The Scene In Wessex: The 17th Century In Literature And Drama View over southwest
Dorset from Pilsdon Pen, its highest point.
View over southwest Dorset from Pilsdon Pen, its highest point.
The 17th Century was a time of major change in English society and government. It began with the decline in health of a childless queen and the plans for a successor, the Scots Protestant son of the beheaded former rival to the childless queen. This new monarch's accession as king of England was followed by an attempt to blow up both King and Parliament, this “Gunpowder Plot” being followed by anti-Catholic reprisals. Several subsequent decades of growing rivalry between King and Parliament, with the latter closed down by the king for up to a decade at a time, led to a bloody civil war after the king entered Parliament with soldiers to arrest MPs. The war ended with the king beheaded, and England a Puritan republic. This led in turn to an attempt at restoration of the kingship, which only succeeded after another decade of strict Puritan rule, but on the king's death was followed by a final civil war battle over a coup d'etat attempt by the deceased king's favourite illegitimate son. Events were finally settled by the so-called “Glorious Revolution,” the pact between Parliament and monarchy which saw the pro-Catholic successor king deposed by his son-in-law in command of imported Protestant forces, and a 'constitutional monarchy' created. The century ended with a new queen about to take the throne, the last of her dynasty to reign.... Thus, there has been plenty of material to inspire novelists and dramatists, and as usual, many of the events played out in Wessex.
IN the first few years of the new century, England's long-reigning queen, Elizabeth, died childless, leaving the Privy Council little choice but to turn to the nearest adult male relative, despite Elizabeth having ordered his mother Mary Queen Of Scots beheaded in 1587. The reign of James I (1603-25) was also the time of Shakespeare (who was sponsored by the Earl of Southampton and may have premiered his play As You Like It at Wilton House outside Salisbury in 1603), and contemporaries like Sir Philip Sidney, also often visitors to Wilton.
For those interested in works published during the era itself, perhaps the most ambitious work was Poly-Olbion [sic], a massive county-by-county multi-book guide by the poet and dramatist Michael Drayton (1563-1631). Published 1613-22 with map-illustrations, this tried to versify the mythic topography of the entire kingdom (“... When down from Sarum's Plains / Clear Avon coming in, her sister Stour doth call, / And at New-forest's foot into the sea do fall.”). At the same time, it is said, it tried to "provide a legendary basis for the Stuart claim to the English throne," for royal favour was essential in those times. James had Elizabeth's favourite Renaissance man, the explorer, poet and Dorset MP Sir Walter Raleigh (who had built Sherborne New Castle in the 1590s), locked up in the Tower (where he wrote a 1611 bestselling History Of The World) and finally executed in 1618 for attacking Spanish possessions during his last Caribbean voyage.
Raised in Scotland as a Calvinist Protestant, James himself had written a book denouncing the “demonology” of witches, and in 1604 his religious concerns led him to sponsor a new translation of the Bible [pictured], completed in 1611 and known as the KJ Version or Authorized Version, which on its 400th anniversary this year is receiving wide media coverage as a literary creation, one of modern England's cultural foundations (right down to now-familiar figures of speech). This was sponsored by James to help unite England in orthodoxy of worship, though some historians have suggested it helped start the subsequent Civil War by failing to please the more extreme Puritan fringe and anti-Catholic elements, who preferred their own older versions.
Religious intolerance by the Church had been a growing concern to the early Puritans who were then a minority, and larger-scale emigration to the new American colonies Raleigh had helped establish began around this time. These colonies were the commercial basis of English sea power. In terms of later works like novels (the novel did not exist in the early 17C), one distinct theme in boys-adventure stories is England's developing naval power in this era. The Silk Admiral: A Tale of Old Melcombe 1585-1627 (1968), by A. J[ackson] Brown MBE, is a fact-based reconstruction (complete with appendices) set in the Weymouth area, about John Browne, a real-life silk merchant who became a rear-admiral knighted by Elizabeth I. The Treasure Of Golden Cap: A Romance Of West Dorset (1922; repr 1982), by "Bennet Copplestone" (Frederick Harcourt Kitchin, 1867-1932), has flashback scenes within a contemporary tale, dealing with West Dorset in the James I - Charles I transitional period of the 1620s. (Nield's Guide To The Best Historical Novels: “The background is quite historical.”)
The reign of Charles I (1625-49) was initially meant to be one of greater toleration, though he soon found himself married off to a Catholic princess who would prove less tolerant. Charles's original idea was to have a civilised court by European standards, and some church-based literature flourished, as did the 'Cavalier' school of poetry. Emma Marshall's 1889 Under Salisbury Spire In The Days Of George Herbert is built around the 1613-33 career of the Welsh poet and orator who became an MP and priest serving 3 years in a parish on the outskirts of Salisbury before dying of TB; his posthumously published poetry volume The Temple was influential in its time, some poems becoming standard hymns. Among the developing school of “Cavalier Poets,” a local example was John Clavel [1603-42] the Highwayman Poet, who was from a Dorset family. Clavel Tower on the Purbeck coastwould be the best known memorial of the family name in posterity would be , a scenic clifftop folly built later on by the family on its clifftop estate, which became a favourite of Thomas Hardy. In 1627 Clavel published a verse account of his life while awaiting execution for robbery, before being pardoned by Charles I due to his family connections, with the royal command he publish his poem as a recantation. As well as the resulting A Recantation of an Ill Led Life [partly online here], he wrote a play, The Soddered Citizen.
Civil War And Commonwealth Period, 1642-60
55 Days is a 2012 play by veteran political dramatist Howard Brenton, set in the period after the capture of Charles I by Cromwell's forces, when he was held in various castles including Carisbrooke on Wight. The drama focuses on the final 55 days of his life, and follows the chain of events and reasoning that led to Charles's execution, using actual speeches where possible. Its London premiere starred Mark Gatiss [pictured] as the doomed king.
While academic texts usually disdain the 1651 episode as romanticism, and slight it accordingly,
Lady Antonia Fraser's 1979 King Charles II is a notable recent example (in paperback)
of general biography of the king which incorporates the escape. There is also Charles The
Second, King Of England, Scotland And Ireland (1989), by Prof Ronald Hutton of Bristol U.
The latest biography of Charles is Jenny Uglow's A Gambling Man: Charles II And The Restoration,
2009. In a sense there is no escaping the story, the primary example of this phenomena, yet it
is perhaps fortunate it has come down to us in this fashion, for like many a real-life adventure,
the twists and turns of the story would be too incredible for fiction or drama unsupported. As
Antonia Fraser says, the true story is as exciting as any fictional version.
For those wanting to read works written in the actual Restoration Era, there are a number, the arts flourishing after the censorship and repression of the Puritan Commonwealth of 1649-60. Right at the outset of the era came works celebrating the Restoration, mainly by portraying Charles's 1651 escape as described above, cf the narrative paintings of Isaac Fuller. Another Fuller, the Revd Thomas Fuller (1608-61), Rector of Broadwindsor [one of Charles's 1651 stops] in west Dorset, had been one of the monarchy's allies in the Church, acting as chaplain and tutor to Charles's infant daughter Henrietta during the war, and was classed as one of "the great cavalier parsons." At Broadwindsor, he became a prolific author, best-known for his bulky History Of The Worthies Of England, a county-by-county series of profiles of men like Sir Walter Raleigh. He died in 1661, and Fuller's Worthies, as it came to be called, was published posthumously. (The memorial stone at Lee Lane, scene of the "Miraculous Divergence" i.e lucky escape of 1651, quotes him.) His last work was “A Panegyrick To His Majesty On His Happy Return” celebrating the Restoration, which some historians suspect he may actually have helped arrange as an influential churchman.
All the arts boomed, with new genres appearing. The theatres re-opened, dominated by a new popular genre of bawdy satire, not possible during the Puritan hegemony, being named simply after the era itself - the “Restoration Comedy.” Charles II's most famous mistress, who had begun as an orange seller, was a stage actress, Nell Gwynn.
For a frank behind-the-scenes picture of the 1660s, we are indebted to Charles's Secretary of The Navy, Samuel Pepys, who kept a secret diary in shorthand code, which describes events like the Plague and Great Fire in London in 1665-6, and has since been a goldmine for novelists as well as historians. A key event of this time remembered locally was the visit to Dorset of Charles with the favourite among his illegitimate sons, James Scott Duke of Monmouth, to escape the plague.
This was the visit where a famous incident occurred. Charles stopped at the smithy at Godmanstone and commissioned it on the spot as an inn so he could have a drink, leading to it becoming for centuries [1665-2005] the smallest wayside inn in England, with a signboard telling the legendary story. (See our "Sites of Interest" page for details.) He also visited Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper at his family seat of Wimborne St Giles in east Dorset. Cooper was strongly opposed to a Catholic regime, and combined with Charles's parading the young Duke around as an obvious favourite this would lead to the overconfident young Duke's disastrous return visit to Dorset with a pocket army in 1685.
The 6th Earl of Dorset, Charles Sackville, came from a Royalist family with long-standing literary interests. He became one of Charles II's rakish courtiers known for his cynical wit and outré behaviour (charged with public indecency, the murder of a suspected highwayman etc), and a poet (his 1665 song “To All You Ladies Now At Land” is his best known work) whose lampoons won the admiration of Alexander Pope, Congreve, and Matthew Prior. Samuel Johnson included him in his Lives of The Poets. Sackville's lampoon of the king's brother's mistress the Countess of Dorchester as one of England's “most eminent ninnies” would prove impolitic when James succeeded his brother in 1685, but he survived this to become a courtier of William and Mary in 1688. He was a patron of other literary men of the day, including England's first Poet Laureate, John Dryden, after he was sacked from his post by William.
Dryden was probably the most versatile literary figure of the era, writing verse, drama, essays and literary criticism. Dryden's 1681 poem "Absalom And Achitophel" was an example of another new genre: political satire, referred to as “perhaps the first political poem in the English language” [Faber Book Of English History In Verse, 1988]. The poem used Old Testament figures to allegorically portray the intrigues of Charles's illegitimate son the Duke of Monmouth ("Absalom") and his backer, Ashley Cooper ("Achitophel") the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, two men whose anti-Catholic intrigues would lead to the disaster of 1685.
Dryden's 1681 allegory got Cooper arrested by the king for plotting treason, though a picked “Whig” jury acquitted him. However due to his plotting to assassinate James II and if necessary the ailing present king to force a return to a Protestant monarchy, he was forced to flee abroad to Holland, where he died in 1683. He did act as patron to philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), whom he hired as his parliamentary secretary in 1673. Locke also had to flee abroad with him, but was later able to return and became tutor to the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper (1671-1713), who became known as a writer of essays on ethics. Known as the philosopher-earl, he was inspired by the French essayist Montaigne to live in a tower, which he had built near the family seat of Wimborne St Giles.
Prolific poet Matthew Prior (1664-1721), known locally as "Wimborne's most famous son," who has a monument in Westminster Abbey's Poets Corner, was a diplomat in the latter half of the 17C, succeeding John Locke as trade commissioner, but would write much of his verse after he being put in the Tower late in life, when he became politically suspect following the death of Queen Anne. Thackeray described his work as “amongst the easiest, the richest, the most charmingly humorous of English lyrical poems.”
Modern Literary & Dramatic Works Set In The Restoration Era
Works covering a regnal era naturally focus on the personal rise and fall of
the monarch, but the real story of Charles's reign was so much more complex than his Merry Monarch
popular image. The era was so complicated by religious politics that it is only recently we have
had a dramatization that tries to deal with this. The 4-hour 2003 BBC TV drama Charles
II: The Power And The Passion does not have any local settings, but it and the accompanying
documentary material on the DVD, provide useful background for understanding the context of other
more limited works. The BBC's 4-part drama, scripted by Adrian Hodges and directed by Joe Wright
(Pride & Prejudice, Atonement), with Rufus Sewell as Charles II, covers the entire Restoration
Era. (North American readers should note the US version, inanely retitled "The Last King,"
lost nearly an hour of scenes, the original 235 minutes cut down to fit two 2-hour slots with
commercials.) Its revisionist approach portrays Charles not as a witty "Merry Monarch"
in a court of learned men, but as a man surrounded by women who make his life miserable until
they get their way - whether it is money, titles, or the persecution of Catholics. (The infamous
libertine the Earl of Rochester makes a cameo appearance with his famous quote about the king,
soon after Nell Gwynn appears.) The drama, opening in 1660, does not cover the 1651 escape. However
on the DVD, the accompanying documentary The Boy Who Would Be King features biographers
and TV-presenter historians discussing his earlier life, with the 1651 escape covered by a mix
of re-enactment and present-day visits (Michael Palin trying out a “priests hole”
hideaway), though again stopping short of Dorset locales.
The youthful Charles had been tutored in exile by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes
(1588-1679), the Wiltshire-born author of the 1651 key political-philosophy tract Leviathan,
with its famous quote about life for most people being solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Actually Hobbes said it would be so, were it not for the political class imposing order on chaos
(i.e. civil war) - best done, he argued, via absolute monarchy. Somewhat ironically, Leviathan
or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, with its dramatic
cover [pictured right] and arguments for a 'social contract,' so alarmed the royalists
Hobbes lived in exile amongst in Paris that he fled, seeking the protection of the Puritan government
in London. This confusion was typical of the time, when open arguments about (in this case, against)
any separation of powers between monarchy, civil state and Established (i.e. official, meaning
Anglican) church were new to people, and complicated by existing dogmatic Catholic v Protestant
tenets and hatreds.
The Monmouth Rebellion, which began with the Duke of Monmouth's landing at Lyme Regis in June 1685 and ended with the Bloody Assizes at Dorchester and elsewhere a little over a month later, has inspired a series of historical novels, perhaps because it is claimed to be the last battle fought on British (or English) soil. With its grim ending, the entire episode lacks the "Cavalier" glamour of the events of 1651, so it has not attracted romantic novelists to the same extent. Instead, there are a number of boys' stories of youths caught up in the call to arms and then the confusion and despair of the rout. Even nonfiction biographies, the basis for historical fiction and drama, of Monmouth were few before JNP Watson's of 1979: one by George Roberts 1844, one by Alan Fea (1860-1956) 1902 [King Monmouth, reprinted 2009] and one by Elizabeth D'Oyley 1938.)
Nield's Guide To The Best Historical Novels cites as covering the rising over a dozen Victorian novels and romances, mostly long-forgotten, such as G.P.R. James's 1851 The Fate and Sir Walter Besant's 1889 For Faith And Freedom. These are mainly from the viewpoint of a lad caught up in events as a participant or bystander. Dorset's involvement in the Monmouth rebellion provided the background for Mary E Palgrave's 1884 Under The Blue Flag, set largely in Purbeck, and her Deb Clavel: A Story of a Sister's Love [reissued in 2009-10 as SPCK facsimile reprints]. The better-known authors include R.D. Blackmore, Rafael Sabatini, Conan Doyle and Poet Laureate John Masefield. Blackmore's Lorna Doone, set on Exmoor 1673-88, alludes to the Rebellion from the viewpoint of Somerset farmers, and has a Sedgemoor sequence. The Duke Of Monmouth, an early (1836) adult novel by the noted 19th-C. Irish writer Gerald Griffin, covers the events more comprehensively. (Note that some works refer to the presence of a young Daniel Defoe in the campaign, which is correct, but perhaps out of prudence, he never wrote fiction based on his own experience.) The 1910 Anthony Wilding, (also called Mistress Wilding and in the US Arms And The Maid), by Rafael Sabatini [author of Captain Blood, which opens in 1685 Devon], is more of a romance, set only partly in Dorset. Conan Doyle's first historical, Micah Clarke, available online, has the young hero wandering around the West Country before arriving at the Battle of Sedgemoor, encountering Monmouth, Churchill, James II, and Judge Jeffreys. In the 1927 The Sword Of Fortune by 'Ben Bolt' [the Rev. Ottwell Binns, 1872-1936], the young hero again has a peripheral i.e non-fatal involvement in the battle. In Poet Laureate John Masefield's 1949 boys' adventure Martin Hyde, The Duke's Messenger [now available online], the 13-year old narrator goes to sea as a cabin boy but ends up in an intrigue following Monmouth's advance from Lyme. Thomas Hardy's short story “The Duke's Reappearance” is based on a family tradition of the owners of Monmouth Cottage in Melbury Osmond that a stranger like the Duke had stayed a night after the battle.
Since Nield's Guide was published, there have been other novels. The 1945 Green Willow: A Novel Of The Time Of Sedgemoor by onetime Purbeck resident Monica M. Hutchings (1917-77) has a modern flashback-framework (an American girl visiting Somerset in WWII searches out her ancestors) to set up “John Lynn's narrative,” which ranges in locale across the West Country but includes the Battle of Bridport.
Novels written for adults, including romantic ones, often dwell on the “black box” in which Charles supposedly kept his marriage license to Monmouth's mother Lucy Walter, with whom Charles had had a youthful dalliance in exile - as this would have proved the Duke was a legitimate claimant to the throne. She spent years trying to coerce Charles into recognising the boy as the legitimate heir. The box was never found, but rumours (no doubt encouraged by Protestant interests) spread so widely that Charles II had to repeatedly swear oaths to the Privy Council he had never married Monmouth's mother. This is part of the 2003 BBC drama Charles II mentioned above, but the contents of the black box are never revealed to us.
W. Bourne Cook's novel The Black Box may (it's long out of print) be inspired by this rumour, with 1685 events told from the viewpoint of a Lyme youth; the vintage novel is now the subject of a mash-up fanfic version by William Cook which takes the lead character into new adventures. Taking its title from the heraldic motif for illegitimacy, Bend Sinister (1962) by Juliette Dymoke (~de Schanschieff, 1919-2001), is told by a longtime companion of Monmouth who becomes one of his officers; it covers from the 1660s on and focuses on the preceding events of the Duke in exile, to which the Rebellion itself forms the final act, from the landing at Lyme through the narrator's capture with the Duke. Jude Morgan's 2003 The King's Touch tells the story of Monmouth's pre-1685 life in exile from a first-person viewpoint (so the Rising has to be related via an appendix). John Whitbourn's 1998 The Royal Changeling is not a historical novel but a fantasy treatment, where Monmouth on returning discovers he is half Elf, and must do magical battle with an undead King Arthur for the national soul.
Apart from a Sedgemoor scene in some of the many Lorna Doone adaptations, there seem to be no screen versions of the Rising. BBC's 1969 studio-shot drama serial The First Churchills, based partly on PM Winston Churchill's biography of his ancestor the Duke Of Marlborough, dramatized events from 1673 on.
The Rising's grisly aftermath, the summary trials around the south-west known as the Bloody
Assizes, has long attracted novelists. For James II's Chief Justice, Baron Jeffreys, was a persecutor
so rabid he could have been a villain straight out of a costume melodrama, letting his religious
prejudice guide his conduct. (“Show me a Presbyterian and I'll show thee a lying knave.”)
He condemned hundreds at his 'Bloody Assizes' held in Dorchester and elsewhere. Dozens who pleaded
guilty were hanged, drawn and quartered, often on no more evidence than being reported away from
their work during the rising. Their heads were stuck by Jeffreys' order on poles all around the
County as a warning.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688
BBC's 1969 drama serial The First Churchills is one of the few dramas to cover the reign of William & Mary. It is based on the biography by PM Winston Churchill, whose namesake forebear was a 17C MP for Dorset.
The King James Bible, known as the KJV or Authorized Version, was subtitled "Appointed to be read in Churches.” Only a few hundred copies were printed, nearly all lost, but this year a copy was found in a tiny Wiltshire village church, where it had sat on a shelf for 400 years. Commissioned to supersede various partial translations into English with a definitive official version, the KJV was commemorated in 2010, its 400th anniversary, for its influence on secular writing of the time. For example, it may have helped inspire the "Puritan poet" John Milton's 1652 verse-epic fable of war in heaven, Paradise Lost, and the Biblical allegory The Pilgrim's Progress [1678-84], begun in gaol by a young conscript Roundhead soldier turned itinerant preacher, John Bunyan. Its Elizabethan prose style has not dated as other translations have, with various expressions it coined still in use today. BBC History Magazine referred to it in a 2010 issue as The Book That Changed The World.
"The Cruelties of The Cavaliers", a woodcut illustration for a 1644 propaganda pamphlet. The victims shown are meant to be Puritans.
Captain F. Marryat's 1848 The Children Of The New Forest: the family home burns.
Some early novels for young readers were more like historiography than history as we know it today, meant to provide morally uplifting examples. Note the publisher: the Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge, which was active in this field.
The title is nothing to do with the historic
meaning of the Wiltshire smugglers who disguised their activities by posing as simple-minded
rustics. This was one of those 1950s attempts to establish a British action genre with a Technicolor
swashbuckler, though Jeffrey Richards's history of screen swashbucklers says there were only
four such films made about the Cavalier-Roundhead conflict; the others are probably Children
Of The New Forest adaptations. Its star George Baker, a veteran now of many local shoots, recalls
the film as his big break, at once eclipsed by the advent of the angry-young-man film which sidelined
his film career at the outset as he was regarded as one of the upper class old guard about to
be swept away.
The original play was written by Arthur
Watkins, the man who was Britain's Chief Film Censor 1948-56, and had banned the Marlon Brando
film The Wild One as being unshowable due to its mocking defiance of authority. Presumably he
took a more favourable view of the rebel-with-a-cause protagonist here, who after all is conservative
in the sense of being a royalist, wanting to roll back a socialist republic. Being adapted from
a play, the central dialogue scenes are soon confined to one soundstage set, the clifftop "Windwhistle
Inn," where the hero is in meek disguise, a la the Scarlet Pimpernel, and the serving wench
is a sympathetic Sylvia Syms, as “Ann Wyndham.” (A real name from the 1651 episode.)
The inn is said to be on the road to Bridport, where the real Charles did try, unsuccessfully,
to board a ship for France. However the real Windwhistle Inn, long a notorious haunt of smugglers
and cut-throats, was inland atop the chain of hills stretching north of Lyme Regis, where it
still stands today. Exterior location work reappears in the obligatory swordfight finale as the
hero duels with Cromwell's agent (Peter Arne) atop Stair Hole rock-arch at Lulworth, plunging
into the sea and freedom aboard a waiting ship at film's end.
The Lady And The Highwayman (Gainsborough
Charles arriving at Dover in 1660 to reclaim the throne. An old textbook illustration modelled on a painting by the Anglo-American painter of large-scale "history paintings," Benjamin West RA (1738–1820).
Official portrait of Charles II
The startling cover of Hobbes's Leviathan, showing the constitutional "body politic" as a crowned and armed giant made up of the bodies of others. It addressed many of the political and philosophical issues of the civil-war era, though at first this made the author so unpopular he had to seek official protection.
The Wounded Cavalier by William Shakespeare Burton, 1855: The many personal tragedies of the Civil War era became a popular theme of later works such as novels, poems, films, and here in this sentimental "narrative" painting in Pre-Raphaelite style.
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