J D Davies

Highways and Byways of the Seventeenth Century: The McEnroe Moment

Busy, busy, busy! So a slightly modified reblog of an older post this week, this one from pretty much exactly four years ago, in April 2012. 

Every now and again, a historian comes across a snippet of information so bizarre that he or she reacts by silently quoting a certain illustrious tennis player – ‘you cannot be serious!’. (Or at least, that would be the case for historians of my generation; those born after, say, 1980, might prefer the current de rigueur exclamation of choice in tweets and text messages, ‘WTF?’) It’s often said that there’s a considerable similarity between the instincts and working methods of historians and policeman, and the discovery of such a snippet at once transforms even the most mild-mannered historian into Inspector Morse, relentlessly pursuing the solution to the mystery at the expense of all else – perhaps abandoning rather more pressing assignments in the process.

I have to confess that I’m particularly prone to this tendency. It was a ‘McEnroe moment’ that set me off on the ten year odyssey to explore the mysterious ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’ of 1600, which eventually culminated in my book Blood of Kings: the Stuarts, the Ruthvens and the Gowrie Conspiracy, in the process putting other projects on the back burner, acquiring a couple of bookcases’ worth of Scottish history, and fearlessly conducting research in archives, castles and pubs from Perth to Carmarthen via Maidstone and North Berwick to the Loire valley. (OK, perhaps the pubs weren’t strictly essential to the parameters of the project, but I always seemed to obtain some of my best insights in them.) I’ve been intrigued for a couple of years now by such oddities as why the Earl of Southesk killed the Master of Gray in the distinctly unlikely surroundings of Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, in 1660 – the subject of a talk I give to local history societies – and whether or not Joanna Bridges, who lived at Mandinam, Carmarthenshire, in the 1640s and 1650s and married the famous Anglican cleric Jeremy Taylor, was really the illegitimate daughter of King Charles I and the Duchess of Lennox. So yes, when it comes to being intrigued and distracted by a historical fact that comes from a fair way across left field, I’m your man.

On Easter Saturday, I had another McEnroe moment. We were exploring Ely Cathedral – one of my favourites – when I came across a plaque next to a floor brass. I hadn’t seen this on previous visits, so presumably it’s fairly new. The plaque proclaimed that the subject commemorated in the brass, Humphrey Tyndall, an Elizabethan Dean of Ely, had been – wait for it – heir to the throne of Bohemia. Now, the idea of a middle-ranking Anglican cleric being next in line to a central European kingdom has pleasing echoes of The Prisoner of Zenda (one of my favourite books) and of the (probably apocryphal) offer of the throne of Albania to the cricketer C B Fry, but it seemed a distinctly implausible one. For one thing, I’d taught the Thirty Years War for long enough to know that by 1619, at least, the throne of Bohemia was elective, that the King thereof was in turn one of the seven electors of the Holy Roman Emperor, and that the Habsburgs, the Emperors from 1440, always ensured that they occupied the Bohemian throne themselves to ensure their next heir was elected to the imperial crown. (By coincidence, the last Habsburg heir to the Kingdom of Bohemia, the Archduke Otto, last Crown Prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire, died only last year (i.e. 2011), becoming the last Habsburg to have a state funeral in St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, followed by interment in the Capuchin Crypt, one of the spookiest places I’ve ever visited.) When I started doing serious historical research in the early 1980s, exploring a mystery one stumbled across on an Easter weekend would have had to wait until the opening of the library the following Tuesday, but nowadays, of course, I have but to emulate my lazier ex-students and make straight for Google and Wikipedia!

A Wikipedia entry on the Tyndall family states:

When King Richard II married Anne of Bohemia, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, she brought with her first cousin, Margaret of Treschen, daughter of Litvaticus, Duke of Tescen in modern Silesia by his wife Elizabeth, sister of Charles IV and daughter of John the Blind, King of Bohemia. This lady married Sir Roger de Felstead (or Bigod), of Felstead in Essex, a standard bearer at the coronation of Richard II and their daughter, Margaret, married Sir Thomas de Tyndall of Talsover and Deane…when the House of Luxemburg died out with the death of Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia (1368–1437)…Sir William Tyndall became one of the heirs to the elective throne of Bohemia. John Nichols (an 18th century antiquary) relates that a delegation of Bohemian boyars were sent to England to offer him the throne but that he refused, the Habsburgs succeeding to a throne they held (with one interruption) until 1918. There was an oral tradition at the University of Cambridge that Humphrey Tyndall, brother of Sir John Tyndall of Mapplestead and uncle (or great uncle) of the eminent deist Dr Matthew Tindal, was again offered the throne by the Protestant party in Bohemia in 1620. This Humphrey was Dean of Ely and President of Queens’ College, Cambridge and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. Humphrey refused, saying that “he had rather be Queen Elizabeth’s subject than a foreign Prince”, leading to the ill-fated Frederick V, Elector Palatine (married to Elizabeth, daughter of James I and ancestor of the present Queen) becoming King for a year – a development that was a principal cause of the thirty years war.

This account set various alarm bells ringing. ‘Oral tradition at the University of Cambridge’ sounded distinctly dubious – even leaving aside my Oxford bias and any bitterness about the Boat Race (still as true in 2016 as it was in 2012 – ed.)  – while Tyndall was hardly going to turn down a throne in 1620 (actually 1619) on the grounds that he wanted to remain Queen Elizabeth’s subject when she’d been dead for seventeen years…and Tyndall himself had been dead for five. Another online source says that the offer was made in 1591, which is equally implausible as it was half way through the reign of the King-Emperor Rudolf II – and the idea of the Bohemian Protestants preferring an obscure Fenland cleric like Tyndall to a well-connected prince like Frederick V simply beggars belief. A little more Googling and Wiki-ing casts further doubt on the story. It took me a while to track down ‘Litvaticus, Duke of Teschen’, but this must be Przemyslaus I Noszak, Duke of Cieszyn, duke from 1358 to 1410. He was an important figure at the Imperial court and brokered the marriage between Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia. So far so good for the Tyndall story. But the duke’s wife (sorry, I’m not typing that name again…) was not the sister of the Emperor Charles IV and daughter to John the Blind, King of Bohemia; although she was named Elizabeth, she was the daughter of  Bolesław, Duke of Koźle-Bytom. Charles did have a sister Elizabeth, but she died when only a few months old.

So it seems as though Humphrey Tyndall wasn’t descended from Bohemian royalty; but this begs the question of why so many people, perhaps including himself, believed that he was. It might have been a simple confusion of one fourteenth-century Elizabeth with another, part of a mangled family legend that had been passed down for two hundred years and then mangled again by a couple of eighteenth century antiquarians. But the much-derided antiquarians of the Georgian and Victorian ages sometimes had access to sources that are now lost, and I’ve learned many times not to dismiss their statements out of hand simply because I can’t find anything else to corroborate them. Will the story of Dean Tyndall and the throne of Bohemia be worth a more thorough investigation? Possibly; but probably not. For one thing, I don’t think I can cope with the spellings!