Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Palatines - A Made for TV Story!

We've had The Tudors and the Plantagenets. The Borgias are coming around for a second time. We've even had some of the Stuarts but we've never had a film or TV adaptation based on The Palatines, as far as I know. Why not? Is it the name? Because it has often struck me that the tale of Elizabeth of Bohemia and her family would make a marvellous TV series. In terms of drama, love, scandal, shipwreck and sibling rivalry you can't beat The Palatines.

First there's the parents, Elizabeth and Frederick. An arranged match at sixteen years old and yet they fall in love practically at first sight. (This is after Elizabeth, chosen by the gunpowder plotters to be Queen if they had succeeded in blowing up the Houses of Parliament, survives a kidnap attempt). Then there is the year of living dangerously as King and Queen of Bohemia, the extravagance, the parties, the hordes of young men dedicated to the service of the charismatic young Queen. It all ends in disaster at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620 and Elizabeth and Frederick are forced to flee into exile with their young children. Pursued by the forces of the Holy Roman Emperor, they finally find refuge in The Hague from where they make endless, hopeless attempts to regain Frederick's patrimony. Frederick dies in exile and Elizabeth is utterly distraught.


Then we have the thirteen children, ten of whom survive into adulthood. There's Frederick, the heir, who drowns when he is fourteen, Charles Louis, hedging his bets during the English Civil War and Rupert who certainly doesn't hedge his bets when it comes to a good fight. Maurice is always in Rupert's shadow but manages to come into his own spectacularly in death, lost in a hurricane at sea whilst he and his elder brother are imitating pirates of the Caribbean. Or is he really alive, as his mother always believes, and a slave of the Barbary pirates? There's the lesser known Philip, picking fights and causing a scandal that engulfs his mother and sisters, and Edward hunting down the richest heiress in Europe because he doesn't want to be poor any more.

The girls don't do too badly either. Elizabeth, the eldest, is considered the greatest beauty of the age and is known as the Star of the North. She refuses to marry the King of Poland on religious grounds and enters a convent, becoming Mother Superior and one of the most respected scholars in Europe and a correspondent of Descartes. Her sister Louise, a talented artist, also enters a convent but this is a Catholic one. Rival mother superiors! Henrietta Maria marries a Hungarian prince but dies within six months of the wedding and is buried in her bridal gown and pearls. Her husband dies of a broken heart shortly afterwards. And Sophie, the youngest, evades her mother's plans to marry her to her cousin Charles II, runs away and accepts the marriage offer of one duke, who then asks his brother to step in and marry her instead because he's not up to the task. Eventually she is named heir to the English throne and founds a new dynasty.

Meanwhile Frederick's death has left Elizabeth impoverished but still trying to hold it all together with a court of two thousand in The Hague and no money. She sells her furniture and pawns her jewellery. Step forward William Craven who is a very rich man indeed, but a commoner, and who supports Elizabeth throughout her exile and widowhood. Finally Elizabeth returns to England forty years after she left. She is something of an embarassment to her nephew, the newly restored King Charles II, and has nowhere to live. So Craven puts his house at her disposal and starts to built two beautiful new palaces for her; Hamstead Marshall and Ashdown House. But Elizabeth dies before they are completed.

I've left a lot out, of course, but I reckon there's still enough material for two series, maybe even three! In the absence of a film or TV series, however, you'll have to come to Ashdown if you want the story told!

Ashdown House opens on 3rd April.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sarsen

Ashdown House is unique amongst stately homes in having a sarsen field lying to the east of the house. This field is classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest as the sarsen stones host exceptional lichen flora which is thought to have taken centuries to develop. The sarsen field is an integral part of Ashdown's historic past.

Sarsens are extremely hard boulders composed of quartz sand particles cemented together by silica to form sandstone. Most authorities believe that the sandstone layer was formed approximately 50 million years ago when a tropical climate existed in Southern England. The weathered stones that now litter the landscape are the remnants of this layer which once overlaid the chalk of the Downs. During inter-glacial times the thawing of the ice and the meltwaters eroded the chalk, causing the sandstone to fracture into irregular shaped stones that were carried down hill. Famous sarsen sites include Stonehenge, Waylands Smithy and Avebury Circle.

Despite the proximity of the sarsen field to the house, the stones have been preserved undisturbed for centuries. There are also many sarsen stones in the grounds and in the woods. Many of these have the characteristic holes which were made by the roots of palm and other tropical trees that grew in the area when the sandstone layer was forming. Sarsen stone was also used to face the outer ramparts of Alfred's Castle, the Iron Age fort situated nearby. The antiquarian and traveller John Aubrey passed Ashdown at the time the house was being built and commented that the builders robbed out the fort in order to use the sarsen stones in the foundations of Ashdown House, so Ashdown is literally a house built on Sarsen stone if not of it.

The word sarsen derives from Saracen, meaning "foreigner." The name probably originated as a way to describe these different stones in a chalk landscape. They are also known as grey wethers because the scattering of stones can easily be mistaken at a distance for grazing sheep.

Various legends and folklore have grown up around the sarsen field. It is said that the sarsens are the remains of an army turned to stone by Merlin. Since nearby Baydon is one of the possible sites for King Arthur's Battle of Badon Hill, one can see the links in the legend. The enormous sarsen stone a few miles away at Blowing Stone Hill is reputed to have been used by King Alfred to rally his troops for the Battle of Ashdown in 871AD. Again the link between the stones and local folklore is very strong.

The sarsen stones add another layer of history and myth to the story of Ashdown. They are a constant source of fascination to the visitors to the Park and we hold them in great respect.

With thanks to Keith Blaxhall, Head Warden, for extracts from his article on the Sarsen stones.