Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Virginia Hall (Part 2)

“Those of us who had the chance of meeting her ‘in action’…  could never forget this very remarkable figure of the Resistance army.” ~ Count Arnaud de Vogue (Colonel Colomb)

When we take the time to reflect upon our lives a realisation emerges: it becomes apparent that the most pivotal, life-changing moments often arise from the most prosaic ones.

Whether we realise it at the time or not, momentous meetings, ideas or realisations can occur during mundane activities; leading us to explore our potential and  tread the path leading towards our destiny…

Certainly with Virginia this was the case. On a searing day in late August 1940, whilst travelling through Spain, (also a fascist state headed up by General Franco), but supposedly neutral, Virginia came into contact with George Bellows at Irun Station. She was arranging a rail ticket to Portugal from where she intended to sail to Britain. She did not know that he was an undercover British Agent, and after George approached her they struck up a guarded conversation.

Bellows learned of her daring ambulance driving, and the deteriorating conditions in the south, the so-called Unoccupied Zone under Pétain and his collaborating Vichy government.

Irun station early in the 20th century – an unlikely place for an important brief encounter.

Bellows did not give away his true identity, but was impressed by Virginia’s courage and powers of observation and was probably the first person to appreciate her potential. He passed her a card with a contact in London who he said might be able to help her with work.

The contact was none other than Nicolas Bodington, a senior officer in the newly created F Section of a controversial British secret service, SOE (Special Operations Executive).

Recruitment into SOE

The Special Operations Executive had been formed by Churchill on the same day that Hitler made a triumphant speech at the Reichstag in Berlin, tasking them with subvertion, sabotage and spying. He wanted SOE to fan the flames of resistance and pioneer a new type of revolutionary warfare that would enable the French to rise above their Nazi oppressors, ready for the day British and allied troops would once again land on French soil.

And so Virginia Hall’s date with destiny had arrived – she was in the right place at the right time – SOE were struggling to find and train recruits that were willing to be secretly infiltrated into France with no plan B if things went south.

On arrival in London Virginia had an uncharacteristic change of heart, not wanting to put her mother through any more worry and doubting she could be of any help to the British (which was hardly surprising given the amount of rejection she had already faced from the State Department).

She reported to the American Embassy seeking a temporary job whilst her repatriation was organised.

Virginia wrote them a detailed report of her recent experience, about the curfew and food shortages. She served as a secretary to the military attaché and, probably like most of the population, spent sleepless nights as London faced the blitz. She tried to get home for Christmas but was no longer eligible for an official ticket as it had been a year since she resigned from the State Department.

Now marooned in London, Virginia dug up the number George Bellows had handed to her in Irun. Nicolas Bodington invited her to dinner at his a house in Mayfair where he and his American wife put on a welcoming meal for her. She was unaware of his secret war-time role and his increasing frustration at SOE’s lack of success in infiltrating a single agent after six months of trying.

Virginia regaled him with her desire to return to France, now that her attempts to return home had been thwarted. She outlined how she planned to pressure her old contact in the State Department to arrange her visa, and how she would travel via Barcelona to reach the Riviera where she intended to help the Quaker refugee efforts and also report back to newspapers at home.

Her host was informed that as a neutral American she could travel quite freely around France…

The next morning Bodington hurried to the SOE office at 64 Baker Street and dictated the following memo to F Section: “It strikes me that this lady, a native of Baltimore might well be used for a mission and that we might facilitate her voyage there and back, and stand her expenses on her trip in exchange for what service she could render us.”

He became more convinced that her American nationality would prove beneficial and arranged her cover as a journalist with the help of the New York Post.

Virginia was duly recruited and trained, then travelled by boat across the channel at night back into France.  Nobody could have guessed just how effective she would be. Over several months she became their most valuable agent in the Free Zone. Her cover as journalist meant that she could encode intelligence in her published reports.

French Occupation Zones

During her first post in Vichy she won over Suzanne Bertillon, chief sensor of the foreign press in Vichy’s Ministry of Information.  The two became friends.

Not only did Suzanne not censor any of Virginia’s articles, she actively curated a network of 90 contacts (military, farming and industrial), enabling the collection of information on fuel depots, troop movements, and even knowledge of the construction of a secret Nazi submarine base at Marseille, which was subsequently destroyed by allied bombs before it could be completed.

After a month in Vichy Virginia decided her efforts would be better served by moving to Lyon, seventy miles to the south-east. Lyon’s geography and confusing layout was perfect for establishing an underground movement. Here she would be out from under the nose of the American Ambassador to Vichy, Admiral William Leahy, who had forbidden his staff to get involved in clandestine activities, preferring a strictly diplomatic route.

The traboules (a labyrinth like network of interconnecting passages through and between buildings), would become invaluable to the resistance.  Due to massive overcrowding when she arrived, Virginia was offered shelter by the nuns of the Sainte Elisabeth convent. It would be one of SOE’s best safe houses in the city.

A Traboule courtyard and staircase in Lyon.

Her first Post de Commande was the Grand Nouvel Hotel in the centre of town, where she registered under the false name of Brigitte Lecontre, using the false papers issued to her by SOE.

Virginia became used to changing her appearance, re-styling her hair, wearing glasses or a hat, and as the trousers that she loved to wear from her time in Paris were frowned upon by Pétainists, she dressed to avoid arousing suspicion.

The American Vice-consul in Lyon, George Whittinghill, shared her fervour for freedom and was recruited to her cause. With his help she was able to smuggle her intelligence reports to the American Embassy in Berne via the diplomatic pouch, where Colonel Barnwell Legge sent them back to SOE in London. He also forwarded on replies and money from London.

Reading Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of no Importance gave me a real sense of the daily danger and fear that she faced and the relentless loneliness agents experienced. The slam of a door or the sound of footsteps could indicate imminent betrayal or discovery. Informants were well paid. Dropping her guard for even a minute could prove fatal.

Virginia regularly took SOE supplied Benzedrine pills to keep awake and alert when operations required her to be up all night, or for days at a time. Under such physical and mental exhaustion the likelihood of mistakes was raised. It’s hard to comprehend how intense it must have been. Towards the end of the war Virginia found insomnia was one of the unwelcome side effects from years of regular Benzedrine consumption.

Another ‘supply’ was potassium cyanide pills, as Virginia had a licence to kill. They could be swallowed whole and pass through the body with no harm done, but if they were bitten into and the outer shell destroyed, death would follow within 45 seconds. They were a last resort for agents who, once captured, could not bear torture.

“There are endless nightmares of uncertainty. The tensions, the nerve strain and fatigue, the all-demanding alertness of living a lie, these are (the agent’s) to meet, accept and control. They are never, really, conquered.” ~ An SOE agent comment featured in A Woman of no Importance by Sonia Purnell.

Virginia suffered in the cold winters with little food under the noses of the Vichy regime, and risked running out of the special medical socks that kept her stump protected when she undertook lengthy train journeys.

Virginia went far beyond her initial brief of collecting information and intelligence by establishing a comprehensive network (hers was named Heckler), making Lyon the hub of underground resistance activity in the Free Zone.

According to SOE, Virginia had become the ‘universal aunt to all our people in trouble and anyone in difficulties immediately called upon her’.

One such SOE agent was Ben Cowburn (an engineer from Lancashire), who Virginia ably assisted whenever he was parachuted into the area on strategic sabotage operations. Hugo Bleicher of the Abwehr (furnished with information from the abbé Robert Alesch), began to close in on her network, and after a spate of arrests, Ben urged her to get out of France, horrified at the risks she continued to take. She had always put others first, even when her own life was in danger.

Having read of the torture methods Klaus Barbie employed on female prisoners makes her courage all the more astounding. She had told SOE that ‘it was her neck, and she was prepared to put a crook in it’.

Their respect and friendship was mutual, as both Virginia Hall and Ben Cowburn regarded each other as the greatest SOE agent in France.

The Resistance was still operating in small, separate pockets, with no clear overriding strategy, so were not effective at this stage of the war. Indeed, the assassination of a German colonel in Nantes had sparked brutal reprisals, including the execution of 48 innocent citizens.

Virginia was able to exploit the growing hatred of the population towards the Vichy regime and its German masters, giving rise to the possibility of establishing a national resistance movement that would be coordinated and strategic, working with the Allies rather than undertaking their own separate sabotage missions.

Mousetrap in Marseille

Despite her ‘diplomatic’ line of conversation with London, it proved necessary to have instant communication with SOE to arrange parachute drops of new agents and supplies.

At the time there were only two operational radio operators in France: Georges Bégué (working with another agent 200 miles away) and Gilbert Turck, who was captured by Vichy police after he was rendered unconscious from his parachute landing. He was given the code name Cristophe, but was later released on the orders of Vichy high command.

During September 1941 multiple agents and wireless operators were parachuted into France by SOE’s F Section; among them Jean-Philippe Le Harviel, who was to travel to Lyon to undertake the role of wireless operator for Virginia, and another agent, George Douboudin, Alain.

The SOE safe-house that all these new agents were directed to was the Villa des Bois, a gated residence in Marseille. Upon his release by the Vichy authorities, Cristophe had been holed up there. Unfortunately another agent who had landed four miles off course had also been picked up by Vichy police, who found a piece of paper in his pocket with a map showing the location of the Villa des Bois. From that moment on they were all unknowingly compromised.

Vichy’s Sûreté was more feared than the Gestapo for their ability and skill in laying traps and infiltrating the Resistance.

In the meantime, Georges Bégué (working for five fledgling circuits in the Free Zone) contacted the only other wireless operator, Cristophe, who proceeded to contravene security rules and invited all the known agents in Southern France to meet with him at the Villa des Bois.

Disaster awaited them. One by one, as they were lured to the Villa des Bois they were captured by the Sûreté, facing the prospect of imprisonment, torture and a firing squad.

Virginia, although feeling lonely in Lyon, had decided not to join her SOE colleagues at the Villa des Bois. Her independent streak urged her to decline, preferring to continue establishing her Heckler network in Lyon. And if her work wasn’t challenging enough, her new radio operator (Le Harviel), had been one of the men arrested at the Villa des Bois.

SOE’s radio operator’s (known as pianists), were particularly vulnerable to capture, either from the constant patrol of the Abwehr’s ominous black radio detection vans or through informants or betrayal, yet they were invaluable to Allied intelligence.

The ‘Mousetrap in Marseille’ that had captured two dozen newly trained and infiltrated agents had meant that SOE was left without a single radio operator at liberty in the whole of France.

Luckily for them Virginia Hall remained in the field, although she was not a wireless operator she was still recruiting helpers and resistance members and supplying vital intelligence back to Baker Street via Berne.

At that precarious time the success or failure of Allied intelligence rested on the shoulders of a disabled woman who had been overlooked and rejected for most of her adult life.

Masterminding and organising the Mauzac prison break

The twelve men (half British, half French) captured at the Villa des Bois, referred to as Clan Cameron by SOE, were imprisoned in ‘degrading and humiliating’ conditions at Perigueux Prison while awaiting trial.

Gaby Bloch, the wife of former French deputy Jean Pierre-Bloch, (who had been captured together) was subsequently released. She had spent much of January visiting her husband and struggling to win support for his cause. Jean knew of Virginia through the resistance grapevine and instructed Gaby to meet with her in Lyon.

Virginia must have recognised a kindred spirit in Gaby Bloch, and after hearing about the tough conditions her colleagues were subjected to she created a plan of action to get them out.

On a communication with SOE over the matter Virginia reported: “if they cannot come out officially, they will come out unofficially.”

Virginia then travelled to Vichy to meet with Admiral Leahy and used all her skills of persuasion to see if he could pull any strings. On the 14th March came the nugget of hope she had been waiting for – a telegram announcing that the Camerons were being moved from Perigueux to the Vichy run internment camp at Mauzac.

Her initial plan to free them during the transfer was aborted after she learned of their weakened state – there was no way they could run, plus they would be chained and their guards under orders to shoot any escapees.

Fortunately the conditions at Mauzac were much better. The Camerons, now growing stronger from an improved diet got to work on the inside, with Michael Trotobas giving them physical training drills every morning.

Also, their innocent games of boules allowed them to throw balls in certain directions and ascertain the time needed to cross between the barracks and the fencing, noting any blind spots from the watchtowers and which patches of land would best hide their tracks and getting to know the times of patrols.

Mauzac Prison during WWII

Virginia could not show her face near the camp so she drilled Gaby in how to recruit some of the guards as messengers and identify potential helpers. It was fraught with risk.

Supplied with funds from Virginia, Gaby travelled 35 miles three times a week to visit Jean and made herself known in the local hotel bar where many guards drank. She would drop hints about an Allied victory and the potential rewards for those that could help speed up the end of the war.

The first few guards who showed an interest did not work out, but the last guard she befriended, Jose Sevilla, proved true to his word. His only request was to be taken back to London to join de Gaulle’s followers.

One of Sevilla’s first contributions was to persuade the camp commandant that Watchtower 5 (closest to the Camerons) should not be manned at night, claiming it swayed in the wind making the ladder to the platform unsafe in the dark.

In order to smuggle vital messages in Virginia endowed Gaby with clean clothes, books and large amounts of food and black-market groceries for her visits, and her apparent largesse often meant she was searched. They did not find the tiny file concealed in one of the jars of jam, or a pair of wire cutters hidden in some fresh laundry, or the small screwdriver and hammer or tins of sardines for their quality reusable metal that were placed inside hollowed out books.

Virginia’s ingenuity teamed with Gaby’s extraordinary bravery meant that Georges  Bégué was able to collate all he needed to make a key for the door of the barracks, using bread from the prison canteen to take a mould of the lock.  Their choir group would sing heartily in the evening to drown out their filing and hammering.

Virginia drafted in a useful contact she had used many times on the escape line to find safe houses for the Camerons and to organise their eventual passage over the Pyrenees. She recruited a getaway driver,  arranged for twelve sets of false papers, ration cards and train tickets.

In a brilliant move they located a hideaway relatively close to the camp for those first few nail biting hours and days of freedom, when the danger of recapture was at its highest. Virginia’s field skills and organising abilities were being put to the test.

Virginia then had a bold and brilliant idea to help them finalise the plans and communicate with the prisoners – in the form of a jovial 70 year old French priest, a veteran of World War 1 who had lost his legs in action and was confined to a wheel chair.

His pastoral visits to the Camerons raised no questions, but on one such visit he asked to be lifted out of his wheelchair into their hut. Once inside with sentry’s posted at the windows and door he beckoned the men to peek under his cassock, only to reveal a transmitter.

Apparently Georges Bégué exclaimed, “Great Scott! It’s a Piano!” To which the priest responded, “Yes, I was given to understand that you can get plenty of music out of it. It has been nicely tuned… Hide it and, of course, forget how it got here.”

Bégué became adept at transmitting with London from inside Mauzac. Their escape had been planned to take place at new moon between 8th and 15th July. However, the newly made key did not turn the lock and they had to rapidly refashion the key.

Virginia and Gaby also smuggled messages to the Camerons within tubes of aspirin which were brought in by another ‘friendly’ guard. The men would communicate with them by throwing the tube back over the fence to a warder on their inside team, who would pass on the messages to a colleague he knew to be in contact with Gaby on her visits. He would slip the messages into the coat pocket of the friendly guard left hanging in the mess.

However, the message pertaining to the key problem he mistakenly placed into the mess sergeant’s jacket. On arrival Gaby was summoned to the mess sergeant’s office, where, in terror, she was confronted with their imminent escape plan.

However, to Gaby’s relief the mess sergeant changed tack and offered to help them in return for 50,000 francs. Virginia was able to avert this disaster by swiftly supplying the funds to him.

Meanwhile, the men had timed their movements to the second, as they would need to run to the fence in two stages and then work their way through several yards of barbed wire in the dark in under a minute.

Gaby visited Jean on Bastille Day with their children, highly anxious as she knew their escape would take place the following night. Shortly after 4 pm on 15th July Virginia signalled to the men that the escape was on.

Sevilla had arranged for the guard manning watchtower 7 to light a cigarette which would be the all-clear signal for the men to move. However, he did not appear, perhaps fearful of the consequences of assisting an escape; and the men waited anxiously.  At 3 am Sevilla, who had been monitoring the situation, managed to slip away from his inebriated chief and clamber up the tower himself, lighting a pipe.

This time the key turned in the lock and the men ran to fence, where they used string from behind the wire: one tug meant all-clear, and three short tugs signalled danger. Another friendly guard on patrol chided them to be quieter before turning a blind eye to the twelve men wriggling under the wire.

In a total of 12 minutes 12 men had escaped: Trotobas, Bégué, Langelaan, Jumeau, Pierre-Bloch, Garel, JB Hayes, Le Harviel, Liewer, Robert Lyon, Roche and Sevilla.

They were met outside by the mess sergeant and made their way in twos and threes cross country to a leafy hollow a couple of miles away, where their getaway driver, a Corsican named Albert Rigoulet, was waiting for them.  He whisked them off into the night unseen and unheard.

The guards only discovered their absence at daybreak, when a manhunt was launched.

It seems Virginia had thought of everything – she advised Gaby Bloch to create a cast-iron alibi for the day and night of the escape, and made sure she was in meetings in Vichy. She was arrested but then released as she was able to produce witnesses as to her whereabouts.

Virginia even got her local contacts to gossip about the escape, alluding to the fact that the escapees had been flown out by RAF bombers, thus spreading the idea that the men were no longer on French soil.

In fact the Camerons had hunkered down in a well stocked safe house arranged by Virginia, waiting for the fuss to die down. After a fortnight her informants passed on information that the police believed they were back in England and the search had been called-off.

They carefully made their way to Lyon by truck and train, where they were separated into different safe houses to avoid drawing attention to a group. Plans were then made for their international travel.

All 12 men eventually made it back to London, with some spending time in a Spanish prison.

Virginia and Gaby Bloch, along with other helpers, had pulled off a spectacular prison break that would become the stuff of legend in SOE. The official SOE historian, M.R.D. Foot described the Mauzac prison break as ‘one of the war’s most useful operations of the kind’.

In recognition of Gaby Bloch’s valour SOE arranged for her and her children to be transported to London to rejoin her husband. Both went on to serve the French security services in London and were recipients of the Legion d’honneur, with Gaby being recommended for the King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom.

Virginia continued her hard work in the wake of the Mauzac escape; that August she had worked with 25 SOE trained organisers and 6 pianists in the Free Zone, and 8 different circuits across the whole of France. She helped them with sabotage, parachute drops, intelligence-gathering and received two thousand pounds of supplies delivered by sea.

Escape over the Pyrenees

Virginia’s own escape from the Abwehr and Gestapo had been only slightly less dramatic. By October she suspected Robert Alesch of being a German agent, but by then the damage had already been done, and soon her network would unravel. Alesch swaggered around Paris, now a wealthy dandy from Abwehr cash payments, gifts of looted art and stolen SOE funds from captured agents.

Virginia realised that the recent liquidation of MI6’s WOL network and the impending arrival of German troops into the Free Zone meant it was time to get out of France. She did not want to leave her faithful informants but was unaware at that point of the extent of information the Abwher had on her and her network.

A captured agent of hers, Brian Stonehouse, (Celestin), who had been a fashion illustrator for Vogue in civilian life, refused to reveal Virginia’s name or whereabouts under the most horrific torture. His incredible bravery bought her a few more days.

That November, with the German military arrival in Lyon imminent, Virginia packed up some clothes and supplies and walked two miles to the station. She made the last train out of Lyon at eleven o’clock, by the skin of her teeth. She had told no one of her departure and the fact that she was travelling to Perpignan, 300 miles away.

The journey required a nerve wracking change of train in Marseille, under the watchful eyes of Gestapo officers. It is reasonable to assume that she knew the Gestapo were on to her and had assumed a disguise.

Once in Perpignan, close to the Pyrenees, she checked in to a hotel owned by SOE sympathisers and waited for her contact to arrive. She was known as Germaine to Gilbert, who arrange a guide (passeur) to escort her and two other agents (Leon Guttman and Jean Alibert) over a dangerous mountain pass eight thousand feet high. It was well known as a treacherous and difficult path even in summer, let alone in winter, and there were stories of passeurs shooting stragglers or leaving them to the wolves if they couldn’t keep up.

Virginia now had an unbearable trek ahead of her with her wooden leg, Cuthbert. Carrying her luggage, with a steep ravine on one side, they began their gruelling climb.

She must have combated the pain in her stump by sheer willpower, which was bleeding with the effort of keeping up with the men in heavy snow. Not even the hardships of war would come close to the agony she had to endure during her escape.

Cuthbert was not built for mountaineering and was beginning to crumble, the rivets slowing working loose under the strain of the climb.  Descending the other side proved even more tricky as she had to lean forward to combat the lack of flexibility in her false left ankle.

But she made it, and an official report at the end of the war described Virginia’s escape as ‘a record all by itself’.

As the three of them reached San Juan early in the morning, exhausted but hopeful, they were spotted by a Civil Guard patrol and questioned. Virginia used her Spanish to explain she was an American and that they had been enjoying the mountains. But, being close to collapse they must have looked terrible, and were arrested as ‘undocumented and destitute refugees’.

She had come within an hour of safety, but now found herself behind bars; weak, gaunt and suffering with a rash across her back. Virginia spent the long hours of incarceration trying to figure out how she could escape. She could barely walk now that Cuthbert was in tatters.

Virginia befriend a fellow prisoner, a prostitute from Barcelona, who was soon to be released. She smuggled out a coded letter from Virginia and passed it to the American consulate upon her release. American diplomats intervened, (likely with the aid of a financial incentive) for the Spanish authorities, and Virginia was released on parole a week later.

She gave herself two days to recover in the Barcelona consulate before cabling the New York Post for funds in order to help the people she had left behind in Lyon. She also pressured London to aid with the relsease of Guttman and Ailbert from the camp at Miranda de Edbro, as she wanted to work with them in the future.

In 2017 Craig R. Gralley retraced Virginia’s escape over the Pyrenees and recorded his journey in his document – Virginia Hall’s Steps.

Virginia had been SOE’s longest surviving agent in the field, where she had successfully cultivated vast networks, rescued various agents and laid the foundations of the resistance that would prove vital in the battles to come. She was already a legend within SOE.

Now that the wehrmacht had taken over the Free Zone a brutal and bloody crackdown had begun against the resistance. Prior to Virginia’s narrow escape, SOE agent Francis Cammaerts had warned London of the ‘reign of terror’ that would ensue, and indeed the central area of France was subjected to burning farms, shootings and hangings.

Back in the French field with the OSS

In the wake of the Gestapo discovering Virginia’s identity along with the scope of her Heckler network, the chief of SOE’s F Section, Maurice Buckmaster had ruled out her returning to France on a mission for them.

It was madness in his view, to subject her to such danger after she had been well and truly brûlée (burnt).

Virginia undertook an assignment in Madrid, assisting SOE in what she considered a boring clerical role, and on return to London convinced SOE to train her in wireless transmissions.

Still thwarted in her attempt to be sent back into occupied France, and wanting to help those in her network who had been left behind or captured, Virginia requested a transfer to the American equivalent of SOE, the newly formed American Office of Special Services, (OSS).

Both organisations had agreed to operate from the joint Special Forces Headquarters (SFHQ) in London, with the goal of forming groups of maquisards, who after training would be capable of supporting the Allied D-Day operation by performing strategic sabotage missions as well as hit and run attacks on German convoys.

Virginia now had a successful track record in the field, and was one of the few officers to cross over from SOE to OSS.

Sixteen months after she had escaped the clutches of Klaus Barbie, (who was now based at the Hôtel Terminus in Lyon), her pursuers were still as keen as ever to locate the limping lady.

Hôtel Terminus Lyon – now Mercure

Virginia had refused plastic surgery to alter her features, opting for a Hollywood make-up artist’s makeover into an old lady. Her hair was dyed grey and her face made to appear suitably haggard. She would wear long, full skirts and shuffle along to hide her limp. A brave move considering she was still a hunted woman.

Under her new OSS code name Diana, Virginia returned to France with another male agent (Aramis), disguised as a peasant woman named Marcelle Montagne. It soon became apparent to her that Aramis was unsuitable spy material and was more of a liability than a useful partner.

They had to casually pass Gestapo officers at Paris’s Gare Montparnasse, Virginia carrying her wireless transmitter in her suitcase, doing her best to resemble a harmless old woman.

After a brief stint with her contact in Paris, Madame Long, Virginia headed to La Creuse with the hapless Aramis in tow. Her local contacts put her in touch with a sympathetic farmer, Eugene Lopinat, who hid her in a one room ramshackle hut with no electricity or running water.

Her priority was to recruit, train and bring in much needed weapons by air from Britain to form an effective guerrilla unit. Time was running out, she knew that D-Day was not far off, and all agents needed to prepare the resistance for when it arrived.

Part of Virginia’s routine was delivering milk to the locals on her daily rounds, where she enlisted the help of the mayor’s secretary and the postman. Farmers and farm hands were particularly helpful.

Virginia at Box Horn Farm – her childhood experience with animals came in handy during her clandestine work.

“I cooked for the farmer, his old mother and the hired hand over an open fire as there was no stove in the house. I drove his cows to pasture, and in the process found several good fields for parachute drops.” ~ From a report by Virginia Hall to SFHQ in London.

In order to get a picture of German troop movements in the area she would amble along the roadside with cattle and sell cheeses to them. Nobody suspected the elderly Madame Marcelle, who in the course of her work listened in on their conversations, being fluent enough in German to understand and later radio the intelligence back to London.

A close call!

Having narrowly escaped the Gestapo with her epic journey across the Pyrenees, Virginia had another close call after re-entering France for the OSS. One day, shortly after she had completed a radio transmission to London at Eugene Lopinat’s farmhouse in Maidou-sur-Crozant, she heard an engine and hastily stored her radio case under some crates in the loft.

Still in her peasant woman disguise, Madame Marcelle answered the officer leading a group of German soldiers standing before her as to why she was in the farmhouse alone. With the most authentic raspy voice as she could manage, Virginia explained that she cooked and tended cows for the farmer.  The officer was not entirely convinced and ordered his men to search the premises.

At this point most people might actually lose it and give themselves away, but Virginia remained calm on the exterior, hoping she had hidden the radio well enough. Its discovery would have preceded capture, discovery of her true identity and certain death. A wanted poster from her time in Lyon had been distributed throughout the army who were still on the lookout for Artemis.

She could hear the place being ransacked and was ready to use her excuse that as an old woman she could not climb the ladder to the loft.

One of the soldiers presented an item to the officer and he approached her. Virginia’s heart must have been ready to explode as she prayed her fake wrinkles would fool him close up, and miraculously, he seemed to recognise her as the old cheese lady they had met out the road before. He held up a block of her cheese, proclaiming it to be good produce and helped himself to more, before scattering a few coins at her feet as they departed.

Shortly after, London agreed to a change of base. Two other agents she had been working with in the area brought her a smaller, lighter radio in a ‘biscuit box’. One of these agents was subsequently captured, and Virginia, now fully rattled, headed back to Paris to stay with a Madame Long to figure out her next move.

Battling machismo as well as Nazism in the Haute-Loire

Virginia’s final active posting of the war was in the Haute-Loire region, training a guerilla unit (known as the Diane Irregulars), that had been bolstered by two Allied agents that were parachuted in. One of them was Paul Golliot. They became lovers and were married after the war.

Painting by Jeff Bass of Virginia Hall transmitting from Lea Lebrat’s farm in the Haute-Loire in 1944, with Edmond Lebrat providing the power with an adapted bicycle. The original lives in the CIA Fine Arts Collection.

She was much loved as La Madone in this region, being able to supply sorely needed finances, weapons and supplies to the local groups that she was in charge of.  But she had to work hard to win the trust and respect of certain egotistical Frenchmen. A local Maquis commander, Pierre Fayol, who willingly accepted her cash and weapons proved less than amenable to taking orders from a woman.

He must have felt threatened by this charismatic and strong woman, and his enmity towards her made her job more difficult.  He cruelly referred to her as ‘the ginger witch’.

Despite Fayol’s hostile behaviour and attitude Virginia continued to work with him, as well as various other FFl leaders in the area. Their combined efforts severely hampered German reinforcements prior to and in the aftermath of D-Day, speeding up the end of the war.

In the wake of the Allied victory Pierre Fayol felt remorse and recognised the error of his ways, realising just how pivotal her role had been. He subsequently became one of Virginia’s most devoted admirers, fiercely championing her achievements for decades.

“Diane’s intervention made the proper arming  of our men possible, and consequently the rapid liberation of the department…well in advance of the Allied columns… All of us…esteemed the complete devotion to duty and the exceptional courage which Diane showed.” ~ Pierre Fayol


In the wake of Virginia’s success in Lyon and her leading role in organising and overseeing the Mauzac prison break, SOE put her forward for a CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire), Britain’s highest civilian honour.

“She has devoted herself whole-heartedly to our work without regard to the dangerous position in which her activities would place her if they were realised by the Vichy authorities. She has been indefatigable in her constant support and assistance for our agents, combining a high degree of organising ability with a clear-sighted appreciation of our needs… Her services for us cannot be too highly praised.”
~ SOE Citation for Virginia Hall’s CBE

Unbelievably she was turned down. SOE’s citation did not do her justice and could not include operational details for security reasons, but an internal F Section memo dated 21st November 1944  recorded her true valour: …many of our men owe their liberty and even their lives’ to Virginia Hall.

She had not been granted a CBE, but the following year, (in July 1943) she was duly awarded an MBE (Order of the British Empire), but as she was still active in the field so there was no public announcement.

Virginia receiving her Distinguished Service Cross from General Donovan, Sep 1945

The British weren’t the only ones who recognised Virginia’s bravery and effectiveness in covert operations and espionage – she was also awarded the Croix de Guerre for her unwavering service to France, and was the only civilian woman to be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism against the enemy by the OSS, which was presented to her in a low key ceremony on 27th September 1945 by ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan (head of the OSS) in Washington DC.

Virginia proved herself stoic in the face of unimaginable hardships, brave to the point of self-sacrifice and smarter than many men in the field who thought her less capable. She sought opportunities to serve, without the need to boast of her contribution to the course of the war.

“We know perfectly well just how much we owe her. Virginia’s spirit soared above the plateau, and for those who knew her from those days she was forever ‘La Madone’.”
~ Pierre Fayol (from his 1990 book Le Chambon-sur-Lignon sous l’Occupation)

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Virginia Hall (Part 1)

“Her amazing personality, integrity and enthusiasm was an example and inspiration for us all.” ~ Gerry Morel (Senior F Section Agent who Virginia helped escape occupied France)

My youngest daughter came home from school yesterday with a new reading book that she had chosen herself, duly presenting it to me with a flourish of anticipation. I could not believe my eyes when she pulled out a children’s book about World War 2 spy, Virginia Hall!

She did not know that I had been recently learning about Virginia’s life with a view to writing about her on my blog. I think she chose the book in part because we have the same christian name, but it was a wonderful, serendipitous moment! In fact Virginia was born only three days before me in the same month, (albeit sixty four years earlier),  and my maiden name of Haley means we also had the same initials.

I have been blown away by the sheer determination, will power, mind boggling courage and service to others that Virginia Hall embodied. Her example certainly puts everyday challenges into perspective, and I feel a desire and a duty to do her justice.

Virginia received such little recognition during her life; not that she desired it, her only aim was to restore freedom and justice, and in doing so she paved the way for not just women in the traditional male environment of espionage, but for anyone with a disability.

As Sonia Purnell so eloquently stated:

“The fact that a young woman who had lost her leg broke through the tightest of restrictions and overcame prejudice and even hostility to help the Allies win the Second World War is astonishing. The fact that a female guerrilla leader of her stature remains so little known is incredible.”

Virginia Hall went by various code names, sobriquets and noms de guerre given by both the Allies and the Nazis during her time in France. Her affectionate family nickname was ‘Dindy’, but her first code name for SOE was Marie Monin. She also went by Diana (the Roman goddess of the hunt) later in the war.

No matter the name, to me she is a total heroine…

The freedom fighters of the Resistance in the Haute-Loire affectionately called her the ‘Madonna of the Mountains’, (La Madone) suggesting she worked miracles, which she did!

The ‘Butcher of Lyon’, the brutal and much feared Klaus Barbie, was desperate to get his torturing hands on ‘the limping lady’, whom the Gestapo thought to be Canadian, and gave her the code name Artemis.

Through her time in hardship and silent competence in occupied France, the Gestapo regarded Virginia Hall as the most dangerous allied spy of World War 2.

Many of her methods of clandestine operation have been adopted as the foundation of modern espionage.

Virginia Hall’s remarkable life was lived out of the limelight, the antithesis of our celebrity obsessed culture, with her achievements little known about until now. Sonia Purnell’s thoroughly researched and brilliantly written book, A Woman of no Importance, casts a luminous glow of erudition and appreciation into the shadows of that ignorance.

Sonia refers to Virginia as an enigma – the very skills that made her so successful as a spy obscured the way to finding out about her wartime deeds and building up a picture of her character. Time and record keeping also added their inherent problems.

The author spent three years researching Virginia; investigations that took her in search of the scattered extant documents at the National Archives in London, the Resistance files in Lyon, the judicial dossiers of Paris, to the parachute drop zones in the Haute-Loire and even the marble corridors of the CIA in Langley.

As the first female member of the CIA Virginia had many obstacles placed in her path by prejudiced and inexperienced bureaucrats, but after her death her heroic efforts during the Second World War were finally recognised and celebrated.

In 2016 the CIA named a building used to train new recruits after her: The Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center.

The current (and first female) Director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, pays tribute to her female forebears, of which Virginia Hall is mentioned at 3.46 mins:

In order to complete Virginia’s biography Sonia passed through nine levels of security clearance, recovering lost files in the process.

Still some documents remain classified for another generation. The devastating fire at the French Archives in the 1970s meant more official files relating to Virginia Hall and her jaw-dropping exploits had gone up in flames.

But the account Sonia Purnell has written is not at all sketchy, it is both comprehensive and compelling – it reads like a thriller, making it even more jaw-dropping to know it actually happened!

A film of Virginia’s life is being made, based on Sonia’s book. I believe Daisy Ridley is set to portray Virginia.

Childhood and education

Virginia Hall was born on 6th April 1906 to a wealthy Baltimore family – and was especially close to her father, Edwin Lee Hall (aka Ned). Growing up she was athletic, independent, free spirited and took pleasure in flouting convention. What we might now call a tomboy. Virginia spent many idyllic childhood summers with her older brother on Box Horn Farm in Maryland.

She loved animals and outdoor pursuits, and was not interested in settling down as a dutiful wife, much to her mother’s chagrin. Barbara had high hopes of a society marriage for her only daughter.

In 1920 women were given the vote in America, and Virginia’s generation took a more active role in politics and enjoyed dancing and socialising, bridling against the restrictions placed on them by marriage.

She had a close call with an engagement to a local wealthy man, but he turned out to be a serial cheater and she broke off with him.

Virginia set the tone of her life to come when she wrote in her school leaver’s book in 1924: “I must have liberty, with as large a charter as I please.”

Her father allowed her to study for the next seven years at five prestigious universities.

In 1926 she travelled to Paris, which drew many fashionable, cultured, well-heeled and freedom loving young ladies from across the Atlantic. Virginia enrolled at the École Libre des Sciences Politiques on the Rive Gauche.

Here she found liberation in the bohemian atmosphere of art, music, literature and liberty that pervaded Paris, a far cry from Prohibition, rigid constraints on women and the racial segregation that was rife in her home country. Virginia was able to let her hair down in the cafes of Saint-Germain and the jazz clubs of Montmarte; mingling and meeting with actresses, singers, racing drivers, intellectuals and ambitious politicians.

This was the scene that had drawn writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and the legendary dancer Josephine Baker, who wowed audiences at the Folies Bergère with her Charleston performances and who later became involved with the Resistance.

Her time in Paris had instilled a deep love for France and the freedoms its society had offered her, and became what Virginia called her ‘second country’. In Paris she was able to be herself, revelling in the atmosphere of liberté, égalité and fraternité.

This vintage film gives a rare glimpse into what Paris was like at the time Virginia first lived there:

Virginia continued her ‘European’ lifestyle in Austria, when she moved to Vienna in the autumn of 1927 to attend the Konsular Akademie University, where she studied languages, economics and the press.

Being tall, slender, striking and sophisticated, she caught the attention of a young Polish officer called Emil, who took her for romantic walks along the Danube.

Ned must have been fearful for his Dindy and forbid her to marry Emil, and despite her fervent belief in women’s emancipation, Virginia obeyed her father’s wishes and ended the relationship. (It is thought that Emil was executed in cold blood by the Russian Secret Police in the spring of 1940).

By now Virginia had a working knowledge of French, Spanish, German, Italian and Russian, and a grasp of European culture, geography and politics.

During her time in Vienna Virginia sometimes encountered  fascist groups on the rampage, and on trips across the border she even saw Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party rise in popularity on the heels of his pledge to ‘put Germany first’ and his rallies in Nuremberg displaying Nazi political power. In Italy democracy was all but demolished; Mussolini had already built up a police state.

Virginia had witnessed first-hand the gathering dark clouds of Nationalism that would tear Europe apart just over a decade later.

Early career

Virginia arrived back home at Box Horn Farm in July 1929, not long before her family’s fortune was wiped out in the Wall Street Crash and the Depression that followed.

Virginia wanted more than anything else at that time to apply to the State Department to pursue a post as a professional diplomat, a career that was not normally open to a young American woman of that era. Only six out of fifteen hundred Foreign Service officers were women, and despite her extensive education and ambition she was summarily rejected.

This was undoubtedly a tough time for Virginia, as shortly afterwards her father Ned died at the tender age of fifty-nine from a massive heart attack in January 1931.

After some months at home Virginia left for Warsaw, where she had a job as a clerk in the American Embassy where she would earn two thousand dollars a year. Poland was precariously sandwiched between the military powers of Germany and Russia, and Virginia had great sympathy for the Poles, remembering her love affair with Emil. It was here that she received her first training in coding and a glimpse into the shadowy world of Intelligence.

However, Virginia felt that her extensive studies were being wasted in administrative work. She obtained permission from her vice-consul, Elbridge Durbrow to re-take the diplomatic corps entrance exam. Sadly she was thwarted again by the higher echelons of male colleagues, and mysteriously her oral papers never turned up (she had scored 100% the first time around) and so she missed the deadline for the application.

Frustrated but still determined, Virginia applied for a post in Smyrna (now Izmir) in Turkey, where she began work in April 1933.

Tragedy strikes

It was while she was stationed in Turkey that a terrible accident in the marshes, (where the Gediz River flows into the Aegean Sea), would change her life forever. Virginia had always been keen on hunting from her youth, and was using the 12-bore shotgun gifted by her late father, as her group set off to shoot Snipe.

Gediz River

Sonia Purnell speculates that maybe Virginia’s competitive nature and keenness to bag one of the ‘famously well-camouflaged’ birds may have distracted her and so she forgot to apply the safety catch that fateful day…

As Virginia traversed the reeds of the wetlands she clambered over a wire fence and tripped. Her gun slipped off her shoulder and got caught in her long coat. In trying to reach it she fumbled and accidentally fired the shotgun at point blank range into her left foot.

Her friends quickly tied a tourniquet, as a full load of spherical lead pellets had been blasted into her flesh and blood was oozing into the muddy, soggy delta around them. They rushed her to hospital, where doctors in Smyrna did their best. Virginia seemed to recover over the next three weeks, but a virulent infection had taken hold in her wound and her foot soon swelled up and turned black.

The head doctor from the American Hospital in Istanbul travelled to Smyrna to diagnose the worst possible outcome: gangrene.

Antibiotics were not yet available, leaving only one course of action to save her life. On Christmas Day in 1933, the doctors removed her left leg just below the knee. Virginia was twenty seven years old, and the amputation that saved her life was also the cause of her ensuing despair.

One can only imagine her misery at being in such physical and mental pain at that age, confined to a bed for weeks, recriminating and tormenting herself over her carelessness.

Naturally her mother was devastated upon receiving the news. Just when it was thought Virginia was out of danger and recovering from the amputation a new danger in the form of sepsis emerged.

The doctors worked heroically, changing poison soaked bandages and injecting her knee with special serums, a necessary agony for the patient who was often delirious with fever and pain.

The chances of surviving such a set-back today are not much better than they were back then. On one such night Virginia described having a vision of her late father at her bedside, instructing her not to give up. Ned told her that ‘it was her duty to survive’, but if she could genuinely not bear her suffering he would ‘come back for her’.

Even though Virginia was not religious it was a powerful vision which affected her actions throughout her life: the belief that she had been saved for a purpose greater than she could have known at the time.

She battled alone to survive, save for her father’s ghost and pulled through, now with a sense of resilience that she could handle whatever life threw at her. Her early convalescence progressed in Istanbul, but soon she was shipped back to the states where she underwent a series of repair operations and was fitted with a new prosthesis.

Modern for the 1930s, it was attached by leather straps that went round her waist, which chafed her skin in the hot weather. The pain must have been immense when her stump blistered and bled.

She undertook months of rehabilitation on the farm, learning to walk again whilst fighting off infections under the ever present dark cloud of depression. With true grit Virginia was working again by November 1934, posted this time in Venice, a walking city of 400 hump-backed bridges! It could not have been more challenging to her situation.

Aerial shot of Venice by @canmandawe on Unsplash

Her creative input on the dilemma soon devised a solution in the form of her own gondola. She won over a local man named Angelo, who would help her row and steady her when the sea was rough. Her natural charm was already working its magic as others seemed happy to go out of their way for her.

From her balcony she had a sweeping view of the Grand Canal, and settled into work at the American Consulate. Virginia impressed her bosses and undertook tasks normally reserved for diplomats rather than clerks. She rarely took a day off and never allowed her disability to interfere with her work.

She felt the need to prove herself even more so now she had a wooden leg – who she affectionately named Cuthbert.

Virginia was surrounded by a tide of fascism; Hitler was now Chancellor of Germany, she was working in a one party fascist state, and in Russia, Stalin ruled with a ruthless iron grip. Extremism on the left and the right had taken over through propaganda, sloganeering and unprincipled media manipulation.

As democracy was dying in Europe, she found herself a natural supporter of Franklin D Roosevelt, having been taught at Barnard by one of his chief advisers, Professor Raymond Moley. To her frustration America was still wary of getting involved in Europe’s troubles.

Virginia sailed home in January 1937 with the blessing of her boss in Venice so she could apply for a third time to be a diplomat. Her application was brutally rejected on the basis of an obscure rule that barred amputees from diplomacy.

Virginia returned to Venice dejected but determined to fight the decision. With the help of a powerful family friend who lobbied President Roosevelt on her behalf, he summoned the Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, who, most likely offended at having been side lined, insisted that Virginia was only capable of a clerical position.

FDR had overcome semi-paralysis from polio himself, to reach the highest office in the land, so it was ironic that he did not ultimately override the decision. It must have been painful for her at the time, but had he done so she surely would not have played such a pivotal role in the development of the French Resistance and the outcome of the war.

Soon after, in a humiliating demotion, Virginia was sent to Tallinn in the Baltic state of Estonia. En-route Virginia decided to stop over in Paris and spend some time with her old friends and have repairs on Cuthbert. No-one there knew that she was wearing special hosiery to disguise her wooden leg and cushion the stump.

The outbreak of war

When she finally arrived in Tallinn her salary was the same as it had been throughout her seven years of service. She noticed that Estonia had been overtaken by nationalist fever also, and the press was heavily censored.

Bored by her menial work, stereotyped as a disabled woman with all hopes of promotion dashed, and fearful of the future of Europe, Virginia resigned from the State Department in March 1939.

She was still living in Tallinn when Hitler invaded Poland on 1st September 1939 and so she caught a last minute ship to London, where she volunteered form the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army. Again she was rejected, this time on the grounds that she was foreign.

Not one to be deterred Virginia went back to Paris where she signed up in February 1940 to drive ambulances for the Service de Santé des Armées. She held a driving licence and was given a course in first aid. By May she was on duty near Metz when  Nazi forces broke through the undefended Belgian woodlands of the Ardennes.

When the Germans stormed unchallenged into Paris on 14th June Virginia was on her way to the Loire Valley to assist a retired French Colonel who was collecting the wounded and driving them 200 hundred miles for treatment in the capital.

The searing, stifling French heatwave of May 1940 was the backdrop to the largest refugee exodus of all time.

French refugees massacred by German troops in May 1940 – the sort of gruesome scene Virginia would have witnessed during her ambulance driving.

Private Virginia Hall had driven through carnage on the roads; past burned out cars, on miles of cratered tarmac strewn with dead bodies, animals and families seeking cover in ditches being attacked from above. She had endured enemy fire in the course of her duty, and looked on with scorn at French army deserters. For her, it was all-out war against the Third Reich.

By then the new far-right leader, Marshal Philippe Pétain had seized control and signed an armistice with Hitler on 22nd June in Compiègne – an action that signalled complete capitulation to the Nazis.

Virginia wanted more than anything to see France and her people regain their freedom and set off for London, where she was to find her true role in the battle for truth over tyranny.

Part 2 will focus on Virginia’s wartime activities!

“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.  Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centersof energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls…”
~ Robert F. Kennedy (from his speech at the University of Cape Town, 6th June 1966).

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Alice Herz-Sommer (Part 1)

“Every day is a miracle. No matter how bad my circumstances, I have the freedom to choose my attitude to life, even to find joy. Evil is not new. It is up to us how we deal with both good and bad. No one can take this power away from us.”
~ Alice Herz-Sommer

After reading a moving and inspiring book about the life of Alice Herz-Sommer (A Century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger), I’ve come to the conclusion that the word remarkable doesn’t exactly do her justice.

Alice Herz-Sommer was a phenomenon.

So many facets of her life were outstanding, her musical ability, her attitude and resilience, and her extraordinary longevity. Alice Herz-Sommer is known as the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor. She was born on 23rd November 1903 in Prague, which was then part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire. Alice both experienced and witnessed the highs lows of the twentieth century before she passed away on 23rd February 2014 at the impressive age of 110.

What’s even more astounding is that Alice was practicing her piano for at least three hours a day when she was 107! Alice’s musical discipline proves that playing an instrument can keep the mind sharp and fertile right up to the end. There was no sign of atrophy in her grey matter, which included her amazing memory. She must have had a huge hippocampus!

Alice was probably as close to a flesh and blood angel as you can get.

Reading about her life has frequently moved me to tears, and made me reflect and re-evaluate my own attitudes. You can’t help but be drawn in by her warm, radiant smile and the twinkle in her eyes, or fail to be inspired by Alice’s pearls of wisdom when you watch her interviews.

Even though Alice’s mother and husband were murdered in Nazi concentration camps, and she and her son endured the horrors of internment at Theresienstadt (Terezin), for two years, she did not have an ounce of hatred in her.

She never succumbed to self-pity, bitterness or hating; she simply focused on what was beautiful in her life. For Alice that was mainly two things: her love for her son, Rafi, and her passion for the piano and classical music. One of Alice’s sayings was, “My world is music. Music is a dream. It takes you to paradise.”

She was young at heart because of her ‘joie de vivre’, and perhaps her deliberate immersion in beauty played a part in her longevity.

Her childhood friend, Franz Kafka, seems to have summed it up perfectly:  “Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”

Several aspects of Alice’s personality stand out for me: her unquenchable and eternal optimism, her work ethic, her curious mind and love of learning, her early exposure to culture and music which inspired her career path, her gift for teaching as well as performing, and her sweet, sanguine nature. Alice seems to have been friendly to all who came into contact with her. These formidable attributes combined were greater than the sum of their parts, the basis and core of her incredible life.

Alice’s life is an example to all for experiencing a richer, happier existence in the face of the seemingly random vicissitudes that we all face at times. It is surely a gift to humanity.

Malcolm Clarke and Nick Reed’s short documentary film about Alice, The Lady in Number Six won an Oscar in 2014. Filmed shortly before her passing, it is a poignant portrait of a beautiful spirit:

Childhood in Czechoslovakia

Alice grew up in the heart of Bohemia during its cultural zenith. Alice had a twin sister, Marianne (Mitzi), an older sister Irma and two brothers, Georg and Paul.

‘Alice’ in Czech means ‘of the noble kind’, a most fitting name for a truly wonderful lady.

Her Moravian mother, Sofie, was raised in a cultured environment. Her parents ensured that she was highly educated and she became a fine pianist who loved music. She instilled her own cultural education as best she could in her children. Sofie’s parents were friends with Gustav Mahler’s parents, so they played together as children. As an adult, Sofie moved in circles of the great artists, musicians, composers, writers, scientists and thinkers of the day; such as Gustav Mahler, Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig.

In her wonderful book, Caroline mentions seeing an old photograph of a bearded man in Alice’s London flat, presumed to have been taken by her mother. Alice explained that it was Sigmund Freud.

Also born in Moravia, Freud had met Sofie through mutual family friends in Vienna. Alice recounted the story of a visit to a relative in Vienna with her mother in the late 1920s, who happened to live near Freud’s office on Berggasse. They would often run into him on their walks and Freud would always stop and engage with them in a brief conversation.

As a child Alice knew and spent time with Franz Kafka, whose best friend married her older sister Irma. She shared her treasured memories of him with the writer and pianist Caroline Stoessinger. Kafka would take Alice and her twin sister Mitzi on walks in the countryside outside Prague and regale them with stories. In Alice’s recollections of Kafka to Caroline she would remember him as an ‘eternal child’.

Kafka would often say to Alice, “Writing is a kind of prayer,” and although he did not know anything about music, he understood Alice’s respect for music. Alice mirrored his his sentiment in her view that listening to music, playing concerts, and practicing is a kind of prayer.

Through his friendship with Kafka, the journalist, biographer and music critic Max Brod also became a firm friend of the Herz family.

“Children must study music. It helps with everything in life. This beauty is always in my mind.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer

Sofie had taken Alice to Vienna with her in November 1907 to attend Mahler’s farewell concert of his Second Symphony, just before her 4th birthday. No doubt this partly inspired Alice to take up the piano. They chatted with Mahler after the performance and stood among the crowd to wave his train off alongside composer Arnold Schoenberg the following morning.

The Israel Philharmonic, the Prague Philharmonic Choir under the baton of Zubin Mehta perform Mahler’s 2nd Symphony ‘Auferstehung’ (Ressurection):

The theme of this symphony appears to be in harmony with Alice’s views on death, which were greatly influenced by Spinoza’s writings that death and life are part of the same infinity of God. Alice believed that the soul lives on without the body, as do I. She listened to Mahler’s epic work again and again, finding solace in the song ‘Urlicht’ (primal light), at the begininning of the 4th movement. The opening words of the song appear to have served as her spiritual theme song: I come from God and I will return to God.

Alice’s father, Freidrich Herz ran a local engineering factory, and was known to be kind and generous in spirit, something he clearly passed on to his daughter.

At some point in her childhood, Sofie had made it clear to Alice that Freidrich hadn’t been her first choice of husband, for she had previously been in love with another man, but had ultimately acquiesced to her parent’s choice of suitor. They made it work, but perhaps there had been some lingering resentment on her mother’s side at having to give up the love of her life. Alice remembered how her mother loved to play the piano, commenting, “It was one of her diversions from melancholy.”

A grand piano took pride of place in their living room, a precious heirloom passed down from Alice’s grandmother.

The Herz’s hosted many musical soirees and concerts in their welcoming salon. Alice and Paul would play Schumann’s ‘Träumerei’ together, Alice on piano and Paul on the violin, as well as sonatas and concertos.

I imagine they slept well if they played it anything like this:

“Music was always all around me. I mean live music, people playing or singing, not recordings. That came years later.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer (A century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger).

It is heart-warming to hear Alice reminisce about those early chamber sessions with her brother and how they stayed with her over the years. We should never underestimate the power of music in the home for our children.

Life as a piano virtuoso

Alice’s sister Irma, an accomplished pianist herself, began to teach Alice the piano in 1910.  In her lessons she imbued in her younger sibling her love of practicing. Their twelve year age gap worked well, as there was no jealousy or rivalry between them.

Alice was dedicated to improving and followed her sister’s instructions and guidance in the early years. As she progressed and showed talent and commitment, Irma took her to play for her former music teacher, the Czech musicologist and pianist Václav Štěpán, widely considered Prague’s finest pedagogue.

Alice performed an early Beethoven sonata at the audition, and Štěpán had been so impressed with her passion that he agreed to see her once a month (even though he did not normally teach younger children), while Irma continued her weekly lessons. A few years later Alice took lessons in earnest with Václav Štěpán, whom she revered as her mentor and friend.

During her time studying the piano at the Prague Conservatory as a young woman, Alice came under the tutelage of Franz Liszt’s former pupil, Conrad Ansorge. Whilst the brilliance of his playing wasn’t in question, it seemed Alice didn’t rate him as a teacher.

A vintage recording of Conrad Ansorge playing Mozart in 1928, only two years before his death:

She was surrounded by brilliant musicians who had been only one generation away from the immortal talents of Brahms, Liszt and Chopin.

Alexander Zemlinsky, (the founder of the German Prague Conservatory) befriended Alice. Himself once a favoured student of Brahms, he had been bequeathed the composer’s grand piano. She also learned from the pianists Wilhelm Backhaus and Moris Rosenthal, both students of Chopin’s pupil Karol Mikuli.

After Alice graduated from the conservatory Václav Štěpán arranged for her first debut as a soloist with the Czech Philharmonic, coaching her performance of Chopin’s E minor piano concerto. He also invited Max Brod to the concert, who was spellbound by her technique and tone. He duly wrote a glowing review, and Alice was launched in her promising career as a concert pianist.

“Stage fright comes mainly from caring more about what others think than about the music itself. The only possible fear that I might have had was of my own inner critic. But once I began to play, even that anxiety disappeared.” ~Alice Herz-Sommer (A Century of Wisdom by Caroline Stoessinger)

Alice took masterclasses with Eduard Steurmann and Artur Schnabel, but rather than inspiring her they impressed upon Alice the need to trust her own judgement, and in the process she learned to teach others.

It speaks volumes about Alice’s character that she believed her life as a committed artist in search of excellence came before her performance career. To successfully experience the latter, the former is fundamental.

Alice was a frequent soloist with the Czech Philharmonic and she also undertook commercial recordings prior to the Second World War.

Here she is, playing Chopin’s Waltz in C sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2 by memory with arthritic hands, just before her 108th birthday!

Alice’s musical inspiration

I share Alice’s admiration and reverence for the genius of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. When asked in a private moment in her apartment by Golda Meir, (who she developed a close friendship with in Israel after the war) about her religion, Alice responded:

“I am Jewish, but Beethoven is my religion.”

Her inspiration came from playing the works of the great baroque, classical and romantic composers, which included her compatriots Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, who had achieved international fame and recognition.

“When I play Bach, I am in the sky.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer

Her early duets with her brother Paul and her evening performances also inspired a deep appreciation for the works of Schumann, Chopin and Strauss.

Alice talking about how music takes us to another world:

Their family entertainment was mainly in the form of the Hauskonzerte (house concerts). It wasn’t just the Herz’s who indulged in this form of enjoyment; many families who had everyday professions were skilled amateur musicians and held house concerts.

Hauskonzerte by Giacomo Mantegazza

The word amateur is derived from the Latin word amator – lover – and during the Bohemian zeitgeist, music was, for many, their grandest love affair. I don’t think I’ll say I’m only an amateur anymore, because it somehow belittles the fact that music is an amatory activity.

I can’t think of a better pastime for improving memory, keeping your brain, body and spirit healthy, as well as bringing joy…

In her beautiful book, Caroline explained that Alice often talked about Beethoven, saying, “As I grow older, I appreciate Beethoven’s depth more and more.”

Alice would extol how Beethoven created new music dictated by fearless talent, breaking the bonds of established rules when necessary; becoming the first musician to call himself an artist, and about how he searched for meaning in life, keeping a journal and notebook of musical sketches and philosophical quotations.

Alice loved that Beethoven was free from conventional prejudice, standing up to royalty and nobility when he disagreed with them. She told Caroline, “Beethoven would not have been afraid to stand up to Hitler.”

Her love of Beethoven would provide Alice with moral and spiritual courage throughout her imprisonment in Theresienstadt.

“In the camp, I sometimes felt that I was protesting against the inhumanity of the Nazis when I played Beethoven. I could feel the audience breathing, feeling with me as they clung to their memories of a better time.”

Caroline marvelled at seeing Alice throw her head back in hearty laughter when she found a new solution to a difficult passage that she had already been practicing for at least one hundred years!

Alice’s work ethic is unmatched, because apart from her being the oldest Holocaust survivor, she was also the world’s oldest concert pianist.

“I am an artist. Some days I admire myself. Not bad, I think. But the longer I work, the more I learn that I am only a beginner. No matter how well I known a work of Beethoven, for example, I can always go deeper, and then deeper still. One of the rewards of being a musician is that it is possible to practice the same piece of music and discover new meaning without boredom for at least a hundred years. I study the language of music with the same fervour that scholars re-examine the holy scriptures. The artist’s job is never done. It is the same with life. We can only strive towards rightness. As with music, I search for meaning. I practice life.”
~ Alice Herz-Sommer (A Century of Wisdom, by Caroline Stoessinger).

She was most certainly on the same page as Nietzsche in his view that, “Without music life would be a mistake.” Alice had many interests to sustain her throughout her long and rich life; she loved poetry, art, philosophy and architecture, but she agreed with Schopenhauer that music is the highest of all the arts.

This lovely chat with Tony Robbins highlights Alice’s philosophy on life:

Marriage and Motherhood

Alice met Leopold Sommer in the wake of a personal tragedy. Her close friend Daisy had died aged twenty from an infection that could have been cured if she had had access to antibiotics. Alice was devastated, it was one of the few times she stopped playing the piano.

Shortly after Daisy’s funeral Alice’s friend Trude mentioned that her good friend in Hamburg, Leopold Sommer, had written her a comforting letter. She showed Leopold’s thoughtful words to Alice who then resumed her practice regimen. Leopold was himself a fine amateur violinist, also raised in Prague, but he had decided to carve out his professional path in the business world. Alice met Leopold at a Hauskonzerte hosted by their mutual friend Trude.

Their relationship quickly blossomed, and Leopold made many trips from Hamburg (where he was working), to visit her in Prague, and was there for Alice when her father died suddenly from a heart attack. As their relationship deepened Leopold began to seek employment in Prague. They decided to get married during a romantic walk around Prague Castle one evening, with the city lights glimmering beneath them.

Alice and Leopold were married in 1931. Alice’s career as a concert pianist was burgeoning, and for a time life was good. At their wedding breakfast I love that they both performed Beethoven’s Spring Sonata together as a fitting symbol of their union.

“I grew up in friendship. I fell in love with my future husband’s mind and his knowledge. In marriage, friendship is more important than romantic love.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer

Alice and Leopold lived in an apartment in the same neighbourhood as her mother and sister Irma, and Alice was gifted a Forster grand piano by Leopold’s parents. Alice practiced on her new piano and began giving lessons to young students.

Their son came into the world on June 21st 1937. They named him Štěpán after her beloved piano mentor, but he later changed his name to the Hebrew Raphael, and was always affectionately referred to as ‘Rafi’ by his mother.

Rafi was only six years old when the Sommer family were sent to the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt. He was one of the few children to survive; most likely because of his mother’s musical skill and determination to protect him.

Sadly, in 1944 Leopold was moved to Auschwitz and later Dachau, where he perished just six weeks before the camp was liberated. His last act before being wrenched away from his wife and son was to save their lives.

Alice spoke of how Leopold told her not to volunteer for anything that the Nazi’s offered; no matter how appealing it might sound.

Soon after Leopold and many of the other men had been deported, the wives and children were given the opportunity to be with their husbands. Alice declined as per Leopold’s instructions. None of the mothers and children who took the offer and boarded the special trains ever returned.

Rafi had been taught to play the piano by his mother, but around age 11 he decided that the cello was his first musical love. He studied in earnest at the Rubin Academy in Jerusalem and was fortunate to meet and play for the legendary cellist Paul Tortelier during a Kibbutz. Tortelier became a teacher, friend and mentor to Rafi, who, like his mother, was an outstanding musician and conductor.

Rafi’s sudden death at the age of 65, after performing a concert of Beethoven chamber works with his Salomon Trio in Jerusalem was a devastating blow for Alice. At almost 98 years of age, her closest friends worried that it might be the catalyst for her own passing, but their love and support and her connection to music sustained Alice through the immense sorrow.

Alice’s stoic approach to life and her concern for Rafi’s widow and her two grandsons also kept her going. You could forgive her for indulging in self-pity at such a time, but she told Caroline, “After all, I am not the only mother who has lost her son. Maybe I draw from the strength of Clara Schumann, who one hundred years before me lost two of her children, Felix and Julia. Music kept her going until she closed her eyes for the last time.”

In part two, I will cover Alice’s harrowing time in Theresienstadt, her immediate post war recovery in Prague, her new life in Israel, her formidable contributions as a teacher and mentor to her students, and her final years in London.

I feel it’s right to end part one with a video of her beloved son Raphael Sommer, playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Cello Sonata Op. 5 No. 2 with unbelievable emotional intensity and beauty:

“A sense of humour keeps us balanced in all circumstances, even death.” ~ Alice Herz-Sommer


Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Immaculée Ilibagiza

“The love of a single heart can make a world of difference.” ~ Immaculée Ilibagiza.

I’m staying in central Africa again this week, to pay my respects to a woman who Dr. Wayne Dyer referred to as a “Saint walking” and hailed by others as Africa’s Anne Frank: Immaculée Ilibagiza.

Fortunately her traumatic and gripping real life story has a happier ending…

Many tissues were soaked as I revisited her inspiring tale of survival and forgiveness. It’s not a lighthearted post I’m afraid, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Immaculée was just 22 when she found herself caught up in unimaginable conditions. She waited – starving,  silent and cramped for 91 days in a three by four foot bathroom in a local pastor’s house, hiding from Hutu thugs on a murderous rampage during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

I read her book Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust, a few years back, it was one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read.

On the 6th April 1994 the president’s plane was shot down during its descent into Kigali airport and his death ignited long-standing acrimony between Rwanda’s two ethnic groups: the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi.

Before Belgium relinquished Rwanda as a colony in 1962, it bestowed positions of power to those from the minority Tutsi group. After independence the Hutu population took back control, but simmering resentments of the preferential treatment shown to the upper class, intellectual Tutsis ran deep.

The government armed the Interahamwe, a malevolent Hutu paramilitary group, and made frequent radio broadcasts with instructions encouraging Hutu citizens to down their farm tools and abandon their everyday lives so they could assist the militia by killing their Tutsi neighbours and friends.

Their goal was total annihilation.

Photographs of genocide victims at the memorial centre in Kigali.

Racial tension and rancour was stirred up by the government’s evil propaganda, deliberately exploiting collective feelings of animosity that the Hutu’s may have felt since the nation’s independence. Hate preaching fuelled their anger. The Tutsi population were dehumanised as “cockroaches” and a killing frenzy was unleashed in Rwanda.

The West, the United Nations and UNAMIR, to their great shame, did nothing to stop it, which allowed the most horrific slaughter of the 20th century to take place.

Peace keeping units stood by and witnessed mass murders where desperate crowds had gathered. Immaculée’s brother Vianney was shot in a stadium massacre.

No mercy was shown to Tutsi victims; many of whom were hacked to pieces in their homes, on the streets, in the fields, in churches, in schools and wherever they were found.

In the madness that lasted 3 months around one million human beings were slain.

Men, women and children, (including moderate Hutus and those who sheltered Tutsis) were viciously murdered. Their killers callously notched up their death tallies. It’s as though they lost all shred of human decency, dignity and kindness overnight and became machines – devoid of compassion and emotion as they went about their systematic and organised ethnic cleansing.

“I realized that my battle to survive this war would have to be fought inside of me.” ~ Immaculée Ilibagiza

It was so barbaric that it’s hard to comprehend. I remember being frequently in tears as I read about Immaculée’s plight for survival in the midst of the hateful carnage that was sweeping across the land.

Two of Immaculée’s brothers, her mother and father and other relatives were butchered as she hid nearby (as instructed by her father), when news of the killings first broke out. Of her immediate family only one of her brother’s survived. Aimable had been away in Senegal at the time.

A sympathetic pastor hid (in secret from his immediate Hutu family) Immaculée and seven other women in the tiny space for 91 days. They were so cramped that the four tallest stood with their backs to walls and some laid on top of each other on the floor. They could only flush the toilet at the exact same time as the main toilet was flushed so as not to be discovered. Hutu gangs frequently searched the house, taunting and singing of their intended victims.

“They can only kill us once.” ~ Immaculée Ilibagiza

The women were packed in like sardines, unable to move and barely able to breathe for fear of being heard. Immaculée heard her name being called on many occasions and she prayed as she stood just inches behind plaster board from where her would-be killers skulked around hoping to find their next Tutsi victims.

She described the agonising fear of them being discovered, raped and murdered and talked of how her faith in God had given her strength to endure such horrors.

Nyamata Memorial Site

The priest had also risked life and limb to shelter these women, and he took scraps of food to them when he could safely do so. He covered the doorway with a wardrobe that had a suitcase on top. He would also leave the radio on so that Immaculée and the women could hear what was happening on the news.

They had to listen to the terror and live in constant fear of being found and wondering what had become of their loved ones.

After 91 days they heard that a refugee camp policed by French soldiers had been established for Tutsi survivors and left in the dead of night on their perilous journey to freedom.

It’s a powerful story, best told by Immaculée herself:

Immaculée lives in New York and married Bryan Black,  whom she met when they worked for the UN in Rwanda. He is now the head of Special Operations at United Nations Safety and Security Service. They have a son and daughter. She wrote her tale of survival and redemption against all odds and became a motivational speaker. What’s so remarkable about her is her grace in the face of such trauma.

Immaculée did not allow what happened to her, her family and her Tutsi compatriots to make her bitter or become a victim, but instead transformed her struggle into hope and inspiration for others. If that’s not the definition of a remarkable woman then I don’t know what is!

Most of us would be psychologically scarred for life after such a terrifying experience, but Immaculée forgave her family’s killers. She let go of her pain and her anger. There was no talk of revenge, only healing.

“To err is human, to forgive, divine.” ~ Alexander Pope

It seems that 23 years on Rwanda has come a long way to healing the collective pain, suspicion and deep rifts between the two ethnic communities. Inhabitants are now encouraged to say that they are all Rwandans, with no mention of Hutu or Tutsi.

Reconciliation has been ongoing and with some miraculous outcomes:

Fortunately women are getting more involved in politics. Under the 23 year rule of president Paul Kagame fifty six percent of MPs in Rwanda are women, the highest proportion for any country in the world.

Immaculée Ilibagiza is truly a transcendent soul, as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside. I wish her a long and happy life as she teaches humanity that it is possible to recover from the worst experiences life can throw at us and to thrive in the wake of such terrible grief and injustice.

“Faith moves mountains, if faith were easy there would be no mountains.” ~ Immaculée Ilibagiza

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd, (Warrior Princess of Wales)

On a cloudy afternoon in March my son and I stood at the top of the tallest tower of Cydweli Castle in Kidwelly, Wales. Sleety rain dispersed over us, cold droplets like tiny needles driven into our flushed faces on the crest of a biting wind. Panting and puffing, our breath mingled with the boisterous breeze as we recovered from a steep and winding climb up the tower, our feet carefully treading over centuries of narrow, worn stone.

Towers and battlements of Cydweli Castle

A low lying mist shrouded the rolling green landscape around us. On one side the view looked over the coast of Camarthenshire, a narrow estuary and marshland that had been developed with housing, leading to the village and the surrounding fields and hills.

Over a thousand years of history lay silent around us except the rushing of the elements and the occasional whooping of my daughters elsewhere in the castle.

We looked out over Maes Gwenllian (Gwenllian’s Field), about 500 metres from the castle, near woodland. The once stirring battle cries of the brave warrior princess, Gwenllian echoing silently down over the centuries through the legend of her deeds.

After I learnt of her story I was inspired by her courage and sacrifice and felt she deserved to be remembered in my writings.

Gwenllian ferch Gruffydd (1100 – 1136)  

Princess Gwenllian was the youngest daughter and child of Gruffydd ap Cynan (1055 – 1137), King of Gwynedd, and his wife Angharad. Born at the family seat in Aberffraw, she had four older sisters (Mared, Rhiannell, Susanna and Annest) and three older brothers (Cadwallon, Owain and Cadwaladr). She was said to be beautiful with long, flame red hair, intelligent and well educated.

After the French Norman Invasion led by William the Conqueror in 1066 turmoil had been unleashed across the kingdom. The Welsh lords had lost many of their lands and possessions to the Normans, who built impressive fortifications and castles in Aberystwyth, Cardigan, Camarthen, Pembroke and Cydweli.

These castles stood on land that had once belonged to the Kingdom of Deheubarth.

Map of Welsh regions c. 1093 when Rhys ap Tewdwr died.

It was in this environment of repression, rebellion and Welsh patriotism that she was raised. Even though physically striking she was no wilting violet, having been taught how to use a sword by her father!

Gwenllian was about 13 years old when she first met the love of her life, Gruffydd ap Rhys, prince of Deheubarth. He had received a warm welcome from her elderly father and promptly fell in love with his spirited daughter Gwenllian.

The couple eloped to Gruffydd’s castle home of Dinefwr in the Tywi Valley, Deheubarth. They had four sons: Morgan (1116 – 1136), Maelgwyn (1119 – 1136), Maredudd (1130 –1155) and Rhys (1132 – 1197). Gwenllian and Gruffydd were a kind of medieval version of Robin Hood and Maid Marion, making daring raids on the Normans in Deheubarth, redistributing their goods and wealth among the local Welsh population.

Their raids would surely have been an annoyance for the Normans, but no significant turning point came until early 1136, shortly after the passing of Henry 1st, the Norman King of England. His death had created a power struggle between his nephew, Stephen of Blois and his daughter, The Empress Matilda, in a civil war known as ‘The Anarchy’.

A revolt began in South Wales, where a Welsh army lead by Hywel ap Maredudd, Lord of Brycheiniog defeated Maurice de Londres at Llwchwr near Swansea. The Norman lord fled back to Cydweli Castle.

Sensing the Normans were on the run, Gruffydd and Gwenllian made the fateful decision for Gruffydd to ride north with his men to gather support and the forces of her father based in Gwynedd in the north. An army of that size would have been able to drive the Normans out of Deheubarth.

Battle and betrayal at Cydweli Castle

With her husband and the majority of his men away, Gwenllian and her sons were left vulnerable. In the early hours of the 28th of February 1136 Gwenllian received news that the Normans were amassing an army at Cydweli Castle, likely aware that Gruffydd and his men were away. Gwenllian had already decided to fight should the need arise, and after making sure her two younger sons Maredudd and Rhys were safe she rallied support from the local men.

Working men from the Tywi Valley left their labours to join Gwenllian in defence of their lands. Maybe she said something like:

“Men of Deheubarth, will you join me in battle? I am the daughter of a king, but you are the sons of Wales. This is your land, and the Normans have already stolen much of our birthright. Shall we let them steal even more?”

Gwenllian, the Warrior Princess, led her army consisting of her two eldest sons and around two hundred ill-equipped local men and by the afternoon they had reached Cydweli Castle. The short winter daylight hours meant they had to camp nearby. She decided on two strategies, namely lightning raids which she had organised before with her husband, while waiting for his return to launch a major offensive.

She split her troops in half; one group to remain with her at their camp in the woodland to the north of the castle, intent on cutting-off supplies to Maurice de Londres in the castle, while the other group, headed by a local chieftan, took men by boat to stop the Normans landing on the coast.

This may well have worked, had it not been for the traitor in her midst. Gwenllian was betrayed by no less than her chieftan, Gruffydd ap Llewellyn, who instead of cutting-off the coastal landings as instructed, met with Maurice de Londres and gave away Gwenllian’s position.

She had lost the element of surprise and was the victim of a surprise attack herself as Gruffydd ap Llewellyn and the Normans descended from Cydweli Castle along the banks of Gendraeth Fach, their banners fluttering in the wind. Soon they had surrounded Gwenllian’s camp.

A fierce battle ensued, with archers and dagger men, and eventually Gwenllian was felled from her horse. Her eldest son Morgan was killed trying to protect her, and Maelgwyn was made to watch as his injured but defiant mother was captured.

The cruel Norman Lord, Maurice de Londres, who instead of acting in a chivalrous manner towards a woman captive (which was the etiquette of the time), decided she should be executed.

Poor Gwenllian was spared being burned at the stake but was beheaded there and then on the battlefield. A gruesome but quick death. It is said that a spring welled up in the place where she died, fighting to the end for Welsh freedom.

When her husband Gruffydd ap Rhys and her brothers Owain and Cadwalar heard that Gwenllian and her two sons had perished at the hands of the Normans they were filled with grief and vowed revenge. Her death was the catalyst for the Great Revolt of 1136.

Revenge for Gwenllian!

The furious Welshmen attacked the castles of north Ceredigon, slaughtering the Normans there. They had a further victory at Cardigan in 1136, but Gruffydd ap Rhys died only a year after his wife. Of their four sons only the youngest Rhys ap Gruffydd lived to old age.

There is a touching monument to Princess Gwenllian at Cydweli Castle, and stories abound of her headless ghost roaming the field where she was so mercilessly slain. For centuries after her death Welshmen used the battle cry, “Revenge for Gwenllian!”

For decades after her death the welsh and the Normans battled over castles and territories, but eventually her youngest son Rhys ap Gruffydd (The Lord Rhys), became the greatest Welsh lord of his time. He regained many of the lands his family had lost in Deheubarth and won others to boot.

In 1159 he retook Cydweli Castle from the Normans avenging his mother’s murder. He rebuilt the fortress in 1190 and held it until his death in 1197. Rhys also claimed Cardigan Castle, where in 1176 he founded the first Welsh Eisteddfod. Thus was started a festival tradition that continues to this day. Singers and musicians have performed for centuries, long after the court poets, harpists and bards of Lord Rhys’ era.

Royal descendants

The title of ‘Prince of Wales’ may well have first been used by the Lord Rhys. He must have been a man of vigour as he was known to have fathered at least nine sons and eight daughters. There was a bitter feud between his eldest legitimate son, Gruffydd ap Rhys (II) and his eldest, illegitimate son, Maelgwn ap Rhys.

Two of his daughters were named Gwenllian after his legendary mother, but the younger Gwenllian (1178 – 1236) married Ednyfed Fychan, seneschal of Gwynedd under Llywelyn the Great, and through her offspring her grandmother, Gwenllian ferch Gruffyd became an ancestor of the Tudor dynasty.

Posthumous bust of Henry VII by Pietro Torrigiano made with Henry’s death mask c. 1509 – 1511

Through the Tudors inter-marrying with the House of Stuart, Gwenllian is an ancestor to the House of Windsor and also an ancestor of several ruling houses in Europe. When Henry Tudor landed in Pembrokeshire, Wales in 1485 to make a bid for the English throne, his descent from the Lord Rhys (and Gwenllian), was one of the factors which enabled him to attract Welsh support (Henry flew a Welsh dragon banner at the battle of Bosworth Field).

Caniad Hun Gwenllian

Gwenllian is remembered in a traditional Welsh lullaby known as the ‘Caniad Hun Gwenllian’, by Meilyr Brydydd (1100 – 1137), chief bard at the court of Gruffydd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd.

Sleep, Gwenllian  

Sleep, Gwenllian, my heart’s delight

Sleep on through shivering spear and brand,

An apple rosy red within thy baby hand;

Thy pillowed cheeks a pair of roses bright,

Thy heart as happy day and night!

Mid all our woe, O vision rare!

Sweet little princess cradled there,

Thy apple in thy hand thy all of earthly care.

Thy brethren battle with the foe,

Thy sire’s red strokes around him sweep,

Whilst thou, his bonny babe, art smiling through thy sleep

All Gwalia shudders at the Norman blow!

What are the angels whispering low

Of thy father now

Bright babe, asleep upon my knee,

How many a Queen of high degree

Would cast away her crown to slumber thus like thee!

Our Welsh sojourn was fun and fascinating, summed up for posterity on a blog with photographs (Wales is Always Poetic, Even in the Rain).  For me Gwenllian really embodies the spirit of Wales, wild, beautiful, patriotic, cultured and courageous, having left a tremendous historic legacy on the UK and the world.

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Baroque Painter Artemisia Gentileschi (Part 2)

“My illustrious lordship, I’ll show you what a woman can do.” ~ Artemisia Gentileschi

Not long after her wedding to Pietro Antonio di Vicenzo Stiattesi in Rome on 29th November 1612, Artemisia and her husband moved to Florence; where, armed with a letter of introduction from her father, she began her career as a professional painter.  It proved to be a successful and fruitful time in her life, (she certainly deserved some good fortune after the traumatic events in Rome as a young woman).

Self-portrait as a Lute Player c. 1615 - 17 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Self-portrait as a Lute Player c. 1615 – 17 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Florence and the Medici Court

Soon after arriving in Florence the ambitious Artemisia landed a commission from Michelango the Younger, great nephew of the Renaissance icon. She painted a panel, the Allegory of Inclination, for the Galleria of his Casa Buonarroti.

Artemisia Gentileschi - Allegory of Inclination

Artemisia set about educating herself in the spheres of music and literature, employing her beauty and charm to impress the wealthy merchants and nobles of Florence, with the aim of ingratiating herself with the powerful, dynastic Medici Court.

She understood that the appropriate appearance would elevate her position, so she wore expensive silk gowns which she managed to purchase on credit. She gave it some good, old fashioned hustle!

Saint Cecilia Playing a Lute by Artemisia Gentileschi

Saint Cecilia Playing a Lute by Artemisia Gentileschi

After all the struggle of her painful last year in Rome she had earned some success.

Her living was made mostly by painting commissions from wealthy patrons and for Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici and Grand Duchess Christina. She was friends with Galileo Galilei – excerpts from her letters to the astronomer, physicist and philosopher still exist.

Tragedy, however, would strike again in her life. The first three of her babies with her husband Pietro did not survive infancy, and her fourth, a daughter, was named Prudentia after her deceased mother. Like her father had done with her, Artemisia taught her to paint.

She eventually left her husband in 1620 after financial problems arose, returning to Rome in 1621. She spent a decade travelling Europe, painting in Genoa, Venice and England (where she was reunited with her father at the court of Charles I), before settling permanently in Naples.

A View of the Bay of Naples by Giovanni Battista Lusieri

A View of the Bay of Naples by Giovanni Battista Lusieri

Before the unification of Italy in the nineteenth century, Naples came under Spanish rule when it was the largest commercial, cultural city on the Mediterranean. In Artemisia’s day it was three times the size of Rome. She spent the last years of her life in Naples and continued painting into her sixties. She taught male students and collaborated with other painters during this time.

Judith and Holofernes

The biblical story from the Book of Judith tells of how the beautiful Israelite widow Judith bravely slays the Assyrian General, Holofernes, in order to save the people of her homeland, (the city of Bethulia). It proved a popular subject in Renaissance and Baroque art.

In return for sparing her life and that of her family, Judith had promised Holofernes a secret route into the city in an act of apparent betrayal. Due to his desire for her he admitted her to his tent and gave her free access to the Assyrian camp. Being Jewish, Judith would have taken her own food with her and perhaps a maidservant.

Thinking that his personal conquest of Judith is assured, Holofernes lets down his guard and drinks himself into a stupor. As he sleeps, Judith summons up her courage to decapitate him using his sword. The two women put his head in a sack and sneak out of the camp. The next morning, as the head of Holofernes is displayed on the battlements and the rest of his body is discovered, his men flee, having lost their leader and, quite literally, head of the army.

The chaste Judith ( a female version of David and Goliath), is victorious and has been depicted many times as the triumph of virtue overcoming vice, chastity overcoming lust and humility overcoming pride.

With her penchant for painting  powerful women: heroines of immense strength and courage, imbued with a healthy dose of vulnerability, it’s no surprise that she painted four canvases of Judith and Holofernes.

Of all the paintings and sculptures that were created by artists of the era, (including Caravaggio), to me, hers are the most violent, visceral and real.  The graphic violence of Artemisia’s depictions is staggering when compared to the more sanitised versions (except maybe Caravaggio), considering the other artists were all men.

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1614-18. Pitti Palace Florence

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1620 -21. Uffizi Gallery Florence

When I look at the Florence painting it shows me rage. Pure, unadulterated rage and it’s horrible to look at. It’s as if she has transferred all her anger towards Agostino Tassi and the suffering she endured from inquisition style torture at the hands of the ‘establishment’, and laid it bare for people to witness hundreds of years after her brush covered the canvas.

It is similar in composition to Caravaggio’s version painted earlier in 1599, but in Caravaggio’s Judith is somewhat detached from her grisly deed, whereas in Artemisia’s paintings she’s putting all her physical effort and force into her unpleasant task. The look on Holofernes’s face (or is it Agostino’s face?) is chilling.  Certainly Judith is a self-portrait of Artemisia.

The injustice she felt and the cruelty she experienced is expressed through her art. Artemisia put herself into her work, and her art speaks to me as a woman.  Art historians might disagree with me, but that’s my humble opinion.

Her earlier painting of Judith Beheading Holofernes (where she is wearing a blue dress) shows the pure horror of her act: there is blood seeping into the mattress and spurting everywhere, but she is determined to kill Holofernes and thus eradicate tyranny.

Judith Slaying Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1611-12. Commissioned by the King of Naples now haning in the Capodimonte Museum, Naples.

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1611-12. Commissioned by the King of Naples now hanging in the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples.

The other two pictures of the aftermath, where the head of Holofernes is being placed in a basket/bag are equally arresting. Again, there are many versions by different artists, and even compared to one by her father, Orazio, Artemisia’s 1625 version (now in the Detroit Institute of Art) has a sense of realism that makes your hairs stand on end.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes c. 1625

Judith with the Head of Holofernes c. 1625

The golden silk sheen of Judith’s dress is almost luminescent under the flame, and her skin glows in the candlelight in comparison to the pervading darkness inside the tent. This shade of yellow has been labelled as ‘Artemisia Gold’.

It’s as though, having done her deed, Judith and her maidservant pause as they hear a sound outside the tent. Discovery would have meant certain death, so the two women are momentarily still, not yet able to make their escape. It’s claustrophobic, dramatic and totally brilliant!

Judith and her Maidservant by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1612-13. Housed in the Pitti Palace, Florence

Judith and her Maidservant by Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1612-13. Housed in the Pitti Palace, Florence

Other paintings

Here is a selection of her heroines and biblical characters, proving that she didn’t just do gore and slaughter!

Clio the Muse of History c. 1632 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Clio the Muse of History c. 1632 by Artemisia Gentileschi

The Birth of St. John the Baptist by Artemisia Gentileschi. Commissioned by Philip IV of Spain

The Birth of St. John the Baptist by Artemisia Gentileschi. Commissioned by Philip IV of Spain

Danaë by Artemisia Gentileschi

Danaë by Artemisia Gentileschi

Esther_before_Ahasuerus c. 1628 - 35 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Esther before Ahasuerus c. 1628 – 35 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Lot and his Daughters by Artemisia Gentileschi

Lot and his Daughters by Artemisia Gentileschi

Sleeping Venus by Artemisia Gentileschi

Sleeping Venus by Artemisia Gentileschi

Lucretia c. 1620 -21 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Lucretia c. 1620 -21 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Cleopatra by Artemisia Gentileschi

Cleopatra by Artemisia Gentileschi

Jael and Sisera c. 1620 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Jael and Sisera c. 1620 by Artemisia Gentileschi

The Penitent Mary Magdalen c. 1615 - 16 by Artemisia Gentileschi

The Penitent Mary Magdalen c. 1615 – 16 by Artemisia Gentileschi

Although there were other notable baroque women painters, I feel it is Artemisia who suffered and struggled the most for her art, who laid down the gauntlet to the male art establishment that said, “I’m as good as any of you.” Art was very much a gentleman’s club in the baroque era, and Artemisia soon discovered that they weren’t all gentlemen either!

She was an artist with an edge, certainly living on it most of the time. Her work has such a robust and natural quality, and perhaps her infamous status after the rape trial set her apart as a bit of a curiosity, freeing her up to create such incredible works without the usual constraints that women of the time lived within.

Her early trauma seems to have been the catalyst for her career. I don’t think she would have made such an impact as an artist without the emotional intensity behind her painting.

Portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1623 - 26 by Simon Vouet

Portrait of Artemisia Gentileschi c. 1623 – 26 by Simon Vouet

She and I would have had quite a bit in common, (centuries, circumstances and talents notwithstanding). Being as I can’t have a conversation with her, the next best thing is to admire her art and study her life. She deserves to be remembered.

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Baroque Painter Artemisia Gentileschi (Part 1)

“I have made a solemn vow never to send my drawings because people have cheated me. In particular, just today I found…that, having done a drawing of souls in Purgatory for the Bishop of St. Gata, he, in order to spend less, commissioned another painter to do the painting using my work. If I were a man, I can’t imagine it would have turned out this way.” ~ Artemisia Gentileschi (from a letter to patron Don Antonio Ruffo, November 13, 1649.)

From what I have gleaned in my research and seen with my own eyes of her paintings; Artemisia Gentileschi was a strong, spirited, determined, talented, fearless and voluptuous artist; who possessed bright, fierce eyes that communicate her emotions from her canvases. In pigment she exudes a powerful energy that is completely captivating. In real life she must have been a force of nature!

Artemisia Gentileschi (8th July 1583 – 1656)

Much of her work has been lost, sidelined and misattributed through the centuries, but has recently been restored, revered and rightly honoured.

Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting by Artemisia Gentileschi. Thought to have been in the collection of Charles I.

Self-portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura) by Artemisia Gentileschi, circa 1638-9, commissioned by Charles I in London. It is now housed in Hampton Court Palace.

If ever there was a body of work that deserved the mantle of ‘art imitating life’ it was hers.

She painted mostly biblical scenes and heroines – strong female protagonists from history and mythology, in a way that was natural and worthy of a Caravaggista.

She truly mastered the Baroque painting technique developed by Caravaggio, known as chiaroscuro, in which light and shadow are sharply contrasted. Only a heroine could have done that…

What she achieved as an artist of the post Renaissance era in a heavily male dominated field (only seven percent of the self-portraits by western art’s most revered masters hanging on the walls of the Vasari Corridor are by women), is just astounding. There were so many obstacles to her success and although she is one of history’s most accomplished female artists of the baroque period, she was never recognised as much as she deserved to be in her lifetime.

The Vasari Corridor running from the Uffizi Gallery on the right, turning into the Ponte Vecchio Bridge to join the Palazzo Pitti.

The Vasari Corridor running from the Uffizi Gallery on the right, turning into the Ponte Vecchio Bridge to join the Palazzo Pitti.

Alas, the stories of many great painters, writers, poets, sculptors and composers share this unfair narrative arc of neglect, both male and female.

“Artemisia has suffered a scholarly neglect that is unthinkable for an artist of her calibre.” ~ Art Historian Mary D Garrard

Artemisia Gentileschi’s childhood and teenage years

Born on 8th July 1593 in Rome to a well-known, established painter, Orazio Gentileschi and his wife, Prudentia Montone, Artemisia grew up being greatly influenced by her father’s trade. At that time in history it would have been impossible for a young girl to receive training in the arts, unless from a parent. She would have learnt to draw, mix paints and watch her father painting in his studio from a very early age.

Young woman playing a violin by Orazio Gentileschi - obviously a very good likeness of his beloved daughter - Artemisia Gentileschi!

Young woman playing a violin by Orazio Gentileschi – obviously a remarkable resemblance of his beloved daughter – Artemisia Gentileschi!

Her mother died in childbirth when Artemisia was just twelve years old, leaving her with her father and in the role of surrogate mother to her three younger brothers. No easy task at the same time as dealing with her own grief.

I love the fact that her father (who was a friend and follower of Caravaggio and Tenebrism), admired her talent regardless of her gender, with no regard for his ego, stating that he could teach her no longer when she turned 15. He then turned to another painter to continue her tutelage.

Rome, although home to the Pope and The Vatican was far from being pure and sin free. After the sun’s pink and orange hues faded from the sky above its historic spires, statues and domed rooftops, its illustrious streets witnessed many deeds of depravity, when parts of the city transformed into a cesspool of vice and crime.

Criminals were swiftly dealt with, (usually on the Piazza di Ponte), where public executions and beheadings were common.  The bodies of these unfortunate souls were left exposed to passers by on the Ponte Sant’ Angelo. It was noted that on such occasions the waters of the Tiber ran red…

Ponte Sant' Angelo, Rome

Ponte Sant’ Angelo, Rome

Orazio Gentileschi was understandably keen to protect his only daughter from such goings on; she was vulnerable until she could marry.  Seventeenth Century Italy was very much a patriarchal society where women were often either classed as virtuous or sinful. If a woman lost her virginity outside of marriage (and therefore her reputation), it frequently led to a life of prostitution.

It seems that despite his best intentions for his daughter, Artemisia’s father unwittingly played a hand in one of the most traumatic experiences of her life when she was eighteen years old.

Rape of Artemisia Gentileschi by Agostino Tassi (1578 – 1644)

Agostino Tassi, self-portrait

Agostino Tassi, self-portrait

As Orazio had worked with a painter of frescoes, Agostino Tassi, at the Palazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosi in Rome, he trusted him to further Artemisia’s training. At the time of the rape (in spring of 1611), with his wife missing, assumed dead, Tassi struck.

One afternoon during one of Artemisia’s lessons, Tassi’s lechery turned into a sexual assault when he accosted Artemisia in her father’s studio. She fled upstairs in an attempt to escape but he followed her, forced her into the bedroom and raped her.

Sadly, the only other woman in her life, a family friend Tuzia, who rented an apartment at the premises did not come to her aid.

Not only was this a traumatic physical and emotional experience (one that she initially kept from her father), but it spelled disaster for her reputation and marriage prospects. It is thought that Tassi promised he would marry her and she had no choice but to accept. Under that expectation and agreement they had sexual relations for a further year, until it emerged that Tassi’s wife was actually still alive (it was rumoured he had hired men to kill her).

This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Orazio Gentileschi, who was outraged that his daughter’s purity (and therefore prospects) had been violated by a trusted friend without the promised restoration to his family’s honour. He duly launched court proceedings against the scoundrel Tassi in 1612.

Portrait of Orazio Gentileschi by Giovanni Battista Cecchi, after Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Line engraving, possibly late 18th century

Portrait of Orazio Gentileschi by Giovanni Battista Cecchi, after Sir Anthony Van Dyck. Line engraving, possibly late 18th century currently held by the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The case was unprecedented, and with his daughter’s character in tatters through no fault of her own, Orazio wrote to Pope Paul V (who unfortunately was a patron of Tassi’s), to claim reparation for such a wrongdoing to their family name.

He may have been a talented artist, but Agostino Tassi was no gentleman. He was a serial liar, a serial rapist (having also defiled his own sister-in-law) stolen a painting from Orazio’s studio, as well as planning the murder of his wife. The kind of person we might label today as a low-life scumbag!

There would have been no counselling and support for the victim of this sordid affair, Artemisia herself. It must have been a very confusing, frightening and terrible time for her under such an intense spotlight in court and as a subject of notoriety in the gossip circles of Rome.

What follows is a graphic extract recorded by a court notary during the trial in Rome, where Artemisia describes the moment of the rape. The ancient transcriptions of the case are held at the Rome State Archive:

“I felt a strong burning and it hurt very much, but because he held my mouth, I couldn’t cry out. However, I tried to scream as best I could, calling Tuzia. I scratched his face and pulled his hair, and before he penetrated me again I grasped his penis so tight that I even removed a piece of flesh. All this didn’t bother him at all, and he continued to do his business.” ~ Artemisia Gentileschi.

Throughout the trial Artemisia was subjected to horrific examinations and torture with instruments such as the thumbscrew, which strongly shaped her psychological development and her future artwork.

Susanna and the Elders

Artemisia_Gentileschi - Susanna_and_the_Elders_(1610)

Susanna and the Elders by Artemisia Gentileschi circa 1610

Only a year earlier at the age of seventeen she had completed her version of Susanna and The Elders, circa 1610, one of the few paintings of this biblical subject that portrays Susanna with her head turned away from the advances of the men, with body language and an expression indicating their approach is unwelcome.  The female form (possibly based on her own), is more natural rather than idealised. Somehow, it seems to have been an inauspicious omen of the event that would take place on the Gentileschi premises in the spring of 1611.

Paintings of Susanna and the Elders (Book of Daniel) by Bernadino Luini, Jacob van Loo, Ottavio Leoni, Hendrick Goltzius, Antonio Bellucci, Bonaventura Lamberti, Guido Reni, Tintoretto, Alessandro Allori, Rembrandt van Rijn, Gerrit van Honthorst, Pieter Pietersz, Bartolomeo Chiari, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Massimo Stanzione, Claude Vignon, von Hagelstein, Sebastiano Ricci, Peter Paul Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, Anthony van Dyck, Sisto Badalocchio, Jean-Francois de Troy, Salomon Koninck, Frances Trevisiani, Lambert Sustris, Andrea Vaccaro, Hendrick de Clerk, Paolo Veronese, Giovanni Francesco Guerrieri and Orazio Gentileschi have Susanna facing the men (fully or partially) and do not depict the same level of distress and unwillingness.

Susanna and the Elders by Orazio Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders by Orazio Gentileschi

Susanna and the Elders by Peter Paul Rubens, also painted in 1610

Susanna and the Elders by Peter Paul Rubens, also painted in 1610

Susanna and the Elders by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari

Susanna and the Elders by Giuseppe Bartolomeo Chiari

Eventually Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to prison and exile, neither of which he fully served. Artemisia on the other hand, was viewed as damaged goods, but her father (with the help of a substantial dowry), found her a husband, a Florentine artist, the younger brother of the lawyer that had helped him during the lengthy court case against Agostino Tassi.

Despite these considerable challenges, Artemisia managed to pick herself up, ditch her victim mantle and find solace and cathartic expression in her work.

Artemisia Gentilschi quote

In part 2 we’ll look in more detail at her paintings – you’ll notice that many of them are shockingly violent for a female artist – even to our more exposed, desensitized eyes of the twenty first century!

Remarkable Women: The Life and Times of Joan of Arc

“I am not afraid… I was born to do this.”  ~ Jeanne d’Arc

This will be the first in a series of posts exploring the impact on the world of remarkable women.

Joan of Arc by Albert Lynch. This painting could be the ruest likeness of her, as she had short, dark hair, cut in a round style.

Joan of Arc by Albert Lynch. This painting could be the truest likeness of her, as she had short, dark hair, cut in a round style just above her ears.

So often we celebrate men’s amazing achievements, but there have also been many women throughout history who have made remarkable contributions that have continued way beyond their life spans. They have become iconic. Their actions reflect the epitome of the virtues we aspire to today: honesty, commitment, integrity, courage and service to others.

Jeanne d’Arc (6 January 1412 – 30 May 1431)

Five hundred and eighty five years ago, on this very day, a loyal and brave maiden was burned alive at the stake in the old market square of Rouen.

Joan of Arc at the stake by Jules Eugène Lenepveu.

Joan of Arc at the stake by Jules Eugène Lenepveu.

At the age of nineteen Joan suffered a hideous, unthinkable death, which ultimately secured her place in history and cost the English their goal of the French crown.

A fitting finale with Irina Arkhipova as Joan in Tchaikovsky’s opera The Maid of Orleans:

The aftermath of Joan’s death

The young English King Henry VI’s uncle, the Duke of Bedford, who was acting as his Regent, and who had held Philip the Good to their Anglo-Burgundian contract passed away on 16th September 1435.

With his last breath, so too passed the loyalty that the Burgundian Duke had kept since he signed the Treaty of Troyes to align the Burgundians with King Henry V of England on 21st May 1420, which granted Henry’s marriage to Queen Isabeau and King Charles VI’s daughter, Catherine of Valois and ensured his heirs inherited the Crown of France, instead of Charles VI’s son, Charles VII.

His signing had been an act of hatred and revenge against the Armagnacs, who had murdered of his Father, John the Fearless of Burgundy, on the bridge at Montereau in 1419.

Joan of Arc by Harold Piffard

Joan of Arc by Harold Piffard

Diplomacy continued for a further four years after Joan’s execution, but Cardinal Niccolo Albergati, who was despatched by the Pope to broker peace at the Congress of Arras, (in the face of English opposition), absolved Philip the Good from his war promised treaty and brokered a peace settlement between the Burgundians and the Armagnacs, thus making a significant impact towards ending the Hundred Years War.

I’m convinced her martyrdom was the catalyst in the change of fortune for France, King Charles VII and his Armagnac supporters.

Joan of Arc Insulted in Prison, c. 1866 (oil on canvas) by Patrois, Isidore (1811-84) Musee des Beaux-Arts, France Giraudon French, out of copyright

Joan of Arc Insulted in Prison, c. 1866 (oil on canvas) by Patrois, Isidore 
Musee des Beaux-Arts, France

She has captured my imagination, earned my admiration and compassion, and ignited my interest in her life and into a window of history that still dominates literature, the world of art, film and popular culture today.

A moving video of her home in Domremy:

As far as I’m concerned there are no women who deserve this accolade more than Joan of Arc.

Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage

Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-Lepage

She was born to a humble farming family in Domremy in rural Alsace, daughter to Jacques and Isabelle, sister to Jacquemin, Jean and Pierre, during the vicious acrimony that pervaded the land in 1400’s France; an inheritance of the bitter dispute between the younger brother of the king, Louis, Duke of Orléans and his cousin, John the Fearless of Burgundy.

Louis was against John’s regency and guardianship of his brother’s children in the face of King Charles VI’s unfortunate insanity, which caused a deep schism between two royal and noble houses of France, and eventually led to his assassination by the Burgundians in November 1407 on the streets of Paris.

From then on the Armagnacs, (supporters of Charles, Duke of Orléans and the Burgundians, supporters of John’s son Philip the Good) became enemies, which had a profound effect on the course of the Hundred Years War.

Joan of Arc at Domremy

With France torn apart by divided loyalties and rapacious greed for her crown, at the age of thirteen Joan began to see visions of Saint Michael and hear voices, directing her to secure the French crown for the disinherited Dauphin, Charles.  After convincing Charles and his court that she had been sent by the King of Heaven in his cause, she led an army to rescue Orléans from English occupation.

Siege of Orléans

After six months of siege, the arrival of Joan, her captains, and their Armagnac army meant that the townsfolk finally had hope that Orléans would be freed from the grip of the English and their Captain Sir William Glasdale.

Joan of Arc riding into Orleans by Jean-Jacques Scherrer

Joan of Arc riding into Orleans by Jean-Jacques Scherrer

In just four days, suffering with a flesh injury between her shoulder and neck, and with the help of the local carpenters as their attack progressed, Joan had saved the Loire, secured freedom for the jubilant people of Orléans, and caused the ignominious, hasty retreat of Lords Suffolk, Talbot and Graves. With her her swift and decisive victory in the kingdom of Bourges it seemed that God had vindicated the legitimacy of King Charles’s cause.

Trailer to Luc Besson’s 1999 film, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc

Jeanne d’Arc achieved the impossible. Of course she didn’t do it on her own, but her unshakable belief, oratory and unfaltering courage inspired others to follow and serve. She is the subject of so much literature, having already inflamed the imaginations of the likes of Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Tchaikovsky and Leonard Cohen.

The birth of feminism

There were many firsts with Joan. Could she have been the very first feminist? She rebelled against the expected norms of her gender in 15th century France, where women were seen and not heard, robed and displayed for brave knights to fight for, breeding vessels that were traded in marriage among the nobility – trophies. Their choices were non-existent or very limited.

Shock, horror, Joan wore pants! Not only that, she became a soldier! Imagine being the first in a continent to go against the grain of centuries of ingrained culture, repression and strict religious dogma.

Jeanne d'Arc at the Siege of Orleans

Jeanne d’Arc at the Siege of Orleans

After Joan’s victory at Orléans, the French scholar and theologian, Jean Gerson, applied what was known as the discernment of spirits, to justify her masculine attire during the battle. He claimed that although the Old Testament prohibited it, the New Testament did not, and her circumstances as a warrior surrounded by men made it necessary to do so. Therefore, her male dressing deed ‘was done by God’.

Having read about her exploits thanks to the brilliant historian, Helen castor, and from Joan herself, (In Her Own Words), I felt so angry that the French court didn’t continue to heed her advice. Their actions left her and her men vulnerable, and led to the circumstances of her capture by the Burgundians near Compiègne.

The capture of Joan of Arc by Alexandre Dillens

The capture of Joan of Arc by Alexandre Dillens

In my continuing research I found it helpful to write a dramatic monologue poem, I wanted to put myself in her shoes. Spare a thought today for one who paid the highest price anyone could pay for their faith and love.

The Maid of Heaven:

The English and Burgundians slandered me a sinner,

Their prized prisoner: the Armagnac whore and heretic.

Many hailed me a saint, when my predictions came to pass;

Only after my death, my chastity, never lost, was restored,

Restitution was made to my virtuous reputation,

Half a century passed, before my Sainthood was bestowed.

But the truth is this; I was simply a devout servant;

I listened to, and obeyed our Holy Father,

In my mission to save the most Christian Kingdom: France.

I was known as ‘Jeanette’ in my home town, Domremy,

I span thread with my mother, herded cattle with my father.

The church bells called me to prayer. I was happy

But a country life was not my destiny.

Voices told me to ensure the dauphin was crowned at Reims

With the protective escort of Captain Robert de Baudricourt

I travelled from Vaucouleurs to the royal court at Chinon and Poitiers,

There, scholars and learned men interrogated me…

How could a peasant girl save them?

My virginity was questioned and confirmed, I am intact.

Was I really sent by God?

Could I deliver France from the grip of endless war?

I told them, I am succour for a wounded and betrayed people.

Pitiable suffering, wrought from years of starvation and violence;

Cursed by changing loyalties and treaties carving up the Kingdom,

They suffered greatly for the sake of greed and power.

The holy kingdom of France; having been lost by a woman,

When Regent Queen Isabeau signed her son, the Dauphin

Charles, out of his kingly inheritance, in treachery at Troyes,

I would save as a Virgin; pure in heart, mind and body.

In order to do God’s work, I became the warrior maid,

I was sent by my right and sovereign Lord,

To deliver my King and France from their enemies

I was the Lord’s vessel of choice to chase out the English,

To fulfil this promise I could not be myself…

I had to discard the flowing garments of my femininity,

A shocking, taboo act; forbidden to my fair sex.

Red woollen dress replaced by hose and doublet;

Glossy, lustrous black hair, levelled from shoulders to ears.

None were more determined than I,

As I rode into battle, firm on my steed,

Encased and shielded in a suit of gleaming silver.

I am neither male nor female, but a symbol of hope!

Under my command the men did not rape and pillage,

They would not utter foul, coarse words, or kill unjustly.

‘La Pucelle’ became my sobriquet.

The gentle and grateful folk of Orleans never forgot

The miraculous salvation of their city under siege.

English Lords hurled insults as well as canon,

But this trollop would not go back to herding cattle!

It did them no good. My soldiers and I drove them out.

As promised, my war-cry will be remembered forever…

I proudly held St. Catherine’s saintly sword,

Found where she directed me, rusting in her chapel at Fierbois,

My white, silken banner flapping and flying in the wind

With alacrity I undertook my difficult but divine calling,

My loyal squire, Jean d’Aulon, ever at my side, so too

My captains La Hire, Alencon, the Bastard of Orléans and Xaintrailles

The Dauphin and his nobles believed in our just and holy cause,

But after our victories at Orléans, Jargeau, Patay and Meung,

Came wintry defeat at Paris, La Charité and Compiègne;

Pulled reluctantly away from the assault of Paris, was I;

Screaming and bleeding with an arrow piercing my thigh.

Endless diplomacy and delays lost our glorious momentum

My faithful voices and counsel thus went unheeded.

I continued in my mission, until that fateful day, 23rd May 1430

Cut off from Compiegne, Jean de Luxembourg captured me,

The kindness of his Burgundian ladies could not allay my fears.

So for once I shunned and ignored my faithful voices,

I flung myself from the stone tower at Beaurevoir.

Injured and recaptured, shame burned my soul,

My bid for freedom failed.  No ransom forthcoming from my King,

Instead, for 10,000 livres I was sold to my mortal enemy.

Their hatred for me was born of fear and defeat;

I would be treated badly in a prison guarded by men.

They transported me to Rouen, Warwick’s stronghold in Normandy

My voices told me to be strong, even in frail form.

Duke Philip asserted with smug authority, that my

Capture gave the Burgundians incontrovertible proof,

That my claim to act on heaven’s behalf was indeed false;

My trial was arduous, torturous, iniquitous and full of enmity.

Stultified was I, by leering eyes and jeering mouths.

A mere maiden bearing humiliation for her kingdom,

It seemed I had been abandoned by all,

To the pious and ruthless Pierre Cauchon;

Ever zealous in his quest to declare me an apostate.

He and his cowardly politicians, relentless, asking:

Would I submit to the Holy Mother Church?

Would I renounce my sins?

I told them I would submit to the Holy Father,

Under duress and endless repetition, I told them of my mission.

Puppet of the English, Bishop of Beauvais and his judges,

Most unholy men, they said I was guided by demons,

An idolater I was branded.

Under torture they coerced my abjuration at Saint-Ouen

No more anguish could I feel, than to reject my sovereign Lord,

And all I had accomplished under his command.

No amount of false accusations, fetters, hunger, derision and

Gnarled, groping hands could further assail my spirit.

Even under threat I became the warrior maid once more,

My faith ameliorated at the close of my trial.

I remain vociferous to the task entrusted to me,

Unjust sentence justified in lengthy Latin parchments

That canon law has written to satisfy the English.

Under ecclesiastical waxy stamp my fate was sealed.

Perhaps my death was always required…

Charles has been anointed with the holy oil of Clovis

Phillip the Good, Burgundian adversary, will surely seek peace,

And the English contagion will be expelled across the water,

Whimpering; with their tails between their legs.

Their child King Henry VI, like his Most Beloved grandfather Charles,

Has no stomach for war, strife of Roses on his doorstep.

One fine day, a unified France will remember me.

They will say that Jeannne d’Arc did her duty,

A simple, brave, devout and innocent girl,

Whose courage and vision shaped the mighty realm.

The interrogation of Joan of Arc by Paul Delaroche c. 1824

The interrogation of Joan of Arc by Paul Delaroche c. 1824

I gasped my last mortal breaths on a rickety bumpy cart,

Carrying me through the narrow streets of Rouen,

Faces peering from open windows in tall, timber houses,

The spring air thick with expectation and hatred

Then mercilessly I was bound to the stake,

My pale, cold feet planted on the pyre.

Brother Pierre, holding a cross for my last prayer

The spectacle of my cruel execution

Brought tears to the hostile crowd,

They who would witness fire and flame

And see the orange dance engulf my flesh,

Consuming me with voracious hunger. In agony

I cried out: Jhesus! Jhesus!

Death has stolen my breath, liberated my soul.

They may blacken my body, but not my memory;

It is not enough that milky skin is seared and charred

Beyond recognition. They want annihilation, not relics.

They may scatter my earthly ashes over the Seine,

To be drowned in the cool blue depths,

But my legacy cannot be destroyed.

It lives and breathes in the fabric of French history,

In the hearts and minds of all those I fought for;

They could not strike my deeds from the story books.

Court clerk, Guillaume Manchon has testified to my purity

And now, what was once sullied is cleansed, nullified,

My name is again revered!

Faith, love and courage kept me company for 19 earthly years

I now abide in paradise for all eternity,

For I am the Maid of Heaven…

By Virginia Burges

Joan of Arc at the stake by Francois Chifflart

Joan of Arc at the stake by Francois Chifflart

“When we take your person into account, you who are a young maiden, to whom God gives the strength and power to be the champion who casts the rebels down and feeds France with the sweet, nourishing milk of peace, here indeed is something quite extraordinary!” ~ Christine de Pizan, (Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc)