Tag Archives: castles

The Green Lady, Part II

The border that separates Scotland from England runs harsh and ragged like a bloody spine.  Many castles straddle that sorry backbone – a testament to the populations unable to look each other in the eye unless the steel glove of war pushes them forward.

There was one castle that was built on the east coast, spilling into the cold, granite sea:  a dark, shadowy building – ominous in its simpliciity.  It was strong and defensive, a masculine silhouette that punctured the cloudy sky.  It always rained.

But this castle was also a home.  In 1592 Alexander Seton brought his wife to live there, expecting from her the type of physical obedience that would break the body as well as the spirit.  He wanted nothing from her but sons – annually, if at all possible.  A male hierarchy to surround him and to plant his name throughout Scotland.

Four years passed.  Each year Lady Seton retired to a private room with her ladies, wetnurses and maids to await the terrible pain.  Each year a nurse emerged from the room carrying a female child.  As each daughter grew to adulthood, they became aware of their father's disappointment, their mother's fear.  He ignored them, and their mother's shoulder became wet with their tears.

In the fifth year Lady Seton, in a final, gallant effort, produced a remarkable child.  Female, yes, but dainty and beautiful.  Her features were clear, and her skin was as fair as the flower that was placed in the Virgin's young hands.  She was named Lilias.

She grew up gentle and distant, a golden thread weaving through the shadows of the household.  Such a jewel was kept hidden – for dowries and contracts beckoned, and in time she would have to sign away her obedience, as her mother had.  For nearly 20 years her potential made her a prisoner.  Through iron-clad windows she watched the Cheviot Hills across the border change color with the breath of each season.  The smell of the earth and grasses spoke to her blood and she would feel them crushed beneath her feet.

She was lonely.  When she looked through her window, who stared up into her radiant desparation?  No one knew his name.  Or, more likely, no one would tell.  Perhaps they were envious of her pretty secret, and they guarded it as selfishly as if it was their own.

How the two of them met, where they went – the details of their furtive escapes became a myth of the family's shame, closeted away by Lilias' parents.  Scoldings, reprimands, would not make her reveal her lover's name.  She was slapped until her pale skin became livid, like a white and burning sky.  For nine months she was starved, for guilt is a very thin food indeed.

When Lilias retired to the dark, confining room she was given all the simple preparations for the frightening time.  She could smell the raspberry leaves and the boiled seaweed.

And when the time did come, her flesh pulled and rebeled.  The castle shuddered under the weight of her agonies, before the proof of Eve's punishment.  Lilias grew weak – but before she lost her awful consciousness, she heard the loud, hungry cry of a healthy baby.

When she woke up, it was a different day.  It was windy, and the sibilent breezes lifted her hair and curled it around her shoulders.  The angle of the sun was different, and she saw things she hadn't noticed before:  a pair of slippers she had embroidered, a corner of a green, woolen dress winking from the darkness of her closet, a comforting memory.

But there was no child in her arms.  It was then that Lilias noticed her mother seated beside her,  The baby, Lady Seton told her in a frightened whisper, had been born dead.  And she wept on her daughter's shoulder, begging forgiveness. 

Months passed.  Lilias walked the swirling staircases of the castle towers, the chilly hallways; her lovely face lingered by the window of her room, waiting.  No one stared up towards her mooon-like sadness again.

Then a discovery was made in one of the rivers that bound the estate like a silver ribbon.  A body – beaten to death, unrecognized…a nobody.  But there was one thing that had escaped the attackers' notice:  a chain the victim wore around his neck, bearing the image of a beautiful, pale woman, wearing a green dress. 

Centuries passed.  Time – which did not care – buried the tragic family, and let its name evaporate.  The castle stumbled and fell, its lines no longer straight and sharp – no longer a threat to the horizon's delicate under pinings.

But people still do visit the castle's grandiose delapidation.  And many have claimed to have seen a white face at a tower window, disappearing into the cold vapors of the castle's interior.  Some have seen her outside; her arms clasped as if they were holding something – yet always quite empty.  Whether the day is still or not, her hair is always stirring around her verdant body.  She is young and cold, sad and patient – a lady in green waiting for justice.


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A Story Beneath My Feet

I recall my visits to England with affection.  My memories are full of architecture – cold bulks that spoke great narratives of vanished generations.  There were museums with jewelry and hummingbird feathers, ivory crossbows, buried ships and silver gowns.  There were books that captured inaccessible decades between linen and paper.  I stayed in old hotels with uneven floors that served afternoon tea and evening absinthe.  I recall ducks, pigeons, swans and white peacocks stalking lawns like irritable clouds.

I remember the castles:  cracked and shattered, their silhouettes created bleak mountain ranges and inspired mad imaginings.  They were broken limbs; remnants of bodies centuries old that still longed to speak, to tell their life stories.

One castle had a story for me, and I almost walked over it.  The castle's name escapes me, but I know that I wandered through its chambers and stood before its tall, yawning fireplace.  I looked down at the stone tiles.  They were smooth and blank, polished by long-moldered slippers embroidered with flowers and birds, spike-toed poulaines and shoes with tips that curled like a scorpion's tail and then were tied to the knee with gold chains.

All except for one tile.  Faintly, like a private message, I saw a gentle design forcing itself through the expressionless granite.  I wonder who else noticed that diffuse etching as I heard it whisper of the muzzled fires that whipped away the cold of an English winter. 

In its prime, when the walls were whitewashed and studded with antlers and quatrefoils, was that single tile one of a vast design of medieval marquetry?  Was it buried under armfuls of dried rushes, scented with a tincture of herb and flower? 

Or was it the air that was sweetened – by dulcimers, lutes and recorders?  Did it feel the softness of woolen hems as the ladies' dresses warmed the carvings of the cold, granite floor?

When I saw that stony wink fluttering up at me; filtering through the decades, full of confidences and histories, I knew that I had found the secret to that castle's life.  I had found its key, right where it was meant to be found, beneath my feet.

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A Long Time Ago, There Was A Time

There was a time when castles were painted white:  pale warnings set in the world's wildest places.  Their floors were carpets of rushes whose starry flowers blossomed in vain against the sour smell of garbage and unwashed bodies.  There was a time when forks were considered effete and kings ate with their hands.  There was a time when ladies plucked their hairlines and men dyed their beards purple.  There was a time when a tournament was a graceless clash of up to 3,000 knights fitted into massive saddles draped with heraldic tapestries.  There was a time when a life could end with a simple sword thrust or the complications from a pin prick:  a time of violence and filth.  Blood and disease flourished in the gutters.

There was a time when people lived in shacks – airless and dark.  There was a time when light's invisible molecules pierced cathedral windows that arched into heaven and were spliced into fierce primaries:  blue, red and yellow.  The columns of color blessed the shadowy naves and transepts, the architectural crucifix.  There was a time of rags and of mud.  But it was a time of gold:  it dripped into embroideries, it was hammered into walls that writhed with alchemic life.  A knight's helmet could sprout antlers, grow branches, or cradle a falcon:  all golden symbols of his brutal ancestry.  There was a time when fear held men by the throat.

Yet it was also a time for books – spared from society's barbarism.  Before the firt printing presses began to smear and creak, manuscripts were illustrated by hand – 'illuminated'.  Decoration and calligraphy merged to birth tiny worlds of zoology and humanity that swirled like painted galaxies on skies of vellum and parchment.  A living filigree of crimson dragons, twisted vines, flowers, birds, ships, animals that drooled and glowered, twittering insects:  a hallucinogenic pattern that wove between letters and reclined within margins:  buzzing and rustling.

Within a single letter, a ship will balance on a triad of moss-colored waves while below, the gray shadows of dolphins and whales balanced between air and water.  Or, beneath a canopy dotted with fleur-de-lis, a king sits at a banquet, choosing from the plattes held up by his cowering servants.  Beasts and monsters were curled and cramped inside their etymological cages. 

Sometimes the letters sprouted leaves, serpent's heads that barked and spat, or faces with dark, Byzantine eyes.  Once the pen completed its essential outline of the initial, it lept from the artisan's fist, erupting into a madness of pointillism and populations.  Colors that were crushed out of berries, insects and herbs spilled into angles and curves that twisted into endless highways across the map of a single page.

There was a time when Art held a handkerchief to her nose to walk amongst the fog of humanity and stand at its shoulder.

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Making A Fe-Line To The Past

The world is full of ideal pairings.  Lord Peter Wimsey and Mervyn Bunter.  Nick and Nora Charles.  Sunsets and silhouettes.  Sage and Gold.  Pearls and onyx.  Moon And Sixpence.  Cheese and more cheese.  I had imagined that I could think of them all.

However, years, ago, I was in a bookstore in London – and if anything good is going to occur to you, the odds are that it will happen in a bookstore.  And if you are in a bookstore in London, well, those odds are overwhelming.  Something was bound to happen.

Wel, what happened was that I came upon THE ideal pairing.  So sublime, so perfect, that just thinking of it makes me imagine a world where the sun is perpetually setting, where the rays are always lengthy and golden, where the landscape is noble and the air is purring. 

Castle Cats
Richard Surman

Castles.  Cats.  One rules the horizon, the other rules the home.

So what attracts a compact body of fur to a vast expanse of stone?

Well, surely it is the people who are in residence, their generous hearts laying down the drawbridge for pink-padded paws to cross.  The kitchens ae warm, the chairs are plush and thickly upholstered, huge stone fireplaces flare in a medieval blaze:  what cat wouldn't feel worthy, and right, in surroundings like these?  And as castles are usually embraced by towns, and as towns are inevitably warmed by public houses – well, a cat might feel inclined to roam a little, too.  A look of yearing in green or amber eyes, a plaintive meow:  and a waitress or pubman might relent and part with a wedge of kidney pie, a slice of roast beef, a sausage or two.  Perhaps for the evening the cat will curl in a corner and sleep, cozy in its homely nest – its ears full of the clinking of glasses, the scent of earthy, simple cooking swirling about its nostrils.

But in the morning the cats will return to their towering, granite homes.  Why?  Breakfast, surely.  But could there be a more subtle influence at work?

The premise of the book is delightful:  20 chapters – a few pages each – of castles and their whiskered tenants.  Each entry is full of photos:  dark and evocative (Smudge crouches, herald-like, on the rocks of St. Michael's Mount), bright and comfortable (Ginger meows in the sun at Bunratty Castle).  With castles on one hand, and cats on the other, this book is one strong and marvelous handclasp.

Through the pages cats are trotting down steps that are smooth and rounded with centuries of human steps, shod in colored fabric, leather or chain mail.  What draws those felines there?  Do they hear those steps?  Are they following their paths?  Do they sense assignations – war – barefoot servants too?

Cats peer through battlements.  Their eyes glow in the broken spaces.  Do they feel the anxiety of a soldier, long dead, looking beyond these stone teeth, across the borders, to see approaching armies:  the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh? 

Or when they fit themselves neatly inside an arrow slit:  can they hear the winding of the crossbow?  Can they feel the arrow bite through the air?  Can they see the banners below, with their signs and symbols – held high, or grasped in the hands of corpses, shredding in the wind?

Some cats prefer the gardens, the whitewashed statuary – they sleep at the bases of balustrades, or by the feet of vases, carved with swags of concrete foilage.  Maybe they dream of the gatherings that were once held there…dresses no longer of sweeping medieval cloth, but rigid with whalebone and petticoats, decorated with Elizabethan stiffness or Rococo madness.  Perhaps their ears twitch as they listen in on distant conversations:  about executions, Armadas and revolutions.  Or they hear the thunder of hooves as horses and riders disappear into the forest for an idyll of bloody and most unfair sport.

This book shows cats of any and all description peering around corners, hiding behind gates, snug behind crenellations, walking down flagged paths…all attracted to these historical surroundings for the open-door policies of nearby kitchens, yes, but I would like to think that they also come to these castles for the sounds, voices and visions of long ago, for the inescapable life that still surrounds these places.

And that is why I'm drawn to these places, too. 

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Hearts Of Stone

"I know of a place where we can go where we please; and live like gypsies."

This quote was taken from the mini-series "The Buccaneers".  It's only partially remembered and possibly entirely made up, like the novel this series was based on (Edith Wharton died before the novel was even half completed). 

However. These words were uttered in a placating whisper by the governess Miss Testvalley to her impatient and impetuous charge, Nan St. George.

And where did they go?  To a castle.

I remember the following scene:  Nan running across bridges – her white skirts escaping behind her – dashing up towers, gasping over turrets, loving every brick of every shattered wall, every savaged battlement, every crumbling crenellation.  Her arms were outstretched, as if she wanted to embrace every inch of architecture, every ghost of every past inhabitant.

But you can't.  Atlas can straddle worlds, but can you envelop lives…history?

I know the way Nan felt.  I've known those emotions – dazed by the sheer beauty of ravaged walls, of dark and still silhouettes.  I love castles.  I study them. I learn them.  I climb them. I know them.  I feel for them – during the 'slighting' of all defensive fortresses after the English civil war, when Cromwell ordered that they be shot and dented and made useless for any escaped Royalist…their solid and statuesque beauty was pocked with cannot shot.

But I love their ruins too – they aren't ugly; nor are they eyesores.  I find their shattered outlines fascinating and graceful.  I've seen their stray turrets, their isolated, incomplete walls set in the green hillsides like jewels.  I can draw them by heart.  Because they're already there.

Now, it's Aubrey's rule that she must walk to the very top of every castle she visits.  I've nearly slipped and broke my neck on the rounded stairs of Caernarfon Castle, trying to execute this edict.  I've got lost in Dover Castle (such sublime confusion!).  I climbed the 180 steps to Tintagel Castle, wheezing in the sea air and Arthurian legend.

I've gazed through arrow slits, imagining my aim.  I've peeked through acres of battlements, nearly swept over them by the winds crouching and waiting at the tower's very tops.

I've visited Beaumaris Castle, one of Edward I's handful of perfect fortresses (Caerphilly, Harlech, Conwy, Caernarfon) built on the English border to keep a stony eye on a temperamental Welsh population.

I've climbed the stairs of the keep of Rochester Castle – the tallest in Britain (125 feet).  I've always enjoyed its baleful 'windows', which stare at me like massive blinded eyes.

I've come close to history:  I roamed the inner courtyard of Framlingham Castle.  In 1553 Mary Tudor gathered her loyal troops there – Edward VI had just died, and she needed to escape London, which had been taken over by the traitors who had forced the Lady Jane Grey to marry Guildford Dudley.  Pathethic Jane had been proclaimed Queen, against her will, against statute and every law of royal inheritance.  I was walking where the future Bloody Mary had paced:  deep-voiced, determined, bitter, equally pathetic.

I've been overwhelmed by the past, by former lives pressing close as I walked through centuries-old hallways.  How can the vanished become so real?  I've been moved by cold walls and crumbling brick.  How can a deserted pile of stone inspire a heart?  

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