The Grand Master’s Palace in Valetta, Malta has been in existence for almost five hundred years. A tour through the building will bring you through beautiful ballrooms, past magnificent paintings, and through an armory ready for war (a medieval one anyway). However, it is the group that the palace gets its name from that tells the real story. Before it became a building for the Maltese House of Representatives, it was originally the seat of the Grand Master of the Sovereign Order of St. John of Jerusalem. A mouthful, I know, but they have earned it.
The Order traces their origin back to the Crusades. They were founded during the twelfth century in Jerusalem when a group of knights came across what was a hospital and shelter for pilgrims in the Holy Land. The hospital was run by a man called Brother Gerard. It was very advanced for its era and as a result had much higher survival rates. The Knights joined Brother Gerard in his charitable works and not long after the Order of St. John was officially recognized as a self-governing organization in a Papal Bull. Over the centuries, the order continued its charitable works helping the sick, poor, and defending Christians in the Holy Land during the subsequent Crusades.
Over time, though, they became rivals of the Knights Templar and this rivalry only increased as the Kingdom of Jerusalem declined. Both orders were highly regarded; they were both endowed by the Pope and held the same rank in Church and State. This afforded them many privileges. With these privileges came power and wealth, and they answered only to the Pope. As time passed, the Kingdom of Jerusalem fell and both orders were forced out. The Knights of St. John ended up in Palestine before being forced onto Cyprus and then Rhodes. At the same time the Knights Templar were forced into Europe where their privilege, power and wealth ultimately came to be seen as a threat. As a result, the King of France began a campaign to wipe them out. By 1312, with the Pope’s official support, the Knights Templar were considered officially suppressed, with many of them having already been burned at the stake as heretics. The Pope ordered that their lands were to be handed over to the Knights of St. John. On a side note, some people believe that the superstition towards Friday the thirteenth dates back to the day that the King of France had the Knights Templar arrested, Friday the thirteenth of October 1307.
By 1530, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, gave the island of Malta to the order on the condition that they send him a single Maltese Falcon each year on All Saints Day. At that time, the gift of a falcon was considered a high honor, and Maltese Falcons were particularly desirable. This tradition is still carried out by the Maltese people to this day, though the falcon now goes to Spain.
In 1798, the order was forced out of Malta by Napoleon. They scattered throughout Europe only to ultimately settle in Rome, where they are still based today. The order is still in existence and since the early 1800’s it has dedicated itself to religious and humanitarian causes.
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The church of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois is in the heart of Paris, directly across the street from the Louvre. When the French Royal Family was in Paris, they lived at the Louvre and the Church of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois was where they practiced their religion. That is why it was also called the “paroisse des rois de France” (parish of the Kings of France). Probably the most well known event that took place here involved the plot to massacre Protestants during the French wars of Religion in the sixteenth century, known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. A wedding that was orchestrated to give the illusion of peace between the Catholic Royals and the Huguenot minority was actually the battle cry to Catholics to slaughter Huguenots across the city. Unbeknownst to the bride Princess Margaret and the groom Henry III of Navarre (also known as Good King Henry), the day of the wedding the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici, orchestrated a secret plot to carry out a series of assassinations and mass violence against the Huguenots.
The church itself actually has a much longer history, a history that tells a large part of the story of the city of Paris and the various empires it has belonged to. It is one of the oldest parishes in Paris. Originally built in the fifth century the church has undergone many rebuilds and changes in the centuries since. The origin story of this particular church involves two saints, Saint Germain the Bishop of Auxerre (where its name comes from) and Saint Genevieve, the Patron Saint of Paris. The Church itself was originally built on the meeting place of Saint Germain and Saint Genevieve. It was during this meeting when Saint Germain, her Bishop, told a seven-year-old Genevieve that her future was that of a holy woman. It was then that she requested he take her to her church and consecrate her as a virgin. Following Germain’s highly regarded example, she dedicated her life to the church. At 15, she asked to become a nun.
When Attila the Hun and his army approached Paris in the year 451, the people of Paris, not surprisingly, wanted to run. Genevieve convinced the people to stay and pray for the protection of Heaven. Soon after Attila changed his course. Throughout her life, she carried on with her acts of charity, prayer and foretelling what was to come. It was that last habit that caused many people to turn against her, to the point where they wanted to “drown her in a lake of fire”. St Germain stepped in to prevent that.
Genevieve also held great influence over two of her Kings, Childeric and his son Clovis. Childeric respected her devotion to her parishioners, particularly after witnessing the lengths she went to to secure food for them during a time of famine. While both Kings were pagans, they respected her enough to listen to her advice. Clovis ultimately converted to Christianity and with that, many of his people converted with him, creating a religious unification across his empire. While his decision to convert is attributed to his wife, Clotilde (she was venerated as a Saint for her act), it is hard to believe St. Genevieve’s example had no influence on his decision. This is especially noteworthy when you realize that Clotilde in turn promoted the idea of making Genevieve the Patron Saint of Paris. Clovis and Genevieve were even both interred in the same abbey for a time. Throughout her life and after her death many miracles in Paris were attributed to her.
The Church of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois has its fingerprints on much of the history of Paris between the St. Bartholomew’s day massacre, being burned to the ground in a Norman invasion, famine, war, an empires conversion to Catholicism many major events can be traced back to it and its faithful parishioners over the centuries. Much like the city of Paris, the church keeps going, as if it is the beating heart of Paris itself.
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This is the Fontaine des Innocents in Les Halles, Paris. It marks the former location of a cemetery, the Cimetière des Innocents. The fountain was built to honor King Henri II and also includes references to his wife Catherine de Medici (more on her in postcard three) and meant to stand at the intersection of Rue St. Denis, one of the oldest streets in Paris, and Rue Berger when construction began in 1546. It was eventually moved to the Square des Innocents where it still stands today. Before the fountain was moved to this square, the cemetery and an adjoining church stood here. Over the centuries, it was used for mass burials of up to 1500 people at a time. When the cemetery started to fill up bodies were stored in what were called charnel houses. Inevitably, this led to a complete closure for overuse. The story I was told on a guided tour is that the cemetery had grown so overstuffed that one day the daughter of a wine merchant was crushed to death in their cellar when bodies burst through the walls. Supposedly, this final straw led the King to close the cemetery.
Bodies bursting through walls sounds absurd, but you have to keep in mind an estimated two million people were buried in the cemetery (up to sixty feet below the ground) over six centuries by the time of its closure.
The cemetery was here from the twelfth century until the King had it closed in 1780. In 1786, the bodies were removed and placed in the catacombs, the famous Parisian catacombs. After the Church and cemetery were gone, the area became a marketplace. Today the fountain area is surrounded by restaurants and shops, it is a very pleasant, peaceful area, and you would never guess what used to be there.
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This is Bannerman Castle located on Pollepel Island on the Hudson River in upstate New York. After purchasing the island, Francis Bannerman wanted a structure built to resemble a Scottish castle but it was always intended to be used as a military surplus warehouse. As I am sure you can tell from the photo it has a bit of an explosive history.
Francis Bannerman made a living buying and reselling war surplus. This included guns, munitions, swords and military uniforms. His was the original Army Navy store. He purchased ninety percent of the decommissioned weapons from the Spanish-American war and thirty million rounds of ammunition. Eventually he was the largest military surplus buyer in the world. All of this was originally stored at his warehouse in Brooklyn. Not surprisingly, the city wanted him out, bringing him to Pollepel Island.
Both the island and the castle have truly unique stories. Many people believed the island was haunted including the Native Americans who once inhabited the area. They refused to stay on the island at night. Dutch sailors believed the Goblin of lighting and wind haunted it. During the revolution it was used as a trap to sink enemy ships. For about a century afterward it was known for its prostitutes, moonshiners and rumrunners. It truly is a unique little island.
As for the castle, Francis Bannerman had it built from his own designs to resemble a Scottish castle. He chose the island because of its location; right in the middle of the Hudson, visible from the train tracks, it was the perfect advertisement. He had it designed so that the name Bannermans Island Arsenal was visible from across the river. But after Bannerman’s death in 1918 things started to go awry. The powderhouse exploded in 1920 when 200 pounds of black powder were set off. The explosion was so severe that cities across the river shook, debris flew across the river where it landed on the train tracks, and rescuers were kept at bay because of the still exploding ammunition. Somehow, only three people were injured. His family eventually left the island in the 1940’s, though they continued to run the business into the 1970’s. An arson attack in 1969 gutted the castle, leaving the walls unstable. Finally, in December 2009 and January 2010 storms caused the southeast corner and the north wall to collapse. Perhaps the Native Americans were right and the island really is haunted. Or maybe you should just keep powder kegs in a slightly more stable environment.
What remains of Bannerman Castle can be visited from May through October. You can find out more on the Bannerman Castle Trust website.
Belvedere Castle is a miniature castle built in 1869. It has also been known as Fort Belvedere and Belvedere Tower. The castle was built on top of Vista Rock which makes it look as though it rose straight out of the ground. It was designed by Calvert Vaux (one of the two architects of Central Park) and Jacob Wrey Mould.
The castle was originally intended as a folly, an extravagantly built lookout with incredible views but no true purpose. In the early 1900’s the building found its purpose. The New York Meteorological Observatory, founded by Dr. Daniel Draper, began using it. Since Draper’s retirement in 1912, the National Weather Service has taken the temperature and various other readings for New York from the station within the castle. When you hear the temperature in Central Park is… on the news, it’s coming from this castle. The castle also houses the Henry Luce Nature Observatory.
Belvedere means beautiful view in Italian. It is a fitting name as not only is the view of the castle beautiful, the view from the top of it is too. Standing at the highest elevation in the park the castle offers one of the most incredible views in Central Park. From there you can see the New York City skyline, the Great Lawn, the Delacorte Theater and of course Turtle Pond.