A must-read review! A must-read book! Professor Moore spoke at the JASNA AGM in Williamsburg, an insightful, eye-opening talk on Jane Austen’s knowledge of the dissolution of the monasteries and how she weaves this into her novels:
Join us today for a guest post by Sue Wilkes, as she shares one of her spy tales from her new book Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels & Revolutionaries (more information on the book below).
The Cato Street Conspiracy, 1820
The year 1820 began with grave news – the death of George III on 29 January, after years of illness. The King was buried a week later with great pomp and ceremony on 16 February. But his son George IV’s reign did not get off to a good start. A week later, news broke to an astounded British public of the arrest of ‘a gang of diabolical ruffians’ at Cato Street, in London. The conspirators, led by the ‘notorious’ Arthur Thistlewood, planned to kill members of the Cabinet (government ministers) while they dined at Earl Harrowby’s house in Mansfield Street (Gentleman’s Magazine, February 1820).
This was no chance discovery, however. Thistlewood and his gang were well known to the authorities – the government’s spies had kept them under surveillance for years. Arthur Thistlewood, a brooding, dangerous man known to be deadly with a sword, led a group of revolutionaries called the ‘Spencean Philanthropists’.
The Spenceans were followers of the late Thomas Spence, who advocated the common ownership of all land – a truly anarchic idea in an unequal society rooted in land, wealth and property. Thistlewood first came to prominence in the Spa Fields riot of December 1816 in London. The riot was thought to be a ‘trial run’ by the Spenceans to see if they could get enough popular support to attack the Tower of London, Bank of England, and seize the city. Thistlewood and his friends were arrested and tried for treason the following year, but acquitted as most of the evidence against them was based on unreliable spy evidence.
After his release from prison, Thistlewood and his followers were constantly watched. In 1817 a spy called Shegoe reported, ‘They entertain the plan of assassination, and Lords Castlereagh, Sidmouth, Liverpool and Ellenborough have been marked as objects of their pursuit’. Some conspirators guessed that Shegoe was a spy, however, and his usefulness declined.
A new spy, George Edwards (code-name ‘W—r’ in the surveillance reports) infiltrated the gang and actively encouraged their plans. Edwards also recruited more conspirators: one of the people he ‘groomed’ was John Thomas Brunt, a shoe-maker. Another was Richard Tidd, who came from Thistlewood’s native Lincolnshire, and met Edwards through Brunt. Edwards’ actions and words were so ludicrously violent that several men he approached sent him packing, convinced that he was trying to entrap them.
Early in 1820, Edwards brought Thistlewood the news he had been waiting for: a Cabinet dinner was planned at Lord Harrowby’s house. Thistlewood and his gang rented a loft in Cato Street. They arranged to meet on Tuesday 22 February, bringing as many weapons as they could lay their hands on. But thanks to Edwards, the time and place for the planned assassination were already known to the police and Home Office. Everything was now set to nip the conspiracy in the bud.
On Monday 1 May 1820, Arthur Thistlewood, James Ings, John Thomas Brunt, Richard Tidd and William Davidson were executed guilty for high treason at Newgate. But was it really Thistlewood’s idea to kill the Cabinet – or was it the spy George Edwards’s plan, as Arthur claimed at his trial?
An account of the death sentence passed by the judge, and the conspirators’ execution,
from the Gentleman’s Magazine, May 1820. (Author’s collection).
About the book: [from the jacket]
In her new book, Sue Wilkes reveals the shadowy world of Britain’s spies, rebels and secret societies from the late 1780s until 1820. Drawing on contemporary literature and official records, Wilkes unmasks the real conspirators and tells the tragic stories of the unwitting victims sent to the gallows.
In this ‘age of Revolutions’, when the French fought for liberty, Britain’s upper classes feared revolution was imminent. Thomas Paine’s incendiary Rights of Man called men to overthrow governments which did not safeguard their rights. Were Jacobins and Radical reformers in England and Scotland secretly plotting rebellion? Ireland, too, was a seething cauldron of unrest, its impoverished people oppressed by their Protestant masters.
Britain’s governing elite could not rely on the armed services – even Royal Navy crews mutinied over brutal conditions. To keep the nation safe, a ‘war chest’ of secret service money funded a network of spies to uncover potential rebels amongst the underprivileged masses. It had some famous successes: dashing Colonel Despard, friend of Lord Nelson, was executed for treason. Sometimes in the deadly game of cat-and-mouse between spies and their prey suspicion fell on the wrong men, like poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Even peaceful reformers risked arrest for sedition. Political meetings like Manchester’s ‘Peterloo’ were ruthlessly suppressed, and innocent blood spilt. Repression bred resentment – and a diabolical plot was born. The stakes were incredibly high: rebels suffered the horrors of a traitor’s death when found guilty. Some conspirators’ secrets died with them on the scaffold…
Sue Wilkes is the author of several works of social and family history: Regency Spies (Pen & Sword, 2016) and A Visitor’s Guide to Jane Austen’s England (Pen & Sword, 2014), Regency Cheshire (Robert Hale, 2011), The Children History Forgot (Robert Hale, 2010), Narrow Windows, Narrow Lives (Tempus, 2007), as well as guides for family historians on tracing ancestors in various UK counties and towns.
Read her blogs at:
Publisher: Pen and Sword (February 19, 2016)
ISBN-10: 1783400617 / ISBN-13: 978-1783400614
Price: $39.95 / £19.99
Pen & Sword: http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Regency-Spies-Hardback/p/11177
Read another post by Sue here: Regency Explorer
Thank you Sue for telling us about one your tales! This book is filled with such – I will be interviewing Sue in the coming weeks, so please return to learn more about this world of spies in Jane Austen’s time … my first question? Whatever would our dear Henry Tilney have to say about it all?!
Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”
[NA, Vol. II, Ch ix. Image: Mollands.net]
All four images from George Theodore Wilkinson, The Newgate Calendar Improved Vol. 5, (Thomas Kelly, 1836). Courtesy the Internet Archive, archive.org.
c2016, Jane Austen in Vermont
Today a guest post by Alan Stockwell, author of What’s the Play and Where’s the Stage? A Theatrical Family of the Regency Era, as he tells us a bit about his new book. I shall add this to my TBR file – it has all the makings of a Regency era soap opera of the highest order, all the better because it is all true! Please comment below if you have any questions for Mr. Stockwell…
What’s the Play and Where’s the Stage?
A Theatrical Family of the Regency Era
The lives of eminent London actors of the Regency period – Kean, Mrs Siddons, Kemble, Cooke, Macready, Grimaldi et al, are more than amply recorded. This book ploughs a more unusual, rarer, furrow.
It reveals the theatrical lives of a family of provincial players who tramped the highways and byways bringing the latest London hits and classic plays to unsophisticated audiences in tiny country theatres and large manufacturing towns. The author offers not a specialist tome for theatre historians – although they will find previously unknown material and new revelations here – but a beguiling story of a family of three thespian siblings, their spouses and their children.
This is a Regency world far removed from the novels of Jane Austen. There are highs and lows, riches and poverty, twists and turns, and extraordinary events as in the script of any modern television saga. The marked difference being that – for the Jonas and Penley Company of Comedians – this was real life.
In Georgian and Regency times even the tiniest country town had its theatre visited regularly by travelling players. These companies were usually family based and my book is an account of one such troupe – more adventurous than most – the Jonas & Penley Company, grandiloquently self-styled “His Majesty’s Servants of the Theatre Royal Windsor”. The troupe under their indefatigable leader Sampson Penley comprised three siblings, their spouses and two dozen children.
This picture from the Garrick Club shows Edmund Kean the brightest star of the Regency stage. The man in pink on the left is Sampson Penley Jr of the once well-known Penley family of provincial players.
[Source: VesperHawk.com ]
I purposely divided the text into discrete biographies, allowing the narrative of each to flow. However, the subjects all being closely related, the parts form an inter-connected whole. So that their separate stories are easy to read, and are not interrupted by notes etc, all such things are grouped in appendices, which can be ignored if you are not interested in the research necessarily compiled for such a project as a historical biography. Although the book revolves around the theatre of the time there is much information on other aspects of social history – wages, transport, childbirth, postal system etc, which all impinged on the everyday life of players. Authors of Regency fiction may find such things of professional interest. Below is a brief look at the family members described:
- Sampson Penley & his brother-in-law John Jonas and all their trials and tribulations setting up a circuit of theatres in south-east England during the Napoleonic Wars while touring with ever-enlarging families. Events include becoming lessees of the Windsor theatre and playing to the royal family; leasing a London theatre (a failure); the first English company to tour the continent in 1814 after the fall of Napoleon; the first English company to play in Paris since Elizabethan times and the riot that ensued; imprisonment for debt and bankruptcy.
- Mr & Mrs William Penley who were Sampson’s brother and sister-in-law. For several years Mrs W P was the leading tragedy queen in the Jonas & Penley company while her husband was at Drury Lane theatre for ten seasons. Of outstanding interest is that George III’s queen “adopted” their six-year old son, had him educated at public school and provided £300 to facilitate his joining the Indian army where he ended up a major. William became affluent and two of his sons became artists – Aaron of sufficient eminence to paint Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
- Sampson Penley Jr who was a leading man at sixteen, joined Drury Lane where he was a principal member of the company for many years in spite of receiving the most consistently damning of reviews. He wrote several plays but only one success. He supported Edmund Kean in many plays and when he lost his place in London he became a manager in Windsor, Newcastle and Leicester. He fell in love at first sight and married after a whirlwind courtship, fled to Paris to avoid debts and died there far too young.
- The three acting daughters of Sampson, Rosina, Phoebe and Emma Penley relate their careers in tandem. Rosina was the most important and she was the first British actress to be hailed by the intelligentsia of Paris for her Shakespearean performances. Rosina’s peregrinations as a respectable single woman travelling throughout the land, playing a multitude of parts in many towns and circumstances is very different from the typical lives of other women of the period whether rich or poor. Her sisters Phoebe and Emma played the same repertory of parts and on many occasions pairs of sisters acted together.
- Sampson’s son Montague Penley who was an artist and drawing teacher (a pupil was Princess Augusta) as well as an actor, scenic artist and manager. He acquired the lease of the Lyceum theatre in London which resulted in a swift financial debacle and yet another Penley fleeing to France.
- Belville Penley was Sampson’s youngest son who as a child acted in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo and afterwards with his family visited the battlefield. He did not become an adult actor but was a theatre manager. His wife was a singer whom he impregnated prior to marriage causing press condemnation. Belville went into partnership with the actor James Anderson at Leicester, Cheltenham and Gloucester. The partnership ended with another bankruptcy. Mrs Belville Penley went on to be a well-known singer of oratorio and religious works and her husband became lessee of the Roman Baths at Bath.
- Cousins Maria Jonas and Frederick Jonas who also had substantial theatrical careers.
What’s the Play and Where’s the Stage? is a hardback of 420 pages with an ISBN 978-0-9565013-6-3. You can visit my website for more information www.vesperhawk.com.
And what is the significance of the title? It is a quotation from an anecdote you will find on page 28!
About the Author: Alan Stockwell MBE was a professional puppeteer for over forty years. Latterly, he has devoted much of his time to writing, and is the author of several books and many articles on the theatre, magic, circus and puppetry. He is a long-time member of the Society for Theatre Research and the Irving Society [that would be Henry, not Washington]. And has written on Sherlock Holmes and Charles Dickens (see website for more information).
Thank you Alan for sharing about your book! – Readers, please reply below if you have any comments or questions.
You can purchase the book here:
c2016 Jane Austen in Vermont
Our Next Meeting!
June 8, 2014
You are Cordially Invited to JASNA-Vermont’s June Meeting
A Peek into Jane Austen’s Regency World
“‘Of Rears and Vices I Saw Enough’~
The Royal Navy in Mansfield Park and Persuasion”
and A. Marie Sprayberry
“Sex, Power, and Other People’s Money ~
The Prince Regent and His Impact on Jane Austen’s Life and Work”
Sunday, 8 June 2014, 1:00 – 3:30 p.m.
Fletcher Free Library, Fletcher Room
235 College St, Burlington VT
Lisa Brown will present an enlightening talk on how the Royal Navy figures in Mansfield Park and Persuasion. We will learn about the uniforms, the ships, the rating system, prize money, and more; as well as discover how very knowledgeable Jane Austen was about the Royal Navy because of her brothers’ involvement. Various uniforms will be on display – but, alas! without a Captain Wentworth in sight!
A. Marie Sprayberry investigates why Jane Austen wrote of the Princess of Wales in 1813: “Poor Woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband.” The Prince Regent brazenly personified the three themes of sex, money, and power – as long as the money was someone else’s! But did Jane Austen have particular reasons for disdaining him? And how might her views of the Prince have influenced her work? Photos of contemporary royal commemorative china and medals will illustrate the talk, all from Marie’s collection.
*Lisa and Marie are co-regional coordinators of the Syracuse Region; Lisa also co-chairs the Rochester Region, is an ECD teacher, owns a Regency era costume business, and has given various talks on the Royal Navy and Regency fashion; she works as a proof reader. Marie has spoken to JASNA on the Prince Regent and will be speaking at the Montreal AGM on “Fanny Price as Fordyce’s Ideal Woman?” She works from her Syracuse home for a NYC-based publisher.
Free & open to the public ~ Light refreshments served
You can see the event flyer here: June 2014 flyer
Hope you can join us!
c2014, Jane Austen in Vermont
New issue of Jane Austen’s Regency World!
The March/April 2014 issue [No. 68] of Jane Austen’s Regency World magazine is now published and will be mailed to subscribers this week. In it you can read about:
- William Beckford, the remarkable author and architect who led a somewhat sordid life
- Joanna Trollope on her rewriting of Sense & Sensibility for HarperCollins’s Austen Project
- Mary Russell Mitford, the writer who sought to emulate Jane Austen
- How Jane Austen supported her fellow writers by subscribing to their books
- The story of Julie Klassen, marketing assistant turned best-selling Regency romance novelist
Plus: News, Letters, Book Reviews and information from Jane Austen Societies in the US and the UK.
And: Test your knowledge with our exclusive Jane Austen quiz, and read about the shocking behaviour of our latest Regency Rogue
You should subscribe! Make sure that you are among the first to read all the news from Jane Austen’s Regency World: http://janeaustenmagazine.co.uk/subscribe/
[Images and text from JARW Magazine, with thanks]
c2014 Jane Austen in Vermont
Opening today! ~ “Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain” – 8 November – 11 March 2014 at the British Library
I.R. and G. Cruikshank. ‘Tom & Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic’ – Pierce Egan, Life in London (London, 1823).
Tasteful and polite, or riotous and pleasure-obsessed? Discover the Georgians as they really were, through the objects that tell the stories of their lives.
From beautifully furnished homes to raucous gambling dens, Georgians Revealed explores the revolution in everyday life that took place between 1714 and 1830. Cities and towns were transformed. Taking tea, reading magazines, gardening and shopping for leisure were commonplace, and conspicuous consumption became the pastime of the emerging middle classes.
Popular culture as we know it began, and with it the unstoppable rise of fashion and celebrity. Art galleries, museums and charities were founded. In this time of incredible innovation, ideas were endlessly debated in the new coffee houses and spread via the information highway that was mass print.
Drawing on the British Library’s uniquely rich and rare collections of illustrated books, newspapers, maps and advertisements, as well as loaned artworks and artifacts, “Georgians Revealed” brings to life the trials and triumphs of the ordinary people who transformed Britain forever.
And check out the online shop where all manner of Georgian -related treasures are for sale, as well as a catalogue of the exhibition, another must-have for your Jane Austen collection!
Rocque map of London fan, £8
A beautiful wooden fan, featuring a historic map created by John Rocque.
The fan has been created exclusively for the British Library. Wood/ canvas.
[Images and text from the British Library website]
c2013 Jane Austen in Vermont
Enquiring Readers: Ron Dunning has previously posted here at Jane Austen in Vermont about his invaluable Jane Austen genealogy website. As he continues to research the connections, he is discovering amazing coincidences and some very familiar names. Today he gives some insight into a marriage that took place between a Darcy and a de Burgh in 1329 and speculates on whether Jane Austen could possibly have known about this…
What Jane Might Well Have Known, and What She Couldn’t Possibly Have Known, About Her Ancestors
I’m against making any assumption based on slim evidence, but I’m about to make two; first of all, concerning a great coincidence about which Jane can’t have known anything. In 1329 a marriage took place between John Darcy, 1st Lord Darcy of Knaith, and Joan de Burgh. (The spelling doesn’t matter – even up to the 18th century spellings hadn’t been fully standardised.) Joan’s father Richard de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster, was a direct ancestor of Mrs Austen through her brother John.
Last summer when my Akin to Jane [ www.janeaustensfamily.co.uk ] website was launched one or two people, with admirable perseverance, trawled through my separate family tree [ http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~janeausten ] and on discovering this marriage, insisted that Jane must have known. I was never in any doubt that she couldn’t possibly have known. This was also the opinion of the only other person who has studied the Austen pedigree extensively, Anielka Briggs.
While Baronetages were readily available in the late 1700s, the dignity having been created only in 1611, there were very few studies of the Peerage and all of those were very primitive. William Dugdale’s Baronage of England of 1675 covered only England. (Remember that Joan’s father John de Burgh was the Earl of Ulster; the marriage in question is said to have taken place in County Kildare.)
The Rev. Barlow’s Complete English Peerage was printed in 1772, so might just have been in George Austen’s library, but again deals just with English peerages. Another possibility, Arthur Collins’s Peerage series*, was first published in 1709, with reprints every few years and frequent new editions. Even he appears not to have included Irish peerages, and in the eight editions that I was able to search, not a single de Burgh featured in the indexes.
A further obstacle in the way of Jane’s knowing (or for that matter anyone at the time) is that there was no direct male descent from the de Burghs to the Austens – the surname soon disappeared from Jane’s pedigree, through a series of female links. Traditional pedigrees concentrate on the direct male line.
However, John Darcy did himself play a role in the Austen pedigree – he was a many-greats-grandfather of Charles Austen’s wives, the sisters Frances and Harriet Palmer. John and his first wife, Emmeline Heron, were the ancestors of four generations of male Darcys; Elizabeth Darcy, in the fifth generation, married James Strangeways; and that surname continued down to the Palmer girls’ paternal grandmother, Dorothy Strangeways. In Charles’s children, the Darcy and the de Burgh lines were finally united.
My second assumption concerns what Jane might well have known. Janine Barchas, in her Matters of Fact in Jane Austen, speculates that she, in choosing the names of Darcy, Wentworth, Woodhouse, FitzWilliam, Tilney, etc., was alluding “to actual high-profile politicians and contemporary celebrities as well as to famous historical figures and landed estates.” In the words of Juliet McMaster in the blurb, she was “a confirmed name dropper who subtly manipulates the celebrity culture of her day.” On page 118 Janine Barchas wrote, “Cassandra Willoughby (…) the supposed ancestor of Mrs Austen.” Yes – she’s almost got it. Cassandra was Mrs Austen’s 1st cousin, twice removed.
I think that Jane may well have known about the family relationship and its relevance. Cassandra’s mother Emma (Willoughby and then Child, née Barnard) was Cassandra Leigh’s great-great-aunt; it was Emma’s sister Elizabeth (Brydges, née Barnard) who was her great-grandmother. Elizabeth was also the mother of James Bridges, the Duke of Chandos, who married Cassandra Willoughby – the two were cousins. Emma’s first husband was the noted naturalist, Francis Willoughby; after his death she remarried, to Sir Josiah Child – supreme governor of the East India Company, an early monetarist, and a rapaciously wealthy financier to 17th century royalty. Emma and Sir Josiah’s son Richard Child became the Earl Tylney of Castlemaine, and one of his great-granddaughters was Catherine Tylney-Long.
Barchas speculates that Jane, in naming her Catherine Tilney, had this other Catherine in mind. This lady had inherited a vast estate and fortune in 1794 at the age of 5, and at 18 was reputedly the richest commoner in England. Catherine Tylney was Jane Austen’s 4th cousin. Very few of us have any idea about our fourth cousins, but based on the following circumstantial evidence, I suspect that Jane did know that they were distantly related.
[Image: Wanstead House ]
There is a strong tradition in the Warwickshire village of Middleton, the seat of Francis Willoughby, that Jane visited there on the trip to Staffordshire in 1806 with her mother and sister. Middleton certainly lies in a direct line, as the crow flies, from their stop at Stoneleigh to Hamstall Ridware, where her cousin was the Rector. If they did visit, it may have been because Mrs Austen knew of the family relationship – she was certainly considered to have been proud of her aristocratic ancestors. The Austens preserved a letter written by Elizabeth Brydges in the 1680s from Constantinople, giving advice to her daughter who had been left behind; I think it likely that she’d have known about Elizabeth’s sister Emma’s illustrious marriages, and have told her daughters.
Thank you Ron! for all this information [my head is spinning!] – I do wonder what Lady C might say to all this – would she be concerned about the “Shades of Pemberly [being] thus polluted” by any of these illustrious ancestors?
If you have questions for Ron, please comment below.
Ed. Note: * Collins Peerage:
Just again to prove once again that all roads lead back to Jane Austen, it is interesting here to note that Egerton Brydges edited this 1812 edition of the Collins Peerage – this is Jane Austen’s very own Mr. Brydges, brother to her friend Madame Lefroy. Austen makes much of his novel Arthur Fitz-Albini (1798) in her letter of 25 November 1798:
We have got Fitz-Albini; my father has brought it against my private wishes, for it does not quite satisfy my feelings that we should purchase the only one of Egerton’s works of which his family are ashamed. That these scruples, however do not at all interfere with my reading it, you will easily believe. We have neither of us yet finished the first volume. My father is disappointed – I am not, for I expected nothing better. Never did any book carry more internal evidence of its author. Every sentiment is completely Egerton’s. There is very little story, and what there is [is] told in a strange unconnected way. There are many characters introduced, apparently merely to be delineated. We have not been able to recognize any of them hitherto except Dr and Mrs Hey and Mr. Oxenden, who is not very tenderly treated…. [Letters, No. 12]
1. Ron Dunning’s Jane Austen websites:
- an interview with Ron about his Jane Austen genealogy website: https://janeausteninvermont.wordpress.com/2012/07/21/an-interview-with-ron-dunning-on-his-jane-austen-genealogy-the-new-and-improved-jane-austen-family-tree/
- Ron on Elizabeth Spencer and Canonbury Tower: https://janeausteninvermont.wordpress.com/2013/02/19/jane-austen-elizabeth-spencer-and-canonbury-tower-guest-post-by-ron-dunning/
2. Janine Barchas links:
- Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2012): http://www.amazon.com/Matters-Fact-Jane-Austen-Celebrity/dp/1421406403
- “Jane Austen on Location” at the JHU Press Blog: http://jhupressblog.com/2012/09/12/jane-austen-on-location/
- “A Janecation in Yorkshire” at JAIV: https://janeausteninvermont.wordpress.com/2012/10/21/guest-post-janine-barchas-a-janecation-in-yorkshire-jane-austens-real-wentworths/
3. History of Catherine Tylney-Long at Wanstead Park website: http://www.wansteadpark.org.uk/hist/the-owners-of-wanstead-park-part-10-1784-1825/
4. Wanstead Wildlife.org [information and above image]: http://www.wansteadwildlife.org.uk/index.php/home/list-of-people?id=101
5. William Dugdale Baronage [above image]: https://www.skinnerinc.com/auctions/2526B/lots/212
6. Frederic Barlow. Complete English Peerage (London, 1775): [complete text and above image]: http://openlibrary.org/books/OL24241621M/The_complete_English_peerage
7. Collins’s Peerage of England: [complete text and above image]: http://openlibrary.org/books/OL7054900M/Collins’s_peerage_of_England_genealogical_biographical_and_historical.
8. A nice introduction to Charles Austen at Austenprose.
c2013 Jane Austen in Vermont
Richard III has been getting much-needed attention these past few days – his Bones, it seems, have been languishing beneath a parking lot …
About 22 years ago on a trip to Scotland with the Appalachian Mountain Club, we stayed in Beauly not far from Inverness in a Castle called Aigas (now the Aigas Field Centre), hosted by Sir John Lister-Kaye and his Lady Lucy. We spent our days studying the flora, fauna, and geology of the surrounding area, a glorious adventure, as you can imagine – but one of the most memorable parts of the trip was meeting another guest staying at the Castle – he was not part of our group, but came there every year to go birding, an elderly gentleman blessed with a brilliant mind and great charm – his one great obsession other than birds was Richard III, and from him I learned about the Richard III Society. He went off into spasms of ecstasy telling of his also annual treks to Bosworth where he could hear the “swish, swish” of the swords on the field where Richard was slain in 1485.
Illustration depicting the Battle of Bosworth Field, with King Richard III on the white horse.
I came home with my own obsession with the long-dead Richard – read everything I could find on him, beginning with Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, her tribute to Richard [she was a staunch member of the Society] and the clear statement of her belief in his innocence. Shakespeare had done the young King a dirty deed it seems, maligned forever in History as the murderer of the Princes in the Tower and various other souls including his Wife, and perpetrator of all manner of other nefarious politically-induced deeds…
I confess to having forgotten more than I ever actually knew about RIII, and now other than Shakespeare and Tey, he has largely fallen off my radar, or at least I no longer need to get into discussions with everyone I meet in a rabid defense of his innocence… but I am excited about his Bones being found and restored to a rightful burial place at Leicester Cathedral; this discovery shall certainly bring on a re-assessment of who he might really have been…
Which brings us to Jane Austen:
Austen, as avid readers know, had an aversion to the name of “Richard”: let’s recall her first paragraph in Northanger Abbey, where she denigrates Catherine’s father so:
Her father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor, and a very respectable man, though his name was Richard …
And later in a 1796 letter to her sister, she remarks on Mr. Richard Harvey’s match being put off, “till he has got a better Christian name, of which he has great Hopes.” [Letters, p. 10]
And famously in Persuasion, and one of the nastiest comments in all her novels, on poor Dick Musgrove:
The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son, and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before.
He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him “poor Richard,” been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done any thing to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead. [Persuasion v. I, ch. VI]
No one has ever satisfactorily explained this aversion of Austen’s to the name ‘Richard’ – one could certainly explain it as her disliking Richard III with such a passion that anyone named Richard should suffer her admonition; but here is what she says about Richard in her History of England, with such a contradictory tone, one does not quite know what she really thought [forever the illusive Jane] – but on the whole I think she believes him to be mistreated by History – perhaps she would have been a reigning member of the Richard III Society!
Richard the 3d
The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was a York, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man. It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews & his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to beleive true; & if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife, for if Perkin Warbeck was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard. Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace, for Henry Tudor E. of Richmond as great a villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown & having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it.
So what do you think? Should Richard III be exonerated of his dastardly deeds? Should we do as Jane did and be “rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man”? I will just say that may Richard at least from henceforth Rest in Peace…
[Richard III Memorial in Leicester Cathedral]
And I must add this final image sent just this morning from a friend – only the English can get away with this sort of thing, but I laughed ‘til tears came… somehow I think Jane Austen would be laughing too…
- Christopher Sandrawich wrote a post on this blog last year on viewing Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Swan Theatre
- The Telegraph.uk with video of the findings
- Beautiful Beauly, Scotland at wikipedia
- Bosworth Battlefield website
- Battle of Bosworth Field at Wikipedia
- Jospehine Tey and The Daughter of Time at the RIII Society