the most ridiculous of crimes, no thanks to the Black Acts.  Also it’s a century where we see a growing police state and some would say a growth in a nation state.

So where does Winchester fit into all of this that is happening in the 18th century.  Well Winchester was a small, insignificant city at this point.  In fact there isn’t much that really goes on.  I’m sorry to have to tell you that!  If I had a lot of time to research I bet I could find loads, but there isn’t much to go on, however I will do my best to communicate to you a few important developments that occur.  A lot of the houses in Winchester at the time were built to a Georgian style, and those already built were reconverted or redecorated to give a Georgian look.  Style was extremely important in this time period.  It showed stature and of course popular opinion matters.  People had to keep up with the latest fashion.  Sounds quite familiar doesn’t it?  People were buying things to conform to the recent gossip and talk from London, sounds like nothing has changed there then!  Anyhow I digress, most houses we see in today’s Winchester, apart from those built in the last two centuries, are Georgian design, so I clearly exclude Stanmore (The student area of the city) from this.  I walk down the high street and note that a lot of the buildings look Georgian in design.  A part of the 18th century is still here!

Remember I mentioned a man named Walpole earlier? The famous British Prime Minister.  Well he summed up Winchester in a few words, he classed Winchester ‘a paltry town and small’.  Indeed he was right, the population was around 4,000 early in the 18th century and had grown a tiny amount, even for those days, it didn’t even reach 6,000 in 1800.  It would appear that the city of Winchester that we know and love today was a quiet market town; it was no longer the mighty and important capital of England.  It does show us how people viewed Winchester however, the myth of Arthur and its historical importance was not important to most, it was not longer viewed to the same extent as Kings had down before, this could be perhaps that the Georges did not have much idea of what Winchester was!.  Today it survives on being a tourist hub, it clearly was not then!

Winchester seems to be a place for the rich, either gentry or clergy, it has been noted that there was great wealth in the area. Winchester was unlikely to be a Whig voter too.  Although I do not know exactly, it would be rather safe to presume that it was a place of Tory dominancy, with plenty of rich nobles to vote for a conservative candidate.  There was no industry in this area and was a big centre for the Church of England.

Regarding the growth of religious dissent in the city, the CoE would have a stronghold here. The Cathedral showed the churches supremacy and with the local area mainly being nobles and rich gentry, it is unlikely that Methodism would have been a big hit in the city.  Other dissenting chapels and churches mainly made their headway in the 19th century.  However, this is something that needs further research, if anyone wants more knowledge on this, please let me know and I can do what I can to help!

Now let’s come to the famous Winchester Guildhall was rebuilt in 1711. So its location is slightly different to what we know today. It was originally found on the south side of the High Street, at the junction of St. Thomas Street (Calpe Street) and the High Street.  It stood in from the time of Edward IV to James II, however in the 17th century, particularly in 1693 it fell into disrepair and could no longer be used.  There were a few plans on what to do with this buildings and they all fell through, and in 1713 the Guildhall was rebuilt on the same site and remained in use until the building of the modern guildhall.  The old one is now the building is now occupied by Lloyds Bank.  I don’t know that just seems a bit anti-climactic doesn’t it?

Other cool developments in this time were the opening of the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in 1736. And that one theatre on Jewry Street that I always walk past on the way to my church, which I have never entered and am always curious about, was opened in 1785!  So something happened in Winchester in the 18th century!

Before I finish this truly fascinating Blog post in which I am sure I have kept you riveted to your seat! Something has just caught my attention. Smallpox.  The death rate is extremely high, and Hampshire was struck with a high death rate during the century.  In 1753, 31% of deaths were caused by Smallpox, that is a really high number and it shows you the seriousness of it all.  One parish at point recorded 55% deaths by smallpox.  Winchester and Hampshire in general was not a healthy place to live it would seem at this point of time.

Anyhow I thank you for taking the time for reading this; I actually quite enjoyed writing this brief introduction into 18th century Winchester.  If you want to learn more, then please let me know, I can look more into certain parts for you!  I really feel the 18th century has a lot to offer, and is an important part of history.  I am glad that I was asked to write this!

Too Much Too Young- The Specials, Ska and West Brom!

As part of WUHstry’s music month, I am posting about a song which very much not only paints a picture of the political scene at the time, but showed a new movement arising in the urban hubs. The song I am talking about of course, is Too Much Too Young by the Specials, a band based in the Midlands and was one of the many taking advantage of the changing political landscape and the views of the time. As a band, they were one of the few to have both black and white members, which at the time in the late 70′s/early 80′s of Britain, this was a very weird thing to happen. Here is the song:

Too Much Too Young Lyrics by the Specials

Music and youth culture went hand in hand like bread and butter, and with the generation coming through containing a lot of the common wealth nations such as Jamaicans and more Asians mixing with the white children; it was a mixed society where the rules were broken and the club scene was somewhere you could not only let your thoughts be known but also to let your hair down. The club scene itself was often playing what was known as Ska music, which had its roots from Jamaica. The Specials used the Ska beat to vent their frustrations and the dissatisfactions of the British underclass growing up out of sight and mind on bleak and soulless inner-city council estates.

Image of the Specials

In this song in particular, we are hearing the dissatisfaction with the welfare state, how far too many young girls are getting children too early and missing out on the fun that could be had at the time. The title itself, Too Much Too Young, further illustrates that the society at this age were doing far much more than was perhaps expected of them, and in a way throwing their lives away before they had lived their lives to the way that they should have done. But the effect the lyrics had on the society which listened to them created an obvious message that this was the generation that were going to enjoy their lives; they weren’t going to live by the norms of getting a job, having a family. Instead they would party until the sun rose and not have any regrets about doing so. Even the build up of the band, with 2 Jamaicans and the bands colour scheme of black and white made the racist society look outdated. The Specials helped to create a new idea which many generations since have followed.

Image of some of the National Front activities in 1980′s England

The fact that at the time, the current political climate was full of massive demonstrations about putting a cap on the amount of migrants allowed to come into the country doesn’t sound too dissimilar to today. However it was an awful lot more violent, with groups such as the National Front regularly demonstrating against anybody that wasn’t a white Briton. The fact that groups such as The Specials so openly promoted integration amongst races would have angered a lot of the Front’s members. However it wasn’t just The Specials that were making big moves to integrate the blacks amongst the white community. Further down the road in the West Midlands, football club West Bromwich Albion had their own idea on how to integrate the races.

Image of the band- The Three Degrees on their tour of the UK, with West Brom players Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson and Cyrille Regis.

West Brom was a normal football club like many other: managed by a good manager in Ron Atkinson, they were playing competitive football at the highest level in England. However what made them different from most other teams was the fact that they were the first team to play more than one black player at a time, and they were regularly integrating with the squad. The amount of pressure that must have been on Cyrille Regis, (a brilliant striker who had a hunger for goals he regularly tended to), Laurie Cunningham, (a pacey midfielder who flew whilst on the ball and who was taken from us too early), and Brendon Batson, (a solid defender and who would later become an important member of the Players Football Association), is hard to imagine. These were the men that led the football of the late 1970′s early 1980′s forward, showing not just the fans but the players and the manager themselves that it could be done, and not only that but that they can play football.

Laurie Cunningham floating over the pitch

After reading the Three Degrees- The Men Who Changed British Football Forever by Paul Rees, I was struck by just how much not only these 3 men but the music of the time had on the society around them. Cunningham himself helped destroy the racial stereotypes in society around him but having a white girlfriend with whom he regularly went out with every weekend on the Birmingham club scene. He also became such a good footballer that he played for Real Madrid, one of the biggest teams in the World. Both Cunningham and Regis further emphasised that a mixed community worked by representing England on a number of occasions, letting their feet do the talking. In Rees book he regularly talks of the fact that Cunningham would let his feet do the talking, and although he was subject to an awful lot of racist abuse, he would consistently silence his doubters with his skill.

Video showing the skill and grace of Laurie Cunningham

The trio at West Brom and the music acts like The Specials all helped to change a period of racial prejudice and create a new period  rebelling against the system and acceptance of certain aspects at the same time. Too Much Too Young made not only people dance but think about their own lives and make them think of themselves. The fact it is convincing them not to get held down too early by family, marriage and life illustrates a changing shift at the time. It was songs like Too Much Too Young which really did help to shape a generation.  With the music and the way that football was changing, it has helped improve both society and the outlook on race within this country. If you have time, I would suggest reading the Three Degrees, it is an excellent book, talking not just about the football but the cultural significance of these 3 great football players and the spirit of the Midlands music scene.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog, and I hope you enjoy the rest of WUHstry’s music month.


Belle review

In honour of Black History month, I will be reviewing the film Belle which was recently released on DVD. It follows Dido Elizabeth Belle who was the daughter of Captain John Lindsay and Maria Belle, a slave, through the race, class and gender struggles in 18th century England at the time of the famous Zong case. The Zong was a slave ship, on which the slaves were murdered because it was claimed that the ship had run out of water and therefore to maintain the survival of the crew, the slaves had been thrown overboard. Upon their return, the ship owners tried to claim insurance; however the insurance companies refused to pay. However there was sufficient water on board the ship according to the inventory.
Little is known about Dido, the inspiration for the movie comes from a portrait of Dido and her cousin Elizabeth which used to hang at Kenwood House and now hangs at Scone Palace. The portrait depicts the two women in a relatively equal setting compared to other portraits around this time. Dido is not depicted in an inferior position and is looking straight ahead rather than looking adoringly at her white cousin. There is also a sign of affection between the cousins with Elizabeth’s hand on Dido’s arm. Amma Ashante, the director, was given a postcard of the portrait which inspired the film.
The film has been likened to adaptations of Jane Austen as it examines many similar issues such as women’s prospects and social class differences. Dido is hit with three situations holding her back: being mixed race, female and illegitimate. Her prospects are seen to be poor as marriage is required once her guardians have passed due to not being independently wealthy yet unlikely to be able to secure a ‘satisfactory’ marriage match due to the colour of her skin. The film examines the difficulties of the intersectionality that Dido would’ve faced like many women in 18th century England, something new in British film.
The film has been somewhat unfairly compared to Twelve Years a Slave, this year’s Oscar winner which also focuses on slavery. Some have complained that Belle in comparison is to ‘genteel’ and that after Twelve Years a Slave, audiences can cope with the violence and horror of slavery and racism. However I disagree, there is simply no need for unnecessary violence in a film such as Belle, it does not take place on the horrors of a plantation, it is in stately homes. There is no historical evidence and would make very little sense that Dido as a free woman in the norms of the upper classes would be treated physically in the same way as Northup was on a plantation. It would be gratuitous and unrealistic, the racism that Dido faced was a different kind. In some respects, some reviewers seem to feel perhaps more uncomfortable watching Belle than Twelve Years a Slave. While this may seem strange it is important to consider that some people may be able to pat themselves on the back thinking how much more progressive they are and how not racist they are, as they do not whip or enslave someone because of the colour of their skin.
However Belle represents a more subtle and generally less physical type of racism, a type of racism that viewers will either recognise or possibly have even participated in themselves. While Twelve Years a Slave made for uncomfortable viewing, viewers could possibly come out with a somewhat self-congratulatory smugness that at least they didn’t condone slavery. Belle on the other hand can make viewers uncomfortable in that many still in society act in the same way and hold not to dissimilar views; there is not the same ‘well at least I’m not like that’ aspect. It is why a film such as Belle is so important; not only does it illustrate how forgotten the mere presence of non-white people in Britain before the arrival of the Windrush in 1948 and how involved as a country we were in the slave trade, but also the uncomfortable reality that just because racism is not outright and physical that it still very present in society and is extremely damaging. Dido is arguably more identifiable to many people today.
Belle is a brilliant film with a superb cast and touching story. From a historian’s point of view the film is unique and fascinating, and well worth watching.

The Race to the Sea

So it’s All Hallows Eve, but before you all can go celebrate this festivity (if you do so) we have one last update for you this month. Continuing with our First World War updates, I have taken on board the duty of doing a post about the Race to the Sea (Apologies to all the skillful modern historians who I hope not to insult with my lack of knowledge on the subject).

 In general terms, it is often understood that the Race to the Sea happened as a result of the first battle of Aisne, (13-28 September 1914) where the allies had been seeking the retreat of the German troops. Up to this point the Germans had been trying to put in action the Schlieffen plan, attacking France from the north and through Belgium. As we have previously cover in recent updates, this failed due to the resistance found in Paris and the allied effort at Marne. As with many historical events with names such as this one, the term was first used time after the First World War- and perhaps it is not the best way to describe what actually occurred. In a way, this name suggests the need to get to the sea by each side during the war. However, specialists on the subject had reiterated that getting to the coast was never really the intention of both the Germans nor the Allies. Regardless, this was the outcome of the events.

In summary, the Race to the Sea developed in a  series of encounters between the Oise and the Somme. During these confrontations both the French and German troops intended to outflank the northern wing of their enemies.Consequently several battles take place: the first battle of Picardy, then the battle of Albert, and finally first battle of Artois, which ended in a push towards the Atlantic coast of the north of France and Flanders. The conflict carried on, as the British troops pressed from the north, eventually clashing with the German army. And once again, we have a series of battles at Le Basse, Messines and Armentieres. Nevertheless, the advance towards the sea ended with the British Cavalry Corps meeting the 3rd cavalry division near Ypres. At this stage the fight was pretty much prolonged and continuous from the North sea to the Swiss border. Two last armed encounters are generally regarded to have determined the end of the Race to the Sea, which are the battle at Yser and the first battle of Ypres (October to November 1914).

Like I have stated previously, the objective of this movements was never meant to be ending at the coastal line. The whole point was outflanking the opponent to gain the tactical advantage, but failure on both sides produced this concatenated train of battles up to the edge of the channel. It has been suggested that the failure of these manoeuvrings ultimately forced trench warfare. The Germans were the first to implement this tactic, defending themselves from the Allied offensive by digging up trenches. Through flanking and pushing the trenches started to expand, eventually reaching the coast. However, as the fight moved towards the sea, this created an opportunity, for both sides, to seize strategic ports along the Channel from where to launch their attacks. Nevertheless, this sort of stalemate fueled the need for a tiebreaker which could be seen as the precursor for some of the later, and perhaps better known, and tragic highlights of the Great War such as the Somme and Passchendaele.

The Race to the Sea could be regarded as yet another disaster or failure of Western European warfare in the early Twentieth Century. And certainly, we just need to have a quick look at the casualties reported during this time for all armies involved. By the end of the Battle of Ypres the total number of German casualties already accumulated to 800.000 men, which was one of Falkenhayn’s reasons to think that the war would not or could not be won on the Western front, but rather on the East. Numbers did not look great on the other side either. Just between the months of October and November the French army counted 125.000 casualties, and nearly 50.000 for the British troops at Ypres. Finally, it has to be considered that by this stage half of the Belgian army was gone…

..And so the trenches kept roaring…


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