From the journal of Don Fernando de Torrescusa, Marquess de Girona, Envoy of His Most Catholic Majesty, Carlos the Second, King of Spain, to the Flemish Free City of Laarden in 1688.
During my first few weeks in Laarden in the cold winter of 1689, I was almost overwhelmed by the number of civic dinners, town celebrations and council meetings either held in honour of my Master, the King of Spain, or to celebrate the arrival of my small delegation. The discussions at such gatherings ranged widely across politics, trade, the correct terms to address a Spanish plenipotentiary, the status of the current hostilities with France, the rising prices on the Laarden tulip exchange, and the current fashion for the colour yellow which appeared to be taking the town by storm. While Laarden is well known for both its good hospitality and fine food, in truth by deep mid-January my patience and stomach had, respectively, begun to tire of the endless diplomatic pleasantries and the rich fare of Laarden pheasants, Ghent eels, Campine chickens and Flemish oysters that out hosts had placed before us.
A week after New Year, I asked my guide, the young Flemish nobleman Antoine de Gautier, if we could venture one evening from the suffocating banqueting suite of the Hall of Deputies to find a local hostelry. In the process, I asked if he might introduce me to some of the heritage and history of the Town. I should have known by the gleam in his eye, which I confess I mistook for civic pride, that I was about to be 'entertained'.
Later that evening, the young Lord of Laarden announced that he would take me through Guldensporenstraat, the street of the Golden Spurs. It was a uniquely colourful name, the provenance of which was the Flemish victory over the French in 1302 in which the Laarden contingent performed most creditably. I had expected a grand avenue, close to the Grote Markt. My expectation was thoroughly misplaced.
Located in the artisan quarter of the city, Guldensporenstraat was not easy to find. I was led, eventually, to a narrow, poorly lit, damp alley-way, with rivulets of foul-smelling black water oozing between the cobblestones. A solitary crippled beggar, clad in filthy brown rags and a tattered hat with the remnants of a feather, sat by the entrance to the street amidst a litter of bottles and broken glass.
"Spare a florin for a veteran of Seneffe and the siege of Valenciennes, Senhors?". His voice was like fingers ploughing through a pigs entails, phlegmy, soft and gurgling with an emerging respiratory fever. We stepped over him, Antoine grunting disinterestedly, as the beggar moved his alms bowl swiftly away.
At the other end of the narrow street, I saw a lavishly dressed man bedecked in the latest French fashions. The chevalier's coat, stockings and plumage were Hapsberg scarlet, and clearly of considerably quality. "Jan de Vichet.... one of Laarden's envoys to the French Court, recently returned from Versailles", de Gautier informed me after a firm nudge to my ribs.
"A man of power, and wealth... I wonder why he's here.... Ahhhh....that's why".
From the shadow of a door, cut into the vile alley-way, stepped a young woman, dressed soberly in Laarden grey. Her golden blond hair seemed to cascade out in a wild fashion from the confines of her cap. I heard her say something along the lines of "Nice to see you again, Senhor. The price is the same as last time", before both her and de Vichet vanished into the darkness of Guldensporenstraat.
I recoiled from the scene, unwilling to spend any more time in the miserable passageway. "Local heritage, Lord. You did ask...", gurgled de Gautier, a frothy bubble of laughter sounding in the depths of his throat. "Time for 'The Harvest Goose', I think", he added, pointing the way towards a nightwatchman carrying a guttering lantern. As we left Guldensporenstraat, the sounds of our footsteps on the cobbles in the poorly lit streets were eventually drowned by a burst of tuneless singing drifting from the open door of a nearby tavern. I tried to disguise my disappointment, resigning myself to an inevitable hangover in the morning.
De Vichet lingered in the doorway to watch the two noblemen wander off. He could just about make out the all-clear signal from Jean-Louis at the end of Guldensporenstraat, the beggar's bandaged hand waving in the gloom slowly. He looked at Agnes and passed her the coins. "So, which of the regiments were in the Grote Markt this morning and last week? Did you copy down their standards like I asked you? Have you found out when the Lorrainer cavalry are arriving? And the Duc de Luxembourg was most specific that he wanted details of the German and Polish cavalry quartered in Sint Vaalben - you remember, the ones I told you about..... the ones from the Baltic War?".
Agnes smiled, and rolled one of her stockings down a fraction with a well-practiced gesture, tugging out a small fragment of paper with pencil marks all over it. "Tell His Grace that information like this comes at an additional price". De Vichet's eyes widened as he took the paper, reading the contents greedily. Without another word, his fingers delved deeper into his leather purse.
I submitted this entry as part of the Analogue Hobbies Painting Challenge. I had not intended to paint the figures, or the buildings as part of the Challenge, but I got the idea for the scene from the BBC's drama "The Miniaturist", which I watched with my family over the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Part of the fun of creating a fictional (or perhaps, more accurately, and 'Alt-Historical' setting) for wargames - in the form of the fictional Free-Flemish city of Laarden in 1688 - is the freedom it gives to create story-lines which dovetail and intertwine with real history, without being dominated by the reality and time-frame of what actually happened in 1688.
Were French spies working feverishly in the Spanish Netherlands in advance of the Nine Years War? Was the Duc de Luxembourg seeking information regarding the mass of German and Dutch troops marching into Liege and the Bas-Meuse in early 1689? Were German mercenaries from the Scanian and Baltic Wars available for hire by a Flemish free-city, and could they have made the journey easily to Flanders?
Part of the fun of creating a believable narrative is that all these things are possible, and unraveling fact and fiction is all part of the fun. Without making this post overly long, I'd like to return to the theme of Alt-Historical narratives for wargames later this month, along with the accurate historical background to all this nonsense, including some interesting background on 17th century spies, nightlife (gosh!) and the use of the term "Senhors" for noblemen in Laarden (and Antwerp).
The figures are a real mixture. Jan de Vichet, Laarden envoy to Versailles and thoroughly Francophile spy, is a 25mm Dixon Miniatures officer with a ludicrously large green-stuff wig and cravat. Agnes, another French spy (although with better justification) is an SHQ figure from their "Tavern" line. I liked her figure a lot, especially the fact that her gesture, fingering her stocking top, could emerge as something very different to what it first seems. I added her cap in green-stuff, and she may yet turn out to be an unlikely heroine. Jean-Louis, the sad veteran reduced to a begging bowl, is a Midlam Miniatures beggar with a Redoubt ECW headswap. The member of the Laarden Nachtwatch is a Foundry Thirty Years War sergeant, with his halberd swapped for a Mordheim lantern. Chickens and cockerel are from Warbases, as are the geese. The buildings are from the Hovels 25m European range, without conversion (although some of the resin bubbleholes got filled with green-stuff). The wonderful continental paving (which is ruinously expensive brass fret at £8 a sheet) is from Scalelink. I rarely use it, but it looks very nice. It was glued using epoxy resin to the plywood base (more details on my blog to come). It's a shame no-one makes the distinctive North European paving in plastic sheeting, as I think it sets the scene for the houses very well.
I hope you've enjoyed this post. There'll be more from 1688 Laarden in a few days. Hope you can join me for that.