The Stairs

The Stairs

In his own words …..

To walk in the footsteps of time.  Sometimes, we do not realize how close we truly are to walking in the very footsteps of those before us.  Even across centuries and millennia.  That we can for a single moment, look down and see where they once walked.  Once stood.  As if they leave behind some haunting remnants of themselves for us to see … to follow, to feel.

And sometimes, it is in that small and personal space that they once shared, where we literally stand or walk in their footsteps.  Where we can perhaps become the closest we could ever be to them, even if they have been gone across centuries from us.

Before I resided in France, I had been born and raised an American.  So, to experience the “Old World” in Europe, as it was taught in American history books, was a baptism into my own roots.  It was an education into my own past that could not have been gotten from any classroom.  One had to be there.  Stand there.  Take it all in.

I was raised originally in Texas as a child.  Settled first by the Spanish and then by German immigrants, European settlers learned to build great buildings in stone.  In Texas, they especially worked with limestone.  Growing up and seeing these great stone wonders in the middle of a vast and desolate plain that Texas is, I was in awe of how these stone structures withstood the test of time.  Where as wooden structures eventually fell into decay and left to become victims of the elements, I thought stone lasted forever.  A true testament to time.

However, I was to find that was not the case.  That stone too, eventually falls to the elements and to time.  To decay and, once again be reclaimed by the earth.  Thus, almost all that we see today of any stone monuments around the world, we see only because of restoration and preservation of such sites.

Here in Europe, I have loved to watch the tourists.  Over 84 million a year are estimated to visit France alone.  Coming from all over the world, I watch them and wonder if they ever really know what they are truly witnessing?  If they truly understand the gravity of what they are looking at?  Of where they are standing at?  Or is it merely just another place for a selfie?  A gift and souvenir shop?  Restaurant?  Pub?

For a historian, it is always much different.  When you visit such places, you usually have already done much research on the location or site.  The city or landmark.  For a historian, they see the place from a completely different perspective.  They see it as it once was.

For myself, it went even further.  I could ‘feel’ such places.  Not in any spiritual sense but rather, I put myself back in that time, at a particular moment, and used the rule of always using all five human senses in experiencing the location I was studying.  To imagine such, not only with sights and sounds, but also with touch and smells, even taste.

For several years, I lived on occasion at a dilapidated old castle in the Dordogne region of France.  It was here that I first learned a most remarkable lesson concerning stone, time, and those that have walked before us.  The castle rose several stories in the air starting all the way down from its dungeon.  The old castle was not in the best shape, but its stairs had persevered.  I was shown from the ground floor going upward, how a previous owner had restored stairs.

Restored Medieval Stairs – Dordogne, France

 

However, as I slowly walked up these old steps; that back in the 1500’s, had been so alive with the castle’s lord and his family, with soldiers and servants, and visitors from afar.  I had suddenly fallen upon the ‘unrestored’ steps of this old castle and I was taken back how worn down the old castle stairs were.  Worn down by human feet.  I tried to imagine across centuries, how many feet, how many trips up and down these stairs, that it took to wear down stone like this?

 

Un-Restored Stairs of Medieval Castle – Dordogne, France

 

Close-up of Unrestored Medieval Stone Stairs – Dordogne, France

 

I could not help but stand there and realize that although all those individuals whose feet across so many centuries had help wear these stone stairs down; that though all of them were now long gone, the stairs were still here.  And the stairs bore testament to their time here.  Stone …. worn down by human feet.  I was amazed by this.

Who were all these people whose feet had once gone up and down these stone stairs.  From servants to nobility, and everything in between; all their trials and tribulations, sufferings and celebrations, births and deaths, all connected to these stairs.  Now covered in dust and dirt from the winds of time.  Stone was much softer, more fragile than I had imagined.

Due to my work, I was made to study many castles throughout France.  The lesson I had learned early on, about stone and castle stairs stayed with me.

One day in my life eventually found me at a particular 12th century castle.  It was Castle Beynac located in Dordogne, France.  There was no specific reason to stop and visit this castle.  There are so many in France and especially in Dordogne where it is said, there are over a thousand castles.  On this day however, I had to go to this magnificent castle that rose high above the Dordogne river.

 

Castle Beynac on limestone cliff in Dordogne, France.  Church is seen to left and main castle to the right.

 

It was here that I had a most unique experience in being so close to someone whom I had known so well in my childhood.  Taught to me many times through so many years of school, seen portrayed in so many movies, he was what legends are made of.  He was an icon of which the entire world knew.  And by sheer chance, I was now to come face to face with him and part of his life.  For you see, a few years found this castle under the control of none other than King Richard the Lionheart himself.

Growing up in America, King Richard the Lionheart was taught much differently than the legend himself was in real life.  We as children only knew King Richard as the King of England.  In so many Hollywood movies, he was always portrayed as English.  And of course, he was known for the Crusades he led to the Holy Land in the 1100’s.  But now living in France, I discovered Richard as I had never discovered him before.

Richard was in fact French.  He didn’t even speak English.  He spoke French and Occitan.  It is said that he was lucky as King of England to have spent less than three years in England during his entire reign.  He ruled from southern France.

However, times were different then and a bit more complicated.  Most of Southern France, in the Aquitaine region, was under the English crown in the 1100’s.  Aquitaine was a huge region extending from the southwestern coast of France, due east all the way into the Dordogne region.  It was ruled in the 1100’s by one of the most powerful women in Europe, Queen Consort of France, and later the Duchess of Aquitaine, “Eleanor.”

 

 

Effigy of Alinor (Eleanor) of Aquitaine, Mother of King Richard the Lionheart – Musée d’Aquitaine – Bordeaux, France

 

In 1154, Eleanor was married to the King of England, Henry II.  This is how Aquitaine, France became part of England for 300 years.  She gave birth to eight children, three of which would become kings.   One, was King Richard the Lionheart.

Richard was born in England but after several years of his childhood, he returned to France whereupon he spent most of his entire life.  He was noted by historians to not have spoken English at all and if so, but a few words.

I spent years getting a sense of Richard.  Who he really was as a human being.  As a person.  The Richard I got to know was not the Richard of English folklore and legend.  He was a complex man indeed.  His personality and destiny were perhaps shaped early on by life experiences that formed him into who he was, both for England and for France.

Richard lived only to 41 years of age.  He died tragically at a castle outside of Limoges, in the commune of Haute-Vienne, located in southwest-central France.  While laying siege in Châlus in 1199, he was occupying a castle called Château de Châlus-Chabrol.  One day, he walked alone, casually inspecting the catwalks atop the castle’s walls.  He was wearing no chainmail as he was merely checking the progress of castle military engineers on the fortification of the walls.  He came across a young defender, a young boy that has been described as possibly being as young as fourteen years old.  The boy was holding a crossbow and a frying pan in order to deflect stones and other objects being thrown up at him from below.  Richard was amused by the boy and engaged in conversation with him but from this point on, there were several versions to the story.

One version is that the boy accidently discharged his crossbow striking Richard in his upper left shoulder near his neck.  Another is that another crossbowman shot the arrow into Richard while he was conversing with the boy.  Irrelevant, the boy was seized, tortured, and supposedly confessed that he deliberately shot Richard in retaliation for having killed his father and two brothers.

Richard’s wound quickly caught gangrene and the mighty King lay on his deathbed.  Richard had the boy brought before him while he lay dying and though the boy was to be executed, Richard pardoned him and sent him off with 100 shillings.  According to legend, immediately upon Richard’s death, those closest to Richard had the boy brutally tortured and fileted alive before finally killing him.

Unlike the history I had been taught of King Richard while growing up, I found him to be a product of his own life experiences.

For example, they never told us that Richard had actually been locked up for two years (1192-1194), in Austria and Germany.  Held for ransom, his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was finally able to raise the funds and have him freed.

Richard got his nickname “the Lionheart,” in part, because he fought like a lion.  It has been said that Richard spent his entire life fighting battles and wars.  Some say that he actually enjoyed it.  That Richard was a warrior through and through.  It was what he loved the most.

The glorification of Richard the Lionheart in the U.S. history books in the 1960’s left out much of Richard’s dark side.

While Richard was praised by the nuns that taught us, for his leading the Third Crusades to the Holy Land, they never told us for example, the story of the Massacre of Ayyadieh.  Ayyadieh was a hill outside the city of Acre which on August 21, 1191, was where Richard had ordered the slaughter of approximately 3,000 Muslim men, women, and children.

Richard, supposedly furious that his adversary, Saladin, did not concede to his demands, Richard ordered the inhabitants marched out of the city and up onto the hill.  He then ordered them all put to the sword on the hill so that Saladin and his army could see the carnage.  “Put to the sword” is a more cosmetic term as eye-witness accounts described that all were beheaded.

Of course, the Christians described the same incident as only 2,600 executed that day by Richard upon the hill and, that all were only male Muslim soldiers.

The nuns did not teach either such things as Richard’s sexual promiscuity towards women through all the years of fighting.  Nor that today’s modern historians see Richard as a bisexual in his time.

Did you know that Richard, while locked up in prison, wrote a song (in French and Occitan) that later became a popular French melody?  The name of the song is Ja nus hons pris or Ja nuls om pres (“No man who is imprisoned”).

However, in the end, we will never really know all the truth about King Richard the Lionheart.

Richard’s own castle, Château Gaillard, located approximately 59 miles northwest of Paris and, just twenty-five miles south of Rouen (where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake on May 30th, 1431), was considered one of the most advanced, militarily built castles in all of Europe at the time.  It was Richard’s own expertise through fighting his entire life, that aided in its architectural planning and engineering.  Ironically and sadly, all that is left today of King Richard the Lionheart’s castle is but ruins and legends.

 

The remains of King Richard the Lionheart’s beloved castle, Château Gaillard, as hauntingly captured by photographer Thomas Ulrich.

 

So, on this day, I found myself headed up the long and winding road leading up to the Castle Beynac in Dordogne, France.

 

Medieval Road Leading up to Castle Beynac

 

All castles seen in France (and elsewhere) have been restored.  Many were in complete ruin.  So, what one sees today of any castle is for the most part, a ‘restored’ castle.  Beynac Castle was no different.

Of all the lords that presided over the castle during its existence, it’s most famous was Richard the Lionheart.  His occupancy at the castle was a short one, less than three years, possibly even less-than-one.

The castle is large and takes much time to fully explore.  In their promotion of King Richard’s occupancy there, at the top of the castle is the fully restored bed chamber of Richard.  It was more than likely the bed chamber for any lord over the castle across centuries.  The public is not allowed in but can look through the jail-like bars of a cell door into the room.

 

Restored Bed-Chamber of King Richard I at Castle Beynac, France

 

To exit Richard’s room, one finds themselves at the top of the castle, open to the air and sky.  Also, just outside Richard’s bedroom chamber door were stone stairs leading directly down into a large dining room and meeting area for the lord of the castle.  It was these stairs that caught my attention.  It was because of one reason.  Although there was some evidence of some minor restoration done, the stairs still showed being worn down across centuries by human foot traffic.  For the most part, these stone stairs were as they had always been.

 

Stairs Leading from Bed-Chamber of King Richard I, down into Main Castle – Beynac, France

 

You see, to try and get really close to Richard the Lionheart, you could pursue his old haunts all across France, England, and even to the Holy Land.  But, in this one moment, at this one single location in this particular castle, I realized that Richard would have walked up and down these stairs almost every day.  Many times, sometimes probably in the accompaniment of others with conversations going.  That his very own feet would have contributed to the wearing down that I saw.  It was on this small stone castle stairwell that I suddenly felt close to Richard.  Especially knowing how everything else had been restored.  But not these stairs …. where Richard the Lionheart had walked daily while lord of the Castle of Beynac.

 

George Hruby

 

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