Aristocrats

When this post goes ‘live’ I’ll actually be beavering away in the search room of Anglesey Archives in Llangefni, where I hope to obtain some useful material for Britannia’s Dragon. I’ll report back on my North Wales research trip next week, but in the meantime I thought I’d explore a theme that connects my current fiction and non-fiction projects.

One of the key themes underpinning the ‘Journals of Matthew Quinton’ is the hero’s complex relationship with his tangled family history, which often impinges on his progress as a ‘gentleman captain’ in the navy of King Charles II. This was one of the very first plot strands that I settled on when I started to develop the first book, Gentleman Captain, so as well as mapping out Matthew’s own character and immediate relationships, I also developed an intricate ‘back story’ which involved creating an entire Quinton dynasty dating back to the Norman Conquest and which is granted an earldom for service rendered to Henry V at Agincourt. Several aspects of this back story have already surfaced in the books – the death of Matthew’s father at the Battle of Naseby, and the impact this has on him; the importance of the role model provided by his grandfather the eighth earl, a larger-than-life swashbuckling Elizabethan seadog; and enigmatic references to court scandal involving his mother in the early years of Charles I’s reign. The new Quinton book, The Blast That Tears The Skies, develops several of these strands and adds some new ones that stretch even further back into the family’s history. Ben Yarde-Buller, my publisher, suggested that it might be helpful to readers to provide a family tree, so this is duly provided at the start of the book – commencing with the fourth Earl of Ravensden, a tough old warrior who fights in Henry VIII’s wars before marrying a former nun who lives to a very great age, outliving all her sons in the process.

Of course, in creating the ‘back story’ for the Quintons I had several real aristocratic families and actual individuals in mind. An obvious ‘dynasty’ with a similarly distinguished record of service over many generations would be the various branches of the Howards; others like the Dudleys rose, flourished and fell, while some like the Churchills produced outstanding figures a few generations apart. On Anglesey I’m not far from Plas Newydd, seat of the Pagets, Marquesses of Anglesey. The first Lord Paget was a prominent statesman of the middle Tudor period; his descendant the first Marquess of Anglesey led the cavalry charge at Waterloo, losing his leg in the process (the artificial replacement is preserved at Plas Newydd). Two of his brothers and two of his sons were prominent naval officers, all of whom will feature in Britannia’s Dragon, while several others, including the current marquess, served in the army, in Parliament, and so forth. I know this is a familiar story in many respects – wander around many a stately home in Britain and you’ll see endless portraits of younger sons in army or naval uniforms. But it’s actually quite an unusual story in Wales, partly because the Welsh aristocracy was so much smaller than its counterparts in the other constituent parts of the United Kingdom and partly because their history has been much more neglected. The Scottish nobility, owning grand castles and estates larger than many an independent country while being perceived as responsible for such injustices as the Highland Clearances, has been hugely prominent in the country’s history, has been studied in depth in many books and retains considerable influence; it’s hardly surprising that the first hereditary peer to be elected to the House of Commons should sit for a seat in the far north of Scotland that his family has represented for most of the period since 1780.  The Irish aristocracy of the ‘ascendancy’ has been studied and vilified in roughly equal measure; the shells of their great houses, burned down by the IRA in 1918-22, stand throughout Ireland as testimony to their dramatic downfall.

The Welsh aristocracy has no equivalent history of power, oppression or doomed romance. Apart from the occasional rant by Lloyd George or the odd Communist, the class as a whole has been virtually ignored. But then, for long periods of Welsh history there was no aristocracy at all; for much of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the counties of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, two of the most prosperous in the Principality, had no noble families domiciled in them, and for most of the rest of that period there was only one in each county. There was a gentry and squirearchy, but generally they were far poorer and less influential than their English equivalents. Their houses were more modest, too – the vast exceptions like Penrhyn and Cardiff Castles were often built by outsiders or those with ‘new money’.  But the stories of Welsh aristocratic families are worth telling, and in Britannia’s Dragon I’ll be focusing both on the seamen on the lower deck and on the likes of the Pagets and Sub-Lieutenant Micky Wynn, RNVR. Who he? In 1942 Wynn commanded one of the MTBs on the St Nazaire raid, supporting HMS Campbeltown (Lt-Cdr Stephen Beattie, another Welshman, who was awarded the VC) and performing heroics before losing an eye and being captured by the Germans, eventually ending up in Colditz. Wynn later inherited his family’s title and became the seventh Baron Newborough, owner of the Rhug estate in Denbighshire. Let Wikipedia’s bare entry record the bizarre sequel:

In 1976 he was called before the magistrates for allegedly firing a 9 lb (4.1 kg) cannon ball across the Menai Strait…the shot went through the sail of a passing yacht and he was charged with causing criminal damage. Even though it was his mother-in-law’s birthday, he denied the charge, protesting that it must have been someone else. He was found guilty and fined. He died in Istanbul in 1998 and his ashes were shot out of an 18th-century cannon.

I think both Matthew Quinton and his grandfather the old Elizabethan sea-dog would have thoroughly approved of Micky Wynn, Lord Newborough!

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