This blog is a selection of interesting things I've come across during my history research. I have a wide interest in history ranging from Wars of the Roses, country houses, Stuarts, Georgians, Louis XIV, Napoleon and criminals. So expect to see a bit of everything on here, with a focus on little known stories.
I haven’t posted about one of my passions for a while now and that is pirates, so I hope this will be of interest to you. The lives of many pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy in the years leading up to 1726 have been surrounded by myth and legend. Black Caesar, a former slave turned pirate, who was part of Blackbeard’s crew is no different. Whilst little is known about his life, I hope this post can give a sense of what is known about such a fascinating character and what better time to do so than for Black History Month.
It has been estimated that of the around 10,000 pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy, up to a third of them were black. To reflect this, maritime historian, Ken Kinkor listed a number of various pirate captains and the ratio of black crewmembers they had on board their ships.
Samuel Bellamy (1717) – more than 27 out of 180 men
Edward England (1718) – less than 50 out of 180 men
Edward Lowther (1724) – 9 out of 23 men
Blackbeard (1717) – 60 out of 100; (1718) – 5 out 14
Yet, in the collective conscious of what makes a pirate, this number is not necessarily thought of. Most of them would have been runaways, possibly cimarrons who had escaped their Spanish captors, or had chosen to join when a slave ship or plantation was raided.
Considering the appalling treatment that black people had to face during this time, it is easy to see why they would turn pirate. Unlike on the mainland, they had a chance to some sort of equality, although this very much depended on the ship they sailed on, particularly in terms of being allowed to vote and have an equal share in any treasure. In such circumstances, this meant they were very much active members. On other ships, they would have still been mistreated and expected to take on the worst of the tasks on board. In the case of capture, there was certainly no equality in the treatment of black pirates. If caught, the punishment was usually to be sold back into slavery, whilst white pirates were hung.
Black Caesar was definitely a proactive member of the pirating community, but how he went on to become a member of the most famous pirate’s crew is a little hazy. According to most accounts, he had originally been an African chieftain, known for his strength and cunning. He had managed to avoid being caught by slavers until he was lured onto a ship that offered him treasure. Once he’d found out his fate, he refused to eat and drink but befriended a sailor who took pity on him and provided him with sustenance.
When the ship was off the coast of Florida, the pair escaped on a rowing boat and sought a life of robbery instead. They pretended to be shipwrecked, luring ships to rescue them and then stealing from them. This venture brought them great riches and they were able to take on more crew. However, the pair supposedly fell out over a woman they had captured. It was after this that Caesar chosen to join Blackbeard’s crew, although the details of how they met are unknown.
Blackbeard must have put a lot of trust in Caesar as during the famous pirates final battle against Lieutenant Robert Maynard in November 1718, Caesar was ordered to stand in the powder room with a lit match so he could blow up the ship if the pirates were overwhelmed. He was just about to carry out his orders when to prisoners, although some other accounts called them guests who had slept in the powder room overnight, stopped him. He was then taken prisoner and went on trial along with the other survivors of Blackbeard’s crew at Williamsburg, Virgina. Caesar was captured along with five other black pirates, but he was the only one who didn’t give evidence against his fellow crewmembers. The others probably did so in the hope that they would be granted mercy. This meant that Caesar was hung with the rest of the crew, although some accounts to say he was pardoned instead.
Whatever the fate of Black Caesar may have been, he serves as an example that black pirates were certainly not always passive in the pirate community. Whilst this idea may be easily thought as the majority of known black pirates are not named, it is not fair to make this assumption when the facts are not necessarily reported and the circumstances are often lost with time. What Black Caesar shows that black pirates were definitely fully functioning and trusted members of the crews they served with.
In the opening chapters of Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations, Magwitch was incarcerated on a prison hulk, a disused ship used to house prisoners, situated around the mouth of the River Medway in Kent. It was after he escaped from one that he first encountered the main character, Pip, along the foggy marshes near this part of Kent. The mention of these hulks during the opening scenes of the book was meant to play on pre-existing ideas about the harsh conditions that those on board endured. Were these ideas really true and what exactly was a prison hulk?
Hulks were first used after the American War of Independence in order to solve the issue of ever increasing prisoner numbers. Prior to the war, many prisoners were sent out to America, but during the War of Independence and after, this was no longer a viable option for the government. Something else had to be done as there was no space to hold them inside prisons. The idea of using decommissioned and unseaworthy ships, known as prison hulks, was born out of this need. They were officially made legal by the ‘Hulks Act’ of 1776, which was meant to create a temporary fix, although the hulks would be in action for the next 80 years. As the hulks were designed to be organised by contractors, it made them an easier and cheaper option that building new prisons to hold people in. The first few were located close to London in the Thames, but when need increased, more were placed along the Medway Estuary in Kent and near the dockyards at Portsmouth.
One of the first ships to be brought used from August 1776 was the Justitia, which was previously owned by the wealthy East India Company. A total of 632 prisoners were initially placed on the ship, of which 176 had died by March 1778, showing just how insanitary the ships were. Insanitary conditions were an issue throughout the lives of the prison hulks, although there were some attempts at improvement. The cramped conditions were the main cause of disease being rife on board as this meant disease could travel easier. The small amount of rations given also made the men weak and more susceptible to the diseases onboard. Instructions meant that prisoners were given little more than bread, other than some meat and potatoes for their evening meal. These rations were not enough to cover the hard labour of the prisoners, who were expected to work in chain gangs, either at nearby dockyards or along river banks. Any insubordinate behaviour was punished with heavier chains for work or whilst on board. These would have made already backbreaking work a lot harder. Those who were either too old or too infirm for this kind of work instead stayed on the ship to cook, clean and mend clothes and shoes.
The only upside to the work was that there was the opportunity to gain money. Although whilst a prisoner men were only entitled to keep a penny of every shilling they earned, funds were saved so that they could be given money upon their release. In general, this amounted to between £10 and £15, or between £670 and £1,000 in today’s money. The prisoners also had the opportunity to gain some education whilst on board, if they so wished. After their evening meal, there was the option of attending to school work, giving them the chance to learn to read and write. This was certainly more skills than most of the prisoners would have had before entering the hulk. It was hoped that with this education, as well as the backbreaking labour, that criminality could be forced out of those incarcerated.
By the mid-1800s, more prisons were beginning to be built, meaning that the prison hulks were slowly being phased out. More and more criticism was aimed at the hulks. Those who wanted reform for the prison system suggested that the improvements being made in ordinary prisons was not being implemented on the hulks, meaning that the conditions were still as terrible as ever. As husband and wife authors, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, who wrote on the prison system many years later, have indicated that the hulks had become “of all the places of confinement… apparently the most brutalizing, the most demoralizing, and the most horrible”. It is no wonder then that by 1852, there were only two hulks left in use, before the whole hulk system was officially disbanded in 1857.
Despite there being some positives, in terms of offering meals, education and money upon release, there was no denying that the authorities made sure that prison hulks were a nightmarish place to be. Many who served their sentence on them were known to stick together, almost as if to rally around the horrors they had witnessed, mainly caused by the corruption of the system. All in all, it is a good thing they ended, but let them be remembered for the inhumanity, just like much of other parts of the justice system at that time.
If you are a fan of the Wild West and looking for your next book to read, I would seriously recommend To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardner. This book tells the joint story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, the sheriff who shot him dead in a house in Fort Sumner New Mexico one night in 1881. I have always enjoyed tales of the Wild West, but didn’t really know too much about the back story to either Billy the Kid of Pat Garrett. All I really knew was that myth and legend shrouds the backstory to both of these men. This book does help address some of those myths in an even and balanced way, particularly in terms of the biography of Billy the Kid that was written by Pat Garrett himself as it focused on Pat’s motivations behind his writing.
The first few pages of the book are dedicated to other reviews the book has been given. All of these are positive, and at times a little dramatic sounding, so I must admit this gave me some reservations. However, I must admit that not long into the book, I felt I must agree with them. This book really has been one of the best I’ve read this year. The writing style was easy going and action packed, but in a concise way. Whilst this book is a biography, this writing style really did make me feel like I was reading a fiction book, rather than a history book. It certainly meant that the book was very hard to put down. In many ways, it felt as if this book transported the reader right into the middle of the events being described.
I feel I have learnt a lot about what made both men tick, but in a very entertaining and thrilling way. The double narrative could have easily become confusing for the reader, but in fact it was the opposite. It was done in a way that described the outlaw and the lawman not just as individuals, but how their paths crossed at various points along the way. I feel that whether or not the reader knew the outcome of Garrett shooting the Kid, everything does culminate towards that. I had read previously about what happened during the Kid’s death, but had found descriptions of it very confusing. However, I feel the author dealt with what was a confusing event in a very commendable way that made it easy to understand with previous versions I had read. Just taking this example alone does make me applaud the writing style, even though as previously mentioned, it is written well throughout.
The good research and time gone into this topic is evident. Whilst it does have the tone of a fiction book, there are always good references to works by other historians, witnesses who had known Pat and the Kid, and newspapers from the time. By using all of these sources, it does give a well rounded approach to the topic, whilst also giving a wider context to lawless New Mexico, and the Wild West as a whole. I did particularly like the addition of what happened to Pat Garrett after he had killed Billy the Kid. As this book suggests, Garrett hated the fact he was known across America as the one who killed the Kid. By adding these extra facts both before and after Pat knew the Kid, it felt right to respect Pat’s wishes and added to his character. The goes for the exploration of the early life of Billy the Kid. Whilst of course his level of criminality can’t be justified, it goes towards explaining how his life had led him to that point.
The only thing that initially confused me a little was that the first chapter deals with when Pat Garrett first arrested Billy the Kid and others and attempted to take them on a train to meet their justice. This resulted in a shootout and riot with locals who wanted one of the criminals, not Billy the Kid. After reading the rest of the book, the author’s choice to put this in the first chapter makes sense as it places the relationship Garrett and the Kid had straight into the reader’s mind, before the author goes into more detail about the background of both characters.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone, whether they have an interest in the Wild West or not. It’s journalistic writing style is so easy to read and helps what is a difficult topic in places, in terms of the violence used by the criminals it mentions, but also as the life of Billy the Kid has become very sensationalised in the years since his death, easier to digest. There are many books on the Wild West out there and I genuinely feel that this is one of the best there is. As one of the reviews from the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper suggests “A superbly written story, utterly enthralling and unforgettable”. I would definitely reiterate that statement.
Just so you are aware, an updated edition for the tenth anniversary of this book was published in 2020. I am not sure what updates have been introduced in that version as I was reading the original 2010 one, but if you manage to get your hands on a copy, you’ll have to let me know if there are any differences.
This book tells the story of two women trying to bring two smuggler gangs operating in Cornwall to justice; the first the teenage Emily Moon in 1799, the second Phoebe Bellingham in 2019. Both cases have their parallels, but to help solve the 2019 case, Phoebe has to figure out what happened to Emily Moon. Legend says she plunged from the cliff and her ghost still haunts the cliffs next to the pub she and her family once lived in. How true was this and how did it link to the present day case of smuggling? Of course, I won’t give you spoilers, but I hope that gives a bit of flavour to what the premise of the book is, without giving too much away.
I haven’t really read much historical fiction lately, so I must admit I was intrigued by the concept of the book, even if the main reason I chose it was because it reminded me of Poldark. There were a few reservations about it at the beginning, including the idea of having parallel timelines. Whenever I watch TV shows with that concept, I must admit, I do get quite confused with it at times. However, this book manages to keep it simple yet gripping at the same time. It certainly helps that the chapters are fairly short, so you don’t forget what’s happening in the other timeline. This also helped the reader to feel anticipation as to what was coming next, whilst also making it feel fast paced. Another reservation I had was about how much violence would be mentioned. Personally, I can take a bit, but I don’t like anything too gratuitous. I was happily surprised to find that other than at the beginning, there wasn’t much. Most of it was inferred rather than actually described, which I feel suited my tastes well. I will warn you that there are inferences of rape though, so just be careful of that.
After these initial reservations, I relaxed into the story and once I had, I found it really gripping and extremely hard to put down! The easy writing style helped with this enormously, but I also feel like the writer provoked a personal response from the reader. I know I certainly had one and just couldn’t wait to find out the fate of both the main characters and whether the bad guys were brought to justice or not.
For me, the best part was the character of Emily Moon. A girl who has only ever known the coastal village she lives in, struggles to talk and is viewed by her village neighbours as simple. She is far from it. At times, she is a silent observer, but is often helped by her drawing skills and her best friend, Arthur, who is really her childhood sweetheart. All this makes Emily a heroine with a difference, as her steely determination is often looked over by other characters in the book, but is clearly evident to the reader. Emily is a definite contrast with Phoebe, the modern day heroine.
Phoebe, originally from London, moves to Cornwall with her friend, Liv, to help run the pub Emily once lived in. She made the move after she was signed off from her job as a police officer following a particularly harrowing case. After hearing the local legends about Emily, she decides to discover more about her. Phoebe herself is very much affected by what had happened in London, so sees Emily as a way to cope with what has happened and to keep herself occupied. It is this that I feel ties both parallel timelines together. It also leaves the reader finding more about both Emily and Phoebe at the same time.
The ending does come to a satisfying conclusion, for both Emily and Phoebe, although there are a few surprises. To some extent, not all of them are total surprises, they are more logical conclusions. For that reason, the ending is definitely believable and I was very sad to finally come to an end of the book. I feel that’s always a sign of a good book, which this one definitely is! The author herself describes how she wanted to write a cross between Jamaica Inn and Line of Duty. I personally feel she has achieved that. It successfully mixed the gripping nature of Line of Duty with the smuggling and historical setting of Jamaica Inn. If there are any TV producers out there looking for the next thing to adapt, I would totally recommend this story.
This post is the first in a series about the life and death of Mary Queen of Scots. The follow on post about Fotheringhay Castle, where she was executed, can be found here. Another on Francis Walsingham, the spymaster who helped discover the Babington Plot, can be found here.
As a bit of a change from what I normally write on the blog, I thought I would share something that has a local connection to where I live. It has national significance, but all starts with Anthony Babington, a Derbyshire man. I have known of Anthony Babington from a young age for many reasons. First of all, he was a major landowner of my hometown during the late sixteenth century. The other is that he, as well as his association with Mary Queen of Scots, are the subject of one of my favourite childhood books, A Traveller in Time, written by local author, Alison Uttley. It tells the story of a girl who slips in and out of the 1580s, when Anthony was plotting to help the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots to escape. I would definitely recommend reading it. Whilst of course this is a work of fiction, it’s based on the very real Babington Plot, which was named after Babington’s involvement.
Anthony Babington was born in October 1561 in Dethick, Derbyshire, to Henry Babington and his wife, Mary. He was their third child and eldest son. The family were well connected and were wealthy local landowners. Anthony’s grandfather, John, had been High Sheriff of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, who had fought and died for Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. As a boy, Anthony had served as a page in Sheffield to George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife, Bess of Hardwick, jailers of Mary Queen of Scots, who had been in his charge since February 1568. As the Babington family were secret Catholics, Anthony became drawn to Mary, a Catholic herself.
During Anthony’s life, to be Catholic was seen as wrong. With the Protestant Elizabeth I on the throne, Catholicism was seen as something to be suspicious of. Her ministers, especially her spymaster, Walsingham, viewed Catholics as capable of treason. This was proved to be true at times when plots to replace Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots were uncovered, although the majority of Catholics just wished to worship in peace. It was only a matter of time until Babington himself became embroiled in the final one of these plots.
In 1580, Anthony went to London, where he joined a secret society that supported Jesuit missionaries. His involvement with this underground activity meant that following the execution of the clandestine Catholic priest, Edward Campion, he decided to retire back to Derbyshire, before later deciding to go abroad. Anthony’s involvement in secret plots began to deepen whilst he was abroad. Whilst in Paris, he became involved with supporters of Mary Queen of Scots. They were planning on helping her to escape and were offered assistance from Spain if they assassinated Elizabeth I. He was given letters for Mary and returned to England.
In May 1586, a Catholic priest known as John Ballard became part of the plot. By this point, the plan included destroying the entire Protestant government and included many Catholics from across the country. Messages were sent to and from Mary, who was by then being held in Chartley Hall in Staffordshire, by hiding them in the stopper of a beer barrel from Burton on Trent, which is still known for beer making. These messages were coded to try and deter any would-be interceptors. However, the plot was deciphered by codebreaker, Thomas Phelippes, who worked at Chartley, and a double agent, Gilbert Gifford, who was part of Babington’s circle, but also one of Walsingham’s spies. With the discovery, John Ballard was arrested on 4 August 1568 and he probably betrayed his co-conspirators under torture.
In the meantime, Babington had applied for a new passport to travel abroad, claiming he needed it so he could spy on Catholic refugees, but really he needed to help organise help for the plot. When the passport was delayed, he offered to report a conspiracy to Walsingham if it helped speed up the passport process. There was no response to this request. Instead, Babington supposedly found out he was being investigated after seeing a note about himself whilst in the company of one of Walsingham’s servants. He fled to St John’s Wood, an area of woodland outside of London at the time, but is now close to Regent’s Park. The authorities found him at the end of August just nine miles away in Harrow, where he was being hidden by a Catholic convert.
Babington, Ballard and five others were given a trial that lasted two days over the 13 and 14 of September. Babington pleaded guilty but placed all the blame for the plot on Ballard. This did him little good as the only logical outcome for the charge of treason was to be sentenced to death. This sentence was passed and the guilty parties were due to be hung, drawn and quartered. Despite knowing his fate, on the 19 of September, the day before the scheduled execution, Babington wrote a desperate letter to Elizabeth I, pleading for mercy and offering £1,000, around £171,600 in today’s money, for a pardon. This wasn’t granted and the execution went ahead.
The execution was held at what is modern day Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which is a public square next to Lincoln’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court where barristers belong to. At the time of the execution of the conspirators, it was agricultural fields outside of London. This site was chosen as it was one of the places the conspirators gathered for secret meetings. A crowd numbering in the thousands watched the horrific execution on a scaffold that was built purposefully tall so that the crowd could see it easily. Ballard was the first of the seven to be executed, followed by Babington. Another seven conspirators were due to be executed at the same place the following day. Out of these fourteen men, the majority of them were minor courtiers, who, like Babington, were wealthy and well connected.
Whilst that may have been the end of the story as far as Babington was concerned, it was not the end of the far reaching consequences of the plot. Of the letters that were used as evidence for the plot, many had been written by Mary Queen of Scots, who encouraged the conspirators. Whilst Elizabeth had previously saved Mary from execution for the previous Ridolfi plot, it was harder to deny her involvement when there were letters between Mary and the conspirators, which suggested she knew of the plan to assassinate Elizabeth. Whatever evidence there was, Elizabeth was reluctant to execute another sovereign and hesitated issuing a death warrant. A warrant was drawn up in December of 1586, but Elizabeth refused to sign until 1 February 1587, after fearing further threats. Discussions were held by between representatives of Elizabeth and those in charge of Mary, who was being held at Fotheringhay Castle. There wasn’t one and so Mary was finally executed a week after the warrant had been signed.
I hope this post has offered a good insight into how local history can often relate to national history but also raise awareness of the importance that Anthony Babington had on sealing the fate of Mary Queen of Scots. Look out for a guest post written by Laura Adkins on Fotheringhay Castle. It should be coming soon and links in with this post.
Jo Romero has been obsessed with history for as long as she can remember and gained her History degree at the University of Hull. Her articles have been published in online magazines The Historians and The C Word and she runs the blog Love British History.
Reading, King Street: September 1639. The town constables skidded to a stop outside The George hotel to shrieks of murder. Their eyes were met with a grisly scene. Moaning townsmen clutching their heads lay scattered across cobblestones, deep red blood oozing from their scalps and dripping down past their ears and onto their shoulders.
Reading in Berkshire was a small, prosperous town that had become famous for its Medieval abbey, founded by Henry I in 1121. Parliaments were held within its pale, cold walls and Edward IV chose it as the place to formally introduce his new bride, Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. Trades sprang up to cater for travellers who came to worship and do business with the abbey – the royalty, nobles and pilgrims. But since Henry VIII’s dissolution, Reading concentrated on its market days and clothing industry with clothiers and shoemakers working in the town.
Seventeenth-century Reading was the smell of bonfires, the barking of dogs and the furtive, eager glances of pick-pockets and cut-purses loitering in the busy market square. The malty scent of alehouses and taverns and the sharp, musty tang of leather workshops. The earthy, metallic sting of fresh meat wafted out from Butcher’s Row and the bells clanged out from church towers. Alehouses, taverns and inns were always in demand, tucked awkwardly into timber-framed streets, signs swinging above their doors with names like The Katherine Wheele, The Bear and The Sun.
Samuel Pepys visited Reading in the summer of 1668 and wrote that the town “is a very great one, I think bigger than Salsbury: a river runs through it, in seven branches, and unite in one, in one part of the town, and runs into the Thames half-a-mile off one odd sign of the Broad Face.”(1) The Broad Face was another pub on the High Street almost opposite The George.
All important town business – debts, rents and petty crime – was written down in the Corporation Diary. They were mostly concerned with mundane minutes of council meetings, the execution of wills and enforcing trade regulations, but on 21st September 1639, we can almost detect the breathless excitement of the minute-taker, as they recorded the events at the inn:
“Then complaynt was made that murder was likely to be commytted in The George backside, for there was fyghting; whereupon the Constables were presently called, and at their comynge to keep the peace they found a number of people, amongest whiche some had their heades broken and cutt with swordes and staves, and some of the fighters and quarrellers gone.” They add, with a trace of both bewilderment and derision: “And beinge brought before the Maiour, upon examynacion, it apeared the quarrell arose about a dogge.” (2)
At first glance, it seems far too serious a fight to have been over a dog. Could it have been that some drunken haggling over the sale of a dog spiralled out of control? Or perhaps the dog had been stolen and was recognised by the original owner leading to a confrontation?
A detail in the town’s diary for January 1641 might give us a clue. It records the case of a butcher named Edward Vindge who “caused a tumult in The George gate-house, by settinge and causinge dog-fightinge and other brabbles.” He also struck a man called Humfrey Dewell, and “abused him in wordes”.(3) Edward Vindge isn’t mentioned as being involved in the 1639 attack, but the fact that we have evidence of dog fighting in Reading, in this very spot, suggests that it may have been common and certainly had the potential to disturb the peace. Perhaps one of the two men implicated in 1639 (William Keate and a certain man named Cumber of Tilehurst) were training dogs to fight, or it was a bet placed on a disputed winner?
While many people think of Stuart life as a cosy huddle of timber-framed houses and cobbled streets there was, to us looking back today, a darker side, particularly in their choice of entertainment. Dog fights and bear baiting were famously enjoyed by Elizabeth I and continued into the reigns of the Stuarts. In 1666 Samuel Pepys travelled to Southwark to watch a bull baiting, “and saw some good sport of the bull’s tossing of the dogs.”(4) A dog fight in 1629 in Greenwich was one of the events blamed for the onset of Queen Henrietta Maria’s early labour after they did “snatch at her and pull her by the gown.” (5)
Baiting a live bull with dogs before it was slaughtered by a butcher wasn’t just for entertainment – the Stuarts also believed that it made the meat more tender, perhaps explaining the temperament of butcher Edward Vindge’s dogs at The George in 1641. A writer who in 1660 spoke out to discourage these baiting sports proclaimed that although ‘the baiting of the bear, and cockfights, are no meet recreations,’ he drew attention to this practice, accepting that ‘the baiting of the bull has its use.’(6)
The Stuart townspeople of Reading might not have blinked an eye at a dog fight or a bull being baited outside the butcher’s shop, but the loud clatter of swords clashing at the local inn must have been a subject of local gossip.
The men who were injured – five men are recorded as having been at the scene, but it’s possible there were others – lived to tell the tale. Two men blamed for inflicting injuries fled the scene, but Thomas Soundey is recorded as suffering cuts to his head, and Morrice Nashe, for whom “blood was seene run about his eares.” The Constables called the surgeon, who confirmed the men were in “no danger of death.”(2)
For the town’s mayor, Richard Burren, it was business as usual. First mentioned in the diary in 1618 as a Constable of the town, he was a clothier by trade and sworn in as Mayor in October 1638. Unusual for Reading mayors, who tended to be re-elected more than once, he served just one year. This incident would have come during his last serving month. He would stay on in a different role as a town justice and overseer of St Laurence’s parish. He dutifully brought in the people involved, questioned the ones that hadn’t run away and concluded the cause.
It’s true that daily Stuart life was probably not as inherently violent as most TV dramas and films make it out to be, but this case shows that there were occasional hot-tempered outbursts involving weapons and risk to life. The exact details of the cause of the fight are missing from the records, and so we can only speculate as to the real trigger. This scrawled entry in the town’s diary does give us a glimpse into how crime was dealt with in Stuart towns and how important the clothing industry still was to Reading, with a wealthy clothier able to advance to various positions within town administration, including Mayor. Today, as shoppers grab coffee and chat with friends they would have no idea that on this spot blood was violently spilled on the cobblestones of The George on that late September day in 1639.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 16 June 1668.
The Reading Records, The Diary of the Corporation, entry for 21 September 1639. Ed. JM Guilding. Vol 3. p464. 1892.
The Reading Records, The Diary of the Corporation, entry for 12 January 1641. Ed. JM Guilding, Vol 4. p37. 1892.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 14 August 1666.
Katie Whitaker, A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, 2010, Google Books.
The Harleian Miscellany, vol 7. The Opinion of Mr Perkins, and Mr Bolton, and Others Concerning The Sport of Cock-Fighting, 1660. Ed. by R Dutton, 1810. Accessed via Google Books.
Westminster Abbey has had a long history of royal ceremony and patronage, ever since its rebuilding between 1042 and 1052 by Edward the Confessor. The Westminster Abbey that we know of today was again rebuilt by Henry III in the 13th Century, and it was this rebuilding that made it a place of safety for the crown jewels. A vaulted chamber known as the Pyx Chamber was used to house the royal treasures, including the crown jewels, alongside others belonging to the monks who called the abbey home. This chamber was considered the best place to house the treasury as it was a medieval equivalent of a high security bank vault. With the monks in charge of these precious items, along with many keys to the strong vault doors, it’s easy to see why this site was chosen.
However, in 1303, the unthinkable happened; the treasury was robbed and in a most miraculous and somewhat laughable way. The man responsible was Richard Podlicote or Pudlicote. He was a merchant who had previously been working in Flanders before returning to England. He clearly had motive as he had previously been arrested and forced to pay £14 (nearly £10,000 in today’s money) towards King Edward I’s debts in Bruges. Whilst this may sound harsh to us, it was a common right of medieval kings to force Englishmen living abroad to help pay debts.
In his confession, Pudlicote revealed how he had managed to do the robbery. It took him 98 days (roughly 3 months), between Christmas and just after Easter, to dig a tunnel under the abbey grounds. He said he knew where he was going because he had done a smaller scale robbery before, taking silver dishes and drinking vessels. After getting through to the chamber, he spent a whole day deciding what he wanted to take. The items were more than he could carry and so, on his way out under the cover of darkness, he left some of it under a nearby bush, which he came back for the following night.
With the passage of time, we’re not entirely sure just how many things Pudlicote stole, but we do know some of the higher status items he did and did not steal. The crown jewels themselves were left alone, probably because they were too high profile. One item which was possibly stolen as it was reported missing and was never seen again is a crown taken from the dead body of the Welsh Prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd after his death at the Battle of Builth in 1282.[7 After being taken by the English, claims began to circulate that this crown had once belonged to King Arthur, who the Welsh royals claimed as their ancestor.
Amazingly, the crime wasn’t discovered until early June as on the 6th, Edward I ordered an investigation into the robbery. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been discovered for a lot longer if it hadn’t had been for the pawnshops and brothels the treasures ended up in. The pawnshops in their desperation to be rid of the stolen goods, offered them to nobles and others of high standing. These men were among those who knew about what these goods were and where they had come from. The truth of what had happened in Westminster Abbey began to unravel and it led to Pudlicot, who was found with between £2,000-£2,200 (around £1.5 million pounds in today’s money) worth of stolen goods on him.
Despite being a previous offender, and how long it took him to dig, as well as being in or around the scene of the crime, Pudlicote claimed the monks were not involved and didn’t know of his endeavours. I’m not sure that really adds up, especially as 48 monks were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London for a brief stay, but they were never formally punished, instead they were released on Edward I’s orders. It seems to be a large coincidence, so there must have been some insider help. Whatever the truth, Pudlicote was sentenced to death in November 1303.
The theft changed how the crown jewels were kept, something which can be seen right up until the present day. The remaining treasure was briefly placed in the Tower of London whilst the Pyx Chamber was reinforced. In the later 1300s, a new and more permanent home was built in the Tower of London specifically built to house the jewels. Whilst that building is not the building currently used for that purpose, as that has long been lost, it started the tradition of the Tower being the residence of the crown jewels.
The debts of Edward I, which were a major motive for the crime, were enormous. On his death in 1307, they amounted to £200,000, nearly £142 million in today’s money. The amount is so phenomenal amount it’s virtually unthinkable. Considering this, it’s no doubt that the majority of these debts were still unpaid by the time of Edward II, the son of Edward I, 20 years after.
After catching the last part of the film Young Guns recently, I suddenly realised I didn’t know the end of Billy the Kid’s life. Being English, I assumed that this was because we have our own outlaws, rather than the cowboys of the American West. However, after beginning to do a little research, some parallels with English outlaws emerged. Most notably that there has been a lot fictionalisation surrounding Billy’s life. This was easy to do as there are little established facts and most of the knowledge known about him has been taken from rumours and speculation found in newspapers and fictionalised accounts at the time. Yet one thing stood out to me as utterly fascinating: in 1950, a man known as Brushy Bill Roberts applied for a pardon for Billy the Kid. Who was this Brushy Bill Roberts, and why was he asking for a pardon for Billy the Kid, real name Henry McCarty, nearly 70 years after the death of the outlaw?
Brushy Bill Roberts, real name William Henry Roberts, first came to the attention of a paralegal, William V. Morrison, in 1948 whilst he was helping to settle an estate. He had heard rumours that Roberts knew the true fate of Billy the Kid and wanted to investigate more. Little did he know exactly what he’d find. After some interviews, Roberts admitted he was Billy the Kid and that he was sick of hiding his identity. Morrison was initially unsure as to the truth of the claims, but quickly began to believe them, particularly as some of the activities of Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War in which he was involved, were too in depth not to be true. Despite these findings, when the story was released to the press, experts on the American outlaw were utterly unconvinced and instead they continued to believe that it was Billy the Kid who had been shot by Pat Garrett in the early hours of 14 July 1881.
There are many loopholes in the story of Billy the Kid’s death, therefore leaving an opportunity not just for Roberts, but a man name John Miller, who died in 1937, to claim to be the outlaw who died young. Garrett had shot a man who had been speaking Spanish in a darkened room of the ranch house of Pete Maxwell, a friend of Billy the Kid. The two deputies who were waiting outside the house, John W. Poe and Thomas McKinney, hadn’t met the outlaw before, so they didn’t know what he looked like. After the incident, Poe is noted to not believe the man who had been shot dead was Billy, insisting that it was the wrong man. This, alongside rumours spread by locals who lived near the ranch, meant some had begun to believe that it was someone else who had been killed that day.
The day after the shooting, a Coroner’s inquest ruled that the body was that of Billy the Kid and that Garrett had shot him as a justifiable homicide. The body was buried that same day and was fully intact, despite later claims by various people to have kept body parts as relics. It was buried alongside Billy’s mother but the graves have since has flooding issues, so no one knows if the remains are still there. A more recent stone marker has been placed in the graveyard but it’s uncertain whether it lies anywhere near the original grave location. This has meant that any calls for DNA evidence to be analysed has been impossible.
I have purposefully not gone into the full ins and outs of the case for Brushy Bill Roberts either being or not being Billy the Kid, in the hopes that you will investigate it and make up your own mind. I would suggest that as it’s a fascinating topic. However, for me, there is one strange coincidence in the timing of Roberts coming forward as Billy the Kid. Roberts and his wife decided to retire to Texas after moving around between many different southern states because of the low cost of living there. Roberts was on a small state pension and this had to be supplemented by his elderly wife taking on laundry to bring in a relatively small income. He also died of a heart attack in December 1950 after his attempt of a pardon was unsuccessful.
There is no way to definitively prove or disprove Roberts claims of being the infamous outlaw, but there is no denying that the case has helped perpetuate the outlaw in American history. This started within a year of the Kid’s supposed death after Pat Garrett published a biography of his victim. However, the book was more like a traditional dime novel, which often featured cowboy figures. It was based on entertaining fiction rather than hard facts. Hico in Texas, where Roberts retired to, openly admits his claims were true and has a Billy the Kid Museum to explain this. Whatever your own believes on the matter, it’s true that the outlaw does have continuing appeal and fascination. In terms of Brushy Bill, as has been said, if he wasn’t Billy the Kid, then who was he and how did he know so much about the outlaw and the Lincoln County War? It is possible that even if he wasn’t Billy, Roberts would have known him well and had himself participated in the Lincoln County War.
Little did I know whilst watching the final series of Poldark last year, that the new character, Ned Despard, an old friend of Ross Poldark, who was imprisoned for treason, was actually based on a real person of the same name. It was only after reading a book on Regency era spy networks after the series had finished that I discovered there really was a Colonel Edward Despard who was executed for planning a rebellion against the King and State. The story told in Poldark was not too dissimilar to the reality. He was indeed a rebel with a black wife called Catherine, just as portrayed in the period drama.
Edward Marcus Despard had indeed been imprisoned and sentenced to be executed for attempting to incite a rebellion in London, that was meant to happen alongside rebellion in Ireland and invasion from the French. Before all this though, he had served in Nelson’s fleet in the Spanish Main, including a successful raid at Black River along the Mosquito Coast of Honduras. In reward for his service, he was offered a government position as Superintendent of Honduras, but was forced to return to London because of accusations of complaints from landowners. Following his return to London with his wife, Catherine, he was placed in prison, without charges brought against him, for 2 years between 1790 and 1792. The government finally did admit to the accusations being made up, but never offered recompense and instead decided to end the post of Superintendent of Honduras.
He was purposefully moved between prisons during this time, hoping to raise as little suspicion about the case as possible. The most notable prison he spent the last part of his sentence in was Coldbath Fields in Clerkenwell. It was a relatively new prison by the time Despard was moved there but had built up a reputation as England’s version of the Bastille. Despite this, he was still allowed to see his wife, Catherine. Catherine herself was an interesting woman and played a large role in the story of her husband’s many imprisonments. She was the daughter of a free black woman, who lived near Kingston in Jamaica. I find that during this period where the government purposefully tried to ruin the reputation of Despard, his marriage to a woman of black origin was never used as ammunition against him.
Catherine openly discussed the poor conditions, especially the lack of warmth, light and food given to her husband. The main support she lobbied was in the MP, Francis Burdett. Francis Burdett spoke of these terrible conditions in Parliament, asking for an inquiry to be made into the treatment of prisoners there. The speech that he made on the subject included the poor conditions other state prisoners, starvation of a 14-year-old girl, enforced solitary confinement without reason, and the theft of money belonging to prisoners. These explosive revelations were published by Burdett in a pamphlet called An Impartial Statement of the Inhuman Cruelties Discovered in the Coldbath Fields Prison, ensuring wider public knowledge of the situation inside the prison. The publication of this pamphlet and the voices of both Burdett and Catherine allowed enough public support to cause the prison to improve the lot of Despard. He was moved to a larger cell with better conditions, including a fire.
During his unlawful imprisonment, Despard became radicalised after reading the Rights of Man by Thomas Paine. It’s easy to see why when a government that you fought for and served for many years suddenly imprisons you on false pretences. Upon his release, he was approached by some radicals who understood the emotions this situation would have instilled in him. He became involved in a secret society that wanted to start an uprising in London. The plan they devised including taking the Bank of England, the Tower of London, and armouries, before declaring war on the State and murdering the King. The government were kept well informed of plans as they had a spies called Moody and Thomas Windsor in place to gather information, especially as this insurrection was to be a sign for the rest of the country, Ireland and France to also take up arms. A plot was uncovered and Despard was the leader of it.
On the 16th of November 1802, following a tip off about a meeting of the rebels, Despard and nearly 40 other conspirators were arrest for treason. Most of the people involved were labourers and soldiers, some of them Irish, who had mainly fallen on hard times. The trail began in January 1803, and all pleaded not guilty. However, most of the evidence used against them, especially that which implicated Despard, was given by the informers, which made followers of the trial suspicious of another government stitch up. The main surprise of the trial was when Lord Horatio Nelson was called as a character witness from Despard’s time in his fleet.
Despite the interventions by Nelson, Burdett and Catherine, Despard was still found guilty. The decision for this is clear in the Attorney General’s speech surrounding the suspicion Despard was held in. The Attorney commented that it was odd that a man of “birth, education, genteel manners, and of a rank in the army” would “associate with the lowest of mankind”, unless it was to cause trouble. At the end of the trial, he was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. Pleas of mercy were asked for by the jury, meaning the sentence was lessened to death by hanging, then beheading. His exact death speech was replicated in his final scenes in Poldark:
“His Majesty’s Ministers know as well as I do that I am not guilty, yet they avail themselves of a legal pretext to destroy a man, because he has been a friend to truth, to liberty, to justice… because he has been a friend to the poor and oppressed. But citizens, I hope and trust, notwithstanding my fate, and the fate of those who no doubt will follow me soon, that the principles of freedom, of humanity, and of justice, will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny, and delusion”
After his execution, Catherine successfully won a fight against the Lord Mayor of London, over where her husband should be buried. She argued that because of hereditary rights, Despard should be buried in St Pauls. She was also given a pension by Francis Burdett that was due to her until she also died. Perhaps the best legacy left by the married pair was that their situation raised the issue of poor conditions inside prisons at that time. Thanks to Catherine’s political action with Burdett, state prisoners following Despard were given larger and more comfortable cells during their imprisonment. Madame Tussaud ‘s famous waxworks in London showcased an effigy of Ned Despard, using him as one of the first British criminals to be featured in her ‘Adjoining Room’, now known as the Chamber of Horrors. This, alongside Catherine Despard’s willingness to fight for her husband, meant that his name would live long after he did.
 Wilkes, S., Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels & Revolutionaries (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2015), p. 62.
As someone who loves pirates but doesn’t drink rum (unless it’s Malibu) and instead drinks a lot of tea, I feel I’d have got on well with Captain Bartholomew Roberts. Despite his rather strict rules on gambling, fornication and drinking, his crew were staunchly loyal to him until the bitter end. These rules certainly didn’t live up to the general image we have of drunken pirates whoring and gambling. Yet, there was something in this system designed by Roberts that must have worked, for he was the most successful pirate in terms of ships captured. During his short reign on the seas of the Atlantic, between the Americas and West Africa, he captured around 400 ships. In terms of ships captured, this made him the most successful pirate of the Golden Age of Piracy. He was also known for having a mini fleet of three ships: his flagship, Royal Fortune and two others named Ranger and Little Ranger. With these strings to his bow,
During the time Roberts spent pillaging the coast of West Africa in the few years leading up to 1722, the area was seeing increased activity in slavery, as this was when many of the slavery posts were being established. The link to slavery was a constant in Roberts’ career upon the sea. He reluctantly turned pirate after the slave ship he had previously been on, had been captured by the crew of Howell Davis. In this situation it would have been turn pirate or die. No doubt he would have learnt how t o be a true pirate during those early days on board, especially as the Davis was a fellow Welshman. Roberts was born around 1682 as John Roberts but changed his name to Bartholomew at the time he became pirate. John was obviously not a good enough pirate name.
He was a quick learner and within weeks of his capture, Davis was ambushed on the Portuguese island of Principe after a trap set up to lure him to the governor. Roberts was voted in by the crew who must have seen potential in this newbie of a pirate. It was this basic form of democracy that drew sailors to the pirate flag around this time, as they would be allowed to vote in their captains and on major decisions on board. This was certainly something they were not entitled to on Royal Navy ships or back home on land. The decision-making process was also helped by the fact pirates were viewed as men who “could do anything as long as he remained at liberty”. It is claimed that when Roberts accepted his role as captain, he said “since he dipped his hands in the muddy water, and must be a pirate, it was better being a commander than a common man”.
As a captain, Bartholomew was mostly known for the way he dressed on board. His usual outfit consisted of a damask waistcoat, red feather in his hat and a gold chain with diamond crucifix around his neck. He was also known for not drinking rum. Instead his tipple of choice was tea. It would have been easy to get hold of as many of the merchant ships at that time would have carried it. Unusually the crew often would “vote him small parcels of plate and china” if any were found on board captured ships. The somewhat sophisticated notion of drinking tea from china cups was certainly not replicated on many, if any, other pirate ships.
The main legacy he left was his own version of the pirate code, which he created in 1720. His version was one of many such lists of rules that pirates had to abide by. However, each one followed roughly the same guidelines of including voting on board, equal share of booty and compensation for injuries. Robert’s version of the pirate code was certainly quite different in places.
Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity makes it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment.
Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes because they were on these occasions allowed a shift of clothes: but if they defrauded the company to the value of a dollar in plate, jewels or money, marooning was their punishment. If the robbery was only betwixt one another, they contented themselves with slitting the ears and nose of him that was guilty, and set him ashore, not in an uninhabited place, but somewhere, where he was sure to encounter hardships.
No person to game at cards or dice for money.
The lights and candles to be put out at eight o’clock at night: if any of the crew, after that hour still remained inclined to drinking, they were to do it on the open deck.
To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlasses clean and fit for service.
No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death.
To desert the ship or their quarters in battle, was punished with death or marooning.
No striking one another on board, but every man’s quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword or pistol.
No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared one thousand pounds. If in order to this, any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have eight hundred dollars, out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionally.
The captain and quartermaster to receive two shares of a prize: the master, boatswain, and gunner, one share and a half and other officers one and a quarter.
The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour.
The most unique is the ban of gambling on board, most other pirates wished to limit it but not ban it altogether. As pirates were mainly known for their lack of religious practice, it is also a rare example of the observance of the Sabbath. It’s claimed that Roberts even read the bible out to the crew on Sundays. What is known of this version of the pirate code is taken from later hearsay as it is believed the crew threw it overboard when they were captured. Despite some of these rules sounding harsh, it was clear discipline on board was a priority to Roberts, and is probably the reason why he was known for being a good leader of his men. However, he was known to only use harsh punishments as a last resort, even when it came to the treatment of prisoners.
As with most pirates, the days were numbered for Captain Bartholomew Roberts and his crew. In 1722 Captain Ogle of the Swallow was out searching Captain Roberts in the Cape Lopez along the coast of Gabon. Ogle’s first tentative steps towards this was to lure out the Ranger from its hiding place before focusing on the Royal Fortune. Despite the imminent threat of danger, Roberts refused to fight until he had finished his breakfast, especially as most of his crew had spent the previous night drinking in celebration of capturing a ship. This lack of action would seal the fate of Roberts and his crew. No shot was fired in enough time at the Swallow, giving Ogle’s crew the opportunity to fire with all their might at Roberts. It worked and killed Roberts, making his men surrender instantly out of a mixture of loyalty and fear. They still somehow managed to find time to wrap their dead captain up in a sail and throw his body overboard. As Peter Earle indicates, this final battle was a bit of a humiliation to the memory of the most successful pirate, as it happened “without a single royal sailor being killed”. The majority of men in Roberts’ crew captured that day were in their 20s, with the oldest being 45.
Following the passing of the Act for the More Effectual Suppression of Piracy in 1700, Admiralty courts could be held abroad, rather than sending pirates to London for trial. This meant that the hundreds of Roberts men captured were imprisoned at Cape Coast Castle, now in modern day Ghana. 52 of them were found guilty and were hung outside the castle gates along the waterside to prove as a warning to other sailors. 74 more were acquitted, 2 sentences were respited, 20 sentenced to hard labour in mines owned by the Royal Africa Company, 17 sent back to London for another trial and 32 died before the original trial. This number doesn’t include the 77 slaves found on board who were sent back into slavery. Captain Ogle himself hugely benefitted from his booty of pirates. He was the only person to be knighted specifically for fighting pirates.
The trial was one of the largest ever pirates trials and marked the end of the Golden Age of Piracy in the Atlantic. As Roberts’ crew had successfully “nearly brought Antillean commerce to a standstill” by focusing on these newly established slavery ports, an example had to be made. It certainly made a big enough one to end, or at least mark the beginning of the end, of what we see as the Pirates of the Caribbean. It was a “devastating blow to the pirate community as a whole” and showed how willing the authorities were to hand humiliate and punish those caught for piracy. The last words on the crew’s loyalty to Roberts and sense of adventure attributed to the life of a pirate is probably best summed up in the final words of Thomas Sutton, one of the crew members, when discussing heaven with a follow prisoner: “Give me hell, it’s a merrier place: I’ll give Roberts a salute of 13 guns at entrance”.
 Kuhn, G., Life Under the Jolly Roger: Reflections on Golden Age of Piracy (Oakland, California: PM Press, 2010), p. 21
 Rendell, M., Pirates and Privateers in the 18th Century (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018), p. 127.
 Bowling, T., A Brief History of Pirates and Buccaneers (London: Robinson, 2010), p. 79; D. Cordingly, intro to A. Konstam, The History of Pirates (1999) cited in Kuhn, G., Life Under the Jolly Roger, p. 30.
 Bowling, T., Pirates and Privateers (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2008), p. 108.
 Captain Johnson, General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates cited in Kuhn, G., Life Under the Jolly Roger, p. 34.
 Rendell, M., Pirates and Privateers in the 18th Century, p. 125.
 Captain Johnson, General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates cited in Kuhn, G., Life Under the Jolly Roger, p. 32.