Vienna, 19th September 2016

There is a small street which gives on to Piazza Duomo in Milan, which goes by the name of via Santa Radegonda. It’s a very modest, narrow, little street, really quite boring. Its main claim to fame is that it runs alongside the posh department store La Rinascente.

But I like the street, for the quite frivolous reason that I like the name. Radegonda, Radegund in the original German: now that’s a girl’s name with some whoomph to it! Not like Amelia, or Olivia, or Emily, which are currently some of the most popular names for little British girls.

This particular Radegund was a 6th Century princess from Thuringia, in what is now central Germany. Her life story was as colourful as her name. Her father, Berachtar, was one of three kings in Thuringia. Her uncle, Hermanfrid, one of the other Thuringian kings, killed her father in battle, took over his part of the Thuringian lands, and while he was at it took Radegund into his household. Hermanfrid then made a deal with the Frankish king, Theuderic, to share sovereignty of the whole of Thuringia, subject to material aid from Theuderic. Having sealed the deal, Hermanfrid attacked, defeated, and killed the third king of Thuringia, his brother Baderic. He then promptly reneged on his agreement with Theuderic. Not surprisingly, Theuderic sought revenge of this perfidy. Together with his brother Chlothar, he defeated Hermanfrid and took over Thuringia. In the ensuing carve-up, Clothar took charge of Radegund and brought her back to Gaul. All this happened before Radegund was 11, by the way.

Clothar packed Radegund off to one of his villas until she was of a more marriageable age. When she was 19 or so, he married her himself. No doubt it made his claims to Thuringia stronger to have her as his wife. She joined Clothar’s five other wives – Guntheuca, Chunsina, Ingund, Aregund, and Wuldetrada – in what may, or may not, have been a cozy concubinage. In any event, she bore Clothar no children.

By the time Radegund was 30, her only remaining brother was the last surviving male member of the Thuringian royal family. Presumably to head off any pesky competing claims to the Thuringian lands, Clothar had him murdered. At which point, either because she feared for her own life or because she was fed up with all this mayhem, Radegund fled and sought the protection of the Church, eventually founding, when she was about 40, a nunnery in Poitiers. Initially, Clothar tried to get her back but eventually left her alone and focused on expanding his lands at the expense of all those around him, including his brothers (although he had the grace not to kill them to obtain his ends, good manners which did not extend to their sons). By the time he died, he was master of a kingdom stretching from the Pyrenees to Thuringia, and from Brittany to French-speaking Switzerland.

All these Franks and Thuringians may have been a lying, traitorous, murderous lot, but they had wonderful names. This all rather reminds me of my Favourite History Book, 1066 And All That, my copy of which recently came to light, among many a delighted cry on my part, from the storage box in which it has been lying these last seven years.
In that book, we are reminded that Anglo-Saxon England was peopled with persons carrying wonderful names:

“Wave of Egg-Kings

Soon after this event Egg-Kings were found on the thrones of all these kingdoms, such as Eggberd, Eggbreth, Eggfroth, etc. None of them, however, succeeded in becoming memorable except in so far as it is difficult to forget such names as Eggbirth, Eggbred, Eggbeard, Eggfish, etc. Nor is it even remembered by what kind of Eggdeath they perished.”

The authors were exaggerating, but not by much.

The murderous goings-on around Radegund also remind me of that other Great Source of Early European History, Asterix. In the album Astérix chez les Goths
the endemic fighting among the Germanic tribes is well captured.

(Please note the authors’ take on Gothic names – they exaggerate but not by much)

But I digress, and I think my wife feels I’m letting my childish side get the upper hand here. Let us focus on the saintly Radegund. Already when queen, she was noted for her almsgiving. Once a nun, she cared for the local lepers and other infirm of Poitiers. She was also known for eating nothing but legumes and green vegetables: no fish, no eggs, not even fruit. I’m sure the vegans of today would approve (although even they might find her decision to forswear fruit a trifle extreme) but to the meat-eating Germanic elites, who spent much of their time hunting, this must have been pretty weird. Here is the most ancient representation of this saintly lady that I found, from a 10th-11th Century manuscript in the Municipal library of Poitiers, where we see Radegund getting herself to the nunnery (to misquote Hamlet).
As far as I can make out, though, her main claim to religious fame, at least in the Dark and Middle Ages, is that the Byzantine Emperor Justin II gave her a fragment of the True Cross. I hasten to add that he did not do so because he was much taken by Radegund’s saintliness. It was, I’m afraid, a purely political maneuver. Justin wanted to wrest control of the north of Italy from the barbarian Lombards, but for this he needed the help of the (equally barbarian) Franks. The relic, given to an ex-wife of the Frankish king who, though, was still on friendly terms with said king, was the bribe, or, to put it more kindly, the bait. Whatever the reason, the relic which Justin handed over to Radegund was a Really Good relic, and any Medieval religious institution with a Really Good relic was sitting on a goldmine as the pilgrims poured in and spent their money locally. This no doubt was the happy fate of Poitiers, helped along by the fact that Radegund was widely believed to have the gift of healing. Indeed, several miracles around her tomb greatly helped to increase the pilgrim traffic. The result was the building of a church which is a combination of Romanesque and Angevin Gothic styles.
Sadly, the vicissitudes of history, and more specifically a sack by Huguenots in the 16th Century and the ravages of the French Revolution, combined with some heavy-handed restoration in the 19th Century, has scarred the original splendour.

The pilgrim traffic to Poitiers had the happy side-effect of carrying Radegund’s name far and wide as the pilgrims returned home, and new churches and other religious institutions sprang up all over Europe dedicated to her name. This was certainly the case in Milan, where on the site on which now stands that temple to consumerism, La Rinascente, there once stood a nunnery dedicated to Santa Radegonda. No trace of this nunnery remains today save in the name of that modest, narrow, little street which I like so much.

I give just one further example of the many places in Europe which adopted her name, and that is the small village of Sankt Radegund in Upper Austria. In the next few years, readers will see a new film come out, with the title “Radegund”. It is the story of Franz Jägerstätter, a native of Sankt Radegund, who was the only one in his village to vote against the Anschlüss and was courageous enough to be a conscientious objector during World War II.
My readers will no doubt convene that this was a dangerous thing to declare oneself to be under the Nazi regime, and in fact Jägerstätter ended up being guillotined in 1943, for the crime of “undermining military morale”. The recent (German) Pope, Benedict XVI, had Jägerstätter beatified: a more appropriate saint for our age, I think.
Yesterday afternoon, I noticed that behind Milan’s Duomo there is a small road called via Santa Tecla. What an interesting name! I wonder who she was?

La Rinascente:
Clothar I:
“1066 And All That”:
“Asterix chez les Goths”:
Goths fighting: my photo
Radegund entering nunnery:
Eglise Sainte-Radégonde, Poitiers:
Franz Jägerstätter:
Icon with Franz Jägerstätter:ägerstätter


London, 12 May 2014

When I studied history in primary school, it was still taught the old way, by rote. So one learned royal genealogies by heart (“William the Conqueror, William Rufus, Henry I, Stephen, Henry II, Richard I, John Lackland”, etc.) as well as names of battles and the year they were fought (“Battle of Hastings 1066, Battle of Bannockburn 1314, Battle of Crecy 1346, Battle of Agincourt 1415, Battle of Naseby 1645, Battle of Culloden 1746” etc.). It was all very 1066 And All That, which is why I so dote on that book. One especially tricky set of battles to remember were those won by the Glorious Duke of Marlborough, who really stuck it in the eye of the French King, rah-rah (it was especially trying to be half French in these moments of our history classes when the Brits were triumphing over the French). For those of my readers who might have forgotten these battles (or much more probably have never heard of them), we are talking about the Battles of Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenaarde, and Malplaquet, fought in the years 1704, 1706, 1708, and 1709. To help us remember the names of these battles and their dates, our history teacher taught us an ingenious mnemonic in the form of a telephone number: BROM-4689 (only British readers as old as me will remember that there was a time when UK telephone numbers were a mix of letters and numbers). So now, for the rest of my life I will remember the dates of these four battles, glorious victories for the British, rah-rah. A quick whip through the internet shows me that my history teacher wasn’t the only one who used this mnemonic, which has somewhat deflated the admiration I have had for him all these years.

If I am recounting this old story, it is to explain the emotion which I felt when my wife and I visited Blenheim Palace a few days ago. After all those years of having BROM-4689 uselessly rattling around my brain, I could finally see a concrete output of at least one of these battles, the Battle of Blenheim.  For the Duke of Marlborough was given a modest manor and its grounds by a grateful Queen and a promise of funds from “the nation” (i.e., the taxpayer) to knock down the manor and build a grand new home and garden, worthy of the victor of the glorious Battle of Blenheim, rah-rah. In the event, the Duke and Duchess (because she was heavily involved) got little if any funds from the “grateful nation” and the Duke paid for most of the works from his own pocket. The story of the building’s construction is worthy of an opera, but I will skip over that to focus on the end result, here seen in all its glory from the air




To be honest, I think it’s really only from the air that one can appreciate this ducal pile. My wife and I found that from ground level it’s all rather overpowering. Here’s a shot of the front taken by another visitor. Note the size of the persons compared to the building.

We visited the inside, looking respectfully at all the nice things displayed – the portraits of worthy grandees, the tapestries, the long library with its organ, the expensive baubles scattered over various surfaces – but all the time my wife and I kept saying to each other “how did the Dukes keep this place warm and lit?” The bills for the upkeep must have been staggering. And in fact the current Duke has had to do all sorts of things (add a little train, build a butterfly house and a maze) to attract the tourists and get their entry fee. And you can get married there – for a fee. Etc., etc.

What really caught me was the garden. It would, of course. It was designed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown. I love his style, which is so very naturalistic. He creates these undulating fields of grass which sweep up to the house. He scatters clumps or belts of trees, or even individual trees, over these fields. He will often create lakes by invisibly damming small rivers or streams running through the property. His garden at Blenheim Palace has all of these. This is a modern photo


But I prefer this old painting


For me, Capability Brown’s gardens are the quintessence of the English garden, preferable by far to the strict and sterile geometry of a French garden, of which Blenheim Palace also has an example.


By one of those strange twists of Fate which one’s life is filled with, I had first come across Capability Brown at the same time that I was learning BROM-4689. My grandmother had come down for the weekend to visit me in my primary school and she took me to visit Longleat House, another of those stately homes which dot the English countryside, this time belonging to the Marquesses of Bath.


As required by the fashion of the times, Longleat had boasted of a very large, formal French garden


but luckily good sense had prevailed and the 1st Marquess of Bath (they had been mere Viscounts before that …) had hired Capability Brown to replace the formal gardens with one of his creations.


See how Brown’s work fits seamlessly into Britain’s natural landscape.


Of course, the Marquesses of Bath have been under the same financial pressure as the Dukes of Marlborough. At Longleat, the Marquesses have adopted the same kind of tourist attractions as the Dukes at Blenheim: little trains, mazes, weddings, and so on. But the Marquesses went one step further and created one of the first Safari Parks in the UK in the grounds of Longleat. So in Capability Brown’s landscape we now find lions, giraffes, zebras, and more.


How fallen are the mighty. But what to do, even Dukes and Marquesses (finally) have to make a living like everyone else.


Blenheim Palace aerial view-1: (in
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Longleat House: (in
Longleat old French gardens: (in
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Rhinos at Longleat:×401.jpg (in