In the 2000-year recorded history of Gascony since Roman times, the single most famous Gascon name today is that of Charles Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore, also Count d’Artagnan. Why?
The real-life Charles de Batz (known as ‘D’Artagnan’) was born around 1613 at the Château de Castelmore in Lupiac (near Auch, the capital of historic Gascony and of the modern-day department of Le Gers). He died in battle in the Netherlands on 25 June 1673. This month sees the 350th anniversary of the death of D’Artagnan, an event which is being celebrated by events in Lupiac, Auch and elsewhere in Gascony.
The real-life D’Artagnan had a distinguished career as a soldier in the French army. He rose to become Captain-Lieutenant of the King’s Guard, La Compagnie des Mousquetaires, founded by King Louis XIII in 1622. This was an elite group of soldiers, typically the younger sons of the nobility with many recruited from Gascony, who fought on foot and horse, using swords and muskets – hence the name. The Musketeers were both frontline fighting soldiers and the King’s Guard, like the Household Cavalry or ‘The Guards’ in England today. Their families sent these young men to Paris to serve their King. D’Artagnanrose to become a senior military aide to Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, so he lived through momentous times.
None of this explains why the name of ‘D’Artagnan’ is so well known, 350 years after the man himself was killed almost by accident in the relatively minor siege of Maastricht during the Franco-Dutch war of the 1670’s.
The answer of course is that D’Artagnan had one of the best publicists in military history – the famous French author Alexandre Dumas, who in 1844 wrote the best-selling ‘The Three Musketeers’ which, according to one review:
‘…sets the gold standard for swashbuckling adventure...very well-written, full of interesting characters, fascinating political and moral context…humour, villainy, romance and sex…a great read…’
This book is truly a great read, still in print today, but it’s worth trying to find a translation based on the original Dumas book, as many modern editions have been ridiculously ‘sanitized’ to avoid offending modern sensibilities.
The book is based on facts and real people: D’Artagnan himself and the ‘Three Musketeers’ – Arthos, Porthos and Aramis, who all came from Gascony. Dumas then imagined the story of their lives and adventures, convincing and exciting indeed, but not entirely factual. Dumas also gave the Musketeers their famous motto “All for One and One for All” – in original French “Un pour Tous, Tous pour Un” and in Latin “Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno”.
The Four Musketeers by Condom cathedrald
This is also the motto of the modern-day ‘Compagnie des Mousquetaires d’’Armagnac, a ‘good works’ association led by the present Duc de Montesquiou, a direct descendent of D’Artagnan. This organization is based in Condom in Gascony and has branches (called ‘Squadrons’) all over the world, which in turn adds to the story of D’Artagnan.
Dumas wrote two sequels to the first book and the whole D’Artagnan saga has been made into at least 10 feature films, 5 TV series, 5 stage plays, any number of animations and video games, including the improbable sounding ‘Barbie and The Three Musketeers’. This is publicity beyond the dreams of any modern celebrity – this one will run and run…
Now you know why the names of ‘D’Artagnan’ and his birthplace of Gascony, are so well known today!
Now let’s place D’Artagnan in the context of the longer history of Gascony.
Every country in Western Europe has a recorded history that can be traced back at least to the Roman Empire. Gascony was controlled by Rome from about 200 BC to 400 AD. As the Roman Empire fell apart, so a semi-independent dukedom of ‘Vasconia’ emerged, with links to the Basque and Catalan regions of Spain.
During this post-Roman period up to about 1000 AD a continuing ‘Gallo-Roman’ culture thrived, based on the Roman way of life, Gascony’s natural advantages of climate, water andsoil that have always supported its prosperous agricultural community. This Gallo-Roman culture kept many of the traditions and skills of ancient Rome, including the production of wine and garlic, and the practise of art and music. These traditions of civilized life continued under the Duchy of Gascony. It could be said that in this sense ‘civilization’ flourished in Gascony during the many centuries of the ‘Dark Ages’ in Northern Europe.
The Duchy of Gascony remained independent until the House of Poitiers (Dukes of Aquitaine) took control in around 1050, becoming Dukes of Aquitaine and Gascony. This line continued until 1152, when Eleanor Duchess of Aquitaine (and Gascony), married Henry he Angevin Prince of Wales and future Henry II of England.
Eleanor, as feudal owner of about a third of modern France, was immensely wealthy; she was also very intelligent and attractive, strong-willed, and well-educated. Through her marriages she became Queen of first France and then of England. Eleanor (Alienor in French) was a great patron of the arts and instrumental in turning her court at Poitiers, then frequented by the most famous troubadours of the time, into a centre of poetry and a model of courtly life and manners. Eleanor of Aquitaine was the most influential woman in medieval Europe and one of the most powerful women in history.
Tomb of Eleanor of Aquitaine
For the next 300 years a large part of France, including Gascony, was controlled by the (Angevin/Plantagenet) Kings of England. During this period King Edward I ('Longshanks') of England, and his great-grandson, ‘Edward, The Black Prince’, actively used the title 'Duke of Gascony'. When The 100 Years War ended in 1453 with the defeat of England by France at the Battle of Castillon near Bordeaux, the Angevin Empire and the Dukedom of Gascony ceased to exist, and Gascony joined the gradual consolidation of the regions of France into a single nation, ruled from Paris, with French (originally the ‘Langue d’Oil’ of the North, as distinct from the ‘Langue d’Oc’ of the South) as the common language.
Chateau d’Esclignac, occupied by Welsh archers in the C13th.
Gascony then saw fighting during the French ‘Wars of Religion’ in C16th between
Protestants (Huguenots) and Roman Catholics, with town fighting town and families divided – as during the Civil War in England fifty years later. The fighting ended in 1598 when Henry of Navarre, who was born in Pau and raised as a Protestant in Nérac in Gascony, converted to Catholicism and became King Henri IV of France. He was known as ‘Good King Henry’,famous for saying that “Every family in France should have a Chicken in a Pot on Sunday.
Stone carving from Chateau de Nérac, home of Henry of Navarre
In the late C17th/early C18th France went through a golden period under the reign of Louis XIV (the ‘Sun King’). Ruling as absolute monarch for more than 70 years, Louis built the Palace of Versailles and made France the dominant power in Europe. As seen above, d’Artagnan played a part in this extraordinary period of French history.
The French Revolution led to enormous political change, the execution of the King, great hardship and then the return to dictatorial government under Napolean, who led France into war with most of the rest of Europe. Life in France was very difficult during this 20-year period but Gascony has always seemed a long way from Paris and is still proudly independent and 'Gascon' in its ways. Many commentators regard Gascony as the epitome of ‘La France Pofonde’, which refers to the essential ‘Frenchness’ of life in rural villages and agricultural communities, unmoved by fashionable ideologies and Parisien trends.
The modern, post-Revolution, département of ‘Le Gers’ (named after the river that flows through Auch) covers most of the central area of what was the Duchy of Gascony and is often referred to today as ‘Gers-en-Gascogne’.
The ‘warrior instincts’ of the Gascons, referred to above in the story of D’Artagnan and his Musketeer companions, Arthos, Porthos and Aramis, were seen again in the Frist World War. Many of the young men of Gascony volunteered for the French army and died in the killing fields of Northern France. When the war ended, there was a desperate shortage of manpowerto run the farms of Gascony and far too many single women left alone to be able to rebuildthe population for the future. The mayors of the country towns and villages of Gasconyadvertised in the rural newspapers of Italy, Spain and Portugal inviting “young men to come to help look after our farms and our women”. The result was a great influx of new blood, especially from Italy. These young men soon become integrated, so that their blood lines and family names can be seen today all over Gascony.
For the last 1000 years of recorded Gascon history, there has been one constant and highly influential factor influencing its people, way of life, attitudes and architecture – the pilgrims travelling through Gascony to Santiago de Compostella in Northwest Spain. Ever since the C9th, hundreds of thousands of people each year have followed these routes from Northern, Central and Eastern Europe, across France and then funneling through Gascony to cross the Pyrenees into Spain.
This extraordinary and continual movement of people, for religious or other reasons, has brought repeated injections of new ideas, new relationships, new money, and new energy into Gascony. Many public and religious buildings have been funded, directly or indirectly, bythis remarkable version of the hospitality industry. Because of these interactions, Gascons have become increasingly welcoming, hospitable and open to new influences. For a rather conservative and very rural – even isolated – part of Europe, Gascony in the 21st Century is surprisingly cosmopolitan!
Cloisters of the Abbey at La Romieu, situated on one of the major Pilgrim routes in Gascony.
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