Wessex Worthies: PC Wren

This article originally appeared in the Wessex Chronicle Volume 18, Issue 1 (Spring 2017)

An unusual entry into our Wessex Worthies series of biographies of prominent Wessaxons this time, as there is some doubt as to whether its subject actually qualifies for entry. Most “about the author” blurbs on the covers of his 30 novels and 9 collections of short stories will tell you that Percival Christopher Wren was born in Devon in 1885, a direct descendant of the famed architect Sir Christopher Wren. However, Wren was notoriously secretive about his life, and something of a fabulist to boot, so this could well be what we nowadays refer to as an alternative fact. Wikipedia, for what it’s worth, gives his birthplace as Deptford, London; Percy Wren, a humble schoolmaster’s son. It also lists his birth as being 10 years earlier, in 1875. He graduated from what is now St Catherine’s College in Oxford, but which was then St Catherine’s Society, a non-collegiate institution for poorer students. Could it be that the connection to Sir Christopher Wren was a way of elevating the status of a man who was self-conscious about his lowly origins? And who could blame a man who had the misfortune to be born in That London for wishing he had been born in Wessex instead?

Whatever his place of birth, Wren is chiefly known as the inventor of a genre of adventure fiction that was once hugely popular, but which has now fallen into disuse: the Foreign Legion story. Again, Wren’s own service in the Legion is a matter of controversy. No corroborating evidence exists to support the speculation that he had served as a legionnaire, and he refused to either confirm or deny it. It would appear, at least to my eyes, that he didn’t actually serve in the Legion, but wasn’t too upset by people thinking that he did. But his stepson, Alan Graham-Smith, always maintained that Wren was indeed a legionnaire, and was reportedly very upset by those who said otherwise.

He definitely served in World War I, however, in the 101st Grenadiers, a unit of the British Indian Army active in East Africa. After being invalided out in 1915, he concentrated on his fiction, though he had previously written a number of educational textbooks used in India. By far his best-known work is the 1924 novel Beau Geste, which has been filmed a number of times, and which spawned four sequels, two of which were also filmed. It was parodied by the Carry On team in Follow That Camel, and by Marty Feldman in The Last Remake of Beau Geste. The title of the latter proved to be prophetic as far as film is concerned, but it was adapted again for television in 1982 in an 8-part BBC serial written by Alistair Bell & Terrance Dicks and directed by Douglas Camfield.

PC Wren died in 1941, and is buried in the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church, Amberley, Gloucestershire. Whether or not he was born in Devon, he certainly loved the county. Consider this passage from Good Gestes:

“What would be the loveliest thing his mind could possibly conceive? What about a drive in the high dog-cart with Isobel?—through the glorious Devon countryside; the smart cob doing his comfortable ten miles an hour; harness jingling; hoof-beats regular as clockwork; Isobel's hand under his right arm; Devon lanes; Devon fields and orchards; Devon moors; glorious—beyond description.”

So whilst his birth in Wessex may be open to dispute, the fact that his heart, soul, and ultimately body belonged here is not.

Wessex Worthies: Thomas Chatterton

Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770) was Bristol's very own rock'n'roll suicide, 200 years before rock'n'roll was born. A precocious child, he was, by the age of 12, able to pass off his poetry as the work of a 15th century monk named Thomas Rowley. The forgery was convincing enough to take in the antiquarian William Barrett (1733-1789).

Chatterton's father died before he was born, and it is thought that this motivated him to create the character of Rowley as a father figure-cum-imaginary friend. He saw his poetry as a way of rescuing his mother from poverty, and pursued a literary career from childhood, writing for the Bristol Journal at 11 years old. He sought a patron in Bristol, but was unable to find one who paid enough, so he left for London aged 16 in the hope of convincing Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Oxford (1717-1797) to publish the works of the mythical Rowley. Walpole initially agreed, but on discovering Chatterton's age, he became suspicious, and soon figured out that Rowley's work was a forgery.

Snubbed by Walpole for his poetry, Chatterton concentrated on political writings, penning polemics for Town and Country and the Middlesex Journal, the latter under the pseudonym of Decimus.

In April 1770, he penned a satirical Last Will & Testament, in which he left "all my vigour and fire of youth to Mr. George Catcott, being sensible he is most want of it...unto the Reverent Mr. Camplin senior, all my humility. To Mr. Burgum all my prosody and grammar, --likewise one moiety of my modesty; the other moiety to any young lady who can prove without blushing that she wants that valuable commodity. To Bristol, all my spirit and disinterestedness, parcels of goods, unknown on her quay since Canning and Rowley!" He predicted that his death would happen on the following day, Easter Sunday.

This proved to be sadly prophetic. In August of that year, when walking in St Pancras churchyard with a friend, he fell into an open grave, On being helped out, he remarked that he had been at war with the grave for some time. Three days later, three months shy of his 18th birthday, he retired to his room and drank a fatal dose of arsenic.

His suicide went largely unremarked at the time, and he was buried in the graveyard of Shoe Lane Workhouse in Holborn. But his reputation grew after his death, both in England and France, where in 1835, the playwright Alfred de Vigny (1797-1863) wrote a drama based on his life; while much later, Serge Gainsbourg (1928-1991) wrote a song entitled Chatterton. Recognition in his native Bristol was less forthcoming, however. In 1886, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and the architect Herbert Horne (1864-1916) campaigned unsuccessfully to have a plaque erected in his memory at his old school, Colston's School. A statue was erected at St Mary Redcliffe church, but was later removed when it became unsafe. A later bronze statue now stands in Millennium Square on Harbourside., while the house where he was born is now a cafe in Redcliffe Way, while one of the walls of the school where his father taught (now otherwise demolished) can still be seen next door.

St Berin, Apostle of Wessex

This article is the first in a new series, Essential Wessex, outlining key moments in Wessex history

St Berin, more commonly known by the Latinised form of his name, Birinus, was a Frankish bishop sent by Pope Honorius I to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons. He was originally destined for Mercia, but upon arriving in the kingdom of the Gewissae, located in the upper Thames Valley, felt that his calling was here. He landed at Hamwic (Southampton) in 634, and was given permission to preach by King Cynegils the following year. Cynegils' motives were not purely based in religious conviction. His daughter was to marry the Christian King Oswald of Northumbria, and a conversion to Christianity made for a politically savvy move.

According to a legend depicted in stained glass at Dorchester Abbey, Birinus gave mass before boarding a ship and left behind a corporal (altar cloth) that had been gifted to him by Pope Honorius. He jumped overboard, retrieved the corporal and rejoined the ship, which had been miraculously becalmed despite an offshore wind, walking upon the water without getting wet.

Back in the real world, Berin was known to have baptised at a pond known as Bapsey Pool (a corruption of the word "baptism") at Taplow, though the baptism of Cynegils probably took place at Dorchester-on-Thames, an important settlement that subsequently became Berin's see. The see of Dorchester lapsed some time around 685, as Mercian expansion gobbled up Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire, forcing the bishopric of the West Saxons southward to Winchester. The last bishop of Dorchester before its absorption into the see of Lichfield was a Mercian, Ætla, with his West Saxon predecessor Agilbert being reassigned to Paris. The see was re-established in 886 by King Alfred, covering much of the Danelaw.

Berin was very active in establishing churches in what is now the northern part of Wessex, including the parish church of St Mary's in Reading. Berin's Hill near Ipsden and the town of Berinsfield, both in Oxfordshire, are named after him. He died on 3rd December 650 (649 according to some sources), and buried at Dorchester Abbey, though his relics were later transferred to Winchester Cathedral. His feast day is observed on 3rd December in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, but 5th December in the Church of England.

Until recently, the Anglican feast day was the date of a pilgrimage that departed from Churn Knob near Blewbury, a neolithic burial mound that may have been chosen for Berin's preaching due to already being recognised as a sacred site. Wessex Society members joined the pilgrimage in one the early years of the Society's founding (I believe it was 2000, but I have no record, so I cannot be absolutely sure), braving torrential rain and swamp-like mud for a walk of approximately eleven miles. The pilgrimage route is available to members of the Walking World website, or non-members can buy the route for a small fee of £1.95. Perhaps one year, the Society might revive the walk.

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.