Birth of a Nation: How did Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness Come About?

“Still I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man.”

George Washington to Alexander Hamilton on August 28, 1788

The world collectively held its breath as the election for the 46th President of the United States of America was held during November, and has subsequently been rumbling on over the entire month. For interminable days it seemed to hang on a knife edge, and now, thankfully, Joe Biden has unequivocably emerged as the victor. But the election has been embroiled in quite a circus…

During such times of upheaval and turmoil around the world it’s essential that we have a grown-up in the White House rather than a self-inflated, messianic enfant terrible.

Trump has thrown multiple tantrums about how unfair democracy is, and has behaved like a desperate despot wanting to cling to power at any cost. It’s damaging not just for America, (being the beacon of freedom and democracy that it is in the world), but also for global democracy, when the perceived leader of the free world acts like some third-world, tin-pot dictator by refusing (until recently), to collaborate with the incoming administration for the good of the nation.

What kind of example is that?

Trump’s antics over the last four years have brought the Office of President into disrepute. His legacy is a litany of lies and ‘fake news’ accusations, the desecration of values, the demolition of decency, the destruction of integrity, willful ignorance around environmental issues, mishandling of the pandemic and the spread of division, hate, racial tensions and the complete polarisation of a nation.

The man (and I hope someday woman), serves the office, not the reverse!

There is still a way to go before the vote is certified and thankfully the unnecessary and baseless legal challenges from the incumbent president have been thrown out. His apparent denial of the facts and manner of departure will further test America’s democracy.

“The Constitution was designed not to give us rights but to prevent government from taking our rights.”

Thom Hartmann, Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights

Biden strikes me as a man of competence, common-sense, caring and humility – a breath of fresh air to Trump’s insouciant attitude toward responsibility, and his unrepentant vanity and hubris.

America, and (like ripples travelling across a pond) to a lesser extent the world, is reeling from the onslaught of an egomaniac and chancer tyrant. The fact that more people have voted in the 2020 election, (close to 150 million people) than at any other time in its 244 year history as the United States of America speaks volumes.

Balance must be restored – now the scales can start tipping towards the safer mid-point. How much damage has been done remains to be seen, and Biden is right to suggest that the nation needs to heal.

The fact that sanity has prevailed is in no small measure due to the principles and values that the Founding Fathers employed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These documents are sacred and integral to the founding of the United States of America. They are the bedrock and cornerstone of America’s power and prosperity.

But the severance of the colonies from George III’s distant rule was far from smooth. After the dust had settled from the Revolutionary War, a handful of men courageously saw a vision of what their nation could become.

The founding of the United States has been an incredible experiment in the evolution of human civilisation.

With its isolated geopolitical borders the United States of America was free from outside interference once they had eliminated servitude to the British monarchy. Inspired by the sheer unlimited potential and opportunities for a better life, a wave of immigration seeded the nation with a diverse population – an ideal cultural petri dish for the growth of the New World.

By looking to the microcosm of America we can apply the knowledge, wisdom and learning of human civilisation and evolution to the macrocosm – the world at large.

The only pre-existing cultural personality in the newly formed United States of America was that of the native Indian populations, it was still early days for the first generations of settlers, but their spirit of adventure, innovation and discovery has certainly permeated down through the centuries.

Unlike the more established nations across Europe, (where citizens were limited by their highly stratified caste-like society and hierarchy of power, usually predicated by blood lineage), America was a blank canvas for her citizens, where, on paper at least, all men were created equal; endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.  

In the United States Declaration of Independence, for instance, it was stated with great clarity by the originators that the rights of man stem from the divinity of their creation, and thus was established the principle of spirituality. However they differentiated this from religion by saying that citizens are to be free from the establishment of any religion. The founders were aware that religion divides and is based on secular power, whereas, spirituality unites and has no worldly organization.”

Dr. David R Hawkins

Sadly, these lofty ideals have not always proved the lived experience for many with darker skins, those of the ‘fairer sex’ or other minority groups. There is plenty of unfinished business, hence still, even in the 21st century, the #BlackLivesMatter movement was deemed necessary to attain a fairer, more egalitarian society. But the values are at least enshrined in its founding, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and therefore inextricable from the nation’s cultural and social evolution.  

The values and courage of the Founding Fathers

The Deistic Enlightenment philosophy that was sweeping through 1700s Europe, as espoused by its leading philosophers such as John Locke, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (whose raptures of ‘free’ noble savages intrigued many), resonated with Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

“These men (who signed the Declaration) were the most idealistic and determined among the colonists. While the conservatives of the day argued that America should remain a colony of England forever, these liberal radicals believed in both individual liberty and societal obligations.”

Thom Hartmann

Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hancock and the other 56 delegates who signed the Declaration of Independence did so knowing that they would pilloried, ostracised, suffer financial hardship, ruin and possibly death. This act was no tea party!

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull c. 1819

When they wrote: ‘We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes, our Sacred Honor’ they were legally marking themselves as traitors, knowing the penalty for treason was death. Patrick Henry’s passionate statement, “Give me liberty or give me death!” was not merely hyperbole. When Benjamin Franklin said to his fellow revolutionaries, “We must all hang together or we shall most assuredly hang separately,” he was speaking literally.

John Hancock was the wealthiest of the American revolutionaries, with a net worth of around $750,000 in today’s dollars. Another wealthy signatory, Thomas Nelson of Virginia, had his lands and home seized by the British and died penniless at the age of 50. Hartmann purports that 9 of the 56 signers lost their lives in the war and 17 lost their homes and fortunes.

Hartmann further explains: “While many of the conservative Tory families still have considerable wealth and power (in Canada and England), not a single founder’s family persists today as a wealthy or politically dominant entity.”

It was inevitable that cynical attacks would be made on their characters in the years since the founding of the nation. They were not perfect human beings; their personalities contained flaws and contradictions like the rest of us – however, their hearts were in the right place. It’s worth remembering that this enlightened band of brothers stood up to what was then the greatest power in the world – the British Empire.

Their Deist beliefs meant that the Declaration of Independence encapsulated Natural Law: the notion that ordinary humans could be equal sovereign citizens who endow government with authority, instead of the other way around.

The tenets of Natural Law

In 1661 English philosopher Thomas Hobbes published his work, Leviathan, which attempted to codify Natural Law into 9 principles:

  1. Seek peace first, use war as a last resort.
  2. Be willing to offer the same freedom to others as to oneself.
  3. Keep your agreements.
  4. Practice gratitude.
  5. Accommodate your own needs to the laws of the community.
  6. As appropriate, forgive those who repent.
  7. In the case of revenge, focus not on the great evil of the past but the greater good to follow.
  8. Never declare hatred of another.
  9. Acknowledge the equality of others.

John Locke sought to hold governments accountable to these principles. In his Two Treatises of Government which was initially published anonymously in 1689 he suggested that if a ruler went against these natural laws and failed to protect ‘life, liberty and property’ the populace could justifiably overthrow a government. It happened in France in 1789, and heads rolled as a consequence…

One could argue that Brexit has removed some of our rights and liberties.

Jefferson used Locke’s arguments when he crafted the Declaration of Independence. But the Enlightenment philosophers were not the only influence on the Founding Fathers. Locke and Rousseau got their ideas from the Native’s New World.

Quite a circle of serendipity…

The ideals of human perfection existed in Europe since the golden age of Greece, but the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness never actualised from an abstract concept to reality in Socrates’ world of form.

The first reports of the ways and customs of the native peoples of the Americas showed the concepts of democracy and balance of power were well established in these cultures at least 400 years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Some say as early as 1100, but there are accounts from the 1400s to 1500s of  six tribes that lived in what is now the northeastern United States, Southern Ontario and Quebec, a people who came together to form what was known as the Iroquois Confederacy.

The Iroquois Confederacy

Hiawatha was instructed by an elder named Two-Rivers to negotiate peace between the warring tribes. He proposed a League of Peace and Power to bring the tribes together. The result of this historic gathering bore the League of Haudenosaunee, meaning ‘people of the long house’.

“Every human longs for peace and love.”


The confederacy was comprised of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca tribes, later accepting the Tuscaroras who migrated from the Carolinas. Through this confederacy, six diverse nations managed to live in relative peace and harmony through a remarkable political system that was the forerunner to the United States Constitution.

Seneca – Chief Red Jacket of the Iroquois League

There are many similarities between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Constitution: namely the devolvement of power in the federal system – just as tribes maintained autonomy in regard to local issues.

A mutual-defense pack provided a strong multi-tribe nation to protect against their enemies. It conserved lives, energy and resources that would otherwise have been spent in waging war with each other. The confederacy also employed a sophisticated system of checks and balances between three governmental branches.

The Iroquois Nation of colonial America believed in freedom of expression, provided that expression caused no harm.

Whereas Western civilisation was more guilt orientated, tribal culture was more shame-orientated – a strong identification within the community motivated individuals to avoid transgressions that might bring shame on them and their clan.

“Human happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.”

George Washington

The influence of Native American culture was profound and far-reaching on the early colonists, particularly those who grew up in the New World rather than England. The colonists adopted indigenous customs such as bathing, not considered a healthy practice across much of Europe at the time.

In Iroquois tribal society authority flowed from the ground up, not from the top down.  

Thomas Jefferson was deeply influenced by Native American wisdom, as his father Peter was a cartographer. They would go off on excursions together and Peter and would have meetings at their home in Virginia with the Cherokee chief Ontassete which young Tom possibly witnessed.

Franklin, Adams and Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence in 1776 by Jean-Leon Gerome

Why the Fourth of July?

The 4th July is an auspicious date indeed. It is known that on the 4th July 1776, the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence that had been largely drafted by Thomas Jefferson.

However, some 32 years prior on the 4th July 1744, an important meeting took place that was also fundamental to the founding of the United States of America. A charismatic chief from the Iroquois Nation, Canassatego, met with the the English colonists to forge an alliance between the colonists and the Iroquois against the French.

He spoke of unity:

“Our wise forefathers established union and amity between the Five Nations. This has made us formidable. This has given us great weight and authority with our neighboring nations. We are a powerful confederacy and, by your observing the same methods our wise forefathers have taken, you will acquire much strength and power; therefore, whatever befalls you, don’t fall out with one another.”    

Benjamin Franklin, present at the meeting relayed a powerful example that Canassatego demonstrated to the colonists, describing how the chief held up an arrow and easily snapped it in two. He then lashed together twelve arrows, (one for every one of 12 colonies represented at the meeting), and even the strongest man in the room could not break them.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the Great Seal of the United States, designed in 1782 by Charles Thomson, depicts an eagle clutching thirteen arrows in his claws.

Obverse Great Seal

And it has a certain poetic justice that the President is referred to as the Commander-in-Chief!

In 1751 Franklin began his campaign for a federal union, writing: “It would be a very strange thing if six nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union and be able to execute it in such a manner as that it has subsisted ages, and yet a like union should be impractical for ten or a dozen English colonies.” Aside from his jibe at ‘ignorant savages’, Franklin expressed admiration for Iroquois political practise. And thus, a new republic was created based on Native tribal wisdom.   

It’s disappointing but not altogether surprising, that information explaining the role of Native American culture on the founding of the United States was repressed until the seventies.

Soundtrack to the film 1492 – Conquest of paradise by Vangelis

How about this for a tragic and sobering statistic:

When Christopher Colombus discovered the New World in 1492 it was estimated there were around 6 million Native Americans living across the continent. Some argue there were many more, upwards of 20 million. But the white settlers brought with them a host of big city ‘plagues’ that were new to them, such as smallpox, measles and syphilis. The native population had no immunity to these diseases. In addition to the ravages of disease, other factors compounded their fate; warfare, forced migration, outright slaughter and a massive white land grab. By 1900 the Native American population had been reduced to around 250,000 souls.  

“You can’t justify the whole conquest and subjugation and destruction of Indian populations if there are things of value in the people you are destroying.”

Donald Grinde

The forgotten Founding Mothers

Although Franklin and the Founding Fathers acknowledged the contributions of the Iroquois Nation, they left out the specific role of tribal women in America’s Constitution. Maybe this was a step too far, and would not have been accepted at the time. Too often women’s role in history is brushed under the carpet or concealed. We should not overlook the importance and influence of the Council of Grandmothers.  

In Iroquois culture the Earth, plants and land were perceived as feminine in character – older women were responsible for the basics of life – growing and preparing food, birthing and nurturing children and the domestic work of the community.

This work was of value and the men recognised and appreciated the women’s fundamental power. A far cry from the underrated role of modern mothers. It was in everyone’s interest for the clan to be successful.

The clan was usually headed up by an older woman. Property and land was collectively owned by the clans and enough food grown to feed all of their members. It was a broadly egalitarian society and the Iroquois men understood the need for men and women to achieve unity and work together in balance and harmony.

True political power was in the hands of the grandmothers, who possessed the authority to select a chief and also to impeach him for wrongdoing or incompetence. The original impeachers!

The women even made the final decision about whether or not to go to war. When women were past childbearing age they became clan mothers and would often accompany war parties. They could be just as ruthless as men with enemy tribes outside the confederacy, especially when it involved the abduction of clan children. Maternal instincts can be as brutal as they are nurturing when required!

It seems that the clan mothers may have inspired the early 19th American feminists, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who had contact with and learnt from Iroquois women.

Mother Earth and Father Sky came out of balance as patriarchy retained all the power in Western civilisation. The disconnection from the sacred feminine enabled the plundering of Earth’s resources, and put us out of touch with the natural world.

As usual, Marina’s lyrics are spot on:

“The world has never yet seen a truly virtuous nation, because in the degradation of women, the very fountains of life are poisoned at the source.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

The pursuit of happiness (as defined by the Iroquois Confederacy), was held in balance as long as citizens did not cause harm to others. One could argue that the pursuit of happiness has taken on a darker, materialistic slant in so much as corporate greed is running rampant with no regard for the consequence to human life and the planet. But that’s a subject for a new post!

In the meantime, even with all the turbulence and turmoil around us, as much as you can – be happy!

Facing an Uncertain Future in the Age of Humans – Part 1

“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” ~ Albert Einstein

What with all the global turbulence of late I got to thinking: What is our evolutionary destiny as a species?

It’s a difficult and provocative question to ask, let alone to answer!

But we must ask it, if we are to understand where we are now and where we are heading. If we don’t, how can we create a happier, more bountiful and sustainable existence not just for ourselves, but for all creation, than we have thus far?

In my small slithers of time I have been reading Yuval Noah Harari’s brilliant book, Sapiens. I’m only half way through, but am finding it compelling and sobering reading.

I’m expanding on my interest in Anthropology as part of my research for my next novel, (a corporate conspiracy thriller), but it’s also insightful for a blog post or two!

The challenges of the Anthropocene

Scientists have named the new epoch of our planet the Anthropocenethe age of humans.

Human activity has impacted the face of the planet and its animal inhabitants to such a degree that we now largely hold the fate of the entire planet’s biodiversity in our hands. A scary fact, considering our past record!

There is little that we have failed to plunder or indirectly affect and use for our advantage over aeons of our species’ existence. We should heed Einstein’s advice and ruminate extensively on the challenges and opportunities of this new human epoch.

According to Sir David Attenborough we are now experiencing the 6th wave of mass extinction on our planet, and (I’m sorry to go all ‘doomsday’), unless we radically alter our trajectory it could be the precursor to the extinction of Homo sapiens. We are the masters of our fate, one way or another.

We face untold misery unless we rapidly develop a global awareness of what’s happening and how we can adjust our behaviour to avoid cataclysm. Otherwise, as scientists continue to tell us, we will reap a bitter and devastating harvest…

This has been painfully demonstrated with the destruction of the Amazon and as this article in The Guardian points out, deforestation damage goes far beyond the Amazon.

The world has watched in horror at the devastating, unprecedented bushfires that are continuing to ravage Australia.

In addition to the devastating stories there have also been uplifting stories of heroism, altruism and love.

This article highlights visually the conditions that have exacerbated the fires in Australia.

It is thought close to a BILLION animals have perished in the bushfires: koalas, kangaroos, flying foxes and other precious wildlife. If like me, you feel devastated by this and wish to do something to help in addition to prayer, you can donate to Australia’s Wildlife Emergency fund on the WIRES website.

It has been heartbreaking to see the level of suffering. And yet, Australia’s impotent PM, Scott Morrison, is an outright climate change denier and has demonstrated a dire lack of leadership to his nation. More also needs to be done to heed the advice of the indigenous aboriginal population.

My grandfather grew up in a mining town just beyond the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. I have happy memories of the time I was there. I just want to sit and weep when I read of the impact of these fires.

Morrison is not the only leader to have failed miserably in his responsibility – Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro should be put on trial for his role in the Amazon’s destruction – and by default the global impact it is having.

“If you had to invent a threat grand enough, and global enough, to plausibly conjure into being a system of true international cooperation, climate change would be it—the threat everywhere, and overwhelming, and total. And yet now, just as the need for that kind of cooperation is paramount, indeed necessary for anything like the world we know to survive, we are only unbuilding those alliances—recoiling into nationalistic corners and retreating from collective responsibility and from each other. That collapse of trust is a cascade, too.”
~ David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

To better understand the immense challenges and opportunities of the Anthropocene we should take a peek into the distant past – through millennia, into the history of Homo sapiens.

The red hand print in the cave at Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, imprinted c. 30,000 years ago.

The history of Homo sapiens

It’s an incredible history, peppered with highs and lows, successes and failures, but mainly it highlights the ingenuity, imagination and endless march of Homo sapiens to become the dominant species on planet Earth.

For better or worse, we have arrived at the Anthropocene – a precarious point in our evolution.

This timeline (plus a few of my own additions), is laid out in Sapiens.

Timeline in years before the present:

4.5 billion – Formation of planet Earth.

3.8 billion – Emergence of organisms, the beginning of biology.

66 million – Extinction of the dinosaurs.

6 million – The last common grandmother of humans and chimpanzees.

2.5 million – Evolution of the genus Homo in Africa. First stone tools.

2 million – Humans spread from Africa to Eurasia. Evolution of different human species.

500,000 – Neanderthals evolve in Europe and the Middle East.

300,000 – Daily use of fire by Homo erectus, Neandertals and the forefathers of Homo sapiens. Some scholars advocate the link between cooking food and the shortening of the human intestinal tract and the growth of the brain.

200,000 – Homo sapiens evolves in East Africa.

70,000 – The Cognitive Revolution. Emergence of fictive language and imagination. Sapiens spread out of Africa.

50,000 – Extinction of Homo sloensis and Homo erectus

45,000 – Sapiens settle Australia. Extinction of Australian mega-fauna. Extinction of Homo denisova. Up to 6% of the DNA of Melaniesians and Aboriginal Australians is Denisovan DNA.

30,000 – Extinction of Neandertals. In 2010 the Neandertal genome was mapped, and scientists discovered that 4% of the DNA of modern populations of Homo sapiens in the Middle East and Europe is Neandertal DNA.

16,000 – Sapiens settle America. Extinction of American mega-fauna.

13,000 – Extinction of Homo floresiensis.

12,000 – The Agricultural Revolution. Domestication of plants and animals. Permanent settlements. Sapiens now the only surviving human species in the genus Homo.

11,500 – Göbekli Tepe built by hunter-gatherer communities in Turkey.

5,000 – First kingdoms, script and money. Polytheistic religions.

4,500 – Stonehenge is built in southern England.

4,250 – First Empire – the Akkadian Empire of Sargon.

4,000 – The beginning of Hinduism in India.

2,500 – Invention of coinage – a universal money. The Persian Empire – a universal political order ‘for the benefit of all humans’. Buddhism in India – a universal truth ‘to liberate all beings from suffering’.

2,300 – The ancient library is built in Alexandria.

2,000 – Han Empire in China. Roman Empire in the Mediterranean. Christianity.

1,400 – Islam

500 – The Scientific Revolution. Humankind acknowledges its ignorance and begins to acquire unprecedented power. Europeans begin to conquer America and the oceans. The entire planet becomes a single historical arena. The rise of capitalism.

200 – The Industrial Revolution. Family and community are replaced by state and market. Massive extinction of plants and animals.

133 – The American legal system grants companies status as ‘legal entities’ or ‘corporate personhood’ as if they were flesh blood beings. Companies are the main players in the economic arena. Yet they only exist as ‘imagined realities’.

The Present – The Age of Humans (The Anthropocene). Humans transcend the boundaries of planet Earth. Nuclear weapons threaten the survival of humankind. Organisms are increasingly shaped by intelligent design rather than natural selection.

The future – Intelligent design becomes the basic principle of life? The development of Artificial Intelligence? Homo sapiens either extinct or replaced by superhumans?

The paradox of evolutionary success

Based on the latest scientific warnings and reports, it seems we are faced with a stark choice: adapt or die.

According to Charles Darwin the premise underlying all evolution is how a species adapts genetically and behaviourally to its environment over vast expanses of time to ensure its continued existence. Herbert Spencer summarised this theory as ‘survival of the fittest’.

But the situation humanity currently faces couldn’t be more critical. According to scientists we don’t have millennia, we have just decades to solve a crisis of our own making; arising it seems, from the activities of our evolutionary success…

Image by Rob Curran on Unsplash

Our current limited measure of evolutionary success is the number of DNA copies of a species. And being as humans (Homo sapiens) account for 96% of the mass of mammals living on the planet, I’d say, based solely on that criteria, we made it big.

We took our domesticated plants and animals with us too. Behind Homo sapiens, cattle, pigs and sheep are the second, third and fourth most widespread large mammals. 70% of the birds alive today are domesticated poultry.

It’s estimated there are some 25 billion chickens around the globe!

As far as plant life goes, wheat crops represent the largest landmass, covering over 220 million hectares.  Our dependence on wheat, a cereal food containing gluten and lectins, two substances that are natural destroyers of gut health, and by default overall health, has been compounding for 7,000 years, when humans began farming in the Levant (Middle East).

The Agricultural Revolution

Gradually our diets switched from diverse forager staples like nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables such as mushrooms and meats like rabbit, deer and mammoth (who disappeared around the same time as Neanderthals), to a reliance on a narrower range of less nutritious crops such as wheat, rice and potatoes.

Image by Evi Radauscher on Unsplash

As our progression from foragers to farmers occurred over several thousand years, so our populations expanded in line with an increased intake of calories. It wasn’t a utopia though; we had to maintain and protect crops through climate cycles and raids from other tribes. We became vulnerable. We had all our eggs in one basket.

By the time humans had achieved significant population growth through complex agricultural societies, it was too late to go back to our hunter-gatherer way of life – it simply could not sustain the new structure of radically bigger communities.

What started out as a way of filling our stomachs more efficiently thousands of years ago somehow morphed into a beast that now controls us.

Agricultural Revolution: the ability to keep more people alive under worse conditions.”
~ Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens)

Our species’ evolutionary success has come at a high price, with mass extinctions in marine, plant and animal life.

Homo sapiens have destroyed much of their natural capital: 50% of the world’s rainforest and coral reefs are gone, over fishing has depleted our oceans and hundreds of tons of plastic waste is killing marine life and polluting our oceans.

Polar bear and plastic cone – image by Andrea Bohl on Pixaby

Many fish are going into the human food chain full of harmful toxins such as PCBs, mercury and other heavy metals. Our water supplies are saturated with chlorine and fluoride and our air quality is full of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).

Also, the process of biomagnification has a serious impact on human health.

Some time ago I read a recent news story about a new world record for the time and depth of a submersible at the bottom of the Mariana Trench (the deepest place on Earth). Among some wonderful new discoveries of deep sea species there was a more depressing sighting of a plastic bag on the sea bed – seven miles down!

Given the mess we’re collectively in, is it not timely to measure and define evolutionary success outside of the narrow criteria of survival and reproduction?

We have not considered quality of life and diversity on our climb to world domination. Especially not for plant life, the animal kingdom or our domesticated livestock, and not in many cases, for large human populations around the world.

The profits and growth obtained from earth’s natural resources are finite. We cannot eat, drink or breathe money.

“Even though we now have a decent picture of the planet’s climatological past, never in the earth’s entire recorded history has there been warming at anything like this speed- by one estimate, around ten times faster than at any point in the last 66 million years. Every year, the average American emits enough carbon to melt 10,000 tons of ice in the Antarctic ice sheets- enough to add 10,000 cubic meters of water to the ocean. Every minute, each of us adds five gallons.”
~ David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming

In part two I’ll cover the Cognitive Revolution, biodiversity and some solutions. I’ll aim to be more upbeat, but the facts are the facts, no matter how much we might wish they were otherwise.

‘Versailles’ Reigns Supreme in the Popular World of Period Drama

“I am the state.” ~ Louis XIV

If you haven’t already seen ‘Versailles’ and you have an interest in history or a love of period drama, you’ll want to watch it at some point. Ambition, conspiracy and danger lurk around every gold-leaf covered corner of Louis XIV’s palace of pleasure, Versailles.

The pure splendour and magnificence of the Palace of Versailles was ultimately down to the vision, determination and seemingly endless va-va-voom of Louis XIV, France’s longest reigning monarch.  He was self-styled with a rather apt sobriquet: le Roi-Soleil (the Sun King).

I had long assumed he was just another lazy and privileged monarch who breathed hubris from every pore, a fashion loving, philandering, power obsessed, party animal. But I hadn’t been quite fair to Louis XIV.

As the recent drama on BBC2 has enlightened me, there was much more to this king than meets the eye. And whilst some of my impressions are fairly accurate, what I had failed to understand was the context for such behaviour.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Charles Le Brun c. 1661

Portrait of Louis XIV by Charles Le Brun c. 1661

Also, it’s unfair to see a person as the sum of their vices, as Louis XIV had incredible energy and a love of outdoor pursuits. He was also a visionary; his obsession to transform his father’s old hunting lodge at Versailles, (which was surrounded by swampland and forest) into a palace that would eventually become the heart of the French Court and the envy of seventeenth century Europe, was his legacy to France.

‘Versailles’ is a new joint Anglo-French production dramatising Louis’s turbulent and fragile rule over the disjointed kingdom he inherited upon the death of his mother and Regent, Anne of Austria at the age of twenty seven. Louis XIV was her first surviving child after twenty three years of marriage to King Louis XIII. Anne was featured as a major character in Alexandre Dumas’s novel, The Three Musketeers.

Anne of Austria c. 1622 - 25 by Peter Paul Rubens

Anne of Austria c. 1622 – 25 by Peter Paul Rubens

At that time France was controlled as much by belligerent, powerful, feuding nobles, as the by the king and his court, and Louis’s main task was to unify and bring them to heel or he and his younger brother, Philippe I, Duke of Orleans, would have been assassinated. He started out in a very precarious position with his power and control hanging by a thread.

Needless to say, I quickly got hooked on it, as I always do with engaging period dramas. I could have period drama queen stamped across my forehead!

Clips from Versailles:

I am feeling bereft now that episode 10 of season one has ended, very sadly I might add, with the death of his beloved Henriette of England. However BBC 2 will air season two next year.

How will I last that long?!

Versailles was located only twelve miles from Paris but was too small for many guests to stay there for entertaining purposes. One of the things that struck me in the early episodes was the remote, treacherous single track road that led to the chateau. A few nobles come to grief on that quiet, eminently ambushed, wooded road.

It certainly got me interested in this period of French history. As with all period dramas, there is enough factual content to make it realistic and enough dramatic fictional content to make it addictive!

BBC link showing the historical and fictional characters of ‘Versailles’.

BBC Clips from Season One of Versailles, including  some ‘behind the scenes’ glimpses.

You can purchase/download all 10 episodes via the BBC website.

Season One had ten wonderful episodes full of political intrigue and turmoil, religious acrimony, plotting, betrayal, murder, steamy sex scenes, scandal, more bedroom action (both heterosexual and homosexual) and AMAZING costumes, all filmed on location at Versailles as well as in the studio.

Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) at Versailles

Galerie des Glaces (Hall of Mirrors) at Versailles

You really get a sense of how claustrophobic it must have been in the early days at Versailles, with all these power hungry individuals cooped up, seeking to either gain favour with the king or plot his downfall. Even in the king’s personal circle you have him secretly bedding his brother’s beautiful but neglected wife, a jealous Philippe who is still content to take male lovers, as well as the female rivals at court competing for the king’s frequent amorous attention!

“I could sooner reconcile all Europe than two women.” ~ Louis XIV

Even though the acting is great, (especially George Blagden as Louis and Alexander Vlahos as Philippe) and the script is well-written (in modern parlance), this drama has elicited more questions than it answered.

Inside Versailles

With after show analysis now popular in its own right, such as Thronecast for Game of Thrones, the BBC foresaw the interest this new historical series would spark in viewers and produced a short contextual historical analysis, Inside Versailles, directly following each episode.

These ‘after episode’ mini documentaries, hosted by Professor Kate Williams and Greg Jenner and various guests are really interesting and provide an insight into the how the drama encompasses the actual history of Versailles.

It seems bizarre and immoral to our modern sensibilities that a man would be permitted to openly play the field when he was married, but for seventeenth century France, infidelity was so pervasive that questions would have been asked had the king and his nobles not taken lovers.

Marriage was arranged purely for political alliances and to produce heirs. Rarely was love involved. In Louis’s case he was betrothed to Maria Theresa of Spain, daughter of Philip IV of Spain and also his mother’s niece.

Maria Theresa is handed over to the French and her husband Louis XIV by proxy on the Isle of Pheasants in June 1660

Maria Theresa is handed over to the French and her husband Louis XIV by proxy on the Isle of Pheasants in June 1660

The king’s preferred mistress, (his favourite at any given time), was bestowed with a semi-official position known as the maîtresse-en-titre.

As the most powerful man in France he was surrounded by beautiful women. Louis’s love of women is infamous, as is the long list of courtesans who had shared his bed and the title of maîtresse-en-titre. There were plenty of places and opportunities in which to have illicit trysts in Versailles!

Louis XIV was actually a very hard working king: he held council meetings three times a day, went hunting three times a day and yes, you guessed it, the royal member was reportedly active three times a day. He must have had a very healthy constitution and potent libido!

Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, marquise de Montespan, at the château de Clagny c. 1670 by Henri Gascar

Françoise-Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise de Montespan, at the château de Clagny c. 1670 by Henri Gascar

He fathered many children through his mistresses, most of whom he later legitimised and gave titles to.  Françoise Athénaïs de Rochechouart de Mortemart, Marquise of Montespan, aka Madame de Montespan, bore him seven children over a decade, of which four survived into adulthood. She was also influential in the legacy of the fashion industry in France today.


Louis XIV through his daughter with Madame de Montespan, Louise Françoise de Bourbon (1673 – 1743)  who married Louis III, Prince of Condé and their daughter, Louise Élisabeth de Bourbon, whose only daughter by Louis Armand de Bourbon, Prince of Conti was Louise Henriette de Bourbon, who via her marriage to Louis Philippe d’Orléans, was mother of Louis Philippe Joseph d’Orleans (Philippe Égalité), make them ancestors of (as well as the descendants on the direct legitimate male line from Philippe I) the House of Orléansthe July Monarchy and the current living members and pretenders to the throne of France, Italy and the kings of Spain and Belgium and the Grand Duke of Luxemburg. The prince and princesses du sang live on!

Philippe I, Duke of Orléans aka ‘Monsieur’

The relationship between the king and his younger brother and how they handle the threats to the monarchy forms the backbone of the drama. In ‘Versailles’ their relationship is portrayed as tense, tumultuous and at times, tender. Philippe is trying to make his own way at court but ultimately cannot escape being controlled by his older brother.

A tender scene from episode 10 as they are about to lose their beloved Henriette:

At one point in the drama Philippe, in a moment of utter desolation, tells Louis, “If you think it’s difficult being a King, you should try being a King’s brother for a day!”

In this early portrait of Louis and Philippe you can see that Philippe is wearing a dress. It was common practice to put dresses on boys in seventeenth century France until they were aged seven or thereabouts.

Portrait Of King Louis XIV and his Brother Philippe I, Duke of D'Orleans

Portrait Of King Louis XIV and his Brother Philippe I, Duke of D’Orleans

In an attempt to mitigate any sibling rivalry between her sons, Anne of Austria actively encouraged Philippe to wear dresses to remove any threat from his brother Louis. This obviously served to bolster Louis’s masculinity as King. Philippe was known to cross-dress at court, and although he was very fond of his wife, his real passions were reserved for the Chevalier de Lorraine, his official male mistress.

Louis was emotionally scarred by the Fronde during his childhood. His traumatic experiences from the uprising would shape his modus operandi as future king. He had seen how civil war ended for Charles I across the channel so it made perfect sense for him to take a different approach.

Instead, Louis launched a charm offensive on his nobles.

By 1684 his whole court had transferred from Paris and was installed at Versailles, then home to five thousand souls. Louis wielded his power with refinement and overwhelmed his nobility with luxury, providing distractions such as feasting gambling, hunting and extravagant parties.  As the courtiers were busy with every day court minutiae it took their minds off revolt. Louis very cleverly gave them the message, ‘You don’t need to rebel to get what you want.’

Philippe proved himself to be a brave soldier and fought well as commander at the Battle of Cassel. It was the only way he could see to use his talents and earn any personal glory as a prince of the blood. His success meant that it was the only battle Louis allowed him to participate in. He couldn’t bear to be upstaged by his younger brother!

Jean-Baptiste Lully was Louis’s court composer. This Overture to Le Ballet Royal de la Nuit is a great example of the pomp and splendour of the French Baroque period:

As well as incurring a hefty financial cost, there was a high human cost to building Versailles, which was highlighted by rebellious, disgruntled workers. The sheer scale of the works required thirty six thousand builders to labour under terrible conditions. Health and Safety laws hadn’t yet been invented so these poorly paid men who were sick of risking their lives day and day out decided to go on strike.

There was a terrible accident on 26th July 1668 as half a dozen workers were crushed under the debris of falling masonry. The king was confronted by an angry mother of one of the victims who had demanded to have her son’s body back, overstepping the bounds of conformity of the day. She was punished for her trouble.

Construction of the Chateau Versailles by Adam Frands van der Meulen

Construction of the Chateau Versailles by Adam Frans van der Meulen

In the episode Louis comes across as quite cold hearted over this matter, it appears that Versailles represents the glory of France and he is not prepared to let anything get in the way of that. To him, the end justified the means. Fortunately he did relent, and paid compensation to families of the dead and injured workers. Three hospitals were eventually built, including Les Invalides.

There were three distinct construction periods during Louis XIV’s tenure at Versailles – the first phase of expansion being from 1661 to 1678. Three new wings of stone, known as the enveloppe style, were built surrounding the original hunting lodge on the north, south and west (garden side).

Entrance to Versailles

Entrance to Versailles

During the second phase (1678 – 1715) two enormous wings were added, north and south of the wings flanking the Cour Royale. The large terrace facing the garden formerly built by Le Vau was replaced by what would become the Palace’s grandest and most ostentatious room, the Hall of Mirrors.

The third phase was smaller in scale, with the enlargement and re-modelling of the royal apartments in the original hunting lodge. This was undertaken after the death of Maria Theresa in 1683. Mansart began work on the Royal Chapel of Versailles, located at the south end of the north wing in 1688, which was completed after his death in 1708 by his assistant Robert de Cotte in 1710.

General view of the Palace of Versailles c. 1680s by Adam Perelle

General view of the Palace of Versailles c. 1680s by Adam Perelle

André Le Nôtre was the head landscape gardener at Versailles, and he had the unenviable task of draining swamps and moving forests in order to tame the land and create formal gardens for the king and his guests. Le Nôtre was held in high esteem by the king, as were his friends and compatriots the royal artist, Charles Le Brun and celebrated architect, Jules Hardouin-Mansart.

Culture and sophistication ruled at Versailles. The king’s schedule, starting with the Grand Levee was tightly controlled. A selected elite witnessed him dressing and lined his daily route to chapel. If nobles attended Versailles regularly they were more likely to gain an audience with the king to ask for favours. If you weren’t a familiar face to the king you were out in the cold. You had to be part of the public spectacle of the king’s life.

It could never have worked for a monarch devoid of charisma, but for Louis, it seems that he thrived on being the sun to the universe of his court at Versailles. In this manner he got his nobles bowing and scraping to him and his reign as an absolute monarch was a successful one.

It’s worth mentioning Louis’s most trusted servant and head valet, Alexandre Bontemps, who faithfully served Louis XIV for forty years. He was totally devoted to the king and was one of his most trusted advisors and confidantes. Bontemps slept on the floor in the king’s official bedroom. Not even a queen was allowed to sleep in the king’s bedroom.

There is a great scene in the drama (I forget which episode), where the king invites Bontemps to sit beside him in front of the fire in a chair with arms.  Bontemps hesitates and tries to pull up a stool, because in those days protocol dictated only a king was allowed to sit in a chair with arms, but Louis insists Bontemps is his friend and equal.

One of my favourite fictional characters in the drama is the overworked Fabien Marchal, the king’s beleaguered head of security. He is a curious blend of noble man and ruthless brute, and for most of season one he has a stoic and sombre countenance! He is kept rather busy, torturing and capturing the plotters and would-be assassins, only just surviving being poisoned himself. This is down to the skill of Louis’s female physician, who I think is also a fictional character.


Versailles after Louis

The drama ‘Versailles’ is portrayed as a hotbed of maneuvering, poisoning, gossip, adultery, jealousy, passion, pursuit and state business. The drama only adds to the sense that in reality, Versailles was one of the most incredible royal palaces anywhere in the world, with a history to match!

In the meantime, if you want all the insider details of what really went on in Versailles you could read the memoirs (in  three volumes) of Louis XIV and his Court by diarist the Duke of Saint-Simon.

I will certainly be glued to season two when it broadcasts next year… C’est magnifique!

A Weekend of History and Music at Warwick Castle

Visually, Warwick Castle has it all: towers, turrets and battlements, a drawbridge entrance over the castle ditch (which would have been filled with sewage rather than water), dungeons, sumptuous living apartments and spectacular views. Historically, you can’t ask for more…

East front of Warwick castle by Canaletto c. 1752

East front of Warwick castle by Canaletto c. 1752


The very first settlement at Warwick Castle was constructed under the rule of Princess Ethelfleda in 914 AD after the Danish invasion. One can only imagine the grim conditions our Anglo-Saxon ancestors had to contend with.  The natural mound at Warwick provided the perfect setting for this defensive garrison against the Vikings. The first true castle was built on the site at the behest of William the Conqueror in 1048, and since then it has been fortified, expanded and improved, providing shelter and protection for noble houses down through the centuries.

The new ‘Time Tower’ shows in great visual detail the entire ancient and amazing history of Warwick Castle.

Throughout its colourful 1100 years of history Warwick Castle attained its zenith of power and prestige during the tenure of Richard Neville, husband of Anne de Beauchamp, who was the daughter of Richard de Beauchamp, the 13th Earl of Warwick.

Richard de Beauchamp was one of the wealthiest men in Medieval England – worth around 34 billion pounds in today’s money – he occupied a position of power as Captain of Calais and England’s lay representative at the Council of Constance. He was active on behalf of Henry V in the Hundred Years War, when he captured and ransomed many prisoners, as well as overseeing the trial and execution of Joan of Arc in Rouen in 1431. He is buried beneath a lavish brass effigy in St. Mary’s Church, which is clearly visible from the castle.

View of St. Mary's Church Warwick from Guy's Tower.

View of St. Mary’s Church Warwick from Guy’s Tower.

His son-in-law, Richard Neville, was bestowed with the title 16th Earl of Warwick by King Henry VI in 1450. At this point in time the quest for power became truly complex and Machiavellian, when Henry VI’s reign came under threat of civil war from the Yorkist faction. Due to his family connections Neville supported the Yorkists, thus Richard Neville, aka ‘The Kingmaker’, had the power to depose the Lancastrian King Henry VI and back his rival cousin, the Yorkist Edward IV in what was known as the ‘War of the Roses’. After Henry VI was captured in 1455 at the battle of St Albans, as a reward for his support, Neville was granted a seat of power by the Yorkist king.

Looking down at the ruined bridge  on the River Avon from Cesar's Tower.

Looking down at the ruined bridge on the River Avon from Cesar’s Tower. In Canaletto’s paintings this bridge is still intact!

All was not smelling of roses for the ‘Kingmaker’ however, because Edward IV later married Elizabeth Woodville and Warwick’s influenced waned. He then plotted against Edward IV with his brother, the Duke of Clarence, raised an army, captured Edward and temporarily imprisoned him in Cesar’s Tower. Warwick then fled to France, having completely ditched his Yorkist alliances and later returned with an army to restore the imprisoned Henry VI to the throne. The ‘Kingmaker’ fought his last battle against Edward’s Yorkist and Burgundian forces in 1471, when he was killed at the Battle of Barnet.

His daughters Isabel and Anne were married to Edward IV’s brothers, George Duke of Clarence and Richard Duke of Gloucester respectively. Richard and his wife Anne Neville took ownership of Warwick Castle in 1478. After the mysterious murder of Edward’s sons, (the Princes in the tower), he became King Richard III in 1483. He commissioned the construction of the Bear and Clarence Towers. The Bear Tower has a pit which kept a bear for the cruel sport of bear baiting during festive tournaments. After Richard III’s untimely death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 the Bear and Clarence Towers were unfinished, remaining at the height visitors still see today.

View of Cesar's Tower from Guy's Tower.

View of Cesar’s Tower from Guy’s Tower.

The new Tudor dynasty didn’t want to be associated with Warwick Castle and it fell into ruin over the following 118 years. It wasn’t until the rule of King James I of England, when it was gifted to the Calvinist Sir Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke in 1604 for his services as treasurer of the navy, chancellor of the exchequer and commissioner to the Treasury, that Greville’s investment of £20,000 towards household improvements returned Warwick Castle to its former glory. During Greville’s ownership the castle was transformed from a military fortress into a stately home.

The Grevilles of Warwick Castle:

When the English Civil War broke out Robert Greville was aligned with the Parliamentarians. He placed guns atop the mound to defend Warwick Castle against Royalist invaders in 1643. This was the last siege that the castle endured. Originally the mound formed an important Norman fortification of the motte and bailey defensive system. The earliest stonework which replaced the Norman wooden walls dates to 1260.

I climbed the mound with the girls, and the view from the top is stunning. Low placards indicate places on the landscape, pointing out the direction and distance of Oxford, The Cotswolds, Stratford-upon-Avon, the grounds landscaped by Capability Brown, the hunting lodge and the church of St. Mary. The grounds that visitors can stroll in today are a living work of art dating back from Capability Brown’s first independent commission for gardens, which helped to pave the way for his future career.

William found the dark, dank gaol which is lit only by a small shaft high on the wall and the even darker, tiny oubliette fearsome and fascinating in equal measure. If you weren’t ransomed you weren’t much use to the Beauchamp family and would have been left to rot in that airless, fetid environment.


We peered under the grates of the pit in Bear Tower, scaled the ramparts, climbed to the top of Guy’s Tower, Cesar’s Tower and went round the Kingmaker displays in the oldest quarters of the castle.

A short documentary about the rich history of Warwick Castle:


There’s plenty to see and do both indoors and outdoors at Warwick. We spent two days there and on the Sunday when it poured with rain we saw the Great Hall and its historic armoury, as well as exploring the state apartments where Daisy, Countess of Warwick used to host her infamous ‘royal weekend’ parties in the late 19th Century.

The girls also enjoyed the special show and story in the Princess Tower!

Outdoors there are regular displays of the castle’s birds of prey, consisting of eagles, owls and an Andean condor, the largest bird of prey in the world, whose aerodynamic skills are demonstrated with the guidance of the professional resident Falconer. The kids absolutely loved this show.

Andean Condor in flight - low just above the log.

Andean Condor in flight – low just above the log.

Unfortunately the Trebuchet wasn’t working when we visited, (I hope it wasn’t because of this recent incident), but usually the world’s largest modern working siege machine, which measures 18 metres high and weighs 30 tonnes, does a daily display of medieval warfare by slinging a fiery canon to demonstrate its effectiveness at catapulting all kinds of unsavoury ammunition at castles under siege.

There’s also a Horrible Histories show (which we missed), and the Great Joust tournament re-enacts the medieval sport of choice for brave knights throughout August.

The Longbow

We all enjoyed the humorous and knowledgeable demonstration by Lewis Copson, the bowman at Warwick, who took his audience back to the 14th Century and the incident that inspired the creation of the longbow by two Welsh men walking through the forest. One tripped on an elm branch, and losing his temper decided to snap the branch. When he couldn’t he decided to attach some string and fired a twig at his laughing companion. Elm was used successfully by the Welsh, and later adopted by the English and their armies, eventually evolving into Yew longbows that were known for their strength and flexibility.

A bowman in battle had to be able to fire a few hundred yards, and have the strength to pull back 125 lbs of draw weight. The Warwick bowman’s Cariadus (Welsh for beloved) had a draw weight of 75 lb, the most he could physically pull and (he was no slouch).  The command to put the arrow in, pull back and fire was knock, draw, loose.

A would-be 'Kingmaker'!

A would-be ‘Kingmaker’!

In medieval England boys from the age of six would practice after church and before the pub on Sunday. Their bones hadn’t yet fully developed and fused, which meant that they developed oversized shoulders from pulling back over the years, and grew up with one side slightly higher and beefier!!

It was the bowmans’ expertise (along with bad weather and freezing mud) that meant the French were defeated at Agincourt in 1415. We also learnt that to test his bow was correctly strung the bowman would curl his fist, put his thumb up and place it in the curve of the wood. If there was a small gap between the end of his thumb and the string that was good. Hence the origination of the thumbs up sign to indicate that all is well!


Under the stewardship of the first Earl of Warwick, Francis Greville (who inherited the estate in 1727), Warwick Castle was ushered into the age of enlightenment and transformed into a civilised country house. He built a new state dining room, commissioned Lancelot ‘Capabiltiy Brown’ to landscape the gardens and paid Canaletto the sum of £58 to paint five informal landscape scenes of the castle.

South front of Warwick Castle by Canaletto c. 1749

South front of Warwick Castle by Canaletto c. 1749

The next three generations of house Greville: George, Henry and George spent a fortune on works of art collected from their travels in Europe, amassing one of the largest private collections of art in the world, containing paintings by Van Dyck, Rubens and Rembandt.


IMG_20150712_110156When staying at Warwick Castle why not try glamorous camping?!

We had a two day pass to the castle and an overnight stay in a King’s Tent, with full English breakfast in the big banqueting tent. These posh tents are right at the southern end of the grounds, and ours overlooked the River Avon.

William and I even managed to play a game of chess. It would have been wonderfully peaceful had it not been for the heavy machinery that arrived at 5.30am on Sunday morning to take down the stage from the music performance the night before.

Sounds in the grounds

IMG_20150711_193020On Saturday night we were treated to a concert by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra with Lucy O’Byrne singing some lovely arias in between their orchestral pieces. It was a relaxed atmosphere, families had brought picnics and the Pageant Field was brimming with concert goers.

When they played Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain an ace pilot came zooming above us doing acrobatics in his spitfire.

Lucy O’Byrne singing Ebben Ne Andro Lontana at Warwick Castle:

At the end of the concert there was a firework display and we managed to get back to the tent just before the heavens opened.


All in all a fun weekend of learning, exploration and culture.