I spent last week at a remote cottage in Shropshire, brainstorming ideas for new books. Shropshire, of course, is quite a long way from the sea, but even though I didn’t venture outside my ‘man cave’ very much, I still came across several interesting naval and maritime connections. In one sense, of course, Shropshire was arguably ‘closer’ to the sea in earlier centuries than it is now; the River Severn teemed with trading craft such as the Severn trows, and Bridgnorth was a busy port, with as rough a reputation as many a coastal town. One of Britain’s most famous admirals, John Benbow, hailed from Shrewsbury, where a new statue is to be erected to commemorate him. A reminder of this neglected maritime heritage can be found in the quiet churchyard of Benthall, a village on the edge of the sprawling new town of Telford, where I came across this grave, unexpectedly adorned with the anchors one might expect to find only on memorials in coastal cemeteries – the last resting place of Eustace Board, trowman, who died in 1761.
Whenever I stay in an area, I always make a point of visiting the local churches, and I was fortunate that the most local one of all, Kinlet, contained some outstanding features – one of the best preserved chantry chapels in England, for example, and some superb Tudor tombs. One of these was that of Sir George Blount, who had a long career as a middling Elizabethan politician. But in his younger days, Blount had been a warrior, and as was so often the case, he alternated between land and sea service, commanding a warship in the English expedition against Scotland in 1544, the war known as ‘the Rough Wooing’. However, Blount’s fame was easily overshadowed by that of his sister Elizabeth: she was a mistress of King Henry VIII, and provided him with a son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, who at one point was seriously considered as a possible solution to the king’s lack of a legitimate male heir (after all, Richmond had been Henry VII’s title before he won the crown).
St Leonard’s church, Bridgnorth, is a huge building, its interior redolent of civic pride and Victorian values (including the Victorian value of comprehensively ruining the interiors of many fine old churches in the name of ‘improvement’). It stands opposite the house where Richard Baxter, the famous Presbyterian cleric, lived just before the Civil War, and contains a couple of very pleasant surprises – a wall memorial to a William Skelding, a surgeon in the East India Company’s service (no relation, as far as I know, despite the fact that my grandmother was a Skelding from a very adjacent part of Worcestershire), and another, below, to Captain John Barnsley, formerly of the Somerset and Namur, who ‘resigned his life (worn out in the service of his King and Country)’, aged 56, on 12 July 1745. The memorial describes him as a good friend of Admirals Sir John Norris, Charles Wager and Nicholas Haddock, so John Barnsley was clearly a significant figure of the navy of his time, albeit now entirely forgotten; and the information on his memorial in Bridgnorth actually provides much more detail about his antecedents and fate than the very vague entry on him in John Charnock’s Biographia Navalis.
More ‘dead admirals’ (little known naval and maritime memorials, in other words) in the not too distant future!