Archive for January, 2012

Throughout history, rivers, river mouths and ports have been of the utmost importance for the development of trade; we might even suggest of civilization itself. Until fairly recently overland transport was long, arduous and expensive. Transporting people and goods by rivers and over the sea was how Europe and much of the rest of the world developed economically. Even today, when motorways and air routes crisscross the world, water transport remains a mainstay of the modern world – 90% of world trade still goes by sea.

Many of the world’s great cities rose to eminence precisely because of the advantages afforded them by their geographic location on rivers or where rivers met the sea. We could name London, Boston and Rotterdam but there are countless others.  Yet even once firmly established maritime towns and cities still need on occasion to struggle to retain their importance. The northern European Hanseatic cities vied for control of the trade between the Baltics and northern Europe; Genoa, Venice and other Italian maritime states battled to dominate trade and commerce in the eastern Mediterranean; while in the 17th century, Britain and Holland were repeatedly at war to establish which country would control the seas.

The right bank of the River Adour in Bayonne today

From time to time climatic changes or natural events threaten the livelihood of a trading port. What do they do then? Despite their best efforts some, such as Bruges in Flanders, will slowly dwindle away; one or two will disappear forever. Yet some ports manage to hold onto their role, even if it means battling the power of nature. One such case is the history of the town and port of Bayonne in France. In the 16th century Bayonne was faced with the very real possibility of the disappearance of its whole raison d’être. How it came to find itself in this predicament and what it did about it is the subject of this essay.

I hope that what happened in 16th century Bayonne will not just be of antiquarian interest – though it may be that. In a way it’s also a story of how the element of chance and personality is always important in history.  I think it illustrates the fact that throughout human history all ‘lived experience’ has taken place at a local level. Even in our so-called age of Globalization this remains true today. Every single person on the planet today, however cosmopolitan or international they may be, has still lived and experienced all parts of their own life at a local level. They were born somewhere, they grew up somewhere, their children were educated somewhere and they have made their living somewhere. There is no individual whose own life has not been led at a local level – in one of more specific geographical locales.

Returning our focus to the locality of Bayonne; the town lies in the extreme South West of France in the ancient region of Aquitaine. At least since Roman times it has been an important commercial seaport; its calm and deep harbour offering safe anchorage. In the Middle Ages, under ‘English’ Plantagenet rule, the town flourished. The merchants and shipbuilders of the town had even been granted special privileges to trade with England. Hundreds of river craft plied their trade along a great part of the 150 mile long River Adour – which rose in the foothills of the Pyrenees. The river boats, which could be up to 24 metres in length, brought resin, pitch, pine wood, cork, rock, salt, fish and wine from all over Gascony and Béarn down to Bayonne; where their cargoes were loaded onto large ocean-going merchant ‘galleons’. They carried back consignments of imported spices, cider, wool, cloth, wheat and iron as well as barrels of cod, sardines and whale – caught by Basque fishermen.

16th century merchant ships like those using Bayonne at the time of Louis de Foix

However, even though the port lay only about five miles from the Atlantic coast, there was no direct outlet to the sea in the immediate vicinity. Just past Bayonne the river found its route blocked by huge sandbanks and dunes. Near enough to the coast to hear the Atlantic surf breaking it took a sharp turn north and flowed for another nine miles, parallel to the coast through the flat and marshy pine forests of the Landes, and eventually found its way to the sea at Cap Breton. English, Flemish, Basque and other merchant ships had to use this route to reach the sea. The river had shifted repeatedly throughout the ages, sometimes even forming what one French hydrologist called a ‘veritable delta’. Yet probably since Roman times it was at Cap Breton that the river had found its principal outlet. In the 9th century Vikings had used this route to gain access to the easily navigable upper reaches of the Adour; occasionally pillaging the settlements situated along its banks – including Bayonne itself, where they decapitated and martyred the Christian missionary Léon in 890.

Quite a number of French historians suggest that things started to go wrong for Bayonne in the early 14th century (various dates are given between 1310 and 1360). We are told that following torrential rains the river mouth suddenly shifted nine miles further north to a place now called Port d’Albret and Vieux-Boucau (“Old Mouth”). Little by little, it is claimed, the river beyond Bayonne started to silt up and, as it became less navigable, Bayonne’s importance as a port began an inexorable decline. Whether the river shifted or not in the 14th century, there is almost no evidence that Bayonne’s trade was severely affected. It continued to be a flourishing port and shipbuilding centre throughout the Hundred Years War and beyond – after the town for the first time became attached to the Kingdom of France in 1452. Indeed in 1419 the shipbuilders of Bayonne were busy constructing the largest ship that the English King Henry V had ever ordered. Hardly a thing they would be entrusted with if there were any doubt at all as to the feasibility of getting the finished vessel to the open sea.

Another version of how Bayonne’s problems started seems more likely. The French historian Jean Baptiste Bailac, in his 1827 book, A New Chronicle of the Town of Bayonne, gives his variant of events:

At the moment when the discovery of America was going to open a new source of prosperity for the people of Bayonne, an extraordinary event struck the most deadly blow to their maritime commerce. We know that at the mouth of the Adour there exists a bank or dike maintained by the continual collapsing of the moving dunes. The river, by the force of its current, had cut several passages, which are at the same times those (used) by ships, and emptied into the Ocean.

Around the year 1500 following a storm, a prodigious quantity of sand piled up on this dike and made an impenetrable barrier. The waters of the Adour, flowing back violently on themselves, force the river bed into the sandy plain of Cap Breton; in part they took their course along the coast towards Cap Breton and all to way to Messanges (Vieux-Boucau); about seven leagues from the town (of Bayonne).

With his use of the phrase ‘towards (vers) Cap Breton’, Bailac seems to imply that the ‘impenetrable barrier’ that had formed had not done so at Cap Breton but further south, and had blocked one of the several ‘passages’ used by ships to reach the sea. It would be interesting to find hard documentary evidence to prove or disprove this conjecture. Certainly, as I have said, the river often formed a delta, although most evidence seems to suggest that Cap Breton had been the river’s principal, though not only, outlet for centuries. If there had been a more southerly passage before 1500 this was no longer the case. An ordinance of 1511 confirms that large ships could now only reach Bayonne via this ‘new’ ‘canal’ and only with great difficulty.

Map showing the former course of the River Adour – the date of 1310 is highly debatable

The people of Cap Breton and Vieux-Boucau were of course delighted by this turn of events – at least initially. They saw, in M. Bailac’s words, a ‘new existence’ for themselves as real sea ports and not just as points of entry. We know from contemporary sources that they felt a certain Schadenfreude at Bayonne’s misfortune. They began to develop their own port infrastructure and slowly attempted to divert trade from Bayonne. They even tried to hinder the passage of ships down to Bayonne – by putting fish traps, long canes and piles of sand into the river.

Bayonne’s reaction was not slow in coming. The town’s municipal ‘corps’ sent a written warning that they should abstain from all these acts and respect the town’s right of jurisdiction over the whole course of the river. ‘Seized with fury’ on reading this the inhabitants of Cap Breton ‘maltreated’ the Sergeant who had brought the message. Vengeance swiftly followed. Four thousand men from Bayonne assembled and, after having destroyed the obstacles placed in the river, they marched on Cap Breton where they ‘committed great disorders, burnt several river vessels moored in the harbour as well as a Danish ship loaded with pine and resin’. It was only the intervention of the Governor of Guyenne, the Duke of Longueville, which prevented things escalating further. Yet, with Royal assent, Bayonne continued to be allowed to levy taxes on Cap Breton and Vieux-Boucau for any merchandise passing through these towns.

As time passed, and depending on the vagaries of the weather, it started to become more and more perilous for ships to use the outlet at Cap Breton. Sometimes it proved completely impossible. To make matters worse, whether ships had used Port d’Albret or Cap Breton as their point of entry, over its course to Bayonne the river now really did start to silt up and it became less and less navigable. If Bayonne didn’t have a deep and reliable route to the sea its days as an important port and shipbuilding centre were numbered. Something had to be done!

The town started to lobby the King for help. They envisaged giving the river a new outlet by digging a canal from Bayonne directly west to the Atlantic. This would require blocking the downstream part of the river which led to Cap Breton and Vieux-Boucau. Obviously the people of the Landes vehemently opposed this project from the start.

In 1561 the French King Charles IX finally responded and sent a certain Claude Grimal, called Captain Flayol, to make a study on how to change the course of the river. The decision was made to construct a barrage where the Adour turned north, just outside the town at Trossoat. Works began, but after four years the results were ‘deplorable’. The municipality sent a letter to King Charles in January 1565:

The harbour which has cost so much is in such a state that Sieur de Fontoney (sic) remains today without funds, having made the canal cross from the sweet water to the great sea. However if it (the work) is not continued and maintained the winds which are common here will completely refill the canal.

There was no response and lacking money, the Superintendent, M. De Fontenay, had no choice but to order work to stop.

Louis de Foix – The engineer in charge of turning the River Adour

At this point we first hear of the man who was finally to succeed in altering the course of the river and ensuring the town’s continuing prosperity: the engineer Louis de Foix. Born in Paris sometime in the 1530s, Louis was either the son of a humble father from the town of Foix (in the modern French département of the Ariège) or, just possibly, he could have been a bastard son of one of the ‘noble house’ of Foix, which had dominated the country surrounding the town for centuries. If so this might explain how Louis was later to have such close working relationships with the Kings of both Spain and France. We find him first in Spain, where he spent many years in the service of the Spanish King Philip II – he of Spanish Armada fame. A lot of legend has accumulated about Louis’s activities there; but the facts seem to be as follows: He was a horologist, i.e. a skilled clockmaker, and we know that he made some fine clocks for both King Phillip and his troublesome son Prince Don Carlos of Asturias. As was not infrequent at the time his mathematical and mechanic skills as a horologist could be put to other uses. He worked as an engineer helping to build the Royal Palace and Monastery of El Escorial just north of Madrid. In the old Visigoth capital of Toledo, he performed a similar role in the design and construction of a machine to lift water from the River Tagus to the very top of the town – a machine that was viewed at the time as one of the wonders of the age. It seems Louis also he played a role in the drama that opposed King Phillip to his son Prince Don Carlos. Don Carlos was by this time slightly mad, possibly due to too much inbreeding in the family. He feared his father was a danger to him and bizarrely ordered Louis to make him an ornate faux-livre or false book which could serve as weapon, indeed as Spanish sources tell us as a ‘club’! In addition, Don Carlos ordered the engineer to design him a pulley system with which he and only he could open and close the door to his room from his bed. Louis de Foix betrayed the Prince’s confidence and told the King of these precautions. Phillip decided to imprison his son and he died, still incarcerated, six months later – probably of natural causes but there has always been a hint of murder.

Charles the ninth of France – with whom Louis made his contract.

By 1570, Louis saw new opportunities for himself in France. In December he wrote a letter to the King Charles praising himself in glowing terms, informing him of his ‘great experience’ as an engineer and horologist and offered his services at Bayonne. Early in the new year the King sent his ambassador M. De Fourquevaux to Madrid to recall Louis to France. The Spanish King didn’t want to lose his services and resisted, holding Louis to the terms of his contract. Eventually, however, he relented but not before he made Louis promise to be gone for only three months and pay a ‘bond’ of 5,000 ecus against his timely return. Louis never did return and lost his money.

Upon his arrival in Bayonne in 1571, Louis first agreed a contract with the town to undertake the required works on the river and to construct new wharves on the new canal that had already been partially dug. He soon started to irritate the good burghers of the town, showing a side of his personality that one French historian has characterised as ‘touching on megalomania’. On the 22nd June he imperiously told the council:

Not to bother me in the future, if you please, until I tell you of anything I would like you to do.

A new contract with the King soon followed, dated June 19, 1572. The aim was to: ‘Complete the harbour of Bayonne according to the scheme that Louis de Foix has presented to his Majesty and to our ‘seigneurs’ of the said council.’ It continued by laying out the work required:

Firstly to make a closure of the river with a width of a hundred and fifty toises (one toise equals about 2 metres) according to the plan that Louis de Foix has shown to the King…. to make a good and strong carpentry sufficient to support the load of the river while it is strengthened from within with masonry … the carpentry work will be of the same width as the quays along the river…  and having three rows of squared trees… each row will have seventy-five iron-tipped (piles) driven into the bed of the river to a depth of one toise (about 2 metres) or more if no resistance is present…

Several itemized pages follow detailing exactly how the work would be done, what size and quality of materials must be used, how much it would cost (the King promised to pay 30,000 pounds) and to whom the money would be paid. One rather humorous item reminds us that things haven’t changed that much when it comes to commissioning municipal works:

All this masonry will be good and made of good quality materials … suitable for the purpose without any fraud or any monopoly whatsoever.

The work began. Cleaning out and repairing the existing canal was not a problem, but at least twice the preliminary wooden barrage collapsed under the pressure of the river’s flow. The sandy river bed just seems too soft to hold the piles in place. To understand the difficulty we might add that the quantity of water and alluvial sediment that the River Adour brought down to Bayonne was three times greater than that of the River Seine at Rouen! Work was also hampered by those dreadful Landais from Cap Breton and Vieux-Boucau. Not only did they demonstrate, but at night they sent out sabotage teams to try to destroy the barrage or at least to slow its progress, which necessitated Bayonne posting armed guards around the construction sites. By 1578, after six years of effort, the work was still not finished and people started to believe that it would never be successfully completed. The King’s money had run out and Bayonne was getting upset by Louis’s insistent demands for more.

Map of 1840 representing the course of the River Adour in 1578 just before it reached the sea – Bayonne Chamber of Commerce

It was then that nature intervened. In October 1578 there was a violent storm and the river was in high spate’, the water built up and finally poured over the last remaining earth into the new canal. But still it couldn’t break through the sandbank to reach the sea. Water flooded the countryside all around and backed up to flood the town itself. Tradition has it that people were obliged to moor their boats at the first floor windows of their houses. The population started to consider the need to demolish the barrage to save the town. Finally, on the 28th October, the sheer weight of the water suddenly managed to force a way through the dunes and reached the Atlantic. Bayonne at last had a new river mouth and its future was assured! To this day the people of Bayonne hold an annual procession on the 28th of October to celebrate this happy event.

Louis himself was ‘royally compensated’ for his efforts by the new King Henry III and was later ennobled. He was to stay on in Bayonne for several more years – there was much still to be done. The new barrage needed to be completed, the new harbour quays secured, bridges repaired and the town wanted additional fortifications. Although he was to return on several occasions, in 1582 he moved on to Bordeaux, where he was to spend the next eighteen years, and all of his own fortune, building the colossal sixty-three metre high lighthouse of Cordouan. One biographer says that after work on the lighthouse had been stopped once again because of a lack of money, Louis ‘disappeared, unknown to all, perhaps destitute’. He died sometime around 1603.

The mouth of the River Adour today – showing the canal and dikes extending into the sea

The story of the ‘turning’ of the River Adour didn’t end there. The river itself had more to say. It didn’t seem to want to follow its new canalized route; over the years it kept lurching off to north and south. Ever since the port’s authorities have constantly needed to reinforce the dikes along the canal’s edges to keep it flowing directly to the sea. Not only that, the huge quantities of sand and alluvial material flowing down the river keep combining with the shifting dunes on the coast and to reform new sandbanks, which have repeatedly threatened to block up the mouth of the river once again. Constant dredging is needed and long stone dikes or ‘arms’ projecting far out to sea have had to be built to prevent another closure of the port.

Like everywhere else in the world, Bayonne in the 16th century wasn’t immune to important social, economic and political forces that play such a decisive role in history. But in 1578, a chance flood coupled with the work of one man (helped by many others) came together in a very local way – to create a prosperous future for the port of Bayonne.


In writing this article I consulted numerous primary and secondary sources held by the Musée Basque et de l’histoire de Bayonne. The most accessible secondary works, for French readers, are: Jean Baptiste Bailac, Nouvelle chronique de la ville de bayonne, par un Bayonnais, Duhart-Fauvet, Bayonne,1827; Paul Roudie (ed), IVe Centenaire du détournement de l’Adour, 1578-1978, Actes du Congrès de Bayonne, 28-29 octobre 1978, numéro spécial du Bulletin de la Société des Sciences, Lettres et Arts de Bayonne; Claude Grenet-Delisle, Louis de foix horloger, ingénieur, architecte de 4 rois, Fédération historique du Sud-ouest, 1998.

A sense of place in the Basque Country

In 1929 the poet, writer and historian Robert Graves moved to the sleepy and forgotten Majorcan village of Deià. Having been badly wounded in the First World War, and wanting to put troubled marriage behind him, Graves was ready to say Good -Bye to All That – the title of his autobiography. It was the American writer Gertrude Stein who first enticed Graves to go to Majorca. When he asked her what Deià was like, Stein replied: ‘It’s paradise – if you can stand it.’ He settled there anyway and, except for a break during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, he remained in Majorca until his death in 1985. Thinking of this story brings a wry smile to my face – I think I know what Gertrude Stein meant.

Robert Graves was an extraordinarily well-educated and accomplished man; through his mother he was also related to the great German historian Leopold von Ranke – in fact his full name was Robert von Ranke Graves. Coming from such a background, he never would and never could become a real ‘local’ in Majorca – he was far too intellectual and Bohemian for that. This was a small, remote community where people still followed the rhythms of the seasons and where intrusions from outside were rare – things have changed out of all recognition since! Yet Graves did find a certain ‘sense of place’ in Deià. It was a place where he could concentrate on his writing and his female muses – which he did to great effect for fifty years.

On the slopes of Artzamendi – Mountain of the Bears

Now I would never dream of comparing myself with a man as talented and prolific as Graves. But roughly seventy-five years after Graves moved to Majorca I moved with my family to a small Basque village nestling beside a river in the foothills of the ‘French’ Pyrenees. In some ways I also wanted to say ‘Good-Bye to All That’. Ever since I have felt that this place was a type of paradise – if only I could stand it.

A considerable portion of my childhood was spent ‘in the country’. But by the time I arrived here I had been living a cosmopolitan life for nearly thirty years; travelling the world for my work and living in the wonderful cities of London, New York, Frankfurt and Prague. Settling in the Basque Country, a place populated by one of the most rooted people in Europe, was thus refreshing but it was also a shock. Where were the bookshops, where was the intellectual and political buzz and, most importantly, where were the Indian restaurants?

The Basques are an ancient people; they speak the only indigenous non-Indo-European language in Europe – Euskara. The French say that ‘the devil himself couldn’t learn Basque’ – it’s not true but Basque is certainly not an easy language. Where the Basques might originally have come from is still unclear; nobody knows for sure. Quite a bit of genetic and other evidence suggests that they could be the descendants of the pre-historic Ice Age cave dwellers of South West France and northern Spain. And that would mean that they have been settled in these parts not just for thousands but for tens of thousands of years. If so it is ‘their’ wonderful wall and ceiling paintings that can still be seen at such places as Altamira and Lascaux. Whatever the truth of their origins, the Basques have managed to retain their unique identity, customs and language – despite periodic bouts of brutal repression.

Even today, and especially inland from the coastal towns and beaches, the Basques remain deeply attached to and rooted in their ‘place’. They call this place Euskal Herria. This is usually translated as The Basque Country but The Basque Land better captures its meaning. In Euskara the word for house is Etxe (pronounced and sometimes spelt Etche). The house isn’t just a place to live, it is the concrete symbol of the family, the place where a family comes from and where it belongs. Until recently Basque law and custom prohibited any Basque from selling the family Etxe to someone outside the family. While this practice is not as strictly applied today, people will still go to great lengths to keep their houses in the family. I haven’t done a linguistic survey but I’m sure it’s true to say that the vast majority of Basque family names derive either from their family house or from a very precise geographic or topographic location. Take for example: Etxeberri (new house), Etchepare (house opposite), Goyenetche (high house) or even Elizondo (near the church), Ithurria (the spring) and Mendoza (long mountain). There are hundreds more.

The Basques are still wedded to their land. We are now well into the twenty-first century, yet where I live it’s still quite common to meet people who have never taken a holiday outside their region, and even some who, with a certain pride, will tell you that they once visited Paris twenty years ago but that that had been the extent of their travels! Even the more ‘travelled’ Basque will likely take his or her vacation somewhere within a two or three hour driving radius of home. Outside of the Basque homeland the rest of France and Spain are foreign countries. You have to be quite careful with terminology here. When I am talking about the Basque region in Spain I tend to say ‘en Espagne’; you can get into a little trouble for this. It’s not Spain or Espagne you’ll be gently told, but rather, in French, L’autrecôté (the other side).

In my own village of Itsasu, as in all the surrounding villages, people still value their own local produce – even the supermarkets promote it. As well as the ubiquitous Boulangerie and Butcher –ubiquitous here but sadly increasingly rare elsewhere – the local farmers make sheep and goat cheese, milk and honey; they also produce wonderful lamb and they grow cherries and the famous Basque piments. They even make wines called Irouléguy.

Olentzero – The charcoal burning Basque Santa Claus

Myths still find a place here too. Before Christmas the kind-hearted charcoal-burner Olentzero will come down from the mountains and distribute presents to the children – a type of pre-Christian Basque Santa Claus. In the spring school children will make a grotesque effigy of the giant Zanpanzar – which they will then proceed to burn; and with him all the evils committed in the world during the past year.

When we first moved here seven years ago, we attended a Mass in the wonderful seventeenth century church in the village of Itsasu, which goes by the lovely name of Saint- Fructueux. The interior of this white-washed church has three rows of wooden balconies stacked one upon the other and running the length of three sides of the church. As in other parts of the world, in the past men and women were divided in church. Here the men and their older sons would occupy the balconies; usually standing and gripping the wooden railings with their country hands. They would look down on their wives and younger children seated below. The surprising thing is they still do! When I first saw this I couldn’t help squinting my eyes slightly and imagining how, with a slight change of dress, the scene could have come straight from a Breughel painting. Of course I now know a lot of these people personally, and a warmer and more welcoming people it would be difficult to find – even if you happen to have had the misfortune to be born in Paris!

To be sure the Basque Land is not an idyll. It suffers from many of the same problems as the rest of the Western world: unemployment, high house prices and consumerism. I am even told that there is an occasional teenage drug problem in the towns; though I’ve never seen it. But where else in Europe today can you find teenage boys and teenage girls dancing traditional folk dances, unselfconsciously and unashamedly, with their parents, grandparents and younger siblings? And all this while dressed in rather kitschy traditional costumes – at least they appear kitschy to my jaded cosmopolitan eyes! Can you conceive of this in London or New York?

I can’t finish without mentioning the songs. Basques are very much like that other valley people: the Welsh. They love to sing anywhere and at any time. Here’s one of the best-loved and most sung Basque songs. It’s called Txoria txori, which roughly means A Bird is a Bird:

Hegoak ebaki banizkion
nerea izango izango zen,
ez zuen aldegingo,
bainan honela
ez zen gehiago txoria izango,
eta nik txoria nuen maite.

If I had cut its wings
It would have been mine,
It wouldn’t have flown away.
But then
It would have been a bird no longer,
And it was the bird that I loved.

Every weekend you can hear this sung at rugby matches in Biarritz and Bayonne. Can you imagine crowds singing such a sweet song in America or Britain? But then again, after a moment’s reflection, in England rugby crowds do sing Swing low, sweet chariot and, in Wales, Hen Wlad Fy NhadauLand of my fathers. I’d love to know what types of songs are usually sung at American football or baseball games? Perhaps we all need to sing!

Now if there is any point to this story it is this. With Peak Oil, Global Warming and the relentless depletion of the earth’s natural resources, sooner or later humankind will have to find a more sustainable, decentralised, less materialistic and local way to live. As we either willingly move in this direction or are forced to make the transition, perhaps the Basques – in this small place – will find the shift less traumatic than the rest of us?

So yes this corner of the Basque Country is in some ways a little paradise. I hope I’ll be able to stand it for a long time to come.

Did a Cumbrian soldier “save England and Europe” from Napoleon?

In the mid-nineteenth century in the small Cumbrian market town of Penrith there was a public house called the ‘General Lefebvre’. Locals jokingly referred to it as the ‘General Grisdale’, after its publican, an old ex-Sergeant Major called Levi Grisdale. It seems that Levi was quite a character, and we might well imagine how on cold Cumbrian winter nights he would regale his quests with tales of his exploits as a Hussar during the Napoleonic Wars. How he had captured the French General Lefebvre in Spain, as the British army were retreating towards Corunna, or even telling of how it was he, at the Battle of Waterloo, who had led the Prussians onto the field; a decisive event that had turned the course of the battle and, it is usually argued, led to Napoleon’s final defeat.

Scouts of the 10th Hussars During the Peninsular War – W B Wollen 1905

Numerous individual stories survive from these wars, written by participants from all sides: French, British, German and Spanish. Yet a great number of these come from the ‘officer classes’. Levi was not an officer and, as far as is known, he never wrote his own story. Be that as it may, using a variety of sources (not just from the British side) plus some detailed research in the archives, undertaken by myself and others, it is possible to reconstruct something his life. Levi spent 22 years in the army, fought in 32 engagements, including at the Battle of Waterloo, rose to be a Sergeant Major and was highly decorated. There is even an anonymous essay in the Hussars’ Regimental museum entitled: How Trooper Grisdale, 10th Hussars, Saved England and Europe! This suggested, possibly with a degree of hyperbole, that it was Levi who caused Napoleon to leave the Spanish Peninsular in disgust! But the events of the Peninsular War were decisive. Many years later Napoleon wrote:

That unfortunate war destroyed me … all my disasters are bound up in that knot.

I greatly enjoyed discovering a little about Levi. What follows is my version of this Cumbrian’s life and deeds. I hope you will enjoy it too!

Levi Grisdale was born in 1783, near Penrith in Cumberland’s Lake District. He came from a long line of small yeomen farmers. His father, Solomon, and his grandfather, Jonathon, had both been farmers. They were born in the nearby small hill village of Matterdale; where the Grisdale family had lived for hundreds of years. Although obviously a country boy, Levi somehow found his way to London, where on 26th March 1803, aged just 20, he enlisted for “unlimited service” as a private or ‘trooper’ in the 10th Light Dragoons, later to become ‘Hussars’ – an elite British cavalry regiment. How and why he enlisted in the army we do not know. His older brother Thomas was probably already a soldier based at the cavalry barracks on the outskirts of Canterbury, and maybe this contributed to Levi’s decision. We know nothing of Levi’s first years in the army; but in October 1808 he, with the 10th Hussars, embarked at Portsmouth for Spain.

A Charge of the 10th Hussars under Lord Paget

The regiment, having passed through Corunna, joined up with the now retreating British army, under its Commander-in-Chief, Sir John Moore, at Zamora on December 9, 1808. Under Sir John Slade, they became part of the army’s defensive rear-guard. They arrived at Sahagun in Spain on the 21st December – just in time to take part in the tail end of a successful action known as the Battle of Sahagun. Before the battle, Levi had been made a ‘coverer’ – a sort of bodyguard or ‘minder’ – for the fourteen year old Earl George Augustus Frederick Fitz-Clarence. It wasn’t unusual for wealthy and well-connected young men to become British officers at such a tender age, and Fitz-Clarence was certainly well-connected. He was the bastard son of the future King William IV and nephew of the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV – who was the regiment’s Colonel-in-Chief.

During the battle Levi was wounded in the left ankle by a musket ball. It can’t have been too serious a wound because only a few days later he was to take part in another engagement. His exploits there were, in large part, responsible for us being able to reconstruct Levi’s story today. I will take some pains to explain what happened. The account I will present is based on numerous sources and on several eyewitness accounts; not just British, but also German, French and Spanish. There are some inconsistencies but when taken together they provide a coherent enough picture.

The British Retreat to Corunna 1808-1809

Despite the victory at Sahagun, the British army had continued its retreat towards Astorga and Corunna. But Napoleon had heard that the British were intent on a crossing of the River Esla, two miles from the Spanish town of Benavente. He sent his elite cavalry, the Chasseurs à cheval, commanded by one of his favourites, General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes, to cut them off and prevent the crossing. But due to dreadful weather they had been slowed down and they arrived just too late. Sir John Moore had already crossed the river on the 24th and departed with the bulk of the British army. He had, however, left a strong cavalry rearguard in the town of Benavente, and a small detachment was watching the river fords. Early on the morning of 29th December, British engineers destroyed the bridge at Castrogonzalo. When Lefebvre and his force of about 500 – 600 cavalry arrived, we are told that this was at nine in the morning, there seemed no way to cross, because the river “was swollen with rain.”

Lefebvre could see that “outlying pickets of the British cavalry were stationed along the Western bank of the River Esla.” He thought, wrongly as it turned out, that the few scouts to be seen were all that remained of the British at Benavente. Eventually he managed to find one place to ford the river and, according to one report, first sent across “a peasant mounted on a mare” to see find out what response there would be. Seeing there was none, Lefebvre crossed the river “with three strong squadrons of his Chasseurs and a small detachment of Mamelukes” – though not without great difficulty.

One account, drawing on a number of sources, nicely sums up what ensued:

The French forced the outlying pickets of the British cavalry back onto the inlaying picket commanded by Loftus Otway (18th Hussars). Otway charged, despite heavy odds, but was driven back for 2 miles towards the town of Benavente. In an area where their flanks were covered by walls, the British, now reinforced by a troop or squadron of the 3rd Hussars King’s German Legion, and commanded by Brigadier-General Stewart, counter-attacked and a confused mêlée ensued. The French, though temporarily driven back, had superior numbers and forced the British hussars to retreat once more, almost back to Benavente. Stewart knew he was drawing the French towards Paget and substantial numbers of British reserves. The French had gained the upper hand in the fight and were preparing to deliver a final charge when Lord Paget made a decisive intervention. He led the 10th Hussars with squadrons of the 18th in support, around the southern outskirts of Benavente. Paget managed to conceal his squadrons from French view until he could fall on their left flank. The British swords, often dulled by their iron scabbards, were very sharp on this occasion. An eyewitness stated that he saw the arms of French troopers cut off cleanly “like Berlin sausages.” Other French soldiers were killed by blows to the head, blows which divided the head down to the chin.

The French fought their way back to the River Esla and started to cross to its eastern bank – swimming with their horses. But many were caught by the pursuing British cavalry, and either killed or made prisoner. General Lefebvre, however, did not escape. His horse had been wounded and when it entered the river it refused to cross. He and some of his men were surrounded by the British cavalry under Lord Paget, which consisted of the 18th Hussars and half of the 3rd Hussars, King’s German Legion. During this encounter Lefebvre was wounded and taken prisoner, along with about seventy of his Chasseurs.

General Lefebvre is Captured at Benaventa. Painting by Dennis Dighton. Royal Collection, Windsor

So who was it that captured General Lefebvre? Some British sources claim simply that it was Private Grisdale. In Levi’s own regimental book we read that Lefebvre was pursued by the “Hussars” and “refusing to stop when overtaken, was cut across the head and made prisoner by Private Levi Grisdall (sic).” Other witnesses suggest that it was in fact a German 3rd Hussar, called Private Johann Bergmann, who captured the General, and that it was he who subsequently handed over his captive to Grisdale.

Any continuing mystery, however, seems to be cleared away by later witness statements made by Private Bergmann himself. His statement is corroborated by several other German Hussars who had taken part in the action, and by letters written by some German officers who were also present. Bergmann’s extensive testimony, taken at Osterholz in 1830 , is recorded in the third person. It states that there were:

three charges that day… at the third charge, or in reality the pursuit, he came upon the officer whom he made prisoner. He was one of the first in the pursuit, and as he came up with this officer, who rode close in the rear of the enemy, the officer made a thrust at him with a long straight sword. After, however, he had parried the thrust, the officer called out ‘pardon.’ He did not trouble himself further about the man, but continued the pursuit; an English Hussar, however, who had come up to the officer at the same time with him, led the officer back.

Bergmann went on to say that he hadn’t known that the officer was Lefebvre until after the action, when he was told he should “have held fast the man.” He added that he was young and “did not trouble” himself about the matter.  All he remembered was that the officer “wore a dark green frock, a hat with a feather, and a long straight sword.”

All the other German witnesses and letters confirm Bergmann’s story, but we also learn that the General had fired a pistol at Bergmann “which failing in its aim, he offered him his sword and made known his wish to be taken to General Stewart.” But Bergmann “didn’t know General Stewart personally, and while he was enquiring where the general was to be found, a Hussar of the tenth English joined him, and led away the prisoner.”

So this it seems is the truth of the matter: Lefebvre was surrounded by a German troop and captured by Private Johann Bergmann. Levi Grisdale, with the 10th Hussars, might have arrived at the scene at the same time as Bergmann or very slightly after, opinions differ. Lefebvre asked to be taken to General Stewart and so Bergmann, “not knowing General Stewart personally”, handed him over to Private Grisdale who “led the prisoner away.”

Lefebvre was delivered to the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir John Moore. Moore, who, we are told, treated the General, who had suffered a superficial head wound, “kindly” and “entertained him at his table.” He also gave him his own sword to replace the one taken when he surrendered. “Speaking to him in French”, General Moore, “provided some of his own clothes; for Lefebvre was drenched and bleeding.” He then “sent a message to the French, requesting Lefebvre’s baggage, which was promptly sent.”

Napoleon, who had viewed the action from a height overlooking the river, didn’t seem too put out by the losses of what he called his “Cherished Children.” But he was very upset when he heard of Lefebvre’s capture. He wrote to Josephine (my translation):

Lefebvre has been taken. He made a skirmish for me with 300 Chasseurs; these show-offs crossed the river by swimming, and threw themselves into the middle of the English cavalry. They killed many of them; but, returning, Lefebvre’s horse was wounded: he was drowning; the current led him to the bank where the English were; he has been taken. Console his wife.

In the aftermath of the battle, a Spanish report from the town of Benavente itself, tells us that on:

The night of the 29th they (the British) used the striking pines growing on the high ground behind the hospitals as lights, at every step coming under the fire of French artillery from the other side of the river, answered feebly by the English, whose force disappeared totally by the morning, to be replaced by a dreadful silence and solitude….

The British cavalry had slipped away and, with the rest of the army, continued its horrendous winter retreat to Corunna. Levi Grisdale and the 10th Hussars were with them.

General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouettes

General Lefebvre himself was later sent as a prisoner to England, and housed at Cheltenham where he lived for three years. As was the custom, he gave his word or “parole” as a French officer and gentleman that he would not try to escape. He was even allowed to be joined by his wife Stephanie. It seems that the couple: “were in demand socially and attended social events around the district.” Other reports tell us that General Lefebvre was in possession of a “fine signet ring of considerable value which had been given him years earlier by his Emperor Napoleon. Lefebvre used this ring as a bribe to get escape and was thus able to escape back to France, where he rejoined his Division.” This was, says one commentator, “an unpardonable sin according to English public opinion.” So much for a gentleman’s word!  The Emperor reinstated him as commander of the Chasseurs and he would go on to fight in all Napoleon’s subsequent campaigns, right up to Waterloo – where he would share the field once again with Levi Grisdale.

I have kept us a little too long in Spain. This is, after all, not the story of the retreat to Corunna, much less a history of the first Spanish chapter of the Peninsular War. After the so-called March of Death and the Battle of Corunna, Levi Grisdale was evacuated back to England by the Royal Navy – with what was left of the 10th Hussars. Here his fame started to spread. The Hampshire Telegraph of 18th February 1809 announced that Grisdale was back in Brighton with his regiment and described him as: “tall, well-made, well looking, ruddy and expressive.” He was promoted to Corporal and awarded a special silver medal by the regiment, which was inscribed:

Corporal Grisdale greatly distinguished himself on the 1st day of January 1809 (sic). This is adjudged to him by officers of the regiment.

The years passed. The regiment moved from Brighton to Romford in Essex, but was once again back in Brighton in 1812. Of this time we know little; only a few events in Levi’s life. Soon after his arrival back in England, he somehow arranged to get away to Bath, where on 29 March 1809, he married Ann Robinson in St James’ Church. Their only son, also called Levi, was born and baptized at Arundel on 12 March 1811 – sadly he was to die young. On 17 February 1813, he “was found guilty of being drunk and absent from barracks.” But, it seems, he was neither reduced to the ranks nor flogged. Other evidence suggests that the whole regiment was “undisciplined and tended to drunkenness.” Whether the leniency of his treatment was due to his record at Benavente we will probably never know.

But by February 1813, Levi, by this time a Sergeant, was back in the Iberian Peninsula, serving in a coalition army under Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, who was later to become the Duke of Wellington. With the 10th Hussars, he fought his way through Portugal, Spain and France and, so  his regiment’s records tell us, was actively engaged at the Battles of Morales, Vitoria, Orthes and, finally, at the Battle of Toulouse in April 1814. Here the British and their allies were badly mauled. But news soon reached the French Marshall Soult that Napoleon had abdicated and Soult agreed to an armistice.

And that should really have been that as far as Levi Grisdale’s military campaigning days was concerned. Yet one more chapter lay ahead. A chapter that would no doubt later provide Levi with another great story to tell in his Penrith public house. Napoleon, we might recall, was to escape from his exile on the Island of Elba in February 1815. He retook the leadership of France, regathered his army, and was only definitively defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on 18th June 1815. It has often been said that the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo “hung in the balance” until the arrival of the Prussian army under Prince von Blücher. One writer puts it thus:

Blücher’s army intervened with decisive and crushing effect, his vanguard drawing off Napoleon’s badly needed reserves, and his main body being instrumental in crushing French resistance. This victory led the way to a decisive victory through the relentless pursuit of the French by the Prussians.

It is said that Levi Grisdale led Bluecher's Prussians onto the field at Waterloo

It is said that Levi Grisdale led Bluecher’s Prussians onto the field at Waterloo

And here it is that we last hear of Levi’s active military exploits. According to his obituary, published in the Cumberland and Westmoreland Advertiser on 20 November 1855, Levi had been posted on the road where the Prussians were expected to arrive, and he led them onto the field of battle! We are also told that during the battle “his horse was shot from under him and he was wounded in the right calf by a splinter from a shell.” Finally, according to a letter written by Captain Thomas Taylor of the 10th Hussars, written to General Sir Vivian Hussey in 1829, Levi, who was a by now a Sergeant in No1 troop under Captain John Gurwood, and “who was one of the captors of Lefebvre … conducted the vedettes in withdrawing from French cavalry during the battle.

Of course, Levi Grisdale certainly did not “save England and Europe” from Napoleon. But, along with thousands of other common soldiers, he played his part and, unlike countless others on all sides, he survived to tell his tales in his pub.

What became of Levi? After he returned to England, he was promoted to Sergeant Major and remained another nine years with the 10th Hussars. When he left the army in 1825, aged only 42 but with twenty-two years of active service and thirty-two engagements behind him, his discharge papers said that he was suffering from chronic rheumatism and was “worn out by service.” Hardly surprising we might think. The army gave him a pension of 1s 10d a day. His papers also state that his intended place of residence was Bristol. He was as good as his word as and he was to become the landlord of the Stag and Star public house in Barr Street, Bristol.

Christ Church, Penrith – where Levi Grisdale is buried

Yet by 1832 Levi and his family had moved back to his native Penrith. His wife Ann died there in July of that year. It seems that Levi was not one to mourn for too long. Within about two weeks he had married again. This time a woman called Mary Western – with whom he had four children. He continued his life as a publican and, as I have mentioned, christened his pub the General Lefebvre; he even hung a large picture of the General over the entrance. During his last years, Levi Grisdale gave up his pub and worked as a gardener. He died of ‘dropsy’ on 17 November 1855 in Penrith, aged 72, his occupation being given as “Chelsea pensioner.” He was buried in the graveyard of Christ Church in Penrith.

Despite what we know about Levi’s life, we will never know what was most important to him – his family, his comrades? Nor will we know what he thought of the ruling ‘officer class’? What he thought of the social and political system that had led him to fight so many battles against adversaries he knew little about? Nor whose side he was really on? We will never know these things, though we can imagine!

As General Macarthur once said, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” ‘General’ Levi Grisdale certainly died but, thankfully, his memory has not yet faded away.


Mary Grisdale. Levi Grisdale. Unpublished research 2006; David Fallowfield. Levi Grisdale 1783-1855, Unpublished article. Penrith; Philip J. Haythornthwaite. Corunna 1809: Sir John Moore’s Fighting Retreat. London: Osprey Publishing 2001; Lettres de Napoléon à Joséphine, Tome Second, Paris 1833, Firman Didot Freres; Christopher Hibbert. Corunna, Batsford 1961; Michael Clover. The Peninsular War 1807-1814. Penguin Books 2003; North Ludlow Beamish. History of the King’s German Legion, Harvard 1832; Christopher Summerville. The March of Death: Sir John Moore’s Retreat to Corunna. Greenhill books 2006; Brime, D. Fernando Fernandez. Historical Notes of the Town of Benavente and its Environs.  Valladolid 1881; Wikipedia.  Battle of Benavente.; The Museum of the King’s Royal Hussars. .