Essential Historical Research Skills, Number 714: Red Wine
Pukka historians will tell you that the really important research skills are things like objectivity, respect for one’s sources, empathy with the people of the past, a strong command of context, open-mindedness, and the ability to avoid sneezing onto priceless fourteenth century manuscripts.
However, none of these are as important as red wine.
Of course, it is usually impossible to consume red wine in repositories, as they often have some piffling jobsworth regulations about not consuming food and drink in proximity to original documents; so red wine should normally only be used as an aid to historical research when working online, preferably at home.
(I’ve worked in one, and only one, repository that was an exception to this rule, other than private houses. Back in the 1980s, when the Naval Historical Library of the Ministry of Defence was housed on an upper floor of the Empress State Building, with splendid views of Chelsea FC’s ground, there was no problem whatsoever with munching one’s packed lunch immediately adjacent to utterly irreplaceable seventeenth and eighteenth century manuscripts. Maybe I should have tried the red wine test then.)
The advantages – and, yes, disadvantages – of red wine to a historian are manifold:
1/ With the first glass, you make connections you would otherwise have missed.
2/ With the second glass, you miss connections you would otherwise have made.
3/ With the third glass, you find yourself at 9.00 on a Friday evening still hunting for additional material for the talk you’re giving the next morning.
4/ Four. FOUR glashesh. Ooh look, dartsh on TV. Time to find shome cheeshe, too. And peanutsh.
5/ Wiv th’ fiv- fiff- fifth glash, you even love David Shtarkey, man. An’ that David Olushoga. An’ Luchy Worshley. I love you all. You are ALL my beshtesht friendsh. Yesh, even you.
6/ With the sixth glass, you’re probably onto a second bottle, and should seek medical help. Either that or move to France, where you’ll be regarded as a lightweight, and it won’t be a Friday evening but early Tuesday lunchtime.
(Some will say that gin, Scotch, or even white wine are equally good with historical research. However, these are the sort of people who’ll also tell you that Chardonnay is absolutely fine with fillet steak, so they can be safely ignored.)
Anyway, at the end of last week, I found myself at the early third glass stage. This was foolish, as I already had more than enough material for the talk I was giving on the following day – which, as it turned out, was to a gratifyingly large audience, standing room only in fact, graced by no fewer than four chains of office (the Welsh love chains of office…) and one MP, the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, no less. My talk was already eclectic enough, too, ranging from Mary Queen of Scots to Dylan Thomas by way of Karl Marx and an unexpectedly itinerant dead pug. But then, the inevitable and foolish consequences of pouring that third glass kicked in.
‘I know’, thought my red-wine-fuelled historical research superhero alter ego, ‘I’ll Google this combination of names.’
I should have known better. The great advantage of Google is that you stumble across all sorts of unlikely stories that you’d never, ever have come across in the old days of trekking down to the local library and thumbing through the Encyclopedia Britannica or Keesing’s Contemporary Archives (anybody else remember that?)
…and that, of course, is also the great disadvantage of Google, namely that you stumble across all sorts of unlikely stories, etc etc, which then set you off on some lengthy and perhaps pointless digression or other, as all the while the red wine is muttering excitedly that this might make a book, or at least an article.
So here’s the story in question. There was a doctor in Carmarthen in the 1770s and 1780s who originally hailed from Northumberland. He must have known Sir John Stepney, one of the most prominent members of the family I’ve been researching for many years, because he gave two of his sons the subsidiary Christian name of Stepney. Sir John served as the British ambassador to Prussia in the early 1780s, and thus knew King Frederick the Great (who opined to Stepney that he didn’t think the newly-independent United States of America would last very long; good call, Fred). Sir John must have had other contacts at the Prussian court, and would probably have known the Crown Prince, who succeeded as King Frederick William II in 1786 – so this connection might explain the otherwise distinctly bizarre career move which saw a Welsh provincial doctor become personal physician to the King of Prussia, the direct ancestor of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
All of that’s interesting enough. (Or at any rate, it’s interesting enough when you’ve got the third glass in your hand.) But the truly mind-boggling, digression-starting, book-proposal-writing, element of all this is that the doctor in question was said to be – wait for it – an illegitimate son of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Now, I happen to know a bit about BPC, and not just because I’ve watched Outlander. Jacobitism has always been a not-so-secret subsidiary interest of mine, and one day, I hope to bring out a novel (or a series) with a slightly offbeat Jacobite theme. I also know that no matter how many glasses of wine you’ve had, there are, let’s say, several substantial implausibilities in a story that has a random Scots lass encountering BPC some time during the 1745 rebellion, then going off to Newcastle, changing her name, and having her baby after the Jacobite defeat at Culloden. Given the enduring romantic appeal of BPC, a story like this isn’t particularly surprising – what is surprising, perhaps, is that there aren’t more of them – but, of course, even if it was true, it would almost certainly be impossible to prove it, unless one could maybe arrange a DNA comparison between a descendant of the doctor and someone descended from the Stuarts. So no, the cork can go back into the bottle, because I can’t see there being a book in this. An article might be a different matter, though!
Oddly, though, the town of Carmarthen (NB not to be confused with Caernarfon, especially if you’re getting married) has some serious form when it comes to mysterious royal connections: it has the tomb of the man said to have killed King Richard III, and the graves of the supposed granddaughters of King George III by his secret marriage to the Quaker Hannah Lightfoot. Oh, and Merlin is meant to have hailed from there, too. So a resident doctor who might have been the son of the Bonnie Prince is small beer, really.
Or even a small red wine.