Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The Various Versions of the Sedgemoor Storytellers

                 You’d imagine, given the potential and the romance, that the Monmouth Rebellion would be the source material for dozens of fictional novels based either directly on it, or using it as a background against which a story unfolds. Oddly, there aren’t that many. 

R D Blackmore - Lorna Doone

Perhaps the most popular novel that is still read today is R D Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, first published in 1869 it has remained in print ever since, and has been adapted for films and television dramas several times. Subtitled A Romance of Exmoor, it tells the story of the eponymous Lorna Doone, a member of the notorious family of Doone, once noble but now outlawed, who falls in love with the respectable farmer John Ridd. 

After Sedgemoor - Lorna Doone

Lorna has been promised to the heir of the Doone clan, the piratical Carver Doone, and is, in fact, the kidnapped heiress of the wealthy Dugal family. She is sent to London as a ward of Chancery and following the death of Charles II, the Doones side with the Duke of Monmouth, hoping to regain their lost lands and titles. After the battle of Sedgemoor, John Ridd is captured and sent for trial in London, where he proves his innocence and is reunited with Lorna. During their wedding, Carver Doone bursts into the ceremony and shoots Lorna, and is chased onto Exmoor by Ridd. 

John Ridd and Carver Doone on Exmoor

They fight and Carver is killed, Ridd returns to the church and finds Lorna still lives. She recovers and they live happily ever after. It is, as the preface points out, a ‘romance’ rather than an historical novel, but none the worse for that, and it has stood the test of time well. 

Arthur Conan Doyle - Micah Clarke

Another work that uses the battle of Sedgemoor as a background is Micah Clarke (1889) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame. The novel is a bildungsroman – it follows the life of a naive boy as he grows into mature manhood through a series of adventures, culminating in Sedgemoor and its aftermath. All the historical characters appear, in one form or another, along with comedy West Country yokels who say things like, “If it plaize you, zur,” but the novel considers the religious implications of the Rebellion in some detail (which is nowhere as bad as it sounds), and is improved by Doyle’s obvious ability of being able to spin a good yarn. 

Arthur Conan Doyle - Title Page - Micah Clarke

Doyle’s works other than the Holmes stories are often overlooked, which is a shame as they are rather good, in a late Victorian adventure story kind of a way, and one of the reasons that Doyle ‘killed off’ Sherlock at the Reichenbach Falls was that he felt his other works were being overshadowed by the Holmes legacy. 

Monmouth in Taunton - A C Doyle - Micah Clarke

Popular sentiment demanded that Doyle bring back Holmes, but the latter stories are nowhere near as good as the earlier ones and some are down-right formulaic, as Doyle went through the motions to satisfy the popular appetite. 

Rafael Sabatini - Captain Blood

Slightly later is Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood (1922), which tells the story of an Irish Doctor, Peter Blood, who is in practice at Bridgewater, Somerset, and who is drawn into the Monmouth Rebellion when he treats the rebels injured during the battle of Sedgemoor. Found guilty by association by Judge Jeffreys, Blood is sold into slavery and transported to the Caribbean, where his skills as a physician are put to good use. 

Walking the Plank - R Sabatini - Captain Blood

After the Spanish attack Bridgetown, Blood and other slaves escape, capture a Spanish ship and become buccaneers and the scourge of the Spanish Main. After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Blood is pardoned and goes on to become the Governor of Jamaica. Only the first couple of chapters are Monmouth-related but the courtroom scenes with Judge Jeffreys are excellent and recreate the corruption and arbitrary nature of Jeffreys’ ‘justice’ convincingly. Sabatini uses a number of models in his creation of Peter Blood, including the pirate Henry Morgan and the real-life Irish adventurer Colonel Thomas Blood. 

Colonel Thomas Blood

Blood is remembered as the man who stole the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London, which is a story in itself. After the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660, the exchequer had insufficient funds to pay the salary of Talbot Edwards, assistant keeper of the Royal regalia, who was allowed instead to keep what fees he could earn by showing the Crown Jewels to interested visitors. 

Crown Jewels - The Crown

Edwards was approaching eighty years of age and lived with his family in rooms above the chamber where the Jewels were housed in the Martin Tower. In April 1671, Thomas Blood disguised himself as a parson and went with a woman whom he said was his wife to see the jewels (his real wife was ill, at their home in Holcroft, Lancashire). As Edwards was showing them the jewels, ‘Mrs’ Blood suffered a ‘qualme to the stomack’ and called for brandy. Revived, she was led upstairs to lie on Mrs Edwards’s bed until she was well enough to leave. 

Crown Jewels - The Sceptre

Several days later, Parson Blood returned with a thank you gift of white gloves for Mrs Edwards, and over the next couple of weeks he became a regular visitor at the Tower. He mentioned to the Edwards that he had a nephew (entirely fictitious) who had two or three hundred pounds a year and was in need of a wife, and might be married to the Edwards’s daughter. 

Crown Jewels - The Orb

Plans were made for the nephew to be introduced to his prospective bride, and on May 9th 1671, Parson Thomas Blood and three other men arrived at the Martin Tower. Would it be possible, the good parson said to assistant keeper Edwards, for his friends to see the Crown Jewels whilst they waited for Mrs Blood to arrive. Edwards took the party downstairs, where they jumped on him, forced a wooden gag into his mouth (with a hole drilled in it to allow him to breathe), put an iron peg on his nose and threw a cloak over his head. They told him to remain quiet but when he continued to thrash about, they knocked him insensible with a wooden mallet and stabbed him a couple of times. 

Colonel Blood steals the Crown Jewels

Blood took the mallet and flattened the King Edward Crown, which he hid beneath his clerical robes. Another man, Parrot (who may well be the same Robert Parrot hanged for his part in the Monmouth Rebellion) took the orb and hid it in his baggy trousers, whilst the third, Tom Hunt, started to file the sceptre into two halves, to fit it into a bag. By coincidence, Edwards’s young son returned home from the wars in Europe on this May morning and was surprised when he was met by a young man, Richard Hallowell (or Holloway), standing outside to door of his parents’ dwelling. Young Edwards mounted the stairs and Hallowell followed him up, stopping at the floor below to alert his three associates. Hunt dropped the sceptre and the four robbers ran from the Martin Tower. Upstairs, Mrs Edwards and her daughter told young Edwards about the young nephew and Parson Blood, and he went back downstairs to find his father. 

Colonel Blood steals the Crown Jewels

Talbot Edwards raised the alarm, shouting, “Treason! The Crown is stolen!” and young Edwards and his brother-in-law, Captain Beckman, took up the alarm. Pursuit ensued, as the fugitives passed under the Bloody Tower and along Water Lane, towards the Byward Tower, where Blood shot and injured a yeoman. They ran over the drawbridge, and along the wharf towards the Iron Gate, exposing themselves to the full view of the guards. Captain Beckman caught up to Blood as he was mounting his horse, and Blood fired a pistol point blank at Bechman’s head, who managed to dodge the shot. They fought and Blood and Parrot were overpowered and taken prisoner; Hunt made it to his horse and began to ride away but struck his head on a pole sticking out of a laden wagon, was knocked from the horse and also captured. 

Colonel Thomas Blood

In gaol, Colonel Blood refused to answer any questions unless the King himself asked them and so, on May 12th, he was brought before Charles II, his brother the Duke of York and other members of the royal household. Far from being angry, Charles was highly amused by the effrontery of the incident and roared with laughter when the details were told to him. He pardoned Blood, restored his lands to him, made him a member of the royal bodyguard and awarded him a pension of £500 a year. There have been rumours and theories ever since that there were some deeper reasons other than simple theft involved, as there always are in stories of this sort. 

Blood became involved in a libel case with his patron, the Duke of Buckingham, and was imprisoned at the King’s Bench prison, where his health was damaged, and soon after his release he passed into a coma and died on August 24th 1680. There were rumours that his death was a sham and the living man was living hidden elsewhere, so some days after the burial his body was disinterred and an inquest held to identify the remains, which were then reburied. The story remains one of the classics of audaciousness, bravado and downright brass-neckery.

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