Wessex Worthies – John Hanning Speke

Light blogging for the next couple of weeks, as I have to make a trip to Greece on family business. The miracle of post scheduling means that blogs will still appear, but they may be somewhat shorter than usual.

For a region supposedly filled, according to popular stereotype, with ignorant bumpkins, Wessex has produced more than its fair share of scientists, philosophers and explorers. One example of the latter was John Hanning Speke (1827-64), discoverer of the source of the River Nile.

Speke was born in Buckland Brewer, Devon, in a historic manor dating back to Saxon times. in 1845, his family moved to Dowlish Wake, Somerset, where they ran a small natural history museum in their home. It is not known exactly when John started collecting specimens for the museum. but there is record of him having been refused permission to cross into Somaliland for that purpose while serving in the army, as it was considered too dangerous. He did undertake several solo expeditions during his army days, however, including one into Tibet. This brought him to the attention of the famous explorer Richard Burton (1821-90), and he finally achieved his ambition of going to Somaliland. The army appered to have been correct, though, as the expedition was viciously attacked, and Speke barely escaped with his life.

In 1856, Speke and Burton went on an expedition to Africa's Great Lakes. Accompanied by the experienced Bantu guide Sidi Mubarak Bombay (1820-85), they reached Lake Victoria. Speke believed this to be the source of the Nile, but Burton vehemently disagreed. Subsequent expeditions appeared to confirm Speke's hypothesis, but the results were inconclusive.

Upon their return to England, the better-known and more charismatic Burton was able to sway public opinion to his side. He was not about to be upstaged by this upstart who had discovered Ripon Falls without him. It didn't help that while in Uganda, Speke had fallen in love with an African woman, much to the disgust of Burton, who was notoriously racist even by the standards of Victorian England.

Burton and Speke were due to debate before the Royal Geographical Society in September 1864, but before the debate could take place, Speke was killed by his own gun whilst out shooting, at the tragically young age of 37. It is not clear whether his death was an accident, or whether Burton's public humiliations had driven him to suicide.

Speke was subsequently found to be correct, too late, alas, for his reputation to be restored. He was buried at Dowlish Wake. The rivalry between Burton and Speke was dramatised in the 1990 film Mountains of the Moon, in which Speke was played by Iain Glen and Burton by Patrick Bergin.

Wessex Worthies – William Tyndale

The monument to William Tyndale at Nibley Knoll in Gloucestershire has been in the news this week, as Extinction Rebellion protesters chose it as the site of a gigantic banner proclaiming their message. It was chosen for its visibility from the M5, rather than its connection to Tyndale, but it nonetheless seems like a good excuse for blogging about Tyndale's own rebellion.

On a clear day, the aforementioned monument was visible from my primary school, where we learned about Tyndale's courage in translating the Bible into English, whereas the Church at the time didn't want people reading the Bible at all, in case they got ideas above their station. Like much primary school history, this was a gross oversimplification, and strongly influenced by the traditional Whig view of history, in which the Protestant reformation is presented within an overall narrative of progress from the ignorance and superstition of the so-called "dark ages" to the rational enlightenment of our own era. In reality, the Church's objections to Tyndale's translation were a little more nuanced, as we shall see.

William Tyndale was born in Stinchcombe, Gloucestershire, around 1494. He was educated at Oxford, and became private chaplain to the family of Sir John Walsh of Little Sodbury. He soon found himself in trouble for expressing controversial, proto-Protestant views, perhaps influenced by the Lollard movement, which was strong in Gloucestershire at the time. He was summoned before the Chancellor of the Diocese of Worcester, John Bell, though no formal charges were made against him.

in 1523, he left for London to seek permission from its bishop, Cuthbert Tunstall, to translate the Bible into English. After being refused the help of the bishop, he continued his work under the patronage of cloth merchant Humphrey Monmouth. He then departed for the continent, publishing his translation of the New Testament in Germany, and the Pentateuch and Book of Jonah in the Low Countries.

His translation attracted criticism for being based on Hebrew and Greek texts, rather than the Latin Vulgate preferred by the Church at that time, and for what were regarded as numerous translation errors. Particularly controversial was the Protestant practice of referring to God as Jehovah. Whilst Tyndale didn't think it ought to be blasphemy just saying "Jehovah", the Catholic Church at the time preferred to translate YHWH as simply "the Lord".

Nonetheless, Tyndale's translation proved to be a huge influence on subsequent English versions of the Bible, including the authorised King James Bible of 1611. An analysis of the KJV made in 1988 showed that Tyndale's words accounted for 84% of the New Testament, and 75% of the Old Testament books that he translated. He coined words that are now standard in English-speaking Christianity, such as passover, scapegoat and atonement. Among the familiar phrases that originated in Tyndale's Bible are "the powers that be", "salt of the earth" and "the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak". Melvyn Bragg, in his short biography of Tyndale, calls him the second most influential author in the English language, after Shakespeare.

Alas, Tyndale's rebellious nature put him at odds with the church authorities of the time. Foxe's Book of Martyrs attributes a famous quote to him, addressed to a "learned but blasphemous clergyman", that he may or may not have actually said:  "I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!" Thomas More in particular violently objected to Tyndale, and put a price on his head. He was eventually found by one Henry Phillips, an Englishman who had fled to the continent to escape his gambling debts, and betrayed to officers of the Holy Roman Empire. Tyndale was returned to England, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake in 1536. Three years later, the Great Bible, an English translation authorised by Henry VIII and largely based on Tyndale's, was published.

Today, as well as the monument on Nibley Knoll, Tyndale also gives his name to Tyndale Baptist Church in Bristol, and there is a statue of him in the city's Millennium Square. He is commemorated in the liturgical calendar of the Church of England on October 6th (had I known that before I wrote this article, I'd have tried to get it out a few days earlier!). The collect of the feast, taken from Common Worship, goes as follows:

Lord, give your people grace to hear and keep your word that, after the example of your servant William Tyndale, we may not only profess your gospel but also be ready to suffer and die for it, to the honour of your name; Amen.

Slavery in Wessex from Britannia Prima to Brexit

First of all, let me apologise for bringing Brexit into everything. As you will see, there is a reason for this, it wasn't just to make the title alliterate (though that was part of it).

The recorded history of slavery in the British Isles begins in Roman times, though it probably existed long before then. According to Tacitus, Calgacus, leader of Caledonia, warned that the punishment for defeat by the invading Romans would be slavery. Britannia Prima, the Roman province roughly corresponding to Alfred's Wessex, was a mining district, as we have seen, so it is likely that slaves would be sentenced to a life of hard labour in the mines.

Slavery continued long after the Romans departed. Saint Patrick, who may have been born in the Romano-British settlement of Portus Abonae (modern-day Sea Mills in Bristol), was sold as a slave to the Irish, part of a thriving trade between the two lands. King Ine's law code later decreed that any Wessaxon selling another Wessaxon into slavery was to pay a wergild as a penalty.

Nevertheless, the Domesday book records that at the time of its compilation, some 10% of the population of England were slaves. Perhaps surprisingly, given the overall negative effects of the conquest on English freedom, outright slavery declined over the following century, and was non-existent by 1200. However, English people living in the Welsh marches were subject to border raids by the Welsh, who continued to press captives into forced labour.

From the 17th Century, penal transportation led to a new kind of slavery, with people being shipped off to new colonies in the Americas and Oceania as slaves or indentured servants, often for relatively trivial offences such as vagrancy (which, among other injustices, led to many Romanies being enslaved merely for pursuing their traditional nomadic way of life). In Wessex, the main destination for bondsmen was the area around Chesapeake Bay, in service to disaffected Cavaliers. The area is a shallow estuary with a humid subtropical climate, making it attractive to mosquitoes, and so many of these indentured servants ended up dying of malaria.

Bristol was, of course, a hub for the notorious transatlantic slave trade. Many places around the city are, controversially, named after slave trader Edward Colston, and there is a statue of him in the city centre. Concert venue the Colston Hall, which had been boycotted by artists such as Massive Attack in protest, announced that it would be changing its name in 2020, though the new name has yet to be announced at the time of writing.

Slavery was officially abolished in 1807, though it was not until 1838 that all slaves in the British empire were finally emancipated. The Bishop of Exeter was among those slaveholders compensated by the British government for the loss of their "property". The Royal Navy became active in enforcing abolition, aggressively pursuing West African slave ships and Barbary pirates.

I wish I could say that was the end of the story. But sadly, human traffic continues well into our own century. According to the charity Anti-Slavery International, the government estimates that there are tens of thousands of people living in slavery in the UK today. Moreover, the same charity warns that Brexit has the potential to weaken existing protections against slavery if it results in withdrawal from Europe-wide criminal justice initiatives such as Europol and the European Arrest Warrant. It is sincerely to be hoped that decades of progress in this area are not undone by the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Wessex Attractions: Notgrove Long Barrow

Four-and-a-half miles west of Bourton-on-the-Water, accessible from a signposted lay-by on the A436, lies one of Gloucestershire's most ancient and neglected monuments. Notgrove Long Barrow is a burial site believed to date back to the early Neolithic period. The barrow is of the Cotswold-Severn type, one of 19 such barrows in Wessex and South Wales, which are characterised by a rotunda at one end, surrounded by a dry wall made of the local stone. It measures approximately 46 metres by 30 metres, and is oriented east-west.

Excavations in 1881 and 1934-5 unearthed human and animal remains, including skeletons of a crouching man and a young woman, and an almost complete skeleton of a calf. Also found were beads made of shale and bone, half a bone ring, and neolithic pottery shards in the Peterborough style. These finds are now held in the Cheltenham Museum. Local legend told of a golden coffin buried there, but this is a fairly common folklore motif, and needless to say, no trace of such a coffin was found.

Unfortunately, these excavations completely destroyed the shape of the barrow, so that it is barely recognisable today. It was eventually filled in some time in the late 1970s, but by then, the damage had already been done. Visitors often report that the site appears overgrown, but this is on the advice of English Heritage's ecologist, to provide a haven for butterflies and wild flowers that had become endangered locally by modern agricultural practices. If a part of Wessex's human history has been lost, then at least other species, such as harebells and cowslips. can be left to flourish.

Cross and Crescent in Wessex Seas, part 2

Barbary Pirates and the Birth of the US

For International Talk Like A Pirate Day, we present the second part of this article. Part 1 can be found here.

When peace was declared with England's enemies, privateers at a loose end slipped easily into straightforward piracy. In 1609, Captain Thomas Salkeld, a heavy-drinking reprobate from Barnstaple, became known as the Pirate King of Lundy, after seizing the island and enslaving prisoners from captured shipping. Despite many bitter experiences in the 1620s, Barnstaple gave licence to 8 shipowners, who between them operated 14 ships. Whatever measures were employed were very unsuccessful. in ending the chaotic mayhem in the Bristol Channel. in 1627, another illegal occupier of the Isle of Puffins was Jan Janszoon, a Dutch renegade who hoisted an Ottoman flag over his ill-gotten occupation.

In 1627, a ship's boy from Minehead, whose name, unfortunately, was not recorded, was captured by raiding "Turks" (as we saw in part 1, the name "Turks" was applied indiscriminately to people from North Africa and the Near East). He was taken to Algiers, pressed into service, and forcibly converted to Islam. He was eventually freed at sea by an English warship, still wearing Muslim attire. He was chastised by local clergy for not becoming a martyr to his faith, and made to undergo a service of penance by local clergy. On a Sunday in May 1628, he was apparently subjected to long, pedantic and, to him, incomprehensible sermons by priests from Bagborough and Luccombe, under the watchful eye of the Bishop of Bath and Wells.

In 1649, Robert Blake, the redoubtable Parliamentary defender of Taunton in the Civil War, was appointed Admiral by Cromwell. In that same year, the depredations of the Barbary pirates was so severe that it was enacted that one shilling in every pound paid in customs duty was to be allocated to the redemption of captives.

Earlier in 1646, there had been negotiations in Algiers led by Edmond Cason, a representative of the Barbary Company. to purchase the release of 244 prisoners of the Bey. These negotiations were followed by the treacheries, misunderstandings and violations which then characterised the politics of both Christian and Muslim powers in the Mediterranean.

Blake's duties in the Mediterranean initially focussed on warfare with the Dutch, and a watching brief on the likely hostile acts of both France and Spain, However, when Blake learned in 1654 of a great concentration of Corsair vessels at Tunis, he requested authority to "sieze, surprise and sink and destroy all ships belonging to the King of Tunis that we shall meet." He "stayed not for an answer", but arrived at La Goulette, the port of Tunis, on 7 February 1655. There he found no great concentration of ships, and his requests to the ruling Bey for the return of the captured ship Princess and the release of captives were rudely refused. After some reconnoitring and revictualling in Sicily, he located nine well-protected Corsair ships at Porto Farina, a Tunisian arsenal, and these he set effectively on fire, destrying all with the loss of only 25 English lives.

It is almost impossible to comprehend the mixture of appeasement and aggression used in relations with the Corsair ports. Sometimes England had recognized consular officials operating in places like Algiers at the same time as captured English slaves were being tortured in nearby prisons. In 1628, soon after the accession of Charles I, a royal proclamation was issued demanding that the Corsair ports and their ships shuld be immune from any attacks by English vessels. This craven surrender excited enormous indignation in suffering ports such as Exeter, Plymouth and Dartmouth. One petition blamed the Jews who financed many lucrative piratic operations from North Africa. Seemingly no faith was entirely unable to avoid being drawn into the conflict.

As the Stuart monarchs Charles II and James I were keen sailors, and in James's case a competent admiral, it must have been especially irksome that their efforts to deal with the problem were largely unsuccessful. However, during Charles's reign, in 1675, a naval expedition led by Rear-Admiral Sir John Narborough managed to negotiate a treaty with Tunis, and to bombard Tripoli into submission.

Fot the next century, British ships were largely protected from the depredations of Barbary corsairs. But once the United States of America broke free from British rule, they lost the protection that went with it. In 1784, Morocco, which had been the first nation to recognise the USA, became the first nation to sieze one of its vessels, the brigantine Betsey. The Spanish government managed to negotiate the release of the hostages, but the repercussions lead to the realisation that the US Revenue-Marine (forerunner to the present-day coastguard) was not sufficient to protect American maritime interests, and to the foundation in 1794 of the US Navy. The navy fought two wars against the Barbary states, the first from 1801-5 and the second in 1815. It was an English Vice-Admiral, Edward Pellew, who eventually subdued them, though. In 1816, he led a fleet of British and Dutch warships in a bombardment of Algiers, which secured the release of some 1200 Christian slaves. For this, he was created the 1st Viscount Exmouth, thus bringing the Wessex connection full-circle.