Sometimes one stumbles across fascinating historical stories entirely by chance. I was checking some naval references in my vast, ancient volume of the Calendar of State Papers, Domestic for 1660 (bought for a fiver many moons ago in Hay-on-Wye, when one could still find such bargains) when I noticed a mention of Biggleswade, the nearest market town to our village. With the best will in the world, Biggleswade isn’t really England’s most scintillating town, despite being the headquarters of Jordans cereals; the most famous event in its history was the Great Fire of Biggleswade in 1785, which for some reason hasn’t enjoyed quite the fame of its London equivalent. So I took particular note of the mention in CSPD, and it turned out to be a doorway into a fascinating and murky tale. In a nutshell, in August 1660 a prominent Scottish nobleman, the Master of Gray, was killed at Biggleswade by the even more prominent Earl of Southesk. It quickly became apparent that there were two competing versions of what caused Gray’s death: in one, it was a tragic accident while two friends were practising their fencing skills; in the other, it was a deliberate duel to the death. Slowly I unearthed more evidence, and the story got ever murkier. Gray had been a staunch royalist, Southesk a committed Parliamentarian, so was the killing a legacy of the civil wars? Both seem to have been in competition for the office of sheriff of Forfarshire, so was the killing a consequence of the frenetic scramble for offices following the restoration of the monarchy?
But then there were also the strange myths associated with the name of James Carnegie, second Earl of Southesk. He was said to have become such a great swordsman because he was trained by the devil, and cast no shadow because that had been the price of his Faustian bargain with Satan. It was said that after his death, the devil returned and carried his pupil away with him in his coach. Particularly intriguing from my point of view was that Southesk was meant to have been educated (both by the devil and by more earthly teachers) at the University of Padua. This rang plenty of bells, for John, third Earl of Gowrie, one of the key players in the so-called ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’ of 1600 and thus central to my book Blood of Kings, had also been educated at Padua, and the accusation that he learned the black arts there was one of the key charges brought against him posthumously. Padua was perceived as a hotbed of alchemy and necromancy, principally, it seems, because of the innate suspicion of the ignorant and/or Protestant for an institution that was at the cutting edge of scientific teaching and was, of course, in a Catholic state. So was Southesk’s reputation being deliberately blackened in the way that Gowrie’s was, with the further implication that he might be a traitor just as Gowrie had been?
I don’t have the answers to all of these questions by any means, but investigating the story has been a fascinating little detour during the last year or two. I’ve now got enough material to air the story publicly; it gets its first outing at a public talk in Bedford on Wednesday 12 October. I’m looking forward to getting feedback and ideas for other lines of enquiry, both from the audience and from my online friends!