Alfred Noyes: The Ballad of Dick Turpin

The daylight moon looked quietly down
Through the gathering dusk on London town

A smock-frocked yokel hobbled along
By Newgate, humming a country song.

Chewing a straw, he stood to stare
At the proclamation posted there:

“Three hundred guineas on Turpins head,
Trap him alive or shoot him dead;
And a hundred more for his mate, Tom King.”

He crouched like a tiger about to spring.
Then he looked up, and he looked down;
And chuckling low, like a country clown,

Dick Turpin painfully hobbled away
In quest of his inn – “The Load of Hay”…

Alone in her stall, his mare, Black Bess,
Lifted her head in mute distress;
For five strange men had entered the yard
And looked at her long, and looked at her hard.

They went out, muttering under their breath;
And then – the dusk grew still as death.

But the velvet ears of the listening mare
Lifted and twitched. They were there – still there;

Hidden and waiting; for whom? And why?
The clock struck four, a set drew nigh.

It was King! Dick Turpins’ mate.
The black mare whinnied. Too late! Too late!

They rose like shadows out of the ground
And grappled him there, without a sound.

“Throttle him – quietly – choke him dead!
Or we lose this hawk for a jay, they said.”

They wrestled and heaved, five men to one;
And a yokel entered the yard, alone;

A smock-frocked yokel, hobbling slow;

But a fight is physic as all men know.

His age dropped off, he stood upright.
He leapt like a tiger into the fight.

Hand to hand, they fought in the dark;
For none could fire at a twisting mark.

Where he that shot at a foe might send
His pistol ball through the skull of a friend.

But “Shoot Dick, Shoot” gasped out Tom King
“Shoot! Or damn it we both shall swing!
Shoot and chance it!” Dick leapt back.

He drew. He fired. At the pistols crack
The wrestlers whirled. They scattered apart
And the bullet drilled through Tom Kings heart…

Dick Turpin dropped his smoking gun.
They had trapped him five men to one.

A gun in the hand of the crouching five.
They could take Dick Turpin now alive;

Take him and bind him and tell their tale
As a pot house boast, when they drank their ale.

He whistled, soft as a bird might call
And a head rope snapped in his birds dark stall.

He whistled, soft as a nightingale
He heard the swish of her swinging tail.

There was no way out that the five could see
To heaven or hell, but the Tyburn tree;

No door but death; and yet once more
He whistled, as though at a sweethearts door.

The five men laughed at him, trapped alive;
And – the door crashed open behind the five!

Out of the stable, a wave of thunder,
Swept Black Bess, and the five went under.

He leapt to the saddle, a hoof turned stone,
Flashed blue fire, and their prize was gone…..

**

He rode for one impossible thing; that in the
morning light
The towers of York might waken him-
from London and last night.

He rode to prove himself another,
and leave himself behind.
And the hunted self was like a cloud;
but the hunter like the wind.

Neck and neck they rode together;
that, in the day’s first gleam,
each might prove that the other self
was but a mocking dream.

And the little sleeping villages, and the
breathless country side
Woke to the drum of the ghostly hooves,
but missed that ghostly ride.

The did not see, they did not hear as the ghostly
hooves drew nigh,
The dark magnificent thief in the night
that rode so subtly by.

They woke, they rushed to the way-side door,
They saw what the midnight showed,-
A mare that came like a crested wave,
Along the Great North Road.

A flying spark in the formless dark,
a flash from the hoof-spurned stone,
And the lifted face of a man –
that took the starlight and was gone.

The heard the sound of a pounding chase
three hundred yards away
There were fourteen men in a stream of sweat
and a plaster of Midland clay.

The starlight struck their pistol-butts as they
passed in the clattering crowd
But the hunting wraith was away like the wind
at the heels of the hunted cloud.

He rode by the walls of Nottingham,
and over him as he went
Like ghosts across the Great North Road,
the boughs of Sherwood bent.

By Bawtry, all the chase but one has dropped
a league behind,
Yet, one rider haunted him, invisibly, as the wind.

And northward, like a blacker night, he saw the moors up-loom
And Don and Derwent sang to him, like memory in the gloom.

And northward, northward as he rode, and sweeter than a prayer
The voices of those hidden streams,
the Trent, the Ouse and the Aire;

Streams that could never slake his thirst.
He heard them as he flowed
But one dumb shadow haunted him along the
Great North Road.

Till now, at dawn, the towers of York rose on
the reddening sky.
And Bess went down between his knees,
like a breaking wave to die.

He lay beside her in the ditch, he kissed her lovely head,
And a shadow passed him like the wind and left him with his dead.

He saw, but not that one as wakes, the city that he sought,
He had escaped from London town, but not from his own thought.

He strode up to the Mickle-gate, with none to say him nay.
And there he met his Other Self in the stranger light of day.

He strode up to the dreadful thing that in the gateway stood
And it stretched out a ghostly hand that the dawn had stained with blood.

It stood as in the gates of hell, with none to hear or see,
“Welcome,” it said, “Thou’st ridden well, and outstript all but me”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alfred Noyes: The Highwaymen

Alfred Noyes (1880-1958) was an English author, poet, and balladeer whose work though popular throughout his lifetime has largely been neglected since his death. This has been partly the result of his now unfashionable patriotism. Even so, his poem The Highwayman published in the August 1906 edition of Blackwood’s Magazine has remained one of Britain’s most loved, particularly among children.

 

PART ONE

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.

The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.

The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,

And the highwayman came riding—

Riding—riding—

The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

 

He’d a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,

A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin.

They fitted with never a wrinkle. His boots were up to the thigh.

And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,

His pistol butts a-twinkle,

His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.

 

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard.

He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred.

He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there

But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,

Bess, the landlord’s daughter,

Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

 

And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked

Where Tim the ostler listened. His face was white and peaked.

His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,

But he loved the landlord’s daughter,

The landlord’s red-lipped daughter.

Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—

 

“One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I’m after a prize to-night,

But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;

Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,

Then look for me by moonlight,

Watch for me by moonlight,

I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way.”

 

He rose upright in the stirrups. He scarce could reach her hand,

But she loosened her hair in the casement. His face burnt like a brand

As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;

And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,

(O, sweet black waves in the moonlight!)

Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.

 

PART TWO

 

He did not come in the dawning. He did not come at noon;

And out of the tawny sunset, before the rise of the moon,

When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor,

A red-coat troop came marching—

Marching—marching—

King George’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door.

 

They said no word to the landlord. They drank his ale instead.

But they gagged his daughter, and bound her, to the foot of her narrow bed.

Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!

There was death at every window;

And hell at one dark window;

For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.

 

They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest.

They had bound a musket beside her, with the muzzle beneath her breast!

“Now, keep good watch!” and they kissed her. She heard the doomed man say—

Look for me by moonlight;

Watch for me by moonlight;

I’ll come to thee by moonlight, though hell should bar the way!

 

She twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held good!

She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!

They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years

Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,

Cold, on the stroke of midnight,

The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at least was hers!

 

The tip of one finger touched it. She strove no more for the rest.

Up, she stood up to attention, with the muzzle beneath her breast.

She would not risk their hearing; she would not strive again;

For the road lay bare in the moonlight;

Blank and bare in the moonlight;

And the blood of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s refrain.

 

Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horsehoofs ringing clear;

Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot, in the distance? Were they deaf that they did not hear?

Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,

The highwayman came riding—

Riding—riding—

The red coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still.

 

Tlot-tlot, in the frosty silence! Tlot-tlot, in the echoing night!

Nearer he came and nearer. Her face was like a light.

Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,

Then her finger moved in the moonlight,

Her musket shattered the moonlight,

Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.

 

He turned. He spurred to the west; he did not know who stood

Bowed, with her head o’er the musket, drenched with her own blood!

Not till the dawn he heard it, and his face grew grey to hear

How Bess, the landlord’s daughter,

The landlord’s black-eyed daughter,

Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.

 

Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,

With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high.

Blood red were his spurs in the golden noon; wine-red was his velvet coat;

When they shot him down on the highway,

Down like a dog on the highway,

And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.

.      .       .

And still of a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,

When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,   

When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,   

A highwayman comes riding—

         Riding—riding—

A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.

 

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard.

He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred.   

He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there   

But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,

         Bess, the landlord’s daughter,

Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

 

Highwaymen: ‘Stand and Deliver!’

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.

   The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.   

   The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,   

   And the highwayman came riding—

         Riding—riding—

   The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door. *

Eighteenth century England was a violent place and a country of extremes; of great wealth but greater poverty still with a politics shorn of scruple and a law without justice. In such a world even heroes are often more to be feared than admired – pickpockets and thieves, fraudsters and robbers on the highway – as long as they stole from the rich regardless of whether they gave to the poor they were to be honoured in the darker recesses of the human soul.

In this brutal world and with their trademark address beloved by generations of children, ‘Stand and deliver. Your money or your life’, ­none was more admired than the highwayman who terrorised with impunity by night those who governed with an iron fist by day.

Portrayed in popular ballad and verse as both dashing and brave they infested the main arteries of England making travel a perilous pursuit undertaken with trepidation, and for good reason. Most highwaymen made no pretence of gallantry but were violent thugs who would kill without compunction. But there were exceptions and James Hind was one. Indeed, he was to become the first criminal as folk hero since perhaps the time of Robin Hood.

Born in the small town of Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire the humble son of a saddler, he would rise in status to become an Officer in the King’s Army during the war with Parliament where his devotion to duty was acknowledged, but he could do little to alter the tide of a war that had turned decisively in Parliaments favour. Following the Royalist defeat he briefly returned home but fearing retribution soon fled to London, a Republican city, but one upon whose teeming streets he could easily disappear and did into its many brothels and taverns, and it was in one such tavern that he met Thomas Allen, a career criminal who had already committed a number of robberies on the highway and was looking for a partner.

Lucrative though it was highway robbery was fraught with danger and not just for its victims. Few coach passengers travelled unarmed and the coachman himself would often carry a blunderbuss, a scattergun with a flared nozzle that fired a multitude of musket ball that could kill both a horse and its rider with a single shot. It was important then for one man to keep the passengers covered while the other would deprive them of their goods and money.

Hind, who had remained a vocal critic of the new regime, a dangerous preoccupation, was eager to be that man but unlike many others who had also shed a tear at the King’s execution his grief turned to anger and he desired their partnership to be more than a mere criminal enterprise, he wanted it to be a continuation of the war by other means. Allen, whose sympathies likewise lay with the Cavalier cause, did not object – they would target the Regicides when the opportunity arose.

Those they stopped who could prove their loyalty to the King would be permitted to continue on their way unmolested but not so the Commonwealth Men whose lives they would threaten, their valuables they would steal, sometimes even their clothes. Many a wealthy Republican would fall foul of James Hind and Thomas Allen much to the delight of the public at large but an attack upon the arch-Regicide himself, Oliver Cromwell, would prove a step too far when they found the Lord Protector to be very well protected indeed.

Cromwell travelled nowhere without an armed escort and it appears unlikely that Hind and Allen would have been unaware of this. They probably blundered then into the Lord Protector’s entourage rather than targeted it specifically. If so, they soon wished they hadn’t.

In the gloom of an early evening Thomas Allen’s sudden appearance and demand that they ‘stand and deliver’ seemed palpably absurd and he was quickly seized and overpowered. In the meantime, Hind fought desperately with those trying to grab the reins of his horse and pull him from the saddle. He barely escaped their clutches and with no prospect of helping his friend galloped off in the direction of London with Cromwell’s men in hot pursuit. He had been fortunate indeed, Thomas Allen less so, and he would shortly pay with his life for his audacity.

Hind may only just have eluded justice but his attack upon Cromwell made him a hero among all those who loathed the new Puritanism, and there were many, or simply had a disdain for authority, of which there were even more. Hind revelled in his new fame and now without Allen he could act without restraint and so it was on the road to Salisbury that he intercepted the carriage of John Bradshaw, the Chief Justice who had presided at the trial of the King. Notorious for having sat on the bench wearing a breastplate under his judicial robes and a helmet to protect against assassination he seemingly took no such precautions when on his travels. It was an astonishing arrogance on his part and it very nearly cost him his life as with an ill-grace and a curse upon his lips he handed over all he had.

The next high-profile Commonwealth Man to fall victim to the Cavalier Thief was Hugh Peters, the firebrand preacher to Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army who in his eagerness to see the King executed had fulminated from the pulpit:

“So ye shall not pollute the land wherein ye are: for the blood it defileth the land:  and the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.”

Having similarly admonished his current assailant with verses from the Bible it soon became Peters turn to be on the end of a sharp tongue as Hind accused him of humbug and hypocrisy, of treason and of sanctioning the murder of his divinely anointed King. If he did not comply with his demands then a similar fate awaited him. The old preacher for all his bluster did not need to be told twice – his life would be spared but not his cloak and purse.

With each robbery of a Republican, a Regicide, or a Puritan Divine, Hind’s popularity soared and his reputation along with it. It seemed there was nothing he wouldn’t do in the Royalist cause, that he was not only a confidante of the exiled heir to the throne but had helped him escape the clutches of Cromwell’s Ironsides following his defeat at the Battle of Worcester.  It was even rumoured that he led a secret countrywide organisation dedicated to the Restoration of the Monarchy.

Hind revelled in the attention that came his way and would openly toast the King’s health and damn the King killing Republicans whenever the opportunity arose but he was to engage in the drunken ribaldry of a crowded tavern once too often – overheard boasting of his exploits he was reported to the authorities and arrested.

James Hind acted in a higher cause or so he claimed, a fact not lost on the Authorities. As such he was tried not for robbery or murder but treason. An example would be made of him and speaking from the scaffold he made plain why:

“The robberies I committed were upon the Republican Party of whom I have an utter abhorrence. It troubles me greatly that I shall not live to see my royal master established upon the throne  from which he has been so unjustly and illegally excluded by rebellious and disloyal men who deserve to hang more than I.”

Having died a traitor’s death, hung, drawn, and quartered, his severed head was put on public display as a warning to others.

If the Cavalier Thief had stirred the blood of young men it was an émigré French aristocrat who stole the heart of the young ladies.

The very model of the gallant highwayman Claude Duval had been born in Paris in 1643, to an impoverished noble family that had been stripped of its land and titles. With no future for him in France he moved to England where his aristocratic connections at least ensured him gainful employment; but It was never enough, and so he turned to crime to maintain a lifestyle that was otherwise beyond his means and where his courteous behaviour and dignified manner was to see the image of the highwayman romanticised as never before.

Stalking the remoter byways of North London between Islington and Highgate it was said that no one was ever harmed in a Duval robbery; that he would rather charm his victims into handing over their valuables than demand they do so, though the very notion that charm alone could induce someone to comply without the corresponding threat of a pistol to the head or a sword thrust to the chest seems unlikely. Nonetheless charm prevailed in most cases as removing his hat he would quote verse or wax lyrical upon the vicissitudes of fortune before bowing before the lady who would curtsey in return. Then kissing her by the hand he would ask her to dance, should she agree to do so it was said he would take only half of her husband’s purse.

It was the stuff of legend and so popular did he become that many a lady of quality expressed a desire to be waylaid by the charming French aristocrat, not something likely to endear him to a jealous husband or a timorous fiancée in fear of his life. Personal enmity aside, a popular criminal dashing or otherwise could not be tolerated and the authorities were willing to pay to secure his arrest.

Sensing it was no longer safe for him in England he fled briefly to France and there he should have remained but the lure of London’s riches proved too great. If he believed his Gallic charm and aristocratic connections would protect him he was mistaken for not long after his return he was arrested while drinking at the Hole-in-the-Wall Tavern in Covent Garden.

Despite a public appeal for clemency Claude Duval was hanged at Tyburn on 21 January 1671, before, regardless of the great many women weeping into their silk handkerchiefs, a cheerful crowd for a cold day.

In a brief criminal career that lasted barely six months Plunkett and MacLaine made quite a name for themselves and one that far surpassed their deeds; but then it was always their intention to make an impression. That at least remained a shared ambition for two otherwise very different men.

James MacLaine was born in Ireland, the son of a Scots Presbyterian Minister but there any nod towards sobriety ended. He was a young man on the make, flamboyant and gregarious, who openly defied his father while also burdening the old man with his many debts. Forced to marry early in the hope that the responsibility of family life might restrain him he instead moved to London where having set himself up as a grocer in name only, he proceeded to squander his wife’s inheritance on a lifestyle he believed was his by right, if not necessarily by birth.

William Plunkett was an earnest but failed businessman whose penurious situation was hardly improved on account of his association with MacLaine to whom he loaned money with little prospect of it ever being repaid.  Indeed, it was MacLaine who suggested crime may be the way out of their predicament. Plunkett, who had an equally high opinion of himself agreed, but they would do so as gentlemen; and so it was wearing fancy clothes, their faces hidden by Venetian masks and with the exaggerated mannerisms they believed appropriate for men of their station they embarked upon a life of crime.

Operating for the most part in the wasteland that was then Hyde Park they committed robbery after robbery stopping carriages almost at will; so much so that one of their more high profile victims the  Gothic novelist and son of a former Prime Minister Horace Walpole would write:

“One is forced to travel, even at noon, as if one is going into battle.”

The thunder and fury of war may have been an exaggeration but no robbery was unworthy of a theatrical gesture and so while MacLaine wooed the ladies with a silver tongued charm the more morose Plunkett stripped them and their male companions of everything of value with a grimly determined but always polite menace.

Indeed, so conscious were they of their public image that when it was reported shots had been fired at Walpole’s carriage MacLaine wrote a letter of apology along with a corresponding demand for money:

“Sir, seeing an advertisement in the papers of today of you being robbed by two highwaymen on Wednesday last in Hyde Park and during the time a pistol was fired intended or accidental obliges us to take this method of assuring you it was the latter and was designed by no means to frighten or hurt you for we are reduced by the misfortunes of the world to have recourse to this method of getting money. Yet we have humanity enough not to take anybody’s life where there is not a necessity.

We have likewise seen the advertisement offering a reward of 20 guineas for your watch and seals which are very safe and which you shall have along with your sword and the coachman’s watch for 40 guineas and not a shilling less.”

The missive then provided for the delivery of the money before once again burnishing their image as latter day Robin Hood’s by promising to return the few pennies and scant belongings they had stolen from Walpole’s poor footman.

Such apparent generosity did little to deflect from their avarice but no matter how valuable their haul MacLaine in particular, never failed to spend it. Residing In expensive lodgings with a wardrobe of fine clothes and a live-in mistress bought and paid for, he even now struggled to make ends meet and it was his pawning of some expensive lace that lead to their downfall.  In attempting to sell the lace the pawnbroker inadvertently approached the tailor who had made the original waistcoat from which it had been unpicked. Aware that the waistcoat had been stolen in a robbery he reported it to the relevant authorities and MacLaine was subsequently arrested.

There is of course no honour among thieves and MacLaine immediately revealed Plunkett’s whereabouts and declared he was willing to turn King’s Evidence against him for a guarantee of immunity from prosecution. But it was the dashing MacLaine they wanted to make an example of not the dour Plunkett and it was the latter not the former who would ultimately betray his friend.

Hundreds of well-wishers visited MacLaine while he was in prison awaiting trial but his popularity was to prove no defence and he was hanged at Tyburn on 3 October, 1750. William Plunkett meanwhile, remained free to spend his ill-gotten gains and disappear into well-earned obscurity on the other side of the Atlantic..

Plunkett and MacLaine’s notoriety as highwaymen was fleeting as was that of others such as John Nevinson referred to as ‘Swift Nicks’ by no less than the King himself and ‘Sixteen String’ Jack Rann so named because of the colourful silk stripes he had elaborately sewn into his breeches. None however acquired a fame as enduring as Dick Turpin’s, his was a legend that grew largely after his death the result of William Ainsworth Harrison’s popular 1830 novel Rookwood in which he appeared as a peripheral but particularly vivid character.

Richard Turpin was born in the Bluebell Inn, Hempstead, Essex, in September 1705, the son of a butcher in whose trade he followed and it was in fencing stolen livestock and poached meat that he became part of the local crime scene. It was after all easier money that the long hours and hard graft of butchery and by 1734 he was operating as a member of the Essex Gang led by the brothers Samuel and Jeremiah Gregory. So it was not as a highwayman that Dick Turpin cut his teeth as a career criminal but in street robbery and burglary, and as part of a large organised gang.

In February 1735, Turpin along with four other members of the Essex Gang broke into the isolated farmhouse of 70 year old Joseph Lawrence who, while his two maidservants were bound and gagged and made to look on, was and severely beaten and forced to strip. Even so, he stubbornly refused to reveal where he had hidden his money. A furious Turpin pistol-whipped the old man before the other members of the gang took him and began roasting his bare buttocks over the open fire. They even poured a kettle of boiling water over his head but even in great pain and in fear of his life he would not give up his fortune. In their fury the Gang ransacked the house while the Gregory brothers took the maidservants to an upstairs room and raped them.

Later that same month the Gang broke into another isolated house, this time belonging to an elderly widow Elizabeth Shelley who they again brutalised before escaping with £100 and her silver plate.

This is not the popular image of Dick Turpin the highwayman we have today but the Lawrence and Shelley robberies were just two of a series of violent such incidents that occurred in fairly quick succession. Indeed, the fear they spread forced the Authorities to act and using paid informers and Government spies the Gang was infiltrated, broken up, its members arrested, and in the case of the Gregory brothers hanged. Only Dick Turpin of the dozen or so gang members escaped justice but e was now a marked man. While the Duke of Newcastle offered a substantial reward for his arrest his description was circulated to the press. This one appeared in the London Gazette:

“A butcher by trade about 26 years of age, a tall fresh coloured man very much marked with the smallpox. Lived some time ago in Whitechapel and wears a blue grey coat and natural wig.”  

Turpin had indeed fled to the anonymity of the smog-bound city but he did not lie low for long before turning once more to crime, this time highway robbery but it wasn’t for the most part well-armed carriages he targeted but lone travellers vulnerable and defenceless amid the woodland and bleak moors that still surrounded much of London. He also rarely worked alone his most regular accomplice being Matthew King with whom he carried out a great many robberies, but a partner in crime is not necessarily a friend as he was soon to discover.  Cornered while attempting to steal some horses King was overpowered and called upon Turpin who had initially fled the scene to return and save him. Turpin did return and drawing his pistol shot King dead.  It may have been unintentional the result of a confused melee, but with his partner’s death Turpin’s whereabouts for now remained secret. Even so, he took the precaution of moving to Epping Forest an area he knew well but with a £200 reward on his head familiarity alone provided little cover and on 4 May 1737 he killed Thomas Morris, a servant to one of the Keepers of the Forest, who having recognised the notorious highwayman had attempted to apprehend him.

The cold blooded murder of Thomas Morris, a respected public servant who had been shot without warning in a cowardly attack was widely reported the length and breadth of the country making Turpin for a time at least the most wanted man in England. One such report appeared in the Gentleman’s Quarterly of June, 1737:

“It having been represented to the King, that Richard Turpin did on Wednesday the 4th of May last, barbarously murder Thomas Morris, Servant to Henry Tomson, one of the Keepers of Epping Forest and commit other notorious felonies and robberies near London, his Majesty is pleased to promise his most gracious pardon to any of his accomplices, and a reward of £200 to any person or persons that shall discover him, so that he may be apprehended and convicted. He is by trade and butcher , about 5 feet and 9 inches high with a brown complexion very much marked by the smallpox, his cheek bones broad, his face thinner towards the bottom, his visage short, pretty upright, and broad about the shoulders.”

Turpin was forced to flee once more this time in haste and it was now that according to legend he rode his trusty mare Black Bess through the night on an epic 11 hour 200 mile race to York pausing only briefly to cool her down with a mixture of water and brandy. It did prove enough to save her life and no sooner had they reached their destination than her heart burst and with blood pouring from her nostrils she dropped dead of exhaustion.

It was a great story and it almost certainly wasn’t true. A similar journey had been undertaken by John Nevinson many years before when he sought an alibi for a vicious robbery committed in London by being seen to play a game of bowls with the Mayor of York not long after but it was at least true that Turpin had fled to the city where he lived under the alias of John Palmer.

Throughout Yorkshire and neighbouring Lincolnshire Turpin embarked upon a crime spree teaming up with others to commit robberies but more often than not he engaged in poaching and particularly lucrative horse theft but he had also taken to drinking heavily and his behaviour had become increasingly erratic as a result. It would land him in a heap of trouble.

On 2 October 1738, having returned from a hunting trip with friends the worse for wear and in a foul mood he shot dead another man’s expensive cockerel  in what appears to have been an act of malice. Reported to the local Magistrates, John Palmer as he was known was arrested. Although he was able to pay the fine that was imposed upon him he instead refused to do so pleading his innocence. Detained in prison an investigation was now undertaken into the true identity of this man who lived the high life in York’s taverns and brothels while seemingly having no gainful employment. He was certainly not the simple butcher he claimed to be and was suspected of being a horse thief, poacher, and rustler of sheep and cattle but not yet the notorious Dick Turpin.

Following his arrest Turpin was also accused of stealing a horse which had been a capital offence since 1545 and though it was by now rare for such a harsh penalty to be imposed it might have been wise at this point to plead guilty and pay the subsequent penalty but still he stubbornly refused to do so – his case would come to trial.

With no Defence Counsel provided for the accused he would be expected to represent himself and Turpin was to prove a particularly poor advocate in his own defence. Indeed, it was his ham-fisted attempt to find character witnesses willing to testify on his behalf that was to prove his undoing.

One of those he approached was his brother-in-law who not wanting to get involved refused even to open the letter he had received but neither did he choose to destroy or conceal it. James Smith who had taught the young Richard Turpin how to write and was still in contact with the family saw the envelope and recognising his distinctive style wrote to the Court in York to inform them that it was not John Palmer they had under arrest but the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin.

The Judge presiding at the trial Sir William Chapple was determined that Turpin should hang and now charged with horse theft he had the crime with whch to do so. There was no need to seek further proof of his true identity or charge him with further felonious acts the capital crime had already been committed. In its haste to conclude the trial became a farce with incorrect dates, doubtful eyewitness accounts, and tainted evidence. Any competent Defence Counsel would have seen the case thrown out of court but Turpin had none – he was sentenced to hang.

The most notorious criminal in England hundreds of people visited Dick Turpin while he was in jail and thousands would attend his execution to see how he died – he would not disappoint. He bought a new frock coat and shoes for the occasion, paid for mourners to accompany his cart as it took him through the streets of York to his place of execution. He even joined in the carnival atmosphere:

“Turpin behaved himself with amazing assurance and bowed to spectators as he passed.”

 But for all the bravado Dick Turpin was no less fearful of imminent death than anybody else and as he ascended the ladder to the scaffold his right leg trembled, so much so that he had to pause and stamp his foot to bring it under control and regain his composure. Perhaps he could sense his nerve was failing him or maybe it was to avoid the short drop that ensured slow strangulation that compelled him to jump with force before reaching his destination. If he thought his leap into eternity would snap his neck then he was mistaken and he would dangle from the rope struggling for breath for a full five minutes before he finally died.

Dick Turpin’s notoriety like others before was fleeting but would be revived in William Ainsworth Harrison’s novel and become legend. Yet the day of the highwayman had already passed.  Indeed, it was only a year after the novels publication that the last such recorded incident occurred. It had been then, a crime of a very specific period and there was already a nostalgia for it long before one era had evolved into another. For those who were never its victim and were in little danger of ever becoming so the highwayman was a folk hero, a man to be admired by the many who would never dare trespass the law of their own volition. It was not the first time the criminal has been elevated to a status unbecoming his profession, there is perhaps just something in the human condition restrained by a common decency that seeks validation in the activities of those who have no such qualms, as long as they do so in a manner otherwise acceptable to polite society. So those like John Hind who had the noble cause, Claude Duval the charm, and Plunkett and MacLaine the daring, would be idolised.  Yet it would fall to Dick Turpin, a man who could lay claim to few redeeming features who would live on in time and space and come to epitomise the highwayman as something other than a common criminal in the historical narrative.

 

 

  

  

  

     

 

 

 

 

 

Tolpuddle Martyrs

The fate of the Tolpuddle Martyrs has long formed a central plank of socialist propaganda, a cause celebre around which all factions of the Left no matter how moderate or extreme could unite in condemnation. It was the moment when the thin veneer of respectability was torn from those in authority who claimed to know best and do right in all good conscience. Instead the mask slipped and they revealed themselves to be the martinets of a cruel indifference concerned merely with the preservation of their own wealth and power.

There is more than an element of truth to this of course, but nothing occurs in a vacuum.

Decades of social upheaval and rural unrest had seen a deep mutual mistrust develop between factory owner and hand, tenant and landlord, not easily overcome.  The increased use of machine technology such as the Spinning Jenny, a multi-spindle frame with which one operator could do the work of eight men and the Threshing Machine which had a similar impact on the land, had seen the workplace environment change irrevocably and the value of labour diminish. As a result thousands were left without work or forced to do so for reduced wages.

Times then were harsh and made worse still by the imposition of the Corn Laws in 1815 which kept the price of bread artificially high, and the enclosure of the Common Land which deprived the labourers of an alternative means of subsistence. There was also no mechanism for the redress of their grievances other than to petition parliament and hope for a favourable response which despite the occasional voice raised in their defence such as that of Lord Byron below, were far and few between:

“I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return to the heart of a Christian country,”

The discordant voice of a charitable poet who rejected the well-rehearsed protocols of acceptable behaviour and had a penchant for bedding the wives of his fellow peers elicited little sympathy and carried even less weight, and so it was with other Radicals tainted by the stigma of extremism who likewise aired their concerns – the poverty and starvation remained.

Where goodwill was absent loathing filled the void, where reason had failed intimidation became the preferred weapon of both sides. The landowners would use the full force of the law, the workers threats of violence with those they considered most responsible for their plight specifically targeted for retribution:

”Sir, your name is down amongst the black hearts in the black book and this is to advise you and the likes of you, the Parson and the Justice, to make your wills. You have been the Blackguard Enemies of the People on all occasions. You have not done as you ought.”

 

A refusal to meet with a delegation of workers one day could result in the destruction of the, landowners property the next. An attack on your home or even upon your person might follow and the countryside at night became a fearful place with isolated homes vulnerable to robbery and arson often plunged into darkness as candles were snuffed out at the first sound of the unexpected on the still air or the glimmer of an unsolicited light in the distance.

The towns were barely any safer with large gatherings often turning violent and even when the worst of the disturbances appeared over communities remained divided and the atmosphere tense.

The governing class, the nobility and landowners, did not take kindly to threats and there was no desire on their part to reach an accommodation – they would meet force with force. Their suppression of the Luddites had been brutal and the Magistrates would be kept no less busy when confronting the Captain Swing riots twenty years later.

During the years of rural unrest over a thousand men, women, and children had been imprisoned or transported to Australia, and 19 had been hanged. More still had lost both their livelihoods and their homes. It was in this atmosphere of mutual loathing and mistrust that the events at Tolpuddle would unravel.

Tolpuddle is a small village barely distinguishable from those others around it somnolent among the rolling hills, green pastures, and lush meadows of the Dorsetshire countryside but the beauty of the surroundings belied the squalor in which most lived; dilapidated cottages with broken roofs, shutters for windows, and little insulation against the harsh winter climate. Farming provided the only means of subsistence for most and working the land was hard, the soil difficult to till and plant, and the days long, twelve hours or more in the summer spent at the plough or at work with the scythe. Yet for this they were paid little and the landowners sought to pay them even less.

In the autumn of 1831, at the height of the disturbances in Dorset a 37 year old ploughman and Methodist lay preacher George Loveless, formed part of a delegation of agricultural labourers from Tolpuddle and elsewhere who having seen their wages reduced from 12 to 9 shillings a week met with employers to demand it rise to 10 shillings a week in line with that in neighbouring counties.

The man who presided over the meeting was James Frampton, a local landowner, magistrate, and former commander of the Dorset Yeomanry not known to be sympathetic towards the labourers and so it proved. In no uncertain terms he told them:

“There is no law which compels masters to give anything extra to their servants. You must work for whatever your employers think fit to give you.”

Rather than a pay rise over the coming months and years the farm labourers of Tolpuddle would experience further reductions in their income down to as little as 7 shillings a week. It was difficult enough for anyone to survive on such meagre scraps but it was to prove an intolerable burden for those with families to support.

With 20 shillings to a pound and the shilling itself divided into 12 pennies (or 24 half-pennies) what follows is a list of staple household items of the time and their cost. It is worth bearing in mind that George Loveless for example, had a wife, Betsy, and three children to provide for:

Rent 1/2d, Potatoes 1s, Coal 9d, Salt 5d, Butter 5d, Cheese 3d, Soap 3d, Candles 3d, Tea 3d, Thread 3d.  A loaf of bread, that staple of most diets would often cost more than the farm worker made in a week while meat was only available if bought from a local poacher which was itself a criminal offence.

The six men who would soon become the notorious Tolpuddle Martyrs were for the most part related to one another or close friends. They were:

George Loveless mentioned previously was a self-taught man well known to the local magistrates and treated with suspicion.

James Loveless, the younger brother of George and also a Methodist lay preacher he had already been singled out as a troublemaker following riots in the nearby village of Piddleton.

Thomas Standfield, aged 42 who was married to the Loveless’s sister, Diana.

John Standfield, his son

James Brine, who at just 20 years of age was the youngest of the group and the close friend of John Standfield.

James Hammett was the outsider of the group neither a Methodist nor a close friend he was a convicted felon who had seen the inside of a prison cell more often than he had a church.

Rumours circulating that their employers intended to reduce wages even further to just 6s a week caused some despair among the agricultural labourers of Tolpuddle that George Loveless was eager to exploit.  Meeting regularly beneath the Sycamore Tree in the centre of the village they shared their woes and pondered what to do about them.  Loveless knew what they needed to do, they needed to organise. Trade Unions had been de facto legal ever since the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 since when there had been a proliferation of so-called Friendly Societies. Looking to form just such a society George Loveless contacted the socialist factory owner Robert Owen who was seeking to bring all such societies under the umbrella of his Grand National Consolidated Trades Union (GNCTU) for how to do so.  He had committed no crime by his actions and he was encouraged to proceed but was also warned of the possible consequences of doing so.

Trade Unions may have been permitted but they were not welcome and those who were members of or sought to form one would be threatened, spied upon, and ostracised from their local community. As Methodists most of the Martyrs were used to being thought outsiders. The Church of England might be mocked as the Tory Party at prayer but it was still central to the life of every village community and dissenters such as the Methodists who did not attend Anglican Church Service were thought suspect and unreliable. With its Biblical mantra, “in all labour there is profit but the talk of the lips leadeth only to penury,” the Established Church may have been in the pocket of the ruling class but the order, deference, and obedience it preached was widely accepted even if the labour was hard, the profit slight, and the penury great.

In October 1834, George Loveless and the other five men who met regularly and in public beneath that old Sycamore Tree formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers. It would be 1 shilling to join and 1penny a week subscription thereafter and the men would meet in the upper room of John Standfield’s cottage where an initiation ceremony would take place and an oath of allegiance sworn.

On 9 December just such a ceremony occurred where all present agreed to abide by the societies rules and to keep its secrets.  Then kneeling before a copy of the Bible and the picture of a skeleton they swore the oath.

One of those in attendance that night was a labourer named Edward Legg who whether or not he was already a paid spy or was simply looking to make a little money reported events to Squire Frampton and agreed to provide testimony to any preliminary court proceedings that might occur.

Squire Frampton wasn’t one to turn a blind eye to such events and swearing an oath of allegiance to anyone other than the Monarch had been illegal ever since the passage of the Illegal Oaths Act that followed in the wake of the Nore and Spithead Naval Mutinies of 1797. Yet the swearing of oaths was hardly uncommon whether it be to join a guild, a literary society or even the Freemasons.

Armed with evidence of illegal activity Squire Frampton now wrote to his old friend the Home Secretary Lord Melbourne:

“Sir, it is with extreme regret  that I feel myself obliged to communicate to your Lordship so unfavourable a report on the state of the agricultural population of this part of Dorsetshire but our earnest desire for the welfare of these labourers whose manners have undergone a significant change and who becoming remarkably restless and unsettled since unions have been established begs us most anxious that some measures should be adopted that will restore their good sense and order.”

Lord Melbourne urged caution he had no desire to stir up trouble where none existed but Squire Frampton was insistent telling him, “dangerous and alarming combinations are being entered into to which they are bound by oaths administered in secret.” His Lordship did not require much persuading and would not stand in his friend’s way should he choose to pursue the miscreants.

On the morning of 24 February 1834, George Loveless was served with a warrant for his arrest and taken into custody. The other five members of the Tolpuddle Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers were likewise arrested – their crime, the administering and swearing of an illegal oath.

Any prospect of a fair trial appeared slight, Squire Frampton sat on the jury while its chairman John Ponsonby the local M.P and brother-in-law of Lord Melbourne had it seemed already made up his mind:

“A conviction is essential the working class have attached great importance to this trial. The sentence passed must serve as a warning to others then we will put an end to his growing restlessness which is exceedingly disgusting.”

The Judge presiding Baron Williams agreed:

“The object of all legal punishment is not altogether with the view of operating on the offenders themselves. It is also for the sake of offering an example and a warning.”

Regardless of the animus evident in the preliminary hearings the trial itself was conducted with all due respect to the law. The Defence argued that the Oath administered, if that is what it was, could not be judged illegal as in forming a Union the defendants were not engaged in an illegal pursuit. Also, the Act under which they were charged was specific to mutiny and seditious activity within the Armed Forces. Judge Williams thought otherwise and surmising it had a wider application declared that if the jury found an oath had been taken then it was an illegal oath and that therefore a crime had been committed. This remains a matter of conjecture and the jury in passing a guilty verdict could perhaps be exonerated of bias but the sentence then passed is much more difficult to justify. Though there had been no withdrawal of labour, no threats made, or acts of violence committed the men were given seven years hard labour in the Australian Colonies. With little possibility of being able to return it was in effect a life sentence – a moving statement delivered by George Loveless from the dock did little to alleviate the pain.

The sentence passed was clearly disproportionate to the crime committed, if any crime had been committed at all, and it was widely assumed that Lord Melbourne would commute it. When he did not but instead proceeded to confirm it the outrage was manifest even among the reliably partisan press:

“This sentence seems to us too severe, but it may be useful if it spreads alarm among those powerful disturbers of the town populations who combine in spite of high wages and whose combinations are so destructive.” (The Times)

“Trade Unions are bad things, they are bad in principle and lead to bad consequences, but let those who have sinned in ignorance have the benefit of that ignorance. Let the six poor Dorsetshire fellows be restored to their cottages.” (Morning Herald)

“The whole nation has been surprised at the sentence, not one man in the whole community appearing to know there was any law to punish men for taking oaths.” (Cobbett’s Register)

Upon sentencing five of the six men were taken from the cells beneath Dorchester Assizes in chains to the prison hulks York and Leviathan moored in Portsmouth Harbour. Condemned ships of multiple decks overcrowded and damp where prisoner’s awaited transportation the prison hulks were a grim portent of what was to come. George Loveless who was too sick to be moved would join them later.

Taken deep into the hold of the ship the hatches overhead shut tight and locked the prisoners would often remain manacled and chained to their bunks for the entirety of a voyage that could take up to six months. Sea sickness was ever present and disease rife particularly cholera and dysentery and some already weakened by time spent aboard the Prison Hulks would not survive the journey.  By the time of the Martyrs transportation the payment of bonuses and rewards for the safe delivery of prisoners had improved conditions somewhat. The surgeons were more diligent and the food adequate if uninspiring. On occasion they might be permitted on deck for fresh air and exercise but that remained at the discretion of the ship’s Captain.

Even aboard those ships that adopted a more tolerant regime the gloom, stench, damp, heat, and sheer boredom made conditions intolerable and conditions barely improved upon their arrival where sent to camps they were put to work for up to twelve hours a day in the most appalling and unimaginable heat barefoot and in threadbare clothes, cut, bruised, sunburnt, with heatstroke a constant threat. Poorly fed and frequently dehydrated they received little sympathy from their overseers who saw them not just as indentured slaves to be worked but criminals to be punished as the law required.

James Brine, who like all Tolpuddle Martyrs with the exception of James Hammett left a detailed account of their experiences, described how he had to walk miles every day to dig post holes for hours end and was made to spend seventeen consecutive days up to his waist in water washing sheep. Having earlier been robbed and stripped of the few possessions he had by Aborigines he was forced to sleep at night on the hard ground without so much as a blanket to cover him. When he requested one he was told he had been provided for and would receive no further help – he was there to be punished, after all.

It was a servitude for which it seemed they would never be redeemed and they could have had no knowledge of the campaign already underway in their homeland to secure their return.

The fledgling trade union movement had been quick to act displaying an ability to organise that surprised many.  Under the guidance of Robert Owen’s  GNCTU and supported by a number of radical MP’s among the most prominent of whom were William Cobbett, Joseph Hume and Thomas Wakeley who maintained the pressure in Parliament they campaigned relentlessly on the men’s behalf.

On 24 March 1834 a rally was held in London which addressed by Robert Owen attracted 10,000 people. Soon after Owen along with other leading trade unionists and social reformers formed the London Dorchester Committee to raise funds to fight the legal case and secure the men’s return.

Their most immediate concern however, would be the welfare of the Martyr’s families.

Having no income with which to support themselves and their children the women had little option but to apply for poor relief but it was Squire Frampton who was responsible for its distribution and he did not look kindly upon them. Holding them to blame for their own distress he refused any help whatsoever, stating bluntly that if they could afford to pay the union dues then they could afford to feed themselves.

They begged him to reconsider but he would not, and so when no help from church or charity materialised they wrote with some urgency to the London Dorchester Committee:

“Tolpuddle has for many years been noticed for its tyranny and oppression and cruelty and now the union is broke up here. They mean us to suffer for the offences of our husbands.”

The Dorchester Committee responded with haste supporting the families from funds raised. They responded with a collective letter of thanks:

“Sir, on Tuesday last a gentleman came from London and relieved us £2.3s each, all equal alike, had it not been for this I cannot tell you what we should have done.”

On 21 April, a grand procession threaded its way through the streets of London to Copenhagen Fields where more than 100,000 people attended a rally carrying placards and where trade union banners were unfurled in open defiance of a government that had ordered the army be present and for thousands of Special Constables to line the route.

It was a show of strength and a tense stand-off ensued while the latest petition (one of sixteen in total) which Lord Melbourne refused to accept in person was delivered to Parliament.

The future mentor to the young Queen Victoria knew full well that the sentence passed upon the men from Tolpuddle could not be justified but he had tacitly approved the actions of the Dorchester Magistrates and was not inclined towards a mea culpa or to admitting his mistakes – as long as he remained in Office the protests would fall on deaf ears.

However, called upon by the King to form a minority Whig Administration by July 1834 Lord Melbourne had stood down as Home Secretary to become Prime Minister. The task of keeping unified an increasingly fractious Whig Party was difficult enough and he was glad to wash his hands of the Tolpuddle nonsense. His replacement at the Home Office was John William Ponsonby, Lord Duncannon, who as we have already seen was no friend to those he deemed outside the law.

By November however, he too had gone to be replaced by Lord John Russell, a more sympathetic character who was unwilling to take ownership of his predecessor’s mistakes.

In June 1835, he bowed to pressure and pardoned the six men but there were conditions attached one of which insisted that the convictions remain in place. The men who continued to maintain their innocence refused to accept any pardon that did not exonerate them of all wrongdoing.

It was a fight Russell was unwilling to engage in despite being counselled to the contrary on the grounds that bowing to the mob set a dangerous precedent. So, on 14 March 1836, King William IV acting on the recommendation of the Home Secretary granted the Tolpuddle Martyrs a full and absolute pardon – they could return home as free men.

It is easy to paint Squire Frampton as the villain of the peace, and indeed he was, but it was never as straightforward as mere contempt for his social inferiors.  He believed in the old verse, “the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. He made them high and lowly, He ordered their estate,” But with that belief came a responsibility, to maintain order and secure the status quo that benefited all and made England a country governed according to the rule of law and the home of free men. It was a responsibility he took seriously, and having witnessed from afar the chaos and bloodshed of the French Revolution and the lack of respect shown for private property which had been such a central feature of Luddism he was determined that no such thing should ever occur in that small part of the English countryside which fell under his jurisdiction. Even so, no one was hanged during the Captain Swing riots while he was a Magistrate. Neither was he negligent of the needs of ordinary people building a schoolhouse for the village children and paying for the repair of workers cottages out of his own pocket, but such largesse came at a price – deference to the social order and obedience to the law of the land.

The campaign for the release and return of the Tolpuddle Martyrs had proven a resounding success and the first to arrive back in England on 13 June 1837 was George Loveless who was soon putting pen to paper to give his account of events. The others returned over the coming months but to surprisingly little fanfare given their role in the cause that had dominated the public discourse for so long. Events had moved on and Chartism, the campaign for an extension of the franchise and greater working class representation in Parliament, had trumped trade union rights as the burning issue of the day. Robert Owen’s GNCTU had already collapsed and it might be said a little intimidation goes a long way for many unions now drew up the drawbridge, ceased to work with others, kept their secrets and secured their finances.

The Martyrs weren’t expected to return to Tolpuddle and the London Dorchester Committee had used the funds raised to purchase the lease on a number of farms in Essex for their use. Only James Hammett among them refused any help and instead did return home and resume work as an agricultural labourer. The others soon showed themselves not to be the innocents so often portrayed but committed radicals and trade union activists who not long after arriving in the village of Greensted established a branch of the Chartist Association. It did not make them popular in their new homes. The Essex Standard wrote of George Loveless:

“Instead of quietly fulfilling the duties of his station he is still dabbling in the dirty waters of radicalism and publishing pamphlets to keep up the old game.”

 

Preached against by the Church and ostracised by their local community once more, it soon became clear that the Martyrs would never be free of suspicion or indeed pressure from their friends to keep up the good fight. They also struggled make a success of running their own farms in a hostile and unsupportive environment. So over the next few years with the help of benefactors they all ,with the exception of James Hammett, made a new life for themselves in Ontario, Canada, where they remained what they had always been, a close knit community of friends.

It falls to few Martyrs to live long and prosper but for the most part those from Tolpuddle did:

George Loveless farmed his own land and became a respected Minister and Church Elder. He died in 1874, aged 77.

James Loveless, as he had most his life followed in his older brothers footsteps becoming both a farmer and a Sexton in the Methodist Church. He died in 1873, aged 65.

Thomas Standfield also purchased land with the money provided to him. He died in 1864, aged 74.

John Standfield ran a hotel, was elected Mayor, and later become a Justice of the Peace. He died in 1896, aged 83.

James Brine married Thomas Standfield’s daughter Elizabeth with whom he sired 11 children.  In between times he was a successful businessman. He died in 1902, aged 90.

James Hammett who as we have seen returned to Tolpuddle found gainful employment for a time as a building labourer but often fell into penury. In old age he committed himself to the Dorchester Workhouse to avoid becoming a burden to his family. He died in 1891, aged 80.

The events at Tolpuddle are now commemorated in the third week of July with a rally and festival in the village attended by leading trade unionists, representatives of the Labour Party, and other non-affiliated left-wing groups.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Omaha Beach

Tuesday, 6th June, 1944 would be D.Day, start of Operation Overlord the Allied invasion of Nazi Occupied Europe. It had originally been intended for the day before but storm conditions at sea, high winds and poor visibility had forced a postponement but it could not be delayed indefinitely however, with the Armada ready to sail and the required high tides and full moon imminent any further delay could only lead to outright cancellation.

The atmosphere at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) was then understandably tense and opinions as to a course of action sharply divided, so it was with some relief that General Dwight David Eisenhower, the man burdened with the responsibility received the report of his Chief Meteorologist that the coming few days would present a brief window of improved conditions, but improved did not suggest good and it certainly did not mean calm.

The plan was for a massive Armada of 5,000 vessels with 11,000 planes providing aerial support to land 156,000 men on 5 designated beaches along the Normandy coast. One of these landing sites was codenamed Omaha, a five mile stretch of crescent shaped beach situated between the villages of Vierville-sur-Mere and Coleville-sur-Mer with sheer cliffs to both its left and right and high bluffs in front. It was by far the least promising of the landing sites but it had to be taken to link up with the British at Gold Beach and with their fellow Americans on Utah Beach.

An Allied invasion of Fortress Europe was hardly unexpected so the possibility of gaining any strategic advantage from the assault was already lost but there was still the opportunity for operational surprise – where would the invasion come, where exactly would the landings be made?

The most obvious place was the Pas de Calais the shortest distance across the Channel from England and great efforts of deception were undertaken to convince the Germans that this was indeed the case. Certainly Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the legendary Desert Fox, and man responsible for fortifying the so-called Atlantic Wall thought so and he focussed his attention on just that region but never to the level of neglect elsewhere that had been anticipated and planned for.

Despite his frustration at being denied a battlefield command since his return from North Africa, Rommel approached his new remit with gusto trawling over maps, studying blueprints, and making regular tours of inspection. He also pondered at length the best strategy to be adopted in the event of any invasion and was convinced that it had to be confronted where it landed, on the beaches, and when the enemy would be at his most vulnerable.

The German Commander in the West Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt disagreed however, preferring instead a defence in depth. The argument between two of the most respected Senior Officers in the German High Command would fester and prove increasingly divisive particularly over the distribution of the Panzer Divisions which were held under Hitler’s personal command, and though a compromise would eventually be reached it did little to smooth relations or create a coordinated response.

With his plans to drive the enemy back into the sea thwarted Rommel remained determined instead to create killing zones on the shoreline too costly in human flesh and blood for the Allies to endure.

The troops assigned the task of storming Omaha Beach were men of the 1st Infantry Division, the ‘Big Red One’, veterans of the campaigns in North Arica and Sicily and the 29th Infantry Division men barely out of their teens as yet untried and untested – a deliberate fusion of the old and the new, the careworn and the cynical with the young and the enthusiastic.

Now after months of intense training and preparation the moment of decision had come; their precise destination remained a mystery to most and rumours were rife but pledged to silence they were whispered rather than shouted. So aboard the ships many had already been on for some days time was spent reading, writing letters home, attending church service, playing cards or simply resting and thinking of what lay ahead.

Before they departed they heard a message from General Eisenhower:

“Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944. Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air defences have seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to victory.”

What they didn’t hear was the other short note the General had penned and kept about his person:

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the Air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

In the event it never had to be broadcast.

Amazingly the 5,000 ship Armada, the largest sea-borne operation in the history of the world went virtually undetected in the narrow straight that separated England from mainland Europe. Field Marshal von Rundstedt was far away at his Headquarter in Koblenz on the Rhine oblivious to the invasion that was imminent while Rommel had returned to Germany to attend his wife’s birthday party. It seemed then, that the many acts of deception had worked beyond the protagonists wildest dreams and little, if any, attempt was made to hinder the Armada’s deployment off the French coast, so as the sun rose and the mists cleared that dreary summer morning the surprise was almost total.

At 05.50 on 6 June 1944, after 1,738 days of war 138 Allied ships of various types some 13 miles out to sea began to bombard German coastal defences. Around the same time bombers of the Royal Air Force followed soon after by those of the United States Army Air Force began flying the first of some 13,688 sorties against enemy communications, transport hubs, and rear areas.

Meanwhile, in a heavy swirl, buffeted by six foot waves, 18 mph winds, and weighed down by 60 pounds and more of equipment troops began descending scrambling nets into waiting landing craft where tightly packed, weakened by fear, tormented by thoughts of death and distracted by memories of home the squally damp conditions only added to the sense of foreboding.

Many of the men green to the gills were violently sick vomiting into their helmets while others more able to keep their breakfast where it belonged used theirs to bail out the craft just to keep it afloat. Even so, ten landing craft in that First Wave would be abandoned at sea swamped, holed below the water-line, or destroyed by enemy fire.

Forced to take a circuitous route to avoid the six 155 mm guns located atop Pointe du Hoc a few miles further down the coast that could target the landing craft as they approached the shore the troops hunkered down  cold and wet for what seemed an eternity. In the meantime, a  Ranger Battalion undertook the perilous task of scaling the cliffs with rope ladders and grappling hooks to eliminate the threat only to find no guns (they had in fact been moved further inland the previous month) only telegraph poles. The 500 men still in their boats who had not participated in the initial ascent would later be landed elsewhere on Omaha Beach to telling effect.

The Pointe du Hoc fiasco would not prove the only failure of intelligence that day, the defences at Omaha were believed to be manned by just 1,000 troops many of whom were barely motivated Russian volunteers and aged Reservists but these had in fact been reinforced the previous March by 352nd Infantry Division veterans of the Eastern Front; and they were well dug-in behind barbed wire and minefields in 15 separate strong points or Resistance Nests with 35 pill boxes connected by tunnels and defended by heavy machine guns, light artillery pieces and anti-tank weapons.

And at Omaha, as elsewhere, there would be no free ride to the beach – the Desert Fox had been thorough:

Four lines of obstacles had been constructed in the inner-tidal zone, the area of shore that is under water at high tide; 270 yards out from the high water line were 200 Belgian Gates, heavy steel fences some 2 metres high with mines attached; at 235 yards out was a continuous line of sharpened logs pointing seaward each third one armed with a mine; at 202 yards out were a series of ramps also armed with mines which were designed to tip over and capsize those landing craft that ran onto them; at 160 yards out were numerous hedgehogs, X-shaped anti-tank obstacles with explosives attached – all this had to be encountered and overcome before the troops even disembarked.

Neither was it ever intended for the troops to storm Omaha Beach unsupported but few of the amphibious tanks assigned to provide fire support made it ashore, the rest were swamped in the heavy seas and their crews drowned while those that did with no radio communication and unable to coordinate their fire proved largely ineffective.

As the ramps came down on the landing craft many men, aware they would be targeted, chose instead to exit over the sides. Some craft also stopped too far out to sea forcing the shorter men to inflate their life preservers merely to stay afloat while some who had fitted them incorrectly tipped upside down, were submerged, and drowned.

Raked by machine gun fire the landing craft quickly became death traps as the men who abandoned them in haste blundered into minefields or were shattered by the shellfire that now peppered the beach. Many did not make it out of the sea their bodies left to bob in the water or washed up with the surf. Others lay wounded on the beach unable to move waiting to be drowned as the tide came in. Army medics did what they could but they were no less vulnerable to enemy fire than anybody else.

The survivors who made it across the almost 400 yards of open beach huddled behind a low shingle wall where wet, cold and uncertain what to do some nervously lit cigarettes while others tried to unclog the sand from their rifles. In the meantime, engineers worked to clear the beach of mines and any other obstacles incurring almost 50% casualties as they did so.

The Second Wave that landed fared better but only by comparison with the First and to General Omar Bradley, commanding U.S ground troops witnessing events on Omaha from a destroyer moored offshore it appeared the landing had failed and he more than once considered cancelling any further attempt.

Seeing little on the beach other than the detritus of war and dead Americans the Germans felt victory was already theirs and had they counter-attacked at that moment they would almost certainly have driven the invaders back into the sea and been proved right, a  vindication perhaps of Rommel’s preferred strategy; but regardless of the carnage no hands had yet been raised, no white flag was visible and those Americans who had taken shelter behind the shingle wall were beginning to fire back.

Bradley taking his cue from a number of vessels which had already done so ordered others to risk mines and the fire of shore batteries to close within a few miles of the beach and provide big gun support. It was gratefully received if not by those who were their target.

Among those who landed with the Second Wave was Brigadier-General Norman ‘Dutch’ Cota the highest ranking Officer to engage in combat on D.Day who immediately began to bring some order to the chaos. Finding himself amongst a unit of Rangers relocated from Pointe de Hoc he ordered an advance from the shingle wall. Upon learning that some troops were refusing to budge he shouted:

“God damn it then Rangers, lead the way!”

It was a sentiment echoed elsewhere on the beach by Colonel George A. Taylor in command of the 16th Infantry Regiment who rallied his men with:

“There are two kinds of people who are staying on this beach, those who are dead and those who are going to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here!”  

Using Bangalore Torpedoes (an explosive charge set within a series of interconnected tubes) to blast through the defences they began to leave the relative safety of the shingle wall and advance up the bluffs first in small groups, then by the dozen, and finally by the hundred. Now forced to defend their own positions the Germans could no longer target the beach area with impunity as before and with ammunition running low their rate of fire began to slow. With the fresh troops being landed now able to cross the beach at pace through lanes cleared of mines  and tanks able to provide the fire support so lacking earlier the tide of battle began to turn as one by one the pill boxes and machine gun nests fell or were abandoned in haste.

As the pressure intensified the German will to resist began to wilt and those who had not already surrendered were withdrawn further inland. By mid-afternoon the worst of the fighting was over and a beachhead secured, but barely.  The Americans had advanced little more than a mile from the beach but it was enough.  When reinforcements were landed the following morning (D.Day+1) it was so peaceful the troops could barely believe the rumours circulating of the intensity of fighting the day before. That is except for the discarded equipment, abandoned craft, burned out vehicles, and bodies that still floated in the water.

Accurate figures for the dead and wounded at Omaha Beach are difficult to ascertain with any accuracy on both sides but it is believed at least 1,300 Americans were killed and 4,500 wounded including 80% of the First Wave. German losses though fewer were not too dissimilar and were mostly the result of ship to shore bombardment.

Yet the Allied casualties on D.Day as a whole were far lighter than had been anticipated only 4,414 killed in all operations and 10,000 wounded. It was only on that slither of elongated sand known as Omaha Beach that the Allied High Command’s worst fears appeared about to be realised. That they were not was the result of German failure to exploit the opportunity presented to them and the raw courage and perseverance of those American troops who held on amid the carnage that threatened to engulf and overwhelm them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Pilgrim Fathers

By the time of her death on 24 March 1603, the glory days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign were well and truly over. The defeat of the Armada all those years before may have been a blessed deliverance but the ruinously expensive war against Spain continued, overseas trade was in decline and a series of failed harvests saw unemployment increase and poverty stalk the land; with an aged and childless Queen on the throne who would come after her dominated discussion in the corridors of power, whispered though it was. Her refusal to name a successor had led to great uncertainty and no little paranoia on the part of those responsible for ensuring a smooth and orderly transition of power. The obvious successor was her nephew James VI of Scotland but he would not be a popular choice and rumours of unrest and usurpation were rife, and which, with enemies both at home and abroad were not without foundation. It was little surprise then, that the Tudor Police State encouraged denunciation with bribes, demanded compliance with menaces and kept the magistrates busy in hunting Jesuits, persecuting non-conformists,, whipping paupers from the parish, silencing dissent, and suppressing enemies of the state – so busy in fact that gibbets blighting the skyline became a morose and familiar sight.

Yet it had not always been so, Elizabeth’s reign had ushered in an unprecedented flourishing of the arts along with the spread of English power and influence around the globe as never before. A remarkable woman in so many ways, a star that shone bright beloved of a people who saw her as their own, Henry VIII’s bastard daughter had proven her worth.  Good Queen Bess would be sorely missed but the years had not been kind and few were sorry to see her go.

The twilight of the Elizabethan Era had seen all pretence to religious toleration cease, the very idea “I will not open windows into men’s souls,” now merely a quote for the ages. Refusing to conform to the 1559 Act of Uniformity, the legal requirement to attend Church of England services was no longer mere aberrant behaviour to be rectified by force if necessary but a treasonable act that could be punishable by death.

Referred to as Recusants they were for the most part Catholics who refused to relinquish their ties to the old religion but there were also Calvinists who advocated a rigid interpretation of their own faith no less hostile to the Anglican Church of England.  Known as Puritans they were few in number and unlike Catholics could not be accused of owing allegiance to a foreign potentate based in Rome but they were nonetheless treated with suspicion and liable to both persecution and prosecution.

Genuine hope was expressed however, that with the Virgin Queen’s passing her successor James VI of Scotland would bring relief to those religious minorities subject to persecution and conciliatory words early in his reign had suggested as much. He was after all, both the son of the Catholic martyr Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and a strict Protestant. Even so, he was no Puritan and though he revered his mother it was as the Divinely Appointed Monarch he believed her to be not for her Catholicism.

The Guardians of Scotland responsible for the future King’s upbringing following the execution of his mother were determined to eradicate any trace of Catholicism in her son and he remembered all too well the harsh treatment he had endured at the hands of his tutors and others – the deprivations and humiliations, the verbal and physical abuse, the regular beatings. He had no love for the stricter kind of Protestantism and would come to hate all religious extremism in whatever form it chose to manifest itself. Even so, some believed that his mother’s milk and Biblical teaching would combine to create the toleration that had been so lacking.

But it wasn’t to be, any hopes  for greater compassion and a reconciliation of understanding were dashed at the Hampton Court Conference of January 1604, when it was made clear that religious toleration would not be extended to Roman Catholics and that the Puritans would be made to adhere to the 39 Articles of the Church of England.

It was perhaps testament to the King’s subtlety of approach and powers of persuasion that most left the Conference satisfied with its outcome for though James had conceded little he had at least appeared willing to listen and had also resisted demands from the Church to impose even heavier penalties upon Recusants. But this would all change the following year when a Catholic plot to blow up the entire English Establishment at the State Opening of Parliament along with the King and his immediate family was uncovered.

The Gunpowder Plot as it became known was not the first attempt on James Stuart’s life (fanatics had come close to assassinating him in Scotland also) and so despite it being an exclusively Catholic affair it effectively put all religious dissenters in the dock much to the anger of those who had played no part including most Catholics. But it should have come as no surprise that a King, or indeed a man, might be inclined to punish those who seek to murder him, and to restrain others whose beliefs are so irreconcilable as to incite such drastic a solution to the differences between them.

The English would never fall in love with their Scottish King in the way they had the Virgin Queen before him but in the immediate aftermath of the treasonous plot to assassinate him and the royal children James would for a short period at least bask in the warm sunlight of popular approval. It wouldn’t last of course, his character would see to that; his clumsy demeanour, coarse language, frequent drunkenness, open homosexuality, constant demands on the public purse, and barely disguised contempt for parliament may have belied an acute political instinct and not inconsiderable diplomatic skill but it caused great offence to the Godly – the King was corrupt as his Church was corrupt. That runt child of Papist idolatry the Church of England with all its splendour and display, its stained glass, crucifix laden altar tables, tapestries, icons, worship of graven images and Latin Mass was an abomination. It’s Episcopacy and it’s Bishops simply intolerable – if the Puritans could find no relief in England then they would go elsewhere for solace and redemption and the freedom to worship as they pleased – but where exactly?

Many of those who would later become the Pilgrim Fathers were from Nottinghamshire in the East Midlands one of whose leading members was William Brewster, Postmaster in the village of Scrooby who permitted the local Puritan congregation to meet in his home. It was indicative of how few they were that it was possible to do so. It was also no secret to the Bishop of Durham Matthew Hutton under whose religious jurisdiction Scrooby fell. Fortunately, Bishop Hutton was sympathetic to the Puritans plight believing that unlike the Catholics they could be persuaded to return to the Church of England and he would write to the King in their defence, but when he died in 1606 to be replaced by Bishop Tobias Matthew attitudes hardened.  He was determined to force these so-called ‘Separatists’ into line and the more outspoken among them were imprisoned while many others were penalised financially among them Brewster himself who was fined so heavily it brought him to the brink of ruin. His experience became an increasingly common one. It was written:

“They could not continue in any peaceable condition but were instead hunted and persecuted on every side, so much that their former afflictions were as flea bites. Some were clapped in prison while others had their houses watched day and night. Many were forced to flee.”

In 1607 they decided to move to Leiden in the Netherlands a thriving commercial centre where they would not be hounded by the Authorities. Here they prospered at least in respect of work being readily available even if it was often menial and low-paid; but no longer liable to fines they were at least able to keep their money while being free to practice their faith and both publish and disseminate their teachings. As their later chronicler William Bradford would write:

Such was the true piety, a humble and fervent love of this people. Whilst they thus live together towards God and his ways they come as near the primitive pattern of the first churches as any churches of this latter time have come.”

Yet they remained very much a community within a community unable to break out into wider Dutch society even if they had chosen to do so which they did not. They found the morals of the Dutch to be even looser than those of the English they had so often complained about. It was an alien environment they would come to believe threatened their English identity and would overtime contaminate their faith. They feared for their children sensing they may be tempted away from the path of righteousness by as one of their number warned “evil examples into extravagance and dangerous courses.”

It was also the time of the ‘Twelve Year Truce’ an extended period of peace in the Dutch Provinces War of Independence against Spanish rule and the Puritans quite rightly feared their treatment should the truce end and Leiden fall into the hands of Catholic Spain.

They had to move on and soon, some had already abandoned the community to return to England.

The New World was an obvious destination; it was far away and largely uninhabited except for native Indians with no recourse to civilisation:

“The place they thought of was one of the vast and un-peopled countries of America, which are fruitful and fit for living. There are only savage and brutal men present, just like wild beasts.”

There was also an English colony already established in the Americas at Jamestown in Virginia, a place of business and profit both profane and licentious that may have professed the Anglican faith but little more.  The Puritans were possessed of a higher calling than mere vulgar commerce and any settlement they established would belong to God, a place where they could live a virtuous life for the benefit of their soul not the frivolous blandishments of physical well-being. It was, they believed, the yearning of all God’s people to live in freedom according to their own lights so Jamestown then, was perhaps a place best avoided, but they were comforted by the fact it was English nonetheless.

It would however, be an expensive venture and a long perilous voyage that would be the cause of trepidation even in the hardiest of souls.

William Brewster would work hard over the next few years raising money for the planned migration and in trying to negotiate a land grant and charter from the King that would legitimise it and provide guarantees that would otherwise leave them vulnerable to exploitation from the more unscrupulous and powerful. In this he would fail but in 1617 one of his close associates John Carver did acquire a land grant from the Virginia Company based in London. Permission still needed to be sought from the King however, James who had no fondness for the strict Calvinism that had so blighted his youth was not inclined to do them any favours but despite adopting a hostile attitude he would not stand in their way on condition they recognised the Royal Supremacy and that of the Church of England while not seeking to formally establish a separatist Calvinist Church.

Raising the money for the voyage wasn’t easy however, the Puritans in Leiden may have prospered but they were far from rich and theirs was a small community with few friends. It appeared that their best laid plans would bear little fruit when in the early spring of 1620, Thomas Weston, a cloth merchant representing a number of businessmen seeking to break into the trans-Atlantic trade in fish and furs visited Leiden with a suggestion – would the Puritans be willing to engage in a commercial venture? Serving as agents of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London was less than ideal but without the businessmen’s financial support their voyage could not be undertaken. They had little choice but to agree.

Brewster spent much of the year before departure in hiding having published a series of pamphlets critical of the King’s religious policies and the final preparations for the voyage were done by others.

Two ships were chartered for the voyage the smaller of which, the Speedwell, was hardly fit for purpose. It was already 45 years old, spent more time in dry dock than it did at sea, and was more suited to coastal waters than it was an arduous Atlantic crossing. The other, the Mayflower, was a much larger and sturdier vessel, a three-masted merchant ship approximately 100 feet in length and 25 feet wide with three decks and a cargo capacity of 180 tons. She was also heavily armed with more than a dozen cannon of both light and heavy calibre with a fully stocked armoury of muskets, swords, pikes, breastplates, powder and ball. The threat posed by pirates, particularly Barbary Corsairs was a very real one and every precaution was taken against boarding and night attack.

In July 1620, those chosen for the voyage to the New World departed the Netherlands aboard the small cargo vessel Speedwell bound for Southampton in England. The tendency of the Speedwell to leak did little to inspire confidence in a community where the reluctance to embark upon any sea-crossing was evident and the excuses not to do so manifest and many.

In Southampton they met for the first time Christopher Jones, co-owner and Captain of the Mayflower, a rugged, straight-talking married man in his early fifties who was an experienced mariner having plied the trade routes of northern Europe and the Mediterranean for many years. He had never sailed to America before, he told them, but knew the Atlantic well from his time deep sea fishing and his many whaling expeditions.

Despite the little they had in common Brewster, Bradford, Carver and the other leading Puritans were to strike up a good working relationship with Captain Jones, the indispensable man if they were to have any chance of success in their great adventure.

They first set sail for the New World on 5 August 1520, but did not get far before the Speedwell sprung a leak, began taking on water and had to return to port for repairs. When a second attempt had likewise to be abandoned the decision was taken to leave her behind along with many of her passengers and crew.

On 6 September they set sail once more, a day one of the congregation Edward Winslow travelling with his wife Mary later recalled:

“Wednesday, 6th September, the wind coming east north-east, a fine small gale, released from Plymouth having been kindly entertained and courteously used by diverse friends there dwelling.”

The Mayflower had a crew of 30 while of the 102 passengers aboard only around half were Puritans with 28 male members of the congregation (many aged and past their prime) 20 women (3 of whom were pregnant) and a number of children. The rest were representatives of the company referred to by the Puritans as ‘Strangers’ and treated with suspicion.

 It was the worst possible time of the year to be embarking upon such a voyage, progress was slow and with the sea rough sickness was rarely absent. In the meantime, huddled below decks in cramped and unsanitary conditions surrounded by damp discarded clothes, chamber pots and no little vomit where privacy was at a premium the Puritans made the best of a bad situation. Yet for all its unpleasantness it was for the most part an uneventful voyage; at one point a mast snapped and had to be replaced, a child was born they named Oceanus, and four people died of disease but there had been no life or death struggle against a raging sea, no attack by pirates, no seething resentment below decks that threatened mutiny.

On 9 November, after 65 days of sea land was at last sighted, but it was not the land they were looking for. Captain Jones soon ascertained they were off the coast of Cape Cod still some hundreds of miles from the Hudson Bay area and their intended destination. He was eager to move on but first some kind of agreement had to found between the Puritans and the Strangers as to what form any future settlement might take. Tensions had been mounting between the two groups for some time with both equally determined to assert their rights and freedom to do as they pleased.

The Puritans and Strangers had little in common other than self-preservation, which of course was no small thing, but if that were to be secured then some accord would have to be reached.

On 11 November an agreement was signed by 41 male passengers and on behalf of the 29 women aboard that declared in the name of the King they would work collectively for the common good and in the best interests of the colony they would establish. The Mayflower Compact, as it became known, would be a document of governance, a founding document – ten days later they elected the wealthiest among them, John Carver, to be their first Governor.

After a week spent undergoing repairs and a few brief forays ashore, after one of which William Bradshaw returned to discover his wife had fallen overboard and drowned, the Mayflower sailed north but hidden shoals, dangerous tides, adverse weather, and inadequate charts soon saw Captain Jones turn south once more.

As they sailed along the coast landing parties under the command of Myles Standish, an experienced soldier who had been appointed military commander were sent ashore to survey the land for possible settlement. Certain criteria had first to be met: the land had to be arable, the location easily defendable, and it must have a harbour for ships to dock. Finding such a place was easier said than done however, but there was evidence of previous settlement including rudimentary dwellings and burial grounds while abandoned foodstuffs were retrieved and taken back to the ship with a promissory note of future payment being left in its place.

Having heard many lurid tales of a violent and savage Indian not subject to God’s Beneficence the landing parties were well armed, and a first encounter with the Indians where arrows rained down and shots were fired in exchange only confirmed them in their worst fears – as a result they did not remain in any one place for too long.

On 17 December the Mayflower docked in Plymouth Harbour by which time weakened by hunger sickness had spread throughout and Captain Jones was desperate to land his cargo before it got any worse. Explorations continued then, but with even greater urgency.

On 21 December they stumbled across an Indian village that had been abandoned four years earlier when most of its inhabitants had been wiped out by plague. It was a Godsend, once called Petuxet, they would name it Plymouth, and here they would remain.

They immediately began constructing what buildings they could but the shelter provided was barely adequate for the inclement weather and already weakened by disease more than half were to die during that first terrible winter. William Bradford was to write of their despair:

“It was a time of great cold and deprivation the foulness of which affected us all. It had pleased God to visit us then with death daily with so general a disease the living were scarce able to bury the dead and the well no measure sufficient to tend the sick.” 

With starvation imminent a hill overlooking the settlement became the last resting place for many. Indeed, it appeared that Burial Hill as it became known would be the only permanent memorial to their presence.

This would change in ways unimagined when on 16 March a tall, well-set scantily clad Indian strolled boldly into their camp greeted them in his broken English and demanded that beer and bread be brought. His name was Samoset he told them and he was there on behalf of the Pakonet tribal leader Massasoit Ousamequin.

Encounters between the Indian and the white man were not uncommon, the English and the French had been trapping and fishing in the Cape Cod area for many years and Samoset had learned their language trading with them. But that isn’t to suggest relations were good and violent clashes were common with massacres committed by both sides. But fighting with the white man was as nothing compared to the warfare waged between the tribes and when they weren’t stealing each other’s land, women, and killing each other then they were seeking to do so, and having been decimated by the plague the Pakonoket were particularly vulnerable.  Massasoit was no friend of the English but with their weapons, tools and know-how he recognised the value of being so. Under threat from both the Narragansett and in particular the warlike Abenaki, he sought them as an ally.

Samoset departed the camp telling the settlers that he would return soon with his tribal leader and that they would talk together.

Samoset was to prove as good as his word for Massasoit had already decided how best to deal with these trespassers upon his land.  Some had wanted him to attack them forthwith, to wipe them out, but he instead chose the path of peace even if it had taken him sometime and had been a close run thing.

When Samoset did return four days later accompanied by Massasoit it was with a large retinue of warriors among whom was a man of Petuxet named Tisquantum, or Squanto as he would soon be known.

He had been abducted by an English raiding party some tears earlier, taken to Europe and sold into slavery. It would appear his captivity was less restricted than one might imagine for he was able to travel from a monastery in Spain to London from where he later took ship back to North America.

In the meantime, he had not only become fluent in English but believed he understood them as no other Indian could and with the settlers for the most part being artisans and tradesmen with little farming experience it was he more than any other who would save the Plymouth Colony from extinction. He showed then what seeds to sow and how to cultivate them, where to hunt and fish, and how to build homes more weather resistant.  He also helped make and maintain the peace but his role as chief interlocutor between the English and the Indians also fuelled his own ambitions and it was not without justification that Massasoit believed he was conspiring with his English friends to replace him. Indeed, he was to imperil that peace when the English refused Massasoit’s demand that they hand him over for summary justice.

Before the crisis could escalate any further however, Massasoit fell ill and appeared near death. All tribal remedies had failed and it fell to Edward Winslow with a mixture of common sense, concoctions from home and no little prayer to nurse him back to health. For this the Pakonoket Chieftain would be eternally grateful declaring “the English are my friends, they love me, and I shall never forget the kindness they have showed me.”

As long as Massasoit lived the peace would be maintained.

In the autumn of 1621 the settlers gathered in celebration of their first harvest. Joined by Massasoit and other Indians who brought along five deer for the table food was ample and the atmosphere one of amity and optimism. Plymouth colony, the first established on the North American Continent for a higher purpose than that of mere commerce alone, had survived against all the odds. It had been a miracle of sorts, and though the Puritans might disavow such interventions they remained firm believers in God’s Providence; as also in time would others as that first Thanksgiving Feast took on a significance unimagined by those who had been in attendance. It would become a founding myth even if the details of its conception have become blurred in the mists of time; but then the reality of any myth lies not in its truth but its meaning, and more importantly its legacy.

The Pilgrim Father’s as they had been known since 1820 when the preacher Daniel Webster first coined the term were that myth, and the community created by his handful of persecuted religious malcontents from the heart of rural England while never the ‘shining house on the hill’ later described  was nevertheless to prove one built on solid foundations.

The founding of America was not the founding of the United States of course (that would come later) but it was a seminal moment nonetheless; and it was to be in celebration of that first harvest that President Abraham Lincoln in the midst of a civil war to preserve the Union would declare the fourth Thursday in November a day of national unity – Thanksgiving Day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Innocence of Pontius Pilate?

The story is told how many years ago a young Russian Jew was paid a rouble a month by the local Mayor to stand on the outskirts of his town so that should the Messiah return there would always be someone there to greet him. When a friend of the young man complained that the pay was too low and that he should ask for more, he replied:  “I know the pay is poor but at least the work is permanent.”

But whereas the Coming of the Messiah remains a matter of dispute among Jews for one breakaway sect it long ago ceased to be the subject of intellectual debate for the Christians declared Jesus, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth who lived and preached in the land of Israel, to be their Messiah – the Son of God subject to a Virgin Birth who died upon the Cross for the remission of their sins.

 

But who killed Jesus, who was responsible for the death of the Messiah? Was it Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea? Caiaphas, the High Priest of the Jewish Temple? Or was it the Jewish people who had themselves demanded it?

It is written that Pontius Pilate only reluctantly ordered the crucifixion of Jesus, and upon this the Gospels, which otherwise vary in their accounts, agree.  But did he, would he, could he have been so ambivalent and indecisive? If so, then he was a strange choice as Governor of the most turbulent and fractious of all the Roman provinces? If so, then it would appear to have been out of character.

According to Philo of Alexandria, Pilate was a vindictive man of violent temper who was wilful, inflexible, and relentless in pursuit of his aims. He likewise criticised “his corruption and acts of insolence, his rapine and habit of insulting people, his cruelty, and his murder of people untried and un-condemned, and his never ending, gratuitous and most grievous inhumanity.”

Indeed, it was his cruel and arbitrary behaviour that the Jewish historian Josephus tells us was the reason behind his recall to Rome. He does not then, seem a character who would demur at the execution of a heretic preacher.

He had been born a Roman citizen but was not of Roman ancestry, rather he was a Samnite, a member of a hardy tribe from the mountain country of south-central Italy that had fought long and hard to resist Roman rule. By the time he reached adulthood the Samnites had only been fully assimilated into Roman society for a hundred years or less and they were still not entirely trusted.  They were considered outsiders still and sensing the need to prove and reaffirm his loyalty constantly Pilate would have had to try harder than most to succeed.

Even though he was of noble blood, a member of the Pontii clan, as a Samnite he could not rise above the rank of Equestrian, the lowest strata of Roman nobility making political advancement on the basis of status alone difficult and unlikely, so he instead chose a more traditional route for an ambitious young man of limited opportunities, he enlisted in the army.

In the Legions Pilate would have learned to be ruthless and hard but as an outsider would he not also have felt an empathy with, perhaps even sympathy for, others similarly marginalised. Who knows, but he was good soldier and rose rapidly through the ranks displaying a flair for leadership and administration as he did so.

In AD 26 his hard work was rewarded when he was appointed Prefect, or Governor, of Judea – his remit a simple one, to maintain order and collect taxes.

Caiaphas as High Priest of the Jewish Temple in Rome presided over the Sahnredin, the Supreme Council that administered to Jewish affairs religious and otherwise. He could be high handed in the delivery of his duties and lived in conspicuous luxury courtesy of his willingness to co-operate with the Roman occupiers. It was not something that had gone unnoticed by those who sought a change to the status quo but then his task was to ensure that the Jewish people remained compliant and that no serious threat emerged to Roman rule.

Religious preachers were not uncommon in Judea and Roman policy (such as it was) towards them was one of indifference as long as they did not advocate for rebellion and posed no threat. One such man was John the Baptist who had been practising his ministry along the banks of the River Jordan for a number of years. But Roman toleration of such activities was not necessarily mirrored by the Sahnredin who saw all such preachers as a direct challenge to their authority and were particularly concerned by all the constant chatter of a coming Messiah.

A preacher, Joshua Bar-Joseph, known as Jesus, had been gathering disciples for only a short time but his popularity had been noted and his growing reputation as a healer and miracle worker saw his name spoken of in the same breath as that of the Messiah.

Caiaphas felt threatened by this Jesus  whom he not only thought was preaching against him but showing great disrespect by his repeated attacks upon the Temple, the very hub of Jewish life and commerce, where, it barely needed saying, the blasphemy committed was both  stark and absolute.

Before entering the Temple a Jew had to be ritually cleansed in a mikveh, or bathtub, for which the priests charged a fee and once inside the Temple there were business transactions to be seen aplenty – it had, or so it seemed, ceased to be a place of worship and had instead become a centre of corruption, graft, and greed.  Jesus was furious and storming into the Temple, overturned the tables, and drove out the money-changers, “My house shall be called the house of prayer, but ye have made it into a den of thieves,” he said.  His behaviour was scandalous.

To verbally attack the Jewish Religious Establishment was one thing but to assail their holiest shrine and threaten their wealth was another. Caiaphas was unequivocal in his condemnation. Such behaviour could not be tolerated even if this meant the preachers death. Others among the priesthood were not so sure. His criticism was not without foundation, after all. He had condemned the money changers for defiling the sanctity of the Temple which was self-evidently true. But Caiaphas was adamant – by physically attacking the Temple he had committed a crime against God?

Even if his blasphemy could be proved to commit an offence under Jewish law was not to commit one under Roman law and Caiaphas who did not want the responsibility for condemning Jesus wanted Pilate to do it, but would he? There was someone who who was willing to betray this so-called Messiah.

Pilate may have had the reputation of a man who trampled upon the religious sensibilities of those he governed but he was no fool. As far as he was concerned Jesus had committed no crime under Roman law. His priority was to maintain order and collect taxes not launder the Jews dirty linen for them. But the Sahnredin having already condemned Jesus under Mosaic Law and taking their instructions from Caiaphas now accused him of openly opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar and to Rome even though he had already declared “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Words that are to be plainly understood but tax resistance could not be tolerated and was a capital offence. Pilate knew this and so did Caiaphas.

Four days after raising Lazarus from the dead in the village of Bethany, Jesus descended from the Mount of Olives to ride through Jerusalem on a donkey. It was Passover and the city was teeming with people who in anticipation of his arrival had strewn flowers and palms along his path.

Aware that tensions were often high during Passover, Pilate who resided in Caesaria and rarely visited Jerusalem was in the city for the festivities, his presence a reminder, should anyone be inclined towards dissent, who still governed in Judea.

A short time after events in the Temple, Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples and a close associate of Jesus approached the Jewish Authorities and agreed to betray him for the payment of 30 pieces of silver. Later at what became known as the Last Supper, Jesus told his followers that despite their assertions to the contrary one of their number would betray him. The following day he was arrested as he walked in the Garden of Gethsemane after Judas had identified him with a kiss on the cheek.

As the priests and the guards who accompanied them moved in to seize Jesus a scuffle broke out, weapons were drawn, and blows struck. To prevent further violence Jesus intervened telling his disciples: “Return your swords to their place, they who take up the sword will die by the sword.”

Judas, distraught at what he had done would later hang himself.

Taken before the Sahnredin Jesus angered Caiaphas by refusing to be cowed in his presence and infuriated him further by remaining silent under questioning spurring the High Priest to cry out in frustration: Will thou answer me nothing! At last to the question: are you Christ the son of the Blessed? He replied: I am, causing an increasingly agitated Caiaphas to tear at his cloak and demand “Are you then the Son of God?” Jesus, who had in contrast to his interlocutor remained calm, replied cryptically, “You say that I am.”

It was enough for Caiaphas, there was no need for witnesses the accused had declared himself King of the Jews and admitted his guilt. He ordered that he be taken to Pilate.

Pilate couldn’t care less that some itinerant preacher had declared himself King of the Jews – it wasn’t his affair. He sent him to Herod Antipas in Galilee under whose jurisdiction he fell.

Herod, who drunk and amorous had only recently succumbed to the wiles of his step-daughter Salome and her Dance of the Seven Veils presenting her with the head of John the Baptist as a reward was disinclined to offend God any further. It was his want to mock, humiliate and belittle Jesus demanding that he perform miracles for his entertainment but he would not take responsibility for his execution – he returned him to Pilate.

It came as no surprise to Pilate that the idiot Herod had returned Jesus to his care but it was unwelcome nonetheless especially as Caiaphas and the Sahnredin weren’t about to let the matter lie.  They continued to harangue the Governor until at last he determined to meet the preacher, the holy man, who was causing him such grief.

Their meeting would be brief but deeply profound in its simplicity. There would be little to add, all that could be said would be said.

Pilate asked the preacher:

Do you consider yourself to be King of the Jews?

Jesus replied:

“If you say it is so, but my Kingdom is not of this world. I came into this world to bear witness to the truth, and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.”

Pilate paused for a moment before replying:

What is truth?

It is the question of eternal memory the resolution of which lies in the redemption of man but even as the answer stood erect before him Pilate could see nothing. But he had been disturbed by the exchange, moved even. His verdict: I find no fault in this man. Caiaphas disagreed, and he was quick to remind Pilate that to declare oneself King of the Jews was to declare oneself against Caesar – how would the Emperor in Rome react to such an assertion going unpunished?  Pilate could only say once again, I find no guilt in this man. His wife Claudia Procula agreed, she whispered in his ear of a dream she’d had. It was a warning she told him: “Have nothing to do with this righteous, innocent man for I have suffered many things this day because of a dream I had.” Caiaphas whispered in his other ear: “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar’s.”

Jesus would be condemned. It could not be otherwise but what should be his punishment?

It was the custom during Passover for the Prefect to release a condemned man according to public acclamation. Pilate put the question to the crowd – should the preacher be set free? They responded,  “Let his blood be upon our heads, and the heads of our children,” and chose instead a common thief named Barrabbas.  But why, asked Pilate, “what evil has he done?” They chanted “crucify him, crucify him!”

Pilate yields to their demand but then washes his hands in full view of the crowd before saying to those accompanying him: “I am innocent of this man’s blood, see you to it.”

Made to wear a crown of thorns in mockery of his claim to Kingship, Jesus, relentlessly scourged and beaten as he did so was forced to carry the Cross to which he would be nailed upon his back along the Via Dolorosa to his place of crucifixion on the hill of Calvary overlooking the city.

The many women who lined the route hearing the jeers and seeing the blood and torn flesh wept at the torture he was forced to endure but he told them not to weep for him but for themselves and their children.

Nailed to the Cross with his arms outstretched Jesus did not cry out or beg for mercy much to the irritation of Caiaphas and many of those looking on, no doubt.  Meanwhile, Pilate had pinned above his head a sign which read: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. When Caiaphas complained that he was not King of the Jews only claimed to be and that the sign should be taken down Pilate refused saying: “I have written what I have written.”

Jesus died on the Cross for the remission of man’s sins, be resurrected, and ascend to heaven. Pilate too would die, but in Rome, made to account for his actions, condemned, and ordered to take his own life by the man he served, the Emperor Caligula.

Few ponder much upon the fate of Pontius Pilate, and fewer still that of Caiaphas, but the death of Jesus remains forever etched in the heart and soul of man whether one wishes so or not, that is the truth of eternal memory; but that it was meant to be surely negates the requirement for blame and all then are guilty and innocent in equal measure? Maybe, maybe not, it falls to man to find the imponderable intolerable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Jennings Bryan: The Great Commoner

A thick-set robust man of boundless energy with a loud voice and a big personality, William Jennings Bryan was difficult to ignore. His appeal to the hard scrabble workers of America, the forgotten man, would earn him a reputation as the ‘Great Commoner’, a name in which he revelled though it was never intended as a complement. Common he was not but he was certainly the ‘Great Campaigner’ as it fell to him, he believed, to carry the flag for social justice and a better world, an argument he would make at rally after rally in town after town across the heartland of the United States. To some his was a message of hope, a call to arms for David to rise once more and smite the Goliath of global capital and the East Coast elites; to others his message was a naive stump politics laced with hypocrisy and made sordid by deceit. It falls to few then in a world devoid of tyrants to enthuse so many while antagonising even more. Yet for all the bluster, the frenzied debate, and the endless oratory he would fail not once, not twice but again and again, and live to see his ideas thoroughly rejected by a liberal and progressive mainstream that had come to loathe and detest him and everything he stood for. But the maverick in politics is a beast not easily slain and his message both in style and content resonates still with the great silent majority it always intended to rouse from its slumbers.

William Jennings Bryan was born to some affluence in Salem, Illinois, on 19 March, 1860. His father, Silas, was a circuit court judge active in Democratic Party politics while his mother, Mariah, was active in the Church, and the earnest young William eagerly embraced both. Indeed, he was to experience his own religious conversion aged 14, that he was later to describe as the best day of his life.

A studious child it was said he was rarely distracted from his work and he excelled both at school and college often finishing top of his class, though he was to be distracted long enough while studying at Illinois College to court Mary Elizabeth Baird, the daughter of a local businessman whom he married in October 1884.

They shared a healthy and stable relationship in which Mary not only bore her husband three children but was constantly at his side working tirelessly on his campaigns. It was a partnership in more ways than one and her role in his future success cannot be underestimated.

After graduating from Law School in Chicago he briefly worked as an attorney in Jacksonville before moving to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the opportunities for advancement appeared greater; and being already by his mid-twenties a lay preacher and an experienced public speaker, having honed his oratorical skills at the pulpit and in college debating societies, he now entered local politics determined to succeed where his father had seen his political ambitions thwarted.

The Nebraska Democrats had in fact, never encountered anyone quite like him and he was to rise rapidly through the ranks of the local party machine.

The connections made by his father during his many years in the Democratic Party and his own association with the ex-Senator from Illinois, Lyman Trumbull, for whom he briefly worked, served the ambitious Bryan well and by 1891 he had been elected to the House of Representatives in Washington. His Congressional career was to be brief and not particularly distinguished but by force of personality alone his impact on the political scene was to be far greater than it perhaps at first appeared.

In the summer of 1896, as the great and the good of the Democratic Party gathered in Chicago to choose its Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan was not being spoken of as a serious candidate, though evidence now suggests that manoeuvres were underway on his behalf. He had recently been making a name for himself campaigning against the Gold Standard wanting instead the dollar pinned to the Silver Standard also, thereby putting more money into circulation, making it cheaper, lowering interest rates, and allowing easier access to credit and loans. This would not only put more money in people’s pockets but should also increase the price of agricultural produce making farming more viable.

On 9 July, following a series of dreary speeches either in favour of the Gold Standard or in defence of the deeply unpopular departing President Grover Cleveland; with many delegates plainly disinterested and shuffling about in preparation to vote on the party platform, William Jennings Bryan rose to address the Convention.

Although many had been bored into numb indifference there were those who had been waiting in eager anticipation for him to speak, and so it was to a mixed reception that he strode to the platform. It wouldn’t be long however, before he grabbed their attention. Modulating his voice to good effect and expressive in his mannerisms he seemed to grow like a colossus upon the stage and he was to dominate proceedings as none had before. With few able to divert their eyes he rode the rhythm of his speech as a ship rolls with the waves, plunging and rising and forging a way through as time and again he electrified them with comparisons between the hard working common man and the quixotic business elites while defending the small proprietor against the East Coast money men:

“Upon which side will the Democratic Party fight, upon the side of the idle holders of capital or upon the side of the struggling masses? That is the question which the party answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic Party, as shown by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses who, have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party.”

As the delegates shouted their approval, cheered wildly and threw their hats into the air he treated them to a rousing and defiant finale:

If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the Gold Standard as a good thing, we will fight them to the uttermost. Having behind us the producing masses of this nation and the world, supported by the commercial interest, the labouring interests and the toilers everywhere, we will answer their demand for a Gold Standard by saying to them: You shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

As he concluded delegates rushed the stage and chaired him from the platform. It had been the speech of his life and it would propel him to the nomination as he unanimously defeated the pre-Convention favourite, the ex-Congressman from Missouri, Richard P Bland, on the sixth ballot.

His Cross of Gold Speech, as it became known, was a sensation being widely reported, much commented upon, and eagerly dissected. It elevated William Jennings Bryan, the relatively obscure machine politician from Nebraska to national prominence – he would now take his message to the country.

Following the Cross of Gold speech and his nomination as the Democratic Party candidate the Populist Party which represented the farming interest and had received more than a million votes in the previous Presidential election threw its weight behind him.

The support of the Populist Party made him appear an outsider and this was to be his own cross to bear for he was seen by many not to be a true Democrat, that he didn’t really represent the values and ideals of the party. Nonetheless, he remained popular and could draw a crowd; but politics is as much driven by jealousy as it is the art of persuasion and though Bryan was now the de facto leader of his party those who had previously been so did not easily give up the reins of power.

President Grover Cleveland was certainly no admirer of Bryan’s and would not support his candidacy but did not make his objections public. Others were not so shy in coming forward however, especially those who remained supporters of the Gold Standard, the so-called Gold Democrats, who broke away and nominated their own ticket which was to receive 137,000 votes in the forthcoming poll, not enough to swing the election but a significant number nevertheless.

Bryan’s Republican rival in the race for the White House was the popular and urbane veteran of the Civil War, William McKinley who, no less earnest in his way than his Democratic rival but no orator would not even try to compete with Bryan on the campaign trail instead he would run his campaign from the front porch of his elegant home in Canton, IIIinois.

With the financial backing of big business and the support of a largely sympathetic press he could be assured of the positive coverage he required.

By contrast Bryan hit the road and he hit it hard, as travelling by train he embarked upon a whistle-stop tour visiting 27 States, making 600 speeches, and addressing as many as 5 million people.

His message that remaining on the Gold Standard and its strict control of the money supply was keeping people poor when switching to silver coin at a ratio of 16 to 1 would restore prosperity resonated with people; and so portraying himself as the man who would stand up for the weak against the strong, as the man who would be the voice for those who had no voice, he was cheered to the rafters as he swept through the mid-West and Deep South like a cyclone. But when he addressed an audience of white farmers on the wind-swept plains of rural America he was speaking to the already converted.  His  campaign for Free Silver had made the election about class and the small farmers and rural poor flocked to his cause but the industrial working class who would have to carry the burden of higher prices did not.

Opining from the comfort of his front porch it was easy for McKinley and those surrogates campaigning on his behalf to portray Bryan’s demand for Free Silver as reckless. It would make the dollar in your pocket worth less he declared while also destabilising the economy and threatening U.S trade overseas.

He also appeared positively sanguine in the comfort of his own home drinking coffee and sharing a joke with reporters while the energised Bryan stumped around the country as evangelical in his politics as he was in his religion.

When the election result was announced it was perhaps closer than many people had expected, at least in terms of the popular vote. McKinley received 7,116,607 votes or 51% of the total winning 23 States; Bryan received 6,509,052 votes or 46.7% of the total winning 22 States. It was a comfortable enough win in the Electoral College at 271 to 176, and the electoral map had what would be thought an unfamiliar feel to us now with the Republican McKinley securing the East and West coast and industrial centres while the Democrat Bryan swept the mid-West and South.

The impact of Bryan’s campaign had been great, however. He had received more votes in defeat than any other previous candidate, more votes indeed than Grover Cleveland had received in becoming President four years earlier. McKinley’s front porch campaign of calm reassurance had been a success but could any candidate again afford to give their rival free rein on the campaign trail? Bryan had perhaps shown they could not. As such, even in defeat he was encouraged to run again and he would run again, but first there was a war to be fought.

 

On the night of 15 February 1898, the Armoured Cruiser USS Maine, which had been sent to protect American interests in Cuba threatened by its rebellion against Spanish rule, blew up and sank in Havana Harbour killing 268 men. It was a shocking incident which had most likely been an accident, an exploding boiler, but an Inquiry held shortly after found otherwise declaring it an act of sabotage carried out on behalf of the Spanish Authorities. An affronted nation their outrage fuelled by a bellicose press ensured that vengeance was now on every man’s lips and though President McKinley was at first reluctant to enter upon the path of hostilities the war hysteria that gripped the country left him with little choice – on 25 April, the United States declared war on Spain.

Bryan, who despite rumours to the contrary was no pacifist, recruited a regiment of volunteers to fight but the war was over before they could serve overseas. He had displayed a willingness to take up arms in defence of his country but what he could not countenance was imperial adventurism and was outspoken in his opposition to the American annexation of the Philippines that followed the end of the war. His anti-imperialism and the fact he never led men in combat would bear comparison to the man who would soon loom large not only in his but the nation’s life.

Bryan had wanted to fight the 1900 election on the same issue as the previous one, Free Silver, but now with the country recovering from recession and confident in victory the case for a change of Administration was a difficult one to make and the argument had lost much of its potency. Undeterred however, he once more took to the stump, another whistle-stop tour, more speeches (up to six a day) and crowds no less numerous and enthusiastic than before.

President McKinley would again run a front porch campaign greeting delegations at his front gate and holding garden parties for his supporters but this time Bryan would have a rival on the campaign trail, the Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt, a man just as energetic, just as charismatic, and one who had led men in combat, his famous Rough Riders in the storming of San Juan Hill.

Perhaps deafened by his own rhetoric or blinded by the multitudes who came to listen Bryan was slow to realise that a focus on the evils of big business at a time of economic prosperity was not a good issue upon which to campaign but when he shifted the focus to America’s continued presence in the Philippines, despite the support of the vocal anti-Imperialist League, he struggled to make headway against the wave of patriotism that invariably follows victory in war – a patriotism that was embodied both in word and deed by the man stalking him on the campaign trail.

In truth, morality can rarely withstand the storm of a robust jingoism.

As the results came in a pall of gloom descended upon the Bryan camp and the Democratic Party, McKinley’s vote had risen to 7,228,864 and the Electoral College was even more decisive than before at 292 to 155. Bryan’s vote had decreased slightly to 6,370,932. He had also won 5 fewer States one of which was his own, Nebraska.

While it was clear that his supporters had remained essentially loyal he had failed to reach out beyond them – their champion had failed them. It was enough for the Democratic Party to look elsewhere in 1904.

Bryan meanwhile, remained determined to spread his message far and wide and in January 1901 published the first edition of his weekly newspaper The Commoner, a commentary on current affairs which permeated with religious fervour became a popular addition to the political discourse of the day. It would at its peak boast 100,000 subscribers and become a regular feature on small town newsstands, but though it was sold in every State of the nation it did little to boost his support among the urban working class.

On 6 September 1901, while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, President McKinley was shot twice by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz.  He remained conscious following the assassination attempt and it seemed for a time that he would make a full recovery but by the 13th it was clear that his blood was poisoned and there was little hope. He died the following day.

McKinley was the third President to be murdered while in Office in just over 30 years following Abraham Lincoln in 1865 and James A Garfield in 1881 but it came as no less of a shock for that and especially as reports had suggested he would survive. Indeed, Theodore Roosevelt had been so confident of the President’s recovery he had gone on holiday and had to be summoned back to be sworn in.

Bryan would have relished the opportunity to cross swords once again with his old rival on the campaign trail but though his ambition to be President had not dimmed the enthusiasm within the Democratic Party for another Bryan candidacy had. He chose then, not to seek the nomination in 1904 much to the relief of the party establishment if not his grass roots supporters who remained many; but as is so often the case when the establishment of any organisation is presented with a free hand they then proceed to reveal just how out of touch they really are.

Their nomination for President would be Judge Alton B Parker, a conservative Democrat respected but of limited vistas and little personality. He was also a Gold Democrat whom Bryan would not endorse and openly criticised declaring that no decent Democrat should.

The truth was Parker’s nomination and that of his running mate the 80 year old Henry G Davis was forced upon the party to prevent the campaign of another popular but controversial candidate, the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, from gaining any traction.

With the party platform offering little new and Parker failing to inspire the result when it came was not unexpected. The Democrat vote had decreased by more than 1,200,000, a mere 37:5% of the total cast, and every State in the mid-West had been lost. The return to a more traditional politics had failed. It only served to strengthen Bryan’s position and power within the party.

In the meantime, he travelled extensively including to Asia and Europe where he met leading politicians and collected lecturing fees while honing his pitch for the next Presidential cycle. But he was never to be an internationalist. Indeed, the more he travelled the more he came to appreciate the United States.

By 1908 he was again at the helm of the Democratic Party and once more its nominee for President.

Bryan had expected to run against Theodore Roosevelt but the President had kept to the promise he had made to the American people not to seek a Second Term (something he’d soon come to regret) but he would hand-pick his successor and that man would be his Secretary of War William Howard Taft whose campaign he effectively ran.

Taft, a large, avuncular man of common sense and integrity was considered a safe pair of hands while Bryan had a significant number of problems to overcome: the popularity of Roosevelt in whose shadow Taft basked; a lack of divide between the two parties and any real issue to fight over; and, of course, the law of diminishing returns. He may dominate the Democratic Party still, but this was his third run at the presidency and his standing as the champion of the people was beginning to wane.

Most of all however, was the problem of perception.

Bryan did not distinguish between his politics and his religion. Indeed, the one developed from the other and religion was in many respects his political crutch forming a large part of his mass appeal throughout the rural United States. But it was also his Achilles Heel for it allowed his enemies to portray him as an unsophisticated backwards populist appealing to the baser instincts of ill -educated yeoman farmers and an ignorant rural poor – a man congenitally incapable of running an increasingly industrialised, technologically advanced, and socially progressive country.

He was also a loser, and so it proved.

The outcome of the election was a disappointment for the Democrats not just for its defeat, Taft had won comfortably enough with 51.1% of the popular vote while Bryan’s had fallen to 43.4% or his worst performance to date, but in the manner Bryan had once again failed to bridge the gap between his traditional base support in small town America and the large and growing industrial centres. No matter what he said or what he campaigned on he just couldn’t make that breakthrough, it was as if he was banging his head against a brick wall.

Even so, there were those among his supporters who wanted him to run again in 1912, but he understood where perhaps others did not the weariness of the voter.  His time as a viable candidate for President was over and he would instead focus on what he did best, campaign, not now for election but social reform.

So Bryan stood aside and for a very different kind of man, the erudite law professor, former President of Princeton University, and one term Governor of New Jersey Woodrow Wilson who with his indelible air of intellectual superiority brought a gravitas to Democratic Party politics that some thought had been lacking for too long.

Bryan and Wilson had little in common other than shared political allegiance and a mutual disdain for black people but they would work together for the benefit of the party.

Having lost all faith in his protégé Taft, Theodore Roosevelt would run again for President in 1912 as candidate for the Progressive Party in effect creating a split Republican ticket. After sixteen years in the political wilderness it offered a path back to power for the Democratic Party and so it would prove as Woodrow Wilson was elected President on just 41.8% of the popular vote, less than Bryan had received in defeat four years earlier.

The now President Wilson was, he believed, a man for the age, weary of tradition, ambivalent towards the constitution, determined that the Government should have the greater say in man’s affairs, and dismissive of those who read their Bible and merely pray for deliverance. He had little time for Bryan’s more populist brand of small town politics, his fire and brimstone religiosity but he was an impossible man to ignore and so  he appointed him Secretary of State. Given his lack of experience in foreign affairs and limited diplomatic nous it seemed a strange choice but it did at least remove him from the domestic scene and restricted his ability to meddle with Wilson’s progressive agenda.

It came as little surprise to those who knew him that his naivety should be exposed on the international stage and he found both the minutiae of administration and the running of a department laborious and dull. The few initiatives he did explore such as coaxing mutually antagonistic countries to sign non-aggression treaties (and some did) were to prove a waste of his department’s time while his somewhat half-hearted attempt to mediate in the conflict that had broken out in Europe was largely ignored.

Rather than end the soon-to-be Great War, Bryan’s primary objective was to keep America out of a conflict he believed was the direct consequence of the Social Darwinism he had come to fear and dread; where the survival of the fittest in a world without God had replaced the Biblical mandate to be one’s brother’s keeper, where the desire for war and conquest had replaced the Sermon on the Mount and the love of Christ in men’s hearts.

When on 7 May 1915, the RMS Lusitania was sunk off the coast of Ireland by a U-Boat drowning 1,198 of its passengers and crew among them 128 Americans, Bryan believed Wilson would use it as the pretext for war.  The outrage that followed and the initial hard-line adopted by Wilson appeared to confirm Bryan in his view. When Wilson refused to unequivocally state that the United States would maintain its neutrality throughout and regardless of provocation, he resigned. No doubt, to the relief of both men.

But Bryan was first and foremost a patriot, when, following the revelation of the Zimmerman Telegram the United States did at last declare war on Germany he wrote to Wilson:

“Believing it to be the duty of the citizen to bear his part of the burden of war and his share of the peril, I hereby tender my services to the government.”

Wilson declined the offer but he did encourage Bryan to speak favourably in public of American involvement which he proceeded to do with his usual gusto.

Following his resignation from Wilson’s cabinet Bryan returned to Florida where he had moved for the sake of his wife’s health in 1912. It was also time for him to make some money and he would do so by promoting real estate giving speeches and entertaining potential buyers at his luxury home in Miami. It was perhaps not the most edifying career move for the Great Commoner, selling land to millionaires, but everyone has to live.

His removal from front-line politics also freed him to campaign on issues close to his heart not only as an advocate for prohibition and women’s suffrage but also a minimum wage, an eight hour day, and trade union rights. Issues he should perhaps have focussed on earlier in his career.

As the clocks approached midnight on 15 January 1920, the keynote speaker at a gathering of the Prohibition Movement in Washington’s First Congregational Church brought his peroration to a resounding crescendo as quoting from the Book of Matthew, William Jennings Bryan declared:

“They are dead who sought to take the young child’s life. They who would have killed us we have killed them.” 

Minutes later as the Church bells rang out the Volstead Act or Eighteen Amendment to the U.S Constitution banning the production, distribution, sale, and consumption of alcohol came into force to be followed just 18 months later by the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment that granted the franchise to women nationwide. These were rare victories for Bryan and ones in which he took his full share of credit even though he had been a peripheral figure in both campaigns for many of the preceding years – even so, it was nice to taste the fruits of victory after so many bitter weeds of defeat.

There was still one battle to be fought, however.

Bryan considered Eugenics, as developed from Darwin’s theory of evolution to be the greatest threat to mankind and social cohesion.  It undermined Biblical teaching and advocated for a material rather than a moral world and he fought hard to restrict its teaching in public schools. Support for his campaign wasn’t always forthcoming from the sources he expected and so disappointed was he in the Protestant Churches embrace of Darwinism by its acceptance that one could be both an evolutionist and a Christian that he ran for Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church – it was yet another election he lost.

His determination to defend a fundamentalist interpretation of the Old Testament and to argue in favour of creationism over evolution and the inherent evil of natural selection it contained within made him both a figure of fun and easy to lampoon. He remained undeterred however, he had endured such all his political life and so he ploughed on regardless, writing, speaking, and organising against the further spread of Darwinism. But he was more and more only speaking to those who wished to hear. Elsewhere, away from his traditional support, he was becoming increasingly marginalised and ignored; but the opportunity soon emerged for him to make his case not just in a moral but a legal context, and to a much larger audience.

In March 1925, the State of Tennessee, which had three times voted for Bryan as President, passed the Butler Act making it an offence to: teach any theory that denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals.

Bryan, who had been campaigning for States to legislate against the teaching of Darwin was understandably delighted, though he wanted it banned or taught merely as one theory among many rather than made a criminal offence, wrote to the Governor of Tennessee:

“The Christian parents of the State owe you a debt of gratitude for saving their children from the poisonous influence of an unproven hypothesis.”

In Dayton an enterprising local businessman George Rappalyea aware of how controversial the Butler Act was likely to be saw it as an opportunity to put his small town on the map. He discussed the matter with others and together they persuaded a 24 year old high school teacher John T Scopes to deliberately violate the code. He agreed, and was duly arrested.

The case made headlines but the carnival that was soon to surround it astonished even Rappalyea.

The American Civil Liberties Union eager to contest the legality of the Butler Act agreed to represent Scopes and appointed the New York attorney Clarence Darrow as Defence Counsel. Darrow was the most famous advocate of his day and had recently represented the defendants in the notorious Leopold and Loeb murder trial saving both from the death penalty. He had also once campaigned for Bryan as President but he no longer had much belief in or affection for his old friend.

Learning of this Bryan, champing at the bit to get involved, volunteered to lead the prosecution.

Two of the most famous men in America were to go head-to-head and the press descended upon Dayton like a swarm of locusts, one of whom was the acerbic H.L Mencken, journalist with the Baltimore Sun who had a deep loathing for Bryan, what he stood for, and the places from where he drew his support. He would use his particular poison pen to very good effect.

He was to be scathing of Dayton and its inhabitants though it was in truth an attractive small town, bathed in sunlight, with a polite and hospitable people something he was to submit to the privacy of his diary:

The town, I must confess greatly surprised me. I expected to find a squalid Southern village with darkies snoozing on the horseblocks, pigs rooting under the houses and the inhabitants full of hookworm and malaria. What I found was a country town full of charm and even beauty.

But he wasn’t one to let reality intrude upon pre-ordained and long held prejudice or to unnecessarily influence his prose:

Everywhere I venture in the Tennessee hill country I encounter faith healers, fanatics, medicine men, and frauds.”

The people were ignoramuses, childish in their theology, narrow minded, bigoted, imbecilic in their beliefs, and Bryan was their fundamentalist pope.

H L Mencken would use his particular poison pen to good effect and set the tone for much of the coverage of the trial and the debate that followed but the picture he painted wasn’t always an accurate one.

The atmosphere in Dayton was not confrontational however, but celebratory; the streets were adorned with bunting, the bands played; there were markets and fairground stalls and salesmen and charlatans and itinerant preachers and even a chimpanzee or two.

Bryan was greeted like a returning hero and he was in his element as he played the crowd, spoke often, and attended prayer meetings. The reception for Darrow was a little more muted.

The trial began on 10 July, to a packed courtroom which with the public gallery resembling a melee, journalists in every nook and cranny and even microphones set up for one of the first live radio broadcasts was clearly too small to accommodate all those who wanted to attend. The intense heat of a Tennessee summer only made it more unbearable and the courtroom would soon be abandoned for the cooler climes of the grounds outside.

There was no doubt that Scopes was guilty but then Darrow was less interested in the fate of his client than he was in excoriating the law he had been accused of violating and he had gathered an impressive line-up of witnesses to do just that.  Judge John T Raulston thought otherwise however, and ruled all of them as inadmissible – the court was not charged with the responsibility to prove or disprove Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, or challenge the legality of the Butler Act, but to try the defendant John T Scopes with the violation of that act.

It seemed as if the case was as good as over but Darrow had another card up his sleeve, he would call the Prosecution Counsel William Jennings Bryan to bear witness to his ‘literal’ interpretation of the Bible. Judge Raulston was inclined to rule this inadmissible as well but Bryan was eager to take up the challenge and he was not one to defy the great man.

Darrow would prepare well for his cross-examination but Bryan felt no requirement on his part to do likewise. He was no theologian after all, and made no claim to be so, but he knew the Bible and he believed in the Word of the Bible. He had nothing to fear if he answered every question honestly and faithfully and by that alone the truth would be revealed to all those willing to listen.

Perhaps, he had become unfamiliar with the exigencies of the justice system or mechanics of court procedure but he was soon to find that whereas repeated declarations of one’s absolute faith might resonate with force from the pulpit it sits less easily on the witness stand.

The fish had taken the bait, and Darrow wasn’t about to let it off the hook.

The stuffiness of the courtroom ensured that Bryan’s testimony would be heard alfresco and a carnival atmosphere prevailed for a time as people gathered to watch.  A hush descended however, as their hero stepped up to the witness stand smiling and waving to his supporters. There was a little joshing between the men, a verbal joust or two, before Darrow began to turn the screw. He pointed out the Bible’s many contradictions, its lack of historiography, and questioned Bryan as to his own absurd assumptions. He demanded clarity where Bryan’s answers were often vague and uncertain. As the Great Commoner stumbled and narrowed his eyes the atmosphere turned into one of open hostility. At times appearing confused it was not only the bright sunlight that Bryan was subjected to but the intense glare of public humiliation. Diminished in the eyes of those looking on he could not escape the vice-like grip of having to defend the indefensible. He could not say what he wanted to say and they were laughing. These were his people and they were mocking him.

He had revealed himself to be what the so-called ‘smart set’ had always said he was, a bigoted old fool who peddled superstition and lies to stand upon the shoulders of those too ignorant to know better, and they revelled in it. H L Mencken wrote:

It is tragedy indeed to begin life as a hero  and end it as a buffoon.

It was unfair of course, and not all agreed with many in the South and mid-West considering the entire Scopes Monkey Trial to be an attack on their way of life but the support he received in the regional press had little influence nationwide or around the world.

Still he had one last chance to redeem his reputation, his summation at the end of the trial, a speech he had been working on for days. This would be his opportunity to address the Court and those looking on; to make clear the dangers inherent in abandoning the teachings of Christ for the assertions of an unfounded, unproven, and perverted science –  but it wasn’t to be.

Much to Clarence Darrow’s delight, on 21 July the Court reconvened to find John T Scopes guilty of violating the Butler Act. He could now appeal the verdict to a higher court and having informed Judge Raulston of his intentions he declined to deliver his summation. It was a last twist of the knife for he knew by doing so it negated Bryan’s right to do so.

The Scopes Monkey Trial would fade from memory only to be revived from time to time, but its damage to Bryan’s reputation would remain. The speech he never delivered would later be published though he would never see it.  The following brief extract provides something of its tone:

Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine.

 If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene. His teachings, and His teachings alone, can solve the problems that vex the heart and perplex the world.

Bryan remained in Dayton after the trial happy to be in the company of God-fearing people for a change where he held meetings, attended church service, and gathered his thoughts for the battles ahead. Always a prodigious eater on 26 July having dined lavishly he went for his usual afternoon nap. He never woke up.

Upon receiving the news that Bryan had died H.L Mencken remarked:

“So, we killed the son of a bitch.”

Clarence Darrow’s initial remarks were hardly less generous though he later tempered them somewhat. Mencken however, remained unrelenting in his hostility as he wrote in his obituary:

Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had travelled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.

Not all would agree and William Jennings Bryan remains one of the most significant figures in the political history of the United States more for what he stood and campaigned for than anything he achieved, though many of the things he advocated for would later become law such as female suffrage, a federal income tax, the direct election of Senators a ban on the corporate funding of campaigns, and the government guarantee of bank deposits.

By championing the causes he did he highlighted aspects of the American character that had been present since its founding and exposed a fault line in society that exists to this day – and when his legacy is debated at all it can still inflame the passions.  Even if up to the present day with our now mass media determined to peddle the conventional wisdom they themselves are the creators of the argument has been a lop-sided and unequal one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Birth of Kaiser Wilhelm II

On 27 January 1859, Princess Victoria, the eldest daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria gave birth to her first child, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. It was to be a traumatic experience, a breech birth that, though it remained unknown for some time, left him with a withered left arm. It would impact his childhood in particular and play a major role in the formation of his character, though it would be artfully disguised in later life.

Being the mother of nine children Queen Victoria knew all about the pain of childbirth but had found chloroform to be a great help and now recommended it to her daughter, and the Queen’s recommendations were rarely ignored. She also sent Vicky her long-time midwife, Mrs Innocent and her personal physician Dr James Clark.

There was little possibility of Queen Victoria leaving her daughter’s labour in the hands of German doctors alone.

Following the birth, Victoria’s husband Friedrich, heir to the Prussian throne, also known as Fritz, wrote to his Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert providing an account of the birth:

“After Vicky had been visited by pains of an unusual nature in the few days prior to the 27th, which had more than once given us a false alarm, she experienced sharp pains shortly before midnight on the 26th, and soon thereafter wetness, which induced me to call in Mrs Innocent. She soon informed me quietly that the time had come, but advised Vicky to try and get a little sleep.

This was no longer possible, as the above-mentioned pain recurred a short time later and Sir James was informed and Wegner. Countess Blucher was summoned. Vicky put on some warm loose clothes and paced to and fro for several hours supported by Countesses Perponcher and Blucher and myself, desperately clutching us or at a table whenever the pain set in. At around half past two in the morning, I went to my parents to announce that it had begun, and Vicky went into the bedroom, which had meanwhile been prepared for the decisive event; and there, she spent the night either walking or lying in the chaise lounge.

The pains gradually increased and by daybreak were no longer by any means negligible. At around 9 a.m., she lay down on the bed, the very place where my father was born; only somewhat later did Dr Wegner notice by chance as he examined her that the position of the baby was not quite the normal one.

Vicky’s pain, as well as her horrible screams and wails, became even more severe; however, whenever she was granted a respite from her suffering, she would ask for forgiveness from everyone for her screaming and impatience, but she could not help herself. When the final stage of labour began, I had to try with all my might to hold her head in place, so that she would not strain her neck over much. Every contraction meant a real fight between her and me, and even today, 29 January, my arms still feel quite weak.

To prevent her from gnashing and biting, we made sure that there was a handkerchief in her mouth at all times. Occasionally, I had to use all my strength to remove her fingers from her mouth, and also placed my own fingers in her mouth. With the strength of a giant, she was at times able to hold off two people, and thus the awful torture escalated until the moment of birth was so near that complete anaesthesia with chloroform was undertaken. Vicky was laid at right angles on the bed; she let forth one horrible, long scream, and was then anaesthetized.

Because the baby was lying in the breech position and Vicky had absorbed so much chloroform she was virtually comatose and unable to help in the delivery it had to be literally yanked from the womb. But it wasn’t breathing, everyone thought it was stillborn, and it was only the swift action of the midwife Fraulein Stahl who began to slap the baby’s face first lightly and then more vigorously that saved the young prince’s life.

Upon hearing his son’s first faint cries Friedrich wrote:

“The sound cut through me like an electric shock. I then staggered, in a half-faint, into the next room where the baby was in a bath, and first I fell into Mama’s arms, and then I sank to my knees.”

 

 

Constance Markiewicz: The English Countess of Irish Freedom

Born on 4 February 1868, Constance Georgine Gore-Booth was destined to be a lady, and as an English aristocrat raised in Ireland, beautiful, intelligent, graceful and courteous she could have lived a decorous life; that she chose not to in the end can be worthy of praise but in her manner of doing so no less worthy of criticism, for she took up arms in the cause of Irish freedom thereby conspiring against the country of her birth and committing treason.

Her parents Sir Henry and Lady Georgina Gore-Booth were of Anglo-Irish stock and owned estates in County Sligo where unlike many of the English landowning class in Ireland they enjoyed a good relationship with their tenants and were well respected locally.  Liberal in their politics they also allowed their daughters a freedom to roam which Constance took full advantage of indulging her passion for the outdoors learning to ride, hunt, and fish. Indeed, she loved her childhood in Sligo, its landscape, the fresh air, and all the other myriad attractions of a carefree life in rural Ireland. It was a privileged existence, and she no less enjoyed being the pampered young lady as she did the self-indulgent tomboy of her daylight meanderings.

As she grew older and became increasingly accomplished she attracted a great many male admirers and even impressed the not always amenable Queen Victoria when presented to her as a possible paramour for her grandson the future King George V, but she had no relish for the ornamental life. She wished to achieve things in her own right, though what exactly remained a mystery but it certainly didn’t involve politics. Indeed, she showed little interest in the social movements of the day and would disagree agree passionately with her more engaged younger sister Eva on issues such as labour reform, improved living conditions, and even women’s suffrage.  So instead she studied art first in London and later Paris; and it was in Paris that she first met Count Casimir Markiewicz, a Ukrainian aristocrat of Polish descent, at least that’s what he told people, a not very successful playwright and theatre director who nonetheless was a familiar figure among the artistic mileu of the city introducing Constance to a bohemian lifestyle of which she neither approved nor disapproved but did think decidedly un-English. But able now to live outside the rigid social conventions of the day while still attending the Ambassador’s Ball suited her well, and it helped her relationship with Casimir blossom, that was until they married in September 1900.

Constance gave birth to a daughter not long after the wedding and in 1903 the now Countess Markiewicz and her husband returned to Ireland but despite being back in more familiar surroundings she could not adapt to domestic life, she was not equipped to be a mother neither was she a dutiful wife. It was not enough, she needed some purpose, some reason to exist, and her frustration was placing an intolerable strain on the marriage. In 1905 she wrote:

“Nature should provide me with something to live for, something to die for.”

Dissatisfied with life the Countess Markiewicz came late to politics.

By 1905, she and Casimir were living in Dublin where working as a theatre director he staged a number of plays in which Constance acted alongside Maud Gonne the unreciprocated love interest of the nationalist poet W.B Yeats. It was Maud who was to introduce Constance to radical circles where the promotion of the Gaelic language and preservation of Irish culture dominated literary output and was the topic of choice at any dinner party worthy of attendance.  Constance soon became an advocate for this resurgent Ireland but it wasn’t until the following year having read at length many of the pamphlets and essays then circulating which called for Irish independence from Britain, by force if necessary, that her cultural nationalism became political.

In 1908, she joined Maud Gonne’s radical Daughters of Ireland and a little later the recently formed nationalist party Sinn Fein – at last she had found that elusive purpose for life, a cause to fight for, and yes, to die for.

Not that she was entirely trusted by her new colleagues. She was after all a lady, English, and a Protestant. Turning up for her first party meeting in a ball gown and a tiara having just attended a party at Dublin Castle the seat of British power in Ireland, didn’t help; but she was soon to prove the sceptics wrong, that she was more than a merely decorative fellow traveller. She had been radicalised, and soon after travelled to England to harass Winston Churchill during the Manchester North by-election campaign over his refusal to support women’s suffrage. Her impact was minimal but this did little to diminish her delight at his defeat. There was always something about Churchill that brought out the worst in his opponents. This was just the beginning for Constance however, as she threw herself into the cause she now believed in utterly working assiduously at every level in both organisations from distributing leaflets, to sitting on committees, and addressing rallies. In 1909, she helped found Fianna Eireean, a front organisation for providing young men with military training and for which she made land available on the family estate. Her social connections would indeed prove of great value to the movement and in 1911, she was drafted onto the Sinn Fein Executive.

The situation in Ireland which so often appeared like a powder keg ready to explode was only inflamed further by the Liberal Government in Westminster introducing a Home Rule Bill intended to establish a bi-cameral Irish Parliament elected by Irishmen to administer Irish affairs. It was the third attempt in as many decades to secure a settlement for Ireland but it was to prove no less problematic than the previous two.

Protestant Unionists in the north of the country refused to be governed by a Catholic dominated Parliament based in Dublin. Under the leadership of Sir Edward Carson (who earlier as a barrister had prosecuted Oscar Wilde) they founded an armed militia the Ulster Volunteers, and on 28 September 1912, he presided over the ceremony that saw 500,000 Ulster Unionists sign the Solemn League and Covenant which vowed to oppose the attempt to introduce Home Rule by any means possible. In response to the belligerency of the Ulster Unionists in the north nationalists in the south also formed their own armed militia, the much larger Irish Volunteer Force.

Ireland seemed on the brink of civil war.

Unlike on previous occasions the Government appeared ready to face down the Unionist opposition to Home Rule by force if necessary, but doubt was cast upon their ability to do so when in May 1914 letters were received indicating that senior Officers of the British garrison based at the Curragh in County Limerick would resign their commissions if ordered to act against the Unionists in Ulster. The Curragh Mutiny as it became known sent a shiver down the spine of the British Establishment and it seemed as if an impasse had been reached. But while the Navy was being prepared to sail to Belfast and do if necessary what the Army could not be trusted to do war broke out on the Continent.

The Great War changed everything, or so it seemed, and when the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party John Redmond agreed to the shelving of the Home Rule Bill for its duration (expected to be a year) and called upon Irishmen everywhere to support Britain’s war effort it seemed that the crisis was at an end.  But it had only been stymied, passions were still running high, Redmond’s commitments had served to split the nationalist movement and more militant elements now came to the fore with their hopes raised rather than quashed by events.

Home Rule aside Ireland was also not immune to the rural unrest and industrial strife that beset mainland Britain in those turbulent months before the outbreak of war with Constance active in the many disputes working closely alongside the trade unionist leader James Connolly in setting up soup kitchens in Dublin and organising collections for the strikers. Times were tough yet despite this and the continuing rancour and division caused by the proposed Home Rule Bill there was little enthusiasm for independence. But the war provided an opportunity for where the nationalists could oppose it publicly they also knew it weakened Britain and made the prospect of finding allies among her enemies willing to support Irish independence more likely. Germany had indicated it would provide arms and ammunition in preparation for an uprising. Should such a rising prove successful they might even invade. It was enough to convince the nationalist leadership to make their bid and strike for freedom.

On 24 April 1916, Padraig Pearse, leader of the Irish Republican Brotherhood stood upon the steps of the General Post Office in O’Connell Street, Dublin, and read out his Proclamation of the Irish Republic:

“In the name of God and the dead generations from which she receives her tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for freedom.”

The operation had been carefully planned and he had 1200 armed men behind him willing to fight but with little popular support Pearse knew the chances of success were slight but he was also convinced that a blood sacrifice was required and that Britain’s response to any rebellion would be swift, harsh, and vengeful – he was right. In the midst of a foreign war they were not about to countenance rebellion at home. Troops were despatched from the mainland to reinforce the local garrison and when the demand the rebels lay down their arms was refused the hostilities began.

The fighting was fierce as the determination of the rebels was more than matched by the anger of the British and Constance was in the thick of it. Stationed at St Stephen’s Green it was said she had been appointed second-in-command which may not have been entirely accurate but she was certainly prominent overseeing the positioning of troops, the building of barricades, and the distribution of ammunition before taking up arms herself.

A nurse who was taking shelter nearby later described in her diary:

“A lady in a green uniform holding a revolver in one hand and a cigarette in the other was standing on the footpath giving orders to the men. We recognised her as the Countess Markiewicz. We had only been looking a few minutes when we saw a policeman walking down the path. He had only gone a short way when we heard a shot and saw him fall forward onto his face. The Countess ran triumphantly into the Green shouting – I got him!”

If the writer’s account is accurate then she had just shot an unarmed man without warning who later died of his wounds.

It had been hoped, forlornly perhaps, that once news of the armed insurrection in central Dublin spread it would create in its wake similar events elsewhere in Ireland but no reports of such reached the rebels and while Dubliners ventured to look they chose not to participate. The rebellion then had not been the spark that would set Ireland ablaze, that would rouse the people to rise up and expel the foreigner from its blood soaked but sacred soil, to revive and restore once more the freedom and liberty of the Gaels sojourned for so long in the mists of time. Such was the rhetoric of romance, the romance no doubt that drew an English Countess to the cause of Irish nationhood.  But there is little romance in the crash of an artillery shell and he rat-tat-tat of the machine gun.

By establishing themselves in fixed positions that were easily cordoned off and surrounded the rebels had foregone any freedom of movement and could not be reinforced or resupplied.  Without support from outside the end was inevitable. Even so, the ferocity and determination with the Irish fought surprised the British who having seen their attempts to storm their positions repulsed would resort to siege and high calibre explosive shells – the rebels would either starve or die in the rubble.

After six long days and with the British poised to use even heavier artillery, maybe even warships moored on the River Liffey, to which the rebels had no answer with ammunition running low and casualties mounting on 29 April, in order to avoid further bloodshed and needless loss of life, Padraig Pearse agreed to an unconditional surrender.

This would not be the end of his intended blood sacrifice, however.

As the captured rebels were marched through the streets of the city they were shocked to find themselves jeered at and spat upon by a people hostile to their aims and unsympathetic to their plight – they had expected better. The Easter Rising as it was soon to become known was not after all a terrorist attack or an incident of guerrilla warfare, nor was it intended to be. They had announced who they were, declared their aims, had a command structure, some wore uniform, and they all acted under orders – they were an army, a citizen army, an Irish Republican Army, and had fought the enemy in the open after a formal declaration of intent. They had expected to be treated as prisoners-of-war but were in fact to be considered traitors to the crown.

During the first two weeks of May 1916, a series of military tribunals sentenced 90 of the captured rebels to death among them the seven signatories of the proclamation and the Countess Markiewicz.  Unlike the 15 who were to be executed by firing squad in the courtyard of Kilmainham Gaol, Constance, who’d had the dubious honour of being able to surrender to her own cousin and was the only one of the more than 70 women taken prisoner to be kept in solitary confinement, to preserve her dignity it was said, was to be spared such harsh treatment. Her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the grounds that she was a woman, not a factor that seemed to trouble the criminal courts greatly in passing judgement on capital cases.

The decision of the military authorities in Ireland to execute the leading rebels was obtuse and counter-productive in effect making the rebel’s case for them by rallying an apathetic Irish people behind the cause of national independence.

The Government in Westminster soon realised its mistake and Constance, along with the other prisoner were released just a year later following a general amnesty. But it was to prove too little too late.

Despite her work on behalf of the nationalist cause and participation in the Easter Rising there were always those within Sinn Fein who viewed Constance Markiewicz as an outsider and not an entirely trustworthy one. As such, she often felt the need to re-assert her credentials and so upon her release from prison she converted to Roman Catholicism despite having not previously expressed any deep religious faith. She also immediately re-entered the political fray and was briefly imprisoned once again this time for opposing the Military Service Bill which sought to extend conscription to Ireland but was released in time to campaign for the seat of St Patrick’s Dublin in the General Election of December 1918 which she duly won thereby becoming the first woman elected to the British Parliament; but she wasn’t to be the first woman to serve in the House of Commons  for like the other 72 members of Sinn Fein elected  she refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to the Crown and so was unable to take her seat. That honour would later go to the American born Nancy Witcher Langhorne, Viscountess Lady Astor.

The Election which had seen Sinn Fein take 73 of 105 Irish seats provided them with a political legitimacy and moral force unimaginable just two years earlier and they were determined to use it. Having chosen to ignore the Parliament at Westminster they now established their own the Dail Eireaan (Assembly of Ireland) which met for the first time in Ireland on 21 January, 1919.

The issue of Home Rule which had so dominated politics prior to the Great War was by now a dead letter and there seemed no possibility of Britain relinquishing its control over Ireland or tolerating any notion of dual power. A tense stand-off ensued which following a series of terrorist incidents descended into an undeclared war of independence between the British Armed Forces and the Irish Republican Army led by Michael Collins.

Such was Countess Markiewicz’s fame she was unable to play an active role in the war and remained for the most part in hiding but she stood firmly the activities of the I.R.A and its elusive and charismatic leader.  Her admiration for Collins wouldn’t last, however.

The war, though not the violence, would end with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

 

 

Michael Collins had headed the Irish delegation sent to London to negotiate the end of the conflict but the treaty he signed which detached the six Protestant dominated northern counties from the rest of Ireland and kept the new Free State within the Commonwealth was simply unacceptable to many within the nationalist movement and their de facto leader, President of the Dail, Eamon de Valera.

hThe treaty was ratified at a stormy meeting of the Dail on 7 January 1922 but only just by 64 votes to 57. The violence of the debate made it clear there was little room for reconciliation and Constance argued furiously with Collins accusing him of being a traitor to which pointing at her he responded more than once, “You are English! You are English!”  The anti-treaty faction then walked out – Civil War would follow.

Though it would cost Michael Collins his life the war between the newly constituted Irish Free State and the anti-treaty forces would be an uneven struggle. Constance, who sided with the rebels, would again find herself imprisoned, this time by people she had previously fought alongside.

The Civil War was a sad denouement to the long struggle for Irish independence but in the end an Irish State would exist, not over the entire island perhaps, but over those parts which wanted and had voted for it.

Following the end of the Civil War, Constance joined Eamon de Valera’s Fianna Fail Party for whom she was elected to the Dail in 1927, but she was not fated to serve as a peacetime politician. On 15 July following a short illness she died, aged 59.

The Countess Markiewicz had been a steadfast figure on the left of the nationalist movement at a time of great uncertainty and often discordant debate even if some doubted her commitment and were never convinced that it was more than a fad or the distraction from bored nobility. Those who worked closely alongside her knew otherwise however, and Eamon de Valera was present at her bedside as the end neared. Her contribution then was acknowledged even if the obituaries were often less than flattering. But even among her enemies and opponents there was a grudging respect, as the playwright Sean O’Casey, not always an admirer wrote:

“One thing she had in abundance – physical courage, with that she was clothed as if in a garment.”

Reconciled though she was to the Free State by the time of her death there was to be little official commemoration of her passing and certainly no State Funeral as had been requested. She was instead buried in a private ceremony at Glasnevin Cemetery with some of her previous colleagues in attendance, but certainly not all.