Exploring Yorkshire’s French links

Yorkshireman Ray Kershaw uncovers the history of Yorkshire’s French links in celebration of the 2014 Tour de France Grand Départ

1. Pioneering Le Prince

Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince, a pioneering photographer born in Metz in Lorraine in 1841, came to Leeds in 1866 to work for a college friend’s firm. By 1888 he had invented cinematography. His films Roundhay Park and Traffic on Leeds Bridge – shot with a single-lens camera and still shown in Leeds – last only a few seconds, but are considered the world’s first moving pictures.

In 1890, packing camera and projector, he kissed his family goodbye at Leeds station and set out for New York, where he had worked in the early 1880s and taken out his first patents. He had arranged to see his brother in Dijon in Burgundy en route, but vanished after taking a train to Paris. Le Prince, his blueprints and camera were never seen again.

Did his rivals – American inventor Thomas Edison and the Lyon-based Lumière brothers, who patented their first film camera in 1895 – have something to do with his disappearance? No one will ever know. Leeds still honours the brilliant Frenchman and plaques mark the films’ locations.

2. Romantic Wordsworth

After the French Revolution, the 22-year-old idealistic poet Wordsworth hastened to Paris, euphorically embracing liberté, egalité and, especially, fraternité. His passionate affair with Annette Vallon produced a child, Caroline, in 1792. He wrote in The Prelude the most thrilling lines in English about those heady days: “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.” Could be a paean to Le Tour.

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3. Captive queen

Queen Maria of France – better known to the British as Mary, Queen of Scots – was the daughter of James V and Marie de Guise, a shrewd French noblewoman. In 1542, at six days old, Mary became Queen of Scotland. When she was six, 100 French ships escorted her to France to protect her from the Tudors. Her betrothal to the Dauphin, the four year old François, reaffirmed the auld alliance. In 1558 the adolescent queen, fêted as la Petite Reine, married the Dauphin at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Paris. When François was crowned, she became Queen of France as well as of Scotland. A year on, she was a widow. At just 19, she retreated to Scotland to be Mary, Queen of Scots, but was later forced to abdicate. She fled to England and was imprisoned, firstly at Castle Bolton, for the next 20 years. In 1587, Elizabeth I had her beheaded for treason. Mary’s motto was: En ma fin est mon commencement. (In my end is my beginning.) Another good one for le Tour?

4. In exile with Napoléon

A Coverdale carpenter, James Metcalfe, found himself on the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic guarding Napoléon Bonaparte after the Emperor’s defeat at Waterloo. Both men were exiles, sharing the same solitude. When Napoléon died in 1821, the Yorkshire craftsman constructed his mahogany coffin. When Napoléon’s remains were exhumed, Metcalfe’s masterly workmanship went with him to the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris.

5. Château Ripley

Ripley has nestled for seven centuries beside the Ingilby family’s castle. In the early 1800s, Sir Amcotts Ingilby, a passionate Francophile, transformed his medieval village into a replica of one in Alsace Lorraine. The inscription on the village hall grandly proclaims it the Hôtel de Ville. For a month leading up to the Tour, the winsome village has lived á la française. The Boar’s Head Inn chefs have boned up on their Escoffier, the village butchers have fused French and Yorkshire specialities – even the ice cream has a Gallic flavour.

6. Invasion beacon

Beamsley Beacon’s craggy summit, soaring above Wharfedale, was manned permanently in Napoléon’s time and bonfires would signal any imminent French invasion. Two centuries later, one has finally arrived, but the crowds at Bolton Bridge will welcome the old enemy like conquering heroes, the White Rose banners of Yorkshire and the drapeaux tricolores flying side by side.

7. Brontë passion

In 1842 Charlotte and Emily Brontë visited Brussels to improve their French. The Francophone city had been part of France until 1815. Charlotte fell madly in love with her teacher, but the unrequited passion made her desperately unhappy. However, it did provide plots for two novels, The Professor and Villette, and a mastery of French to while away windy winters back in Haworth.

8. Poet’s tribute

The late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, who was born in Mytholmroyd, found a faded photograph of six smiling classmates, taken on an outing to Lumb Falls. Within months, all six had perished on the World War I battlefields of France. The sepia photograph is displayed by the falls where a plaque commemorates their loss and Hughes’s poem. The lines include: “Six young men, familiar to their friends...

Six months after this picture they were all dead… This one was shot in an attack and lay,

Calling in the wire, then this one, his best friend, Went out to bring him in and was shot too…

The rest, nobody knows what they came to.”