Highways and Byways of the Seventeenth Century: Campden Wonders
Before getting into this week’s topic, I can’t let pass the fact that yesterday, it was announced that the Royal Navy’s latest nuclear submarine would be named HMS Agincourt. Cue cheers or groans on social media, depending which side of the Brexit fence you sit on, but regular readers of this blog, who will know my abiding interest in ship names, may recall that I referred to such a prospect in passing last summer, when I wrote: Battles, of course, run the risk of offending pretty much everybody we need to do post-Brexit trade deals with, so don’t even think of mentioning Agincourt, Armada, Matapan, or even Amethyst. (A reminder that we exchanged live fire with Communist China within living memory? What could possibly go wrong?).
Which proves three things:
1/ Any hopes I had of developing a career as a defence analyst have comprehensively crashed and burned
2/ In present-day Britain, nothing, but nothing, is too surreal
3/ One looks forward to the naming of the first Type 31 frigate as HMS Amethyst
We spent the recent Bank Holiday weekend, the hottest on record, at the Landmark Trust’s glorious East Banqueting House in Chipping Campden, which, for those of you who don’t know it, is a wonderful historic town in the Cotswolds. I’ve sung the praises of the Landmark Trust previously in this blog, and doubtless will do again – if you want to holiday in truly historic buildings, often in stunning locations, or (in my case) get some serious peace and quiet in which to plan a new book (they have no TVs or wifi), then nothing beats their properties. East Banqueting House is a beauty, built as one of two matching garden pavilions for the grand Campden House, erected in 1615-18 for Sir Baptist Hicks, a wealthy merchant who ended up as a viscount. The house was very impressive, but also very short-lived; it was burned to the ground in 1645 by the Royalists, who had been using it as a headquarters, as they evacuated it. One forlorn fragment remains, between the two banqueting houses, along with the earthworks of what must have been hugely impressive formal gardens.
Chipping Campden itself is a joy, too, with lovely architecture from the Middle Ages to the Georgian period, all in mellow Cotswold stone. The church, next to the remains of the house, has the splendid tomb of Hicks, and also a poignant memorial to Penelope Noel, who died in 1633, aged 22, from – wait for it – pricking her finger while sewing. (Health and Safety Executive, are you across the manifest dangers of sewing yet? Hi-vis and hard hats at least, if not an outright ban, IMHO.) Chipping Campden is the venue for the annual manifestation of Robert Dover’s Olimpick Games, a seventeenth-century Cotswold precursor of the more recent extravaganza, but sadly, this was taking place on the weekend after we were there. Above all, though, it’s also the setting for the so-called ‘Campden Wonder’, one of the more utterly bizarre stories of the seventeenth century – and let’s face it, there’s a lot of competition for that title.
In a nutshell, the story is this; those wanting more detailed versions should simply Google ‘Campden Wonder’. (Other search engines are available.) In August 1660, William Harrison, steward of the Hicks family’s Campden estate, went to collect some rents in a neighbouring village, but never got there. During a search, some items of his clothing were found, bearing signs of a violent attack and some bloodstains. His servant John Perry then admitted that he knew Harrison had been murdered for his money, and named his mother and brother as the guilty parties. They denied it, and no body was found in the pond where Perry claimed the body was dumped. After lengthy court proceedings, during which the three accused changed their pleas twice, and despite the fact there was no body they were all found guilty, and duly hanged.
Which would seem to have been the end of the matter…until, in 1662, William Harrison turned up again, very much alive, on a ship from Lisbon. He claimed he had been abducted, taken to the coast, put aboard a Barbary corsair, and sold into slavery – from which he had eventually escaped, smuggled himself aboard a ship, and got back to England via Lisbon.
Clearly, very little in this odd tale makes any sense whatsoever. Why did Perry confess to being an accessory to a murder that he must have known never happened, and then also implicate his mother and brother? Where was Harrison in the intervening two years? Having done just a bit of work over the years on the naval history of this period, and thus having a pretty decent knowledge of how the Barbary Corsairs operated, it’s simply inconceivable that one man would have been targeted in this way, and even more inconceivable that he managed to escape despite being a septuagenarian, when countless thousands of much younger and fitter people did not. So all in all, the Campden Wonder is filed away in the folder entitled ‘Oddities to Investigate Further When Time Permits’. The problem is, said folder rather resembles the warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant is stored at the end of that Indiana Jones film…