Time for another in my (very) occasional series of oddities and little-known tales that I’ve stumbled across during the course of my research. Actually, though, this was one that I came across during my teaching career, my ‘day job’ for thirty or so years. Back in 1987, I took up a new post at Bedford Modern School, and was casting around for a quick way of teaching some very bright sixth formers about the perils and pitfalls of primary sources. Fortuitously, the History department possessed a new-fangled piece of high technology called a ‘VHS recorder’, and just a few months after I started at the school, the BBC broadcast a programme which fitted my bill perfectly, so I recorded it and then used it at the beginning of the A-level course for many years. In those days, the historical documentary series Timewatch didn’t present hour long programmes on a single theme, as it does today. Instead, it covered three different stories within its hour, a format that made it much easier for it to present quirky and lesser-known recesses of history; arguably, the tendency towards ‘big’ stories suitable for the longer slot (and, indeed, for the themed series of three one-hour documentaries that now seem to be in vogue) means that the history which makes it onto our TV screens these days is much narrower in focus, and tends to recycle the same old supposedly ‘important’ themes. For example, even leaving aside such obvious, hackneyed old staples as the Tudors and the Nazis, Lucy Worsley’s recent series on the Romanovs was, by my reckoning, at least the third major series on the history of Russia on mainstream British TV during the last fifteen years or so. Within that same period, how many series have there been on the histories of, say, China, Japan, Brazil, and even India?
But enough of the rant, as that’s not the point I’m making here. The particular programme that I’m talking about included a twenty-minute tale narrated by Gabriel Ronay, a journalist and freelance historian. This began in October 1661, with the burial in Rochester Cathedral of one ‘Cossuma Albertus’, a ‘Prince of Transylvania’, who had been brutally murdered on the main coast road at Gad’s Hill, of Shakespearean fame, a notorious haunt of highwaymen and brigands. The Prince, it seemed, had been received at the court of the recently restored Charles II, where he was treated with honour. A contemporary account of the murder told a shocking tale:
Cossuma Albertus, a Prince of Transylvania, in the dominions of the King of Poland, being worsted by the German forces, and compelled to seek for relief came to our gracious King Charles II. for succour, from whom it is said he found a kind reception and a sufficient maintenance.
On the evening of Tuesday, Oct. 15, 1661, this Prince Cossuma was approaching Rochester in his chariot, attended by his coachman and footboy, when within a mile of Strood…the vehicle stuck fast in the mire; whereupon the Prince resolved to sleep in the coach, pulling off his coat and wrapping it about him to keep himself warm. Being fast asleep, his coachman, Isaac Jacob, a Jew, about midnight takes the Prince’s hanger from under his head, and stabs him to the heart; and calling to his aid his companion, whose name was Casimirus Karsagi, they both completed the tragedy by dragging him out of the carriage, cutting off his head and throwing the mutilated remains into a ditch near at hand. The Prince was dressed in scarlet breeches, his stockings were laced with gold lace, with pearl-colour silk hose under them. The two men having possessed themselves of a large sum of money which the Prince had about with me, drawing a piece of timber, that I am confident one man could easily have carried upon his back. I made the horses be taken away, and a man or two to take the lumber away with their hands.
But Ronay then began to unpick the story in a way that brought home to my students (I hope!) the dangers of relying on single interpretations of events, and the need constantly to interrogate one’s sources. For instance, a copy of one of the pamphlets giving a sensationalist account of the murder contained a contemporary, handwritten marginal note, to the effect ”tis said he was a cheat, and no prince’. Other sources, filmed in such varied locations as the round reading room of the old Public Record Office in Chancery Lane and the George in Southwark, the most authentic surviving seventeenth-century hostelry in London, began to build up a very different story. In Charles II’s day, of course, Transylvania didn’t have the vampiric connotations it would later acquire, thanks to the likes of Bram Stoker and Christopher Lee. Instead, it had an overwhelmingly positive image: the Transylvanians were Protestants, holding the borders against both the Ottomans and the Catholic Habsburgs, and their ruler Bethlen Gabor had been one of the great Protestant heroes of the Thirty Years War. But the Transylvanians had been defeated, and many of them had been forced into exile, where they had become objects of sympathy – and of charity, too.
And there was the rub. ‘Cossuma Albertus’ wasn’t a prince at all, and wasn’t Transylvanian. His first name is probably a phonetic misspelling of ‘Casimir’, and he was almost certainly an impoverished Polish minor nobleman, who had adopted his cover story in order to con the gullible at Charles II’s court – including the King himself. There were also suggestions that he had another income stream as a French spy, no less, and was in the Rochester area to gather intelligence about the warships at Chatham dockyard. The story that he had been slaughtered at Gad’s Hill by his own coachmen unravelled, too; the ‘coachmen’ were his accomplices in the scam, and the murder seems to have been the result of a falling out over the proceeds. The killers were subsequently hanged at Maidstone. Ronay’s account ended with film of Rochester Cathedral, and the words of the published account of ‘the Prince’s’ burial:
His body being brought to the parish of Strood, was accompanied from thence to the West door of the Cathedral Church of Rochester by the Prebendaries of the said church in their formalities, with the gentry and commonality of the said city and places adjacent, with torches before them. Near the cathedral they were met by the choir, who sung Te Deum before them; when divine service was ended, the choir went before the body to the grave (which was made in the body of the church) singing Nunc Dimittis. Thousands of people flockt to this cathedral, amongst whom many gave large commendations of the Dean and Chapter, who bestowed so honorable an interment on a stranger at their own proper costs and charges.
And there he lies to this day: a conman who gulled the King of England, the Dean and Chapter of Rochester Cathedral, and, very nearly, the historical record. But not quite.