Monday, May 12, 2008

Places and people named Beaufort

In France, at least a dozen towns or villages are called Beaufort. Literally, Beaufort means "beautiful fortress", and there was a time when France was studded with countless fortifications. So, it's not surprising that this name has survived, often associated with an ancient castle.

This weekend, representatives from many of these places named Beaufort were gathered together, a little like members of an international clan, in the tiny village of Beaufort in the Isère department, an hour's drive away from my homeplace. It's a superficial but amusing pretext for an international gathering, a little like the twinning concept. In a dynamic little community, like that of Beaufort in Isère, local citizens house the visitors in their homes, which makes the whole process simple and friendly. Meanwhile, the gathering is a platform for touristic promotion of the various Beaufort places.

The French name has been widely exported. There's a Beaufort Castle in Scotland, in Luxembourg and even in Lebanon. Towns named Beaufort exist in the USA (South Carolina) and in Australia (Victoria).

Yesterday afternoon, some groups of representatives organized stalls with specimens of their local products.

As for the Australian delegates, who brought along piles of photos and leaflets concerning their town, they got interviewed on regional TV. They told me that they had been inundated, since their arrival in France, by questions from French people about tourism in Australia.

Now, why would I personally be interested in places named Beaufort?

Well, in the course of my genealogical research concerning the Skeffington family, I discovered an ancestral line that descends from John of Gaunt and his children named Beaufort. [Click the image to download an article on the genealogy of Lewis Carroll.] The four children were so named after a castle in France where they were born.

In what part of France was this Beaufort Castle located? Most English-speaking authorities [Dictionary of National Biography, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Wikipedia, etc] indicate that it was in the Anjou region of western France, in the village now known as Beaufort en Vallée [see the photo of their stand, earlier on in this post]. This sounds like a reasonable suggestion, in that there were ancient links between English royalty and this region through Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou [1113-1151], patriarch of the Angevin dynasty, between the Normans and the Plantagenets. In fact, two centuries later, the Beaufort Castle associated with John of Gaunt had nothing to do with Anjou, for it was located in a quite different part of eastern France, in the tiny village of Champagne now known as Montmorency-Beaufort, whose representatives were also present at the gathering this weekend.

It's really quite remarkable that such a geographical error should continue to exist in the context of British royalty, which is surely one of the most highly-documented domains in the history of the English-speaking world. Maybe this error persists for the simple reason that the provincial facts would appear to be written, for the moment, solely in French. [I intend to publish an article on this question in the near future.]

Before leaving the festivities at Beaufort yesterday afternoon, I took this photo of a charming old stone house on the outskirts of the village.

Uninhabited for a century, this was the birthplace of Joseph Vacher [1869-1898], often referred to as France's Jack the Ripper, a notorious serial killer who was no doubt responsible for more than two dozen heinous cases of rape and murder.

As far as I know, the visitors at the Beaufort gathering were not taken on a touristic visit to this house.

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