France – Philippe Pot

One who has the patience to wander afoot across the Golden Ridge from Beaune toward Autun finds it a district of ever increasing surprises. He experiences the sensation of walking along the margin of a wine-list, for all the hamlets through which he passes—quiet, insignificant-looking little stone groups—bear names that are well known wherever bon vivants are gathered and the glasses clink. And he feels a distinct shock when in the midst of this latter-day Ascalon he comes upon some gaunt remain of Burgundy’s other self, the ambitious Burgundy that sold wine only to buy sword-steel.

Such a reminder is found at Laroche, near Nolay, a spot whence the medieval atmosphere has never departed.

Because of its out-of-the-way site, Laroche is not much visited by tourists. Few of the folks who live in the immediate vicinity know much about it.

“The castle at Laroche? Oui, I have heard of it,” admitted madame of the hotel at Beaune. “But I have never been there, monsieur. After all, is not one ruined chateau quite like another?”

Local guide-books were similarly vague concerning it.

Local railroad agents were discouraging. Only the historical significance of the place could tempt one to visit it, but that is a factor worth consideration. If romance has lingered anywhere in Burgundy, it must be here.

So it is more out of a feeling of duty to the ghosts of the Cote d’Or than with any hope of a profitable afternoon that one journeys to dirty little Nolay and trudges the four long kilometers up the hill toward Laroche. One must trudge, unless he prefers to wait until Monsieur le Maire, who owns a small and odorous cart, can finish his day’s work in the fields. And the walk is a monotony of severe grades and uninteresting scenes.

Then one comes to the top of a slope and looks across the tiny vale in which nestles the dingy feudal settlement of Rochepot. It is as if one had suddenly opened a page in a beautiful book. For the castle of Philippe Pot, rising from the crag on top of the opposite slope is not “quite like another ruined chateau.” It is no ruin at all but a domineering bulk intact from moat to candle-snuffer roofs, gaudy in banners and brilliant with fresh paint . . . a restoration of course, but what a restoration ! The effect is quite the same as if the corpse of Philippe Pot himself had been “restored” and was back here to take up his life where he dropped it hundreds of years ago.

The pont-levis still swings on its ponderous hinges. The portcullis still slides in its grooves in the white tower of the donjon. And over the gate, as fresh as if Philippe had only yesterday laid aside shield and buckler to wield the paint-brush, is the chevalier’s historic motto, “Tant L vaut.”

At once all the strange legends of the Knight of Death seem to stand proved. It is not this Aladdin’s castle come back to its own that seems unreal; it is the modern landscape-gardening outside the walls. One does not doubt the fantastic stories of how the chateau passed into the possession of the lords of Pot, but here, in the shadows of these towers, he finds it difficult to imagine that the place is now owned by the heirs of Carnot, once President of the French Republic.

The history of the noble house of Pot begins with the digging of a well in the courtyard of the castle at Laroche.

Guillaume Pot, a skillful worker with shovel and pick, was hired by the lord of Laroche to sink this well through the rocky cliff and make an end to the tedious process of, hauling water from the creek in the town below.

At the end of the year he presented a bill for twenty thousand livres. The bill was just. Laroche had to acknowledge that, but unfortunately the good seigneur was short of money. He gave the well-digger his note.

The sinking of the well continued for another year.

In the mean time Laroche had been under heavy demands from the court at Dijon and had not shaken dice with any degree of luck in the Burgundian camps on the Spanish border. He paid Pot with another note.

In five years, so the story goes, the well was finished, and Guillaume Pot held one hundred thousand livres in notes. He presented them for payment.

“My word is good,” Laroche told him. “But I cannot pay you in gold because I haven’t any gold. I can give you part of my estates in far Aquitaine, or my title as King of Nubia—I think it ‘s Nubia, or maybe East Mauretania—or I can give you this castle as it stands and move to my hotel in Dijon.”

“I’m no grasping tradesman,” responded Pot with rare gentleness. “I come of good family and have amassed some wealth through my skill with iron tools. I should hesitate to despoil your lordship of his title to the kingdom of Nubia—or is it East Mauretania ?—and it would be on my conscience for ever were I to take from this noble house its holdings in far Aquitaine. I am willing to compromise on the castle, especially inasmuch as your lordship will be moving to Dijon.”

Such was the foundation of the noble house of Pot. Guillaume took naturally to luxury and found the castle more habitable than it had been in the regime of Laroche, for now it had a well in it, and there was no further necessity for carrying water up from the bed of the creek below the town.

Philippe Pot was the most illustrious of the descendants of Guillaume the well-digger. He was a fairy-tale knight —the unexplainable swashbuckler, the thoroughly illogical errant—a brave man and pious—and a fool for luck.

Philippe was engaged to Jeanne de Beaufremont, daughter of the count of Charny, when he decided to go adventuring. He rode out to a crusade with the chivalry of Burgundy, France, and England and in the process contrived to get himself captured by the Soldan Mohammed II.

For some time he was held prisoner in a Saracen dungeon but did not allow his captivity to depress him. He amused himself by writing bits of poetry, mostly on religious subjects, one of which, “A Hymn to Our Lady,” has come down to the present day.

But the soldan decided at length to make an end to this poetry-writing. There was to be a great festival at the summer palace outside of Constantinople, and it occurred to him that the renowned Philippe would be worth more than his ransom as an attraction in the arena. It was said on good authority that the spurned charms of Mohammed’s sister Azail might have been a factor in the arrangements for this performance.

At any rate Philippe, the “Chevalier de la Mort,” was dragged out of his dungeon, stripped of most of his garments, and informed of his pleasing destiny.

“You are to take your place in history this day,” observed an admiring spearman. “Ten thousand of Allah’s chosen shall witness your descent into the arena and your struggles with the famishing lion. And, although you are a Christian, I should not doubt that you will perform with credit to your reputation. It would be a grievous disappointment to the soldan were you to fail to give the lion suitable competition. Never did man have a better opportunity to cover himself with glory. Your Christian friends shall be made to hear of your last battle, and the fame of your prowess will be carried to the nethermost corners of the world. What a wonderful death for a soldier!”

“I ‘m not so sure of that,” replied Philippe unconvinced. “What am I supposed to do with this lion after I have caught him’?”

The attendant smiled.

“But you won’t catch him,” he explained. “You will display your skill in keeping away from him as long as possible. And then you will die gloriously. I shall cheer your indomitable bravery as you go to your end.”

Philippe did not enter the arena unarmed. The soldan, with his usual generosity and love for fair play, made a concession: he announced that Philippe would be allowed to use his bare fists and any of the usual wrestling holds, and in addition might carry a sword one foot long.

Philippe thanked him, tried the edge of the sword on his thumb, and leaped into the arena. Scarcely had he struck the sand when the gate lifted and the maddened lion rushed out at him.

Philippe turned abruptly to the left as the lion leaped, made one swinging stroke with his short sword, and slashed the beast across one of his fore paws. The lion rolled over, stopped short, howled, and doubled up to lick the wound. Instantly the Chevalier de la Mort, instead of manoeuvering according to the accepted stratagem of victims in the arena, closed for a second time with his adversary. In a second slashing stroke he cut off the lion’s tongue.

Crazed with pain, the great Nubian cat sat back on his haunches and opened his mouth to roar. So quickly that the spectators scarcely could follow his movements, Philippe leaned forward and rammed the little sword down the beast’s throat. The lion grunted and died.

The Moslems showed their sportsmanship by cheering in wild surprise. The soldan so far forgot himself as to descend to the arena, where he embraced Philippe and hung a gold chain about his neck.

“You had been marked for a glorious death as a soldier,” he said. “Instead you have gloriously won back your right to live. Christian or no Christian, you are the bravest man I have ever seen.

“You are now a free agent and may return to your own country. A picked guard will travel with you to the frontier as a mark of honor. If during the journey you should decide to embrace the holy faith of Mohammed my fondest wish will be realized; and there are women less beautiful, my son, than the fair Azail.”

So Philippe Pot, loaded with treasures and surrounded by Moslem soldiers and orators, set out for Burgundy. He lost most of the missionaries before he had reached the port of embarkation, for he was a bit stubborn, and the memory of the short sword still rankled. But three or four of the propagandists were not to be rebuffed. They followed the valorous Philippe all the way to Laroche, and afterward were members of his household.

Rochepot was in mourning when the battered knight appeared at the gate. His trumpet-blast before the pontlevis brought no response from the echoing donjon across the moat. The town, too, appeared to be deserted, and there was a silence over the country-side as if a great plague had passed that way.

But presently a rheumatic sentry stirred himself on top of the wall and peered down to inquire the cause of the noise.

“Where are all the people of the castle?” demanded Philippe.

“They have gone to Dijon to celebrate the funeral of my brave lord Philippe Pot, may his soul rest in peace,” replied the sentry. “It is to be regretted that I couldn’t get away to go, for it will be the largest funeral ever held in Burgundy. Everybody who could muster a horse or a seat in a cart has gone to it. What a pity that the brave knight will be unable to see it, devil take the paynim !”

“Oh, the paynim isn’t such a bad chap,” responded Philippe. “He’s a heathen and all that, but he has his good points. . . .”

And, so the story goes, he rode on to Dijon, reaching the Cathedral of Notre Dame in the morning as the Jacque-mart was pounding out six o’clock on the great bell.

Everything was in motion toward the Church of St. Benigne when the chevalier reached the town. The nobles were already within the church, and the solemn high mass of requiem had begun. A catafalque, surmounted by a suit of Philippe’s armor, stood flanked by tall and tearful candles before the altar. Close beside it knelt Jeanne de Beaufremont, weeping for her lost love.

At such a dramatic moment came Philippe himself, as tattered as any pilgrim who ever trudged back from the Holy Land, to change the requiem into a ceremony of thanksgiving.

They say that Philippe knelt throughout the singing of his own requiem. That was like him.

When the prayers for the dead had been recited over the catafalque he identified himself, without effort at melodrama or regard for the sensibilities of the assembled multitude.

“I have attended my own funeral,” he explained, “merely that I might be reminded of the fate that might have been mine had it not been for the intercession of Notre Dame de Bon Secours, Tant L Vaut ! I go now as a barefooted pilgrim to throw myself in supplication at her shrine.”

And he went even before the hysterical Jeanne could entwine her arms about his neck or the Duke Philippe le Bon himself could offer congratulations. . . . Which was also quite like Philippe Pot.

A painting showing the chevalier killing the lion may still be seen in the cathedral in Dijon. Below it are the lines that he composed in the Saracen prison:

Tant L Vaut et valu A celui qui a recouru A celle pour qui dit ce mot Le suppliant Philippe Pot, Qui de tout mall’s secouru. TANT L VAUT.

Philippe married Jeanne de Beaufremont and lived a very turbulent life thereafter. But his subsequent career was something of an anticlimax, as might be expected of a man who kills a lion with a short sword too early in life.