Sunday, July 25, 2021

Never to be forgotten

Sidney George Fisher, described by Wikipedia as a Philadelphia gentleman, lawyer, farmer, plantation owner, political essayist and occasional poet, died 150 years ago today. But he was also a diarist of some distinction as can be noted from this extract concerning the death of his brother: ‘It seems like a horrible dream. I cannot describe the scenes of those dreadful days & nights, the shocking contortions of his face, the ravings, the stream of words, of articulate sounds which were not words, poured forth in torrents by the hour, with such terrible expression of voice & countenance that it seemed to me a wonderful exhibition of the power of both. A new view of human nature was opened to me, impressive, solemn, fearful, never to be forgotten.’

Fisher was born in 1809 in Philadelphia, US, the eldest of three sons. His father died when he was five and his mother when he was 12. The three boys moved to live with their aunt in Wakefield, Germantown. Fisher went on to study law at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and prospered as a lawyer. In 1951, he married Elizabeth Ingersoll, and they had one son. Soon after, they moved to a country residence owned by the Ingersolls called Forest Hill, located some four miles north of Philadelphia, which remained Fisher’s home for the rest of his life. Increasingly, he only practiced law when it suited him, preferring to indulge other interests, writing books and giving talks.

Fisher inherited a plantation, Mount Harmon, on the Sassafras River in Cecil County, Maryland, from his maternal grandfather and namesake, Sidney George. He leased the land to farmers who lived there with their families and paid him rent. Although he was a gentleman farmer, Fisher advised his fellow farmers to diversify beyond grain. He was a fervent lifelong anti-Democrat, and prior to the Civil War he was a slavery apologist, agreeing with abolitionists that slavery was evil, but arguing that it was necessary as a form of welfare. His most influential achievement was his book, The Trial of the Constitution, published in 1862. He died on 25 July 1871. Further information is available at Wikipedia. The American Antiquarian Society has a more detailed biography.

Apart from The Trial of the Constitution, Fisher is best remembered for a lively and informative diary he kept for much of his life. The original manuscripts were edited by Nicholas Wainwright and published in 1967 by the Philadelphia Historical Society as A Philadelphia Perspective: The Diary of Sidney George Fisher Covering the Years 1834-1871. Subsequently, the diaries were edited by W. Emerson Wilson and published by The Historical Society of Delaware as Mount Harmon Diaries of Sidney George Fisher, 1837-1850. In 2007, came yet another edition, this one edited by Jonathan White and focused on the civil war: A Philadelphia Perspective: The Civil War Diary of Sidney George Fisher (some pages can be previewed at Amazon).

The following extracts however come from The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography which published parts of the diary in July 1964 (Vol. 88, No. 3).

18 February 1862
‘Every branch & twig of the trees was this morning encased in ice, producing a beautiful effect of silver arabesque. They glittered in the sun like so many gigantic chandeliers of cut glass. The news is that Fort Donelson is ours. It is a most important position and was defended with great obstinacy. The courage displayed in the attack, however, was greater than in the defence, as the enemy fought behind entrenchments, whilst our troops marched up hill to armed batteries, exposed to a deadly fire from an unseen foe, and this too after exposure without tents to rain & storms.

Mrs. Kemble came in. She was as usual exuberant & animated, a little theatrical, very clever & somewhat dictatorial, tho in a good- natured way. She is very enthusiastic about the war & predicts from it the destruction of slavery. She expressed profound regret at the hostile opinions exhibited by England, but said that we have much more to dread from France & that her English letters informed her that, but for the remonstrances & advice of the English government, the Emperor would ere this have recognized the South & opened the blockade.’

10 March 1862
‘At 3 o’clock this morning I saw my brother die.’

14 March 1862
‘I wish to make now merely a simple record of the facts of this the greatest calamity that has yet befallen me. On Thursday evening, as before mentioned, Henry was so much better that the doctors thought there was no reason whatever why anyone should remain with him all night. As I had been away three nights, I therefore came home. On Friday morning, I found that I had taken cold from my long drive to Frankford the previous day and, the weather being still damp & raw, I feared to increase it by going up morning & evening to Brookwood and, feeling no anxiety about Henry, I remained at home till three o'clock. On my way up I met Harry Ingersoll in Green Lane, who told me that Henry was much worse & had had a bad night. When I reached the house, I was informed that during the night the fits had returned with great violence, that he had been quite out of his mind, had got out of bed, tried to jump out of the window, & could only be controlled by the coachman, the only man in the house. In the morning, he had a few hours sleep, the effect of opiates. George Smith & I sat up with him, Wister & Gerhard there in the evening. He continued to grow worse thro Saturday & Sunday and at 10 minutes past 3 on Monday morning he died.

It seems like a horrible dream. I cannot describe the scenes of those dreadful days & nights, the shocking contortions of his face, the ravings, the stream of words, of articulate sounds which were not words, poured forth in torrents by the hour, with such terrible expression of voice & countenance that it seemed to me a wonderful exhibition of the power of both. A new view of human nature was opened to me, impressive, solemn, fearful, never to be forgotten. Grief at times was overcome by amazement not unmixed with admiration at the spectacle, whose various horrors were governed by an order and harmony of their own, which passed in rapid succession &, when over, left on the mind, like a storm, the impression of sublime power & terrible beauty. George Smith & Stewardson were with him nearly all the time, Wister came twice a day & staid all Sunday night, Gerhard staid two nights. All that skill could do was tried in vain. The disease was meningitis or inflammation of the brain, which caused the convulsions & the astonishing effects of countenance & voice, and his great vital power made the struggle long & severe. At 12 o’clock on Sunday, Wister announced to Leidy that he was sinking. The convulsions, the ravings, the distortions had ceased & he laid panting but quiet. We all assembled around the bed, Leidy, Ellen, Jim, Mrs. Atherton, Mrs. Purviance & myself, and there we all remained until three o’clock on Monday morning, 15 hours, during which he was dying. Leidy had been in constant attendance on him night & day, ever since he was attacked, with rare intervals of sleep, the others were more or less exhausted. Human nature could endure no more. Before he died they were all asleep. Half an hour before he died, the loud hoarse panting subsided into a soft, gentle, regular moan, which grew fainter until at length the last breath was expired and he was gone. We got the ladies & children to their rooms & soon after went to bed ourselves.’

15 August 1862
‘Went to town, driving Bet, Sidney, & Bridget in the big wagon with Delly. As we were going along Broad St. we met a Dummy engine [the name given by Philadelphians to streetcars propelled by small vertical steam engines] lately put on that road. The mare was very much frightened, shied first to one side & then to the other, & if they had not stopped the engine & the conductor had not come to my assistance, we would have been upset. When I saw the probability of this & thought of Bet & Sidney, my feelings are not to be described, nor my relief & thankfulness when the danger was over. These Dummy cars always frighten horses. They move without any apparent motive power, tho why that should have the effect I cannot imagine, unless horses are capable of being astonished at an effect of which they cannot see the cause. It is an outrage to permit the use of such engines in the streets, but the passenger railroad companies seem to have seized on the highways of the city as their property. They control councils & the legislature.’ 

11 November 1862
‘On the way to Wilmington [en route to Mount Harmon] fell into conversation with a young soldier who was wounded at the battle of Antietam in the foot. He was an intelligent, manly fellow, full of enthusiasm for the war. He gave me an account of the battle & of the dreadful scenes that accompanied it, by which he seemed much impressed. He saw 1,100 men buried at once, in a long trench, but so hastily was the work done that hands, feet, & heads stuck out above ground. Another man joined in the conversation, who said he was a farmer in Maryland & lived not far from the battlefield, which he visited immediately after the fight. He could not find words to describe the frightful sufferings he witnessed. He saw many of the rebel prisoners. He said they were a horrible-looking set of men, ferocious, filthy, in rags, many without shoes or hats, & with trousers made of old guano bags.’

29 November 1862
‘My note in the paper. It is longer than I expected, occupying 5 1/2 columns. It is preceded by an announcement that it is a note appended to a volume entitled The Trial of the Constitution by Sidney G. Fisher, soon to be published by J. B. Lippincott & Co. This is the first time I ever published anything, except speeches, &c., with my name, altho it has always been mentioned in newspaper notices of other works. I have now left the shelter of privacy & come before the public as an author & of a book that contains many opinions on important & exciting topics likely to provoke attack & unfriendly criticism. I must take the consequences, some of which may be unpleasant. I believe the principles I have advanced to be true & have expressed them because I am convinced of their truth & from no selfish motives.’

Friday, July 23, 2021

The loveliest dance

Exactly 80 years ago today, the young Alathea Gwendoline Alys Mary, a constant companion to the young Lilibet, future queen of England, attended a dance - one that she described as ‘the loveliest dance I’ve ever been to’. Alathea’s diaries, written when she was in her late teens and early 20s, have recently been published to much acclaim - A. N. Wilson, for example, is quoted as calling the work, ’A wonderful book’. They certainly provide a wonderfully carefree contrast to diaries written in nearby London during the war.

Alathea was born in 1923 at Norfolk House, Sheffield, to Henry FitzAlan-Howard, 2nd Viscount FitzAlan of Derwent, and Joyce Elizabeth Mary Langdale. Had she been a boy, she would eventually have become Duke of Norfolk, the head of England’s leading Catholic aristocratic family, and Earl Marshal and inherited Arundel Castle. Instead, the title went sideways to her third cousin. At the beginning of the Second World War, she was sent to live with her rather old-fashioned grandfather at Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Park. There, her constant companions were Princess Elizabeth, 13, and Margaret, 9, who had been sent to Windsor for safety, and were also being educated by governesses. 

In 1953, Alathea married Hon. Edward Ward, and they settled in Lausanne, Switzerland. She died in 2001. There appears to be no further biographical information about her readily available online. However, in 2020, Hodder & Stoughton published a selection of Alathea’s diaries, as edited by Celestria Noel, under the title The Windsor Diaries 1940-45. According to her friend Isabella Naylor-Leyland, who wrote a foreward for the book, Alathea kept diaries all her life. This early selection, though, has particular interest because during the war years she was in daily contact with the future Queen. The book can be previewed at Amazon or Googlebooks.

The publisher says of Alathea: ‘She captures the tight-knit, happy bonds between the Royal Family, as well as the aspirations and anxieties, sometimes extreme, of her own teenage mind.’ It adds: ‘These unique diaries give us a bird’s eye view of Royal wartime life with all of Alathea’s honest, yet affectionate judgments and observations - as well as a candid and vivid portrait of the young Princess Elizabeth, known to Alathea as ‘Lilibet’, a warm, self-contained girl, already falling for her handsome prince Philip, and facing her ultimate destiny: the Crown.’

The book was critically well received. A. N. Wilson called it ‘a wonderful book’; The Times said it was ‘Funny, astute, poignant and historically fascinating’; and Charles Moore in The Spectator said Alathea ‘captures that tiny, peaceful island in a world on fire’. However, it is worth noting that there’s quite a contrast between Alathea’s diaries - full of emotions roused mostly by social concerns, not least preparing for parties - and other diaries written during the war years in nearby London. See, for example, the diaries kept by Charles Graves or Marielle Bennett.

Here is Alathea’s report to herself on one of those parties.

23 July 1941
‘Spent most of the morning and afternoon quietly lying on rug in garden reading. After tea, I sewed indoors, as flies so bad. At six I went up to begin the great affair of dressing! Could hardly eat any dinner and all the way to the Castle in the Barley Mow taxi I was in a state of nervous excitement. Arrived and was miserable at first because everyone had long white gloves, then I saw lots hadn’t, but I should have liked to have worn them. We all filed through into the Red Drawing Room, shaking hands with the K and Q and the princesses. Then dancing began. Never, in all my life, shall I forget this evening - it was the loveliest dance I’ve ever been to. There were nearly 200 there and I knew almost all - it went on till three in the morning without a lull, although supposed to end at twelve! We walked out on to the terrace in between dances. Everyone admired my dress including the Queen and I got on wonderfully and danced with everyone I wanted - except the King although he did clutch my arm in the first Palais Glide. I loved the waltz best, though, by far. The Q was wonderful and danced all the ‘funny dances’ and Paul Jones,’ etc., and looked lovely in a full frock of white tulle, covered with silver sequins and the princesses wore dresses rather the same as the Q, also from Hartnell, in white lacy stuff, embroidered with pale blue marguerites, and they had flowers in their hair and at their waist, but they were especially pretty because they weren’t ordinary children’s party frocks and were unlike anyone else’s. Actually, there weren’t very many lovely frocks and I honestly think that mine and the princesses’ were the prettiest there. No Eton boys, for which I was glad, as we then only had the dashing young ‘cavaliers’! I was terrified I wasn’t going to dance with Hugh Euston and could have killed Libby when she had him, for ages, but then I met him at the buffet and he said, with that great charm of his, ‘Oh, Alathea, I’ve been looking for you all the evening, we must have a dance!’ It wasn’t true but still!! I danced the last dance of all with him and it went on for ages - we got on beautifully and had a drink together at the end. The rooms were insufferably hot and someone fainted. PE asked me how many times I danced with him and said she was rather hurt because he only had the first one with her because he was asked to and then not again. Hugh loved my dress. We said goodbye about three fifteen - P Margaret stayed up till the very end. She was so sweet and everyone was mad about her. Car came to fetch me and I got home and fell into bed exhausted but blissfully happy! Never, in all my life, shall I forget this night.’

Thursday, July 22, 2021

I got his reprieve

It is four centuries exactly since the birth of Anthony Ashley Cooper for whom the title Earl of Shaftesbury was created during the reign of Charles II. The title has survived and is currently held by Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, the 12th Earl of Shaftesbury. The first Earl kept a diary, albeit with only very brief entries, largely recording his work as a justice of the peace. One longer entry, though, records the death of his wife.

Cooper was born on 22 July 1621 in the county of Dorset. He suffered from the death of both his parents at a young age, and was educated by Puritan tutors, before entering Exeter College, Oxford. He married Margaret, the daughter of Lord Coventry, when only 18, but she died young. Cooper was admitted into Lincoln’s Inn, and subsequently was elected to the Short Parliament for the borough of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, where his family owned land. When he was elected to the Long Parliament for Poole in his native Dorset, his appointment was blocked by Denzil Holles, an important politician at the time.

At the start of the Civil War, Cooper supported the King but then changed sides, and eventually joined Cromwell’s Council of State. He married for a second time in 1650, to Lady Francis Cecil. Falling out with Cromwell, he left the Council of State in 1655, and later returned to the royalist cause, supporting the Restoration of Charles II. Thereafter, he served on the commission that tried the Regicides, was created Baron Ashley, and was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1663, he was one of eight Lords Proprietors given title to a huge tract of land in North America, which eventually became the Province of Carolina.

After the fall of Lord Clarendon in 1667, Cooper became a prominent member of the Cabal, a group of high councillors who held power under the rule of Charles II, and then, in 1672, was appointed Lord Chancellor. He was created Earl of Shaftesbury and Baron Cooper of Pawlett, and took on a further appointment as First Lord of Trade. Because of his opposition to the succession of the Duke of York, Shaftesbury fell from favour, and became a leader of the radical Whigs. He was charged with high treason, but then, when the charges were dismissed, he fled to the Netherlands, fearing he might be charged again, and died there in 1683.

Wikipedia has an extensive biography of Cooper, and even more details can be gleaned from A Life of Anthony Ashley Cooper, first Earl of Shaftesbury, 1621-1683 by W D Christie published by Macmillan and Co in 1871 and freely available at Internet Archive.

For a few years, as a young man, Cooper kept a diary. Christie describes it as ‘the most meagre and prosaic of diaries’ but, nevertheless, refers to it in his biography, and even includes a full text in one of the appendices. It is worth noting that Cooper appears often in Samuel Pepys’s diary, and that on Phil Gyford’s website there is a list of all Pepys’s references to Cooper.

The following text is Christie’s narrative on Cooper’s diary, and includes many extracts.

‘Some passages of his Diary extending from January 1, 1646, to July 10, 1650, are here selected, which have interest in connexion with his life and character, or with the habits of the time.

On February 5, 1646, Cooper records a surgical operation: “I had a nerve and vein cut by Gell and two more, for which I was forced to keep my chamber twelve days.” On February 12, “I had another nerve and vein cut.”

On April 1, 1646, he mentions that two Dorsetshire boys of his neighbourhood, fifteen years old each, bound themselves to him for seven years for his plantation in Barbadoes, to receive 5l. each at the end of the time. The Dorsetshire quarter sessions were held on the seventh and eighth of April, “this time kept at Dorchester, and not at Sherborne, for security.” The magistrates did bloody work: “Nine hanged; only three burnt in the hand,” is Cooper’s summary of their deeds.

A few days after, the Dorsetshire Committee, of which Cooper was one, “sat in the Shire Hall, at Dorchester, by the ordinance for punishing pressed soldiers that ran away on the 15th of January last, when three were condemned to die, two to run the gantelope [guantlet], two to be tied neck and heels and one to stand with a rope about his neck.”

On July 27, there is an entry of a domestic incident: “My wife miscarried of a boy; she had gone twenty weeks. Her brother John in jest threw her against a bedstaff, which hurt her so that it caused this.”

In August he attended the assizes at Salisbury and Dorchester, being, he says, in the commission of oyer and terminer for the whole circuit. The judges were Mr Justice Kolle and Serjeant Godbolt. On August 10, the assizes began at Salisbury, and Cooper took the oaths as a justice of the peace for Wiltshire.

“August 11: Sir John Danvers came and sat with us. Seven condemned to die; four for horse-stealing, two for robbery, one for killing his wife, he broke her neck with his hands; it was proved that, he touching her body the day after, her nose bled fresh; four burnt in the hand, one for felony, three for manslaughter; the same sign followed one of them of the corpse bleeding.”

“August 12. I and the Sheriff of Wilts begged the life of one Prichett, one of those seven condemned, because he had been a Parliament soldier. I waited on the judges to Dorchester.”

At Dorchester the assizes terminated on the fourteenth: “Five condemned to die, two women for murdering their children, one of them a married woman; one for murder, one for robbery, one for horse-stealing: three burnt in the hand, one for manslaughter, two for felony. Chibbett condemned for horse-stealing. The Justices begged his reprieve, he having been a faithful soldier to the State.”

A few days after, on the seventeenth, he went Bryanston bowling-green, where he “bowled all day.”

On October 1 he mentions: “I went to Shaftesbury to the council of war for Massey’s brigade, and got them removed out of Dorset.” The Parliament had ordered that this brigade should be disbanded.

In December, he enters: “I was by both Houses of Parliament made High Sheriff of the county of Wilts. I was by ordinance of Parliament made one of the committee for Dorset and Wilts, for Sir Thomas Fairfax his army’s contribution.”

In March of next year, 1647, he attended the judges as sheriff, at the Wiltshire assizes: “March 13: The judges came into Salisbury, Justice Roles and Serjeant Godbolt. They went hence the 17th day. I had sixty men in liveries, and kept an ordinary for all gentlemen at Lawes his, four shillings and two shillings for blew men. I paid for all. There were sixteen condemned to die, whereof fourteen suffered. George Philips condemned for stealing a horse; I got his reprieve, and another for the like offence was reprieved by the judge. Three more were burnt in the hand, then condemned.”

On March 29, he and his wife had another disappointment: “My wife miscarried of a child she was eleven weeks gone with.”

During this month of March, Cooper adds, “ I raised the country twice, and beat out the soldiers designed for Ireland who quartered on the county without order, and committed many robberies.” These were very likely soldiers of the disbanded Massey’s brigade, of whom Ludlow says that many gave trouble in Wiltshire, and ultimately enlisted themselves to serve against the rebels in Ireland, the Parliament having sent instructions and officers for that purpose.

In June he took his wife to Bath, where she stayed five weeks. “June 15: We came to Bath, where my wife made use of the Cross bath, for to strengthen her against miscarriage.”

The August Wiltshire assizes began at Salisbury on the fourteenth and ended on the eighteenth. The judges this time were Godbolt, now a Judge of the Common Pleas, and Serjeant Wild, afterwards Chief Baron. “Four condemned to die: one for a robbery, two for horse-stealing, one for murder. Luke, that was for the robbery, I got his reprieve.” Cooper adds, “I kept my ordinary at the Angel, four shillings for the gentlemen, two for their men, and a cellar.”

On November 12, there is a curious entry of a speculation: “The little ship called the ‘Rose’ wherein I have a quarter part, which went to Guinea, came to town this term (blessed be God!). She has been out about a year, and we shall but make our money.”

On the twenty-ninth: “My wife was delivered at seven o’clock in the evening of a dead maid child; she was within a fortnight of her time.”

For the first half of the year 1648, Cooper had attacks of ague. On February 14 he enters in his Diary, “I fell sick of a tertian ague, whereof I had but five fits, through the mercy of the Lord.” This ague prevented his sitting with the judges at the assizes in March. He had ceased to be Sheriff of Wiltshire, having received his writ of discharge on February 11 from his uncle Tooker, who succeeded him. Again, on April 29, there is an entry: “I fell sick of a tertian ague, whereof I had but two fits, through the mercy of the Lord.”

In July he was made a commissioner of the ordinance of Parliament for a rate for Ireland for Dorsetshire, and also, by ordinance of Parliament, was made one of the commissioners for the militia in Dorsetshire.

The ordinance for the trial of Charles the First was passed by the House of Commons on the sixth of January, 1649. The trial began on the twentieth; on the twenty-seventh sentence was passed, and on the thirtieth the King was executed. Even this great event elicits no mention in Cooper’s Diary. He was travelling at the time, and he merely notes his movements. On the twenty-ninth, the day before the execution, he left his house at Wimborne St Giles to go to London, and on the thirtieth he travelled from Andover to Bagshot. The entries in the Diary are these: “January 29: I began my journey to London, and went to Andover, 30: I went to Bagshot. 31: I came to London, and lodged at Mr Guidott’s, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.” This is all.

In the next month he records: “I was made by the States a justice of peace of quorum for the counties of Wilts and Dorset, and of oyer and terminer for the western circuit.”

In July 1649, a heavy domestic calamity befell him, the sudden death of his wife: “July 10: My wife, just as she was sitting down to supper, fell suddenly into an apoplectical convulsion fit. She recovered that fit after some time, and spoke and kissed me, and complained only in the head, but fell again in a quarter of an hour, and then never came to speak again, but continued in fits and slumbers until next day. At noon she died; she was with child the fourth time, and within six weeks of her time.”

She had had no child born alive. They had been married nine years and a half. Cooper’s glowing and touching eulogium of his wife, which here follows in the Diary, has been already quoted.

[The diary itself has a little more for this date, July 10, which has the longest in the entire diary: “She was a lovely, beautiful, fair woman, a religious, devout Christian, of admirable wit and wisdom, beyond any I ever knew, yet the most sweet, affectionate, and observant wife in the world. Chaste, without a suspicion of the most envious, to the highest assurance of her husband; of a most noble and bountiful mind, yet very provident in the least things; exceeding all in anything she undertook, housewifery, preserving, works with the needle, cookery, so that her WISH and judgment were expressed in all things; free from any pride or frowardness, she was in discourse and counsel far beyond any woman.”]

In little more than nine months Cooper was again married. One of the last entries in his Diary records his marriage, on April 25, 1650, with the Lady Frances Cecil, sister of the Earl of Exeter, a royalist nobleman.

A few days before this marriage, on April 19, Cooper entered in his Diary: “I laid the first stone of my house at St. Giles’s.”

After the execution of Charles the First, Cooper continued obedient to the existing supreme authority, acted as a magistrate, took the engagement to be faithful to the new Commonwealth without King or House of Lords, and acted as a commissioner to administer the engagement in Dorsetshire. He mentions in the Diary that he was sworn as a magistrate for the counties of Wilts and Dorset, and acted for the first time since the King’s death, on August 16, 1649, about a month after the loss of his first wife. He subscribed the engagement, with a number of his brother magistrates, at Salisbury quarter sessions, on January 17, 1650. On January 29 he sat at Blandford, on a commission from the Council of State, to give the engagement. On the thirty-first he started for London, where he arrived on the second of February, and he there received a new commission to himself and others for giving the engage- ment in Dorsetshire.

The Diary ends abruptly on July 10, 1650. In the following year Cooper’s wife bore him a son, who was christened Cecil, and who died in childhood. On the sixteenth of January, 1652, was born another son, Anthony Ashley, who lived to inherit his father’s possessions and titles, and transmitted them to a son of his own . . .’

And, in time, there would be a seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, another diarist - see The Diary Junction, and The Diary Review’s article, My birthday again - and a twelfth Earl, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper. The latter inherited the title in 2005 when his elder brother, the eleventh earl, died of a heart attack in New York, where Nicholas was then working as a disc jockey - see Wikipedia for more.

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 22 July 2011.

Monday, July 19, 2021

The day was saved!

‘At 3.15 it started to rain - C.C. in the depths, bemoaning his ill fortune - the long-anticipated inspection of the garden would be out of the question. [. . .] 3.28 the bell rang - the Royal car rounded the corner of the yard - C.C. hastened to the bottom of the stairs as fast as his poor stiff muscles would allow. The Queen emerged, followed by the King and Princess Mary. Muriel and I stood at attention at the top of the stairs - C.C. presented us to his Royal visitors and then led them into the Drawing Room. At that moment the rain stopped miraculously and the sun began to shine. Laus Deo - the day was saved!’ This is Alan Campbell Don, newly-appointed secretary to Cosmo Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury (C.C.), writing in his diary about a day - 90 years ago exactly - when teh King and Queen made a private visit to the archbishop’s residence, Lambeth Palace.

Don was born in 1885 into a manufacturing Dundee family at Broughty Ferry, Scotland. He was educated at Rugby school and Magdalen College, Oxford, before studying for the ministry at Cuddesdon College. He was ordained priest in 1913, and the following year he married Muriel Gwenda McConnell, but it would not prove a happy marriage, and there were no children. He became curate in Redcar and then vicar at Norton-by-Malton, also in Yorkshire. For 10 years, starting in 1921, he was the Provost at St. Paul’s Cathedral Church, Dundee. 

A chance meeting in 1931 led Don to offer his services to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang. He was taken on as secretary, a position he retained through most of Lang’s tenure. Between the mid-1930s and mid-1940s, he was also chaplain to King George and to the Speaker of the House of Commons. From 1941 to 1946, he was both Canon of Westminster and rector at St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster. He was elevated to Dean of Westminster in 1946, remaining in that position until 1959 (a period which included the coronation of Queen Elizabeth); and he was knighted in 1948. He died in late 1963. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, The Peerage, or the Westminster Abbey website.

Don started keeping a diary on taking up his appointment as secretary to Lang in 1931, and he continued with regular entries through until 1946. The original diaries are now held in the Lambeth Palace Library. Not until last year (2020), however, were they edited by Robert Beaken and published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge as Faithful Witness: The Confidential Diaries of Alan Don, Chaplain to the King, the Archbishop and the Speaker, 1931-1946. Some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks and Amazon.

The publisher says: [Don’s diaries] offer a wealth of detailed insight into the ecclesiastical, royal, and parliamentary affairs of Britain and her élite during two historically significant decades. They also open a window on the history of the Church of England and its role in the social, political and military upheavals of the 1930s and 40s as well as the lives of Alan Don and Archbishop Lang.’

Beaken, in his introduciton, adds: ‘As we read Don’s diaries, we are transported back to the world and culture of Britain in the 1930s and 1940s. In some ways, it all seems very remote and distant. In other ways, it is surprising how much remains recognizable eighty or ninety years later. In the pages of the diary, we closely observe Alan Don and Archbishop Lang - two very human men, with strengths and weaknesses, and much quiet kindness and decency - busily working away, endeavouring to do their best during some very difficult and often tragic years of British history.’

Here is an extract from Don’s diaries, one written 90 years ago this very day and only a short time after he had started work for the archbishop. His boss was all a fluster that day because the King and Queen had promised to come visiting!

19 July 1931

‘I celebrated at the Parish Church. A wet and windy morning. Muriel and I lunched alone with C.C. who was much put out by the vagaries of the weather in view of the fact that he was expecting a private visit from their Majesties. I rang up the Equerry in Waiting after lunch to enquire whether the King and Queen were coming - he knew nothing of the matter nor could he discover anyone in the Royal Household who did - no orders had been given and their Majesties were still engaged at luncheon. Had the Queen forgotten all about it?

Then to the relief of His Grace came a message at 2.40 that all was well - the Royal party would leave Buckingham Palace at 3.15. I warned Woodward, the porter, to be ready - Dowding, the butler, and the two footman threw open the front doors. I donned my frock coat and Muriel a hat. C.C. paced the corridor gazing at the clouds. At 3.15 it started to rain - C.C. in the depths, bemoaning his ill fortune - the long-anticipated inspection of the garden would be out of the question. What was he to do? Inspect the Crypt or what? Every door was unlocked in anticipation of a circular tour of the house. 3.25 came - it still rained in torrents. Had they started? “O dear me, oh dear me - how pitiable” was all that escaped the archiépiscopal lips. 3.28 the bell rang - the Royal car rounded the corner of the yard - C.C. hastened to the bottom of the stairs as fast as his poor stiff muscles would allow. The Queen emerged, followed by the King and Princess Mary. Muriel and I stood at attention at the top of the stairs - C.C. presented us to his Royal visitors and then led them into the Drawing Room. At that moment the rain stopped miraculously and the sun began to shine. Laus Deo - the day was saved!

So out they went through the Archbishop’s study, the King talking at the top of his voice - ‘What a small room,’ he shouted as he caught sight of the enormous study. Muriel and I listened in the passage upstairs to the royal banter and then watched the inspection of the garden from the window of the Bishops’ Smoking Room. The sun shone merrily and the Archbishop’s spirits rose - Budden the gardener was summoned from his lurking place behind the bushes and was introduced all round. An animated conversation ensued - Princess Mary took notes - the King gesticulated - the Queen asked questions. Budden was in his glory, spied upon by envious eyes from the Palace windows. C.C. finally led the party to the steps up to the Vestry and entered the House. A tour of the Chapel, Crypt and Library followed - the Visitors Book was signed - the royal car drew up at the front door and at 4.45 they moved off, passing en route Muriel holding ‘Nigel’ aloft and A.C. Don waving his top hat.

We joined C.C. at tea and congratulated him upon the delightful entertainment he had provided for us. It was great fun - and Their Majesties quite evidently enjoyed themselves too.

When, I wonder, did the King and Queen of England last pay a private visit to His Grace of Canterbury? C.C. is indeed in high favour.’

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Israel’s Joan of Arc

‘This morning we visited Daddy’s grave. How sad that we had to become acquainted with the cemetery so early in life.’ This is from the diary of Hannah Senesh born a century ago today. Although a Hungarian Jew that had emigrated to Palestine, she returned to Europe to take part in a dangerous military plan to rescue Jews from Hungary. Aged but 23, she was caught, convicted of treason and executed by a German firing squad. Her beautifully-written diary - kept from the age of 13 until the day of her death - is widely read in Israel, where she is a national heroine.

Hannah Szenes, often anglicised to Senesh, was born in Budapest on 17 July 1921, the daughter of playwright Bela Senesh (who died when Hannah was about six) and his wife Katherine. She wrote plays for school productions, and developed a considerable talent for poetry. She attended a Protestant high school which accepted Jews, where one of her teachers was the Chief Rabbi of Budapest, an ardent Zionist. As a result of his influence, she joined a Zionist youth group, and then moved to study at an agricultural school in Palestine.

In 1942, however, with the war raging, Senesh was anxious to return to Europe and help her fellow Jews. She joined a group of volunteer parachutists who were part of a military plan to rescue remaining Jews in the Balkans and Hungary. They landed in Yugoslavia, and, with the aid of a partisan group, crossed the Hungarian border. There, however, she was captured by the Germans, imprisoned, and tortured. She was convicted of treason, and executed by a firing squad in November 1944 - at just 23 years of age. Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, the Women in Judaism website and the Hannah Senesh Legacy Foundation.

Senesh started writing a diary aged 13, and continued, sometimes intermittently, until the day of her death. Her diary was first published in Hebrew in 1946; this, and her poems, are still widely read today in Israel, where she is something of a national heroine (and has been called Israel’s Joan of Arc). The diary was first translated and published in English by Vallentine Mitchell in 1971, but has since appeared in other editions and languages. In 2007, Jewish Lights published Hannah Senesh: Her Life and Diary, the First Complete Edition, as edited by Roberta Grossman. Some of this edition is freely available to read at Googlebooks.

Here are a few extracts.

7 September 1934
‘This morning we visited Daddy’s grave. How sad that we had to become acquainted with the cemetery so early in life. But I feel that even from beyond the grave Daddy is helping us, if in no other way than with his name. I don’t think he could have left us a greater legacy.’

4 October 1935
‘Horrible! Yesterday war broke out between Italy and Abyssinia. Almost everyone is frightened the British will intervene and that as a result there will be war in Europe. Just thinking about it is terrible. The papers are already listing the dead. I can’t understand people; how quickly they forget. Don’t they know that the whole world is still groaning from the curse of the last World War? Why this killing? Why must youth be sacrificed on a bloody scaffold when it could give so much that is good and beautiful to the world if it could just be allowed to tread peaceful roads?

Now there is nothing left to do but pray that this war will remain a local one, and end as quickly as possible. I can’t understand Mussolini wanting to acquire colonies for Italy, but, after all, the British ought to be satisfied with owning a third of the world - they don’t need all of it. It is said, however, that they are frightened of losing their route to India. Truly, politics is the ugliest thing in the world.

But to talk of more specific things. One of Gyuri’s friends [Gyuri - her brother] is courting me. He was bold enough to ask whether I would go walking with him next Sunday. I said I would, if Gyuri went along. If everything he told me is true, then I feel very sorry for him; evidently he doesn’t have a decent family life. There is something wrong there, that’s for sure.’

18 June 1936
‘. . . When I began keeping a diary I decided I would write only about beautiful and serious things, and under no circumstances constantly about boys, as most girls do. But it looks as if it’s not possible to exclude boys from the life of a fifteen-year-old girl, and for the sake of accuracy I must record the development of the G. matter.

He was not satisfied with my aforementioned answer, but put into a book I borrowed from him . . . a picture of himself autographed “With Love Forever, G.” I didn’t say a word about the picture. Ever since, whenever I see him (quite often) he showers me with compliments, which I try to brush off. . .’

14 June 1941
‘This week I leave for Egypt. I’m a soldier. Concerning the circumstances of my enlistment, and my feelings in connection with it, and with all that led up to it, I don’t want to write. I want to believe that what I’ve done, and will do, are right. Time will tell the rest.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 17 July 2011.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

In search of water

Allan Cunningham, a British botanist who spent many years exploring Australia’s outback, was born 230 years ago today. Very soon after arriving in Australia, he joined an early expedition across the Blue Mountains being led by John Oxley, one of the colony’s first explorers and surveyors. Despite following river beds, water supply was a daily problem at times, as were the natives whose presence in the landscape was felt more often than seen.

Cunningham was born in Wimbledon, near London, on 13 July 1791. His father was a head gardener at Wimbledon House. Allan studied at a private school in Putney before training for the law. But after doing some clerical work at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, he was chosen by Joseph Banks to travel abroad to collect plants for Kew. He was sent to Brazil between from 1814 until 1816, and then to New South Wales, Australia.

In 1817, Cunningham joined John Oxley’s expedition through the Blue Mountains along the Lachlan and Macquarie rivers; and then in the following years, until 1822, he sailed five times as botanist with Phillip Parker King’s hydrographical surveys of the north and north-western coasts of Australia. Thereafter, he undertook further inland explorations, such as those in Queensland where he determined Darling Downs, and Cunningham’s Gap.

Cunningham returned to England in 1831, but went back to Australia as a government botanist in 1837. Soon after he resigned to become superintendent of the Sydney Botanical Gardens. He died in 1839. Further information is available from the Australian Dictionary of National Biography or WikipediaThe Allan Cunningham Project has a wealth of information about the man and his writing.

For some of his expeditions at least, Allan Cunningham kept journals and these appeared in print for the first time in Early Explorers in Australia. From the log-books and journals published by Lee Methuen & Co in 1925. Both The Allan Cunningham Project and Gutenberg of Australia have the full text freely available online. Here are a few extracts from Cunningham’s diary of his early expedition through the Blue Mountains.

5 May 1817
‘We departed from our last encampment about 9 o’clock, and having crossed a small creek which intersected our course, we ascended the gentle rising hill which I had visited yesterday. The view even on this eminence being much confined, Mr. Oxley took bearings of the most remarkable ranges of hills around it at a distance from the top of a lofty Callitris. Descending to the flats we were again deceived by a long chain of ponds or lagoons which we fell in with, but perceiving our mistake we crossed it in a dry situation and came to the banks of the Lachlan. Such was the confusion created by this mistake that we were all scattered and divided and taking different courses. Our people in the boats fired guns to inform us of their situation.

Calling to one another we were answered by strange voices, which left us in no doubt of natives being near us. It was a great point we should all join again, which at length we did, after some of us had passed over several miles on a cross-course, the labour of which might have been saved. Our people came up with seven or eight of the natives, who were clothed with mantles of skin reddened with a pigment from the river. There appeared not the most distant symptoms of hostility among them! They evidently had seen a horse before, and could pronounce some words of English, such as bread, and they had every appearance of having been with those at the Lachlan Depôt, from which we are now 54 miles west. From the columns of smoke ascending from the trees to which these harmless beings were advancing there is no doubt of their encampment being there situated, and it might be inferred that their gins or wives were there, from their evident objection to our people attempting to accompany them to their fires. The delay and loss of time occasioned by the above adventure had allowed our boatmen to work themselves through all the numerous windings of this intricate river and overtake us.

We all started again in a body, travelling immediately on the river bank about 4 miles, when we were stopped by a deep muddy creek connecting the river with the chain of ponds above alluded to. We passed this gully with considerable difficulty, being obliged to unload our horses. Accompanied by Mr. Oxley I went to an extensive open plain about half a mile N.W. of our course, which we found of very considerable extent. It is a flat that receives the inundations of the Lachlan; it is of a light loamy soil and at this time very damp and slimy, in consequence of the recent rain.

This plain, which is clear of timber and is skirted by Acacia pendula we have called Solway Flats, from its slight similarity to a place of that name in North Britain.’

11 May 1817
‘It is as large as the northwest river which we intend to continue upon, and which we are induced from appearances to conclude will not be of long existence as a river. We fathomed the deepest part and found it did not exceed 19 ft. It is evident that these plains are inundated by the river in great floods from the eastward, for in fact the highest land (the few rocky hills excepted) is on the immediate bank of the river, so that the floods rising over the banks descend down upon the plains on each side this channel. On the plains we observed two native companions (Grus australasiana), and our people shot two swans. From the circumstance of having seen two bark canoes moored among the reeds on the river’s left bank, and from the body of smoke ascending above the small trees at the base of Mount Melville on the opposite side of the plain, it is evident that there are some natives existing in these parts. We, however, saw none.

It was a matter of surprise that we fell in with so very few natives, whose marks are daily before our eyes, but it appears sufficiently obvious that experience has taught them to retire from a river where a supply of food is extremely precarious, and where a sudden inundation would in a moment sweep them away. Choosing rather to retire to the hilly country where they are enabled to obtain a daily subsistence with greater facility, and are not liable to be surprised and overtaken by floods.

N.B. It appears they only visit the river in great drought, when there is but little water in its channel, and are then able to procure the large horse mussel from its muddy bottom, which they cannot possibly obtain in floods and strong currents. They have no idea of angling or have any method to catch that we know of. The viviparous Pancratium purpureum] grows extremely luxuriant on these slimy plains. An unfortunate accident happened us this day. The horse that usually carried the barometer fell beneath his load and broke that valuable instrument.’

18 June 1817
‘At daybreak we sent two others to the range of hills near us in search of water, with directions to continue in the course of Mount Barrow should they not be so fortunate as to find any nearer on the range or in the gullies proceeding from it. They returned with a small quantity, enabling us to distribute to each a pint for our breakfast. Our people who had been sent to bring up the horses reported that there was some good grass a mile and a half distant in a valley between the hills. Anxious to remove to a more hospitable spot where water would in all probability be found, sufficient for ourselves and horses, we proceeded forward with the most necessary and the lightest of our provisions and luggage, leaving five casks of pork, which we could send back for in the course of the day. About 2½ miles N. easterly over some rocky hills we descended to a fine rich valley of good grass and some holes of rain water in the gullies, enough for ourselves and horses. We accordingly pitched our tents in the valley and turned our horses out to feed. Mr. Oxley sent the strongest of our animals for the casks of pork left at our last resting place.

As a proof of the badly watered condition of the country we discovered a hole that had been made with great labour by the natives very recently, and containing a little dirty water. It is obvious that the gullies were dry three days since, and that the late rains have supplied these cavities with the water we now enjoy!! Our dogs killed a native dog, which was devoured among us! The natives had not left the valley many days, because their huts of green branches and remains of fires were so fresh.

Upon taking a survey of our dry stock of provisions in hand there appeared a deficiency of a considerable quantity of flour, which at first view could by no means be accounted for. It appears, however, from a little investigation that took place this afternoon, that when on the river our boatmen hauled up one of the boats too short - by her painter - to a tree on the bank, and in the course of the night the water had fallen a foot, leaving the boat resting on her stern whereby many casks were rolled out into the river and 300 lbs. weight of flour totally lost. It was an accident they were fearful to communicate to any of us till now by dint of cross-examination. This is a severe loss to us and will oblige us to be content with a half ration.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on I3 July 2011.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

My second birthday

‘The day has come to an end, - this 29 April, for the rest of my life I shall celebrate it as my second birthday, as the day that my life was given back to me.’ So wrote Edgar Kupfer, inmate of Dachau concentration camp, in a secret diary on the day American troops liberated the camp. Kupfer died 30 years ago today.

Kupfer was born in Koberwitz, Germany, in 1906, the son of an estate manager. He studied in Bonn, Regensburg and Stuttgart, but when his parents were divorced he left school to support his mother and sister by taking unskilled jobs. Disappointed in love, Kupfer left Germany for Italy and France. He undertook a variety of jobs over the next 15 years, including journalism (for which he used the pen name Kupfer-Koberwitz), and weaving (in Paris), From 1937, he worked in a travel company on the island of Ischia. In September 1940, he was expelled from Italy, to Innsbruck, for disparaging the Nazi regime and Italian fascism. There, he was arrested and imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp - for the duration of the Second World War. From November 1942, be was given the role of clerk in a satellite camp, one that provided slave labour for an armaments factory. Once in this position, he was able to keep a diary secretly recording camp life on tiny slips of paper which he hid among administration papers. Later, he buried the diary.

Despite nearly being consumed by typhus, Kupfer survived his imprisonment at Dachau and was liberated along with 67,000 other prisoners by US forces on 29 April 2945. A week later, he led the Americans to the location of his diaries (some of which had sustained water damage), and two years later they were used as important evidence during the Nuremberg Trials. After the war and until the late 1950s, Kupfer lived in Chicago, but then he moved back to Europe to reside in a village on Sardinia. In 1986 he returned to Germany, first living with friends and then in a nursing home near Stuttgart. Apart from writing about Dachau, he also published poems and essays on vegetarianism. He died on 7 July 1991. Further information can be found online at Wikipedia.

Kupfer’s diaries were first serialised in the journal Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte under the title Als Haftling in Dachau. In 1954, Kupfer donated the diaries to the University of Chicago. They were published in German in the 1990s as Dachauer Tagebücher: die Aufzeichnungen des Häftlings 24814. No translations into English appear to have been published, nor can I find any substantial extracts online. More information about the diaries, though, can be found at the Mother Jones and Passport-collector websites, as well as in David Chrisinger’s article for The New York Times (most readily available here). Several websites quote an English translation of one entry, the one made by Kupfer on 29 April 1945, liberation day. The following is as found at the Birkbeck, University of London website . 

29 April 1945
‘While I’m writing there are big explosions nearby.

A very unpleasant, but apparently true, bit of news: it’s said that there’s still a whole company of SS in the camp, but no Wehrmacht. So we rejoiced too soon and are now in danger twice over: partly from the SS and partly from the war that is now raging around us. […]

Suddenly, there are shouts outside and people running about: “The Americans have arrived, they’re in the camp, yes, yes, they’re on the roll call square!”

Everybody starts moving. The sick leave their beds, those who are nearly well and the nursing staff run out into the block street, jump out of the windows, climb over the partition walls. Everybody is running to the roll call square. One can hear people shouting hurray from a long way off. They’re shouts of joy. People keep running around. The sick have excited, ecstatic faces. “They’ve arrived, we’re free, free!” […]

Hardly any violence has occurred, although we had always thought it might. Everybody’s feelings of joy were evidently stronger than their feelings of hatred […].

So, as far as the majority is concerned, what happened to the hatred, the burning hatred that everybody believed that they felt inside them? Joy trumped all that and … hatred is probably a sign of powerlessness, but now we are no longer powerless. But the fact that we are not behaving as the SS would have behaved, that’s only as it should be, but … it’s still a good thing.

The day has come to an end, this 29 April, - for the rest of my life I shall celebrate it as my second birthday, as the day that my life was given back to me.’

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

City of virtue and vice

Thomas Asline Ward, a man who devoted himself largely to serving the town of Sheffield, was baptised all of 240 years ago today. He may have well have been forgotten but for his diary, which was first published in instalments in a local paper. Ward visited London in the early part of the 19th century, and his diary provides an interesting and colourful account of the busy city.

Ward was baptised in Sheffield on 6 July 1781. He married Ann Lewin in 1814, though she died just 12 years later. He worked for the Cutlers’ Company being Master Cutler in 1816, and he served as Town Trustee from 1817 to 1863, including nearly two decades as Town Collector. He was also a magistrate from 1836. He seems to have become something of a local celebrity, but on trying for Parliament failed to be elected. He died in 1871. There is a very little information about Ward online, although a few details can be gleaned from Sheffield History and from the Staniforth family website.

Ward is largely remembered because of his diary. This was edited by Alexander B Bell and serialised in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph in 1907-1908. A year later it was published as Peeps into the Past being passages from the Diary of Thomas Asline Ward by W C Leng & Co with an introduction and annotations by Robert Leader. In his introduction, Leader says: ‘The value of the diary is the insight it gives into the details of the singularly beautiful life of a citizen of high rectitude, endowed with fine mental gifts, cultivated by assiduous reading.’

Here are a few extracts from Ward’s diary, all but the first about a visit to London in 1804.

6 July 1802.
‘I completed my 21st year. The workmen, to the number of 100, supped at Mr Bellamy’s, the sign of the Royal Oak, in New Street. Father, Brother Saml. and I staid till nearly 12 o’clock. We went at 7. Expense, £10 10s.’

16 August 1804
‘After a long and fatiguing day’s business I accompanied Mrs Dalby to Vauxhall Gardens, where a great number of people were assembled, it being a Gala Night on account of the Duke of York’s birthday. We first noticed the orchestra, which is erected amidst trees, and ornamented by coloured lamps in various forms and devices. A band of music and some of the first singers in town occupied it, and at the time we entered Mrs Bland was singing. In a short time they left the orchestra for a little repose, and it was occupied by the Duke of York’s military band which played several martial spirit-stirring airs. 10 o’clock arrived and suddenly a bell rang which announced an exhibition of waterworks, after which the restless auditors and spectators again flocked to the orchestra, which was again the theatre of singing til’ 12 o’clock, when they finally concluded, and the fireworks commenced. After this spectacle the gardens are generally a scene of merriment and jollity. The Pandeans, German, Turkish and military bands are stationed in various parts of the place, and some of them are continually playing, while parties of joyful visitors “trip it on the light fantastic toe.” Here might be seen fat clumsy boors dancing with the taper, light London Miss, a jumble of oddity and levity truly ridiculous. Long covered promenades (with little cells in which were spread a profusion of refreshments) served to protect the votary of pleasure from dire effects of the midnight air, which many, more ardent, braved in the dark green alleys, whose cool and kindly shade afforded a charming retreat to the lovers of darkness. Should the pitiless rain intrude its unwelcome patter, all take refuge in a large room which is elegantly fitted up with various patriotic and emblematic devices, where the walk, the dance, the music, and the supper, continually offer themselves to the senses. The lights, the transparencies, the trees, the magic-resembling, fairy-like whole, formed for me a truly new scene. Mrs D and I retired 2 hours before the usual time it closes, which is 4 o’clock.’

20 August 1804
‘Mr Dalby and I walked to Hungerford Stairs, where we took a boat, and landed near Billingsgate. Having inspected this famous fishmarket, we walked to the Tower, where we saw wild beasts kept there, the regalia and the armouries. The ancient armour is interesting, and the modern is beautiful; for the swords, pistols, musquets, etc. quite clean and ready for service, are ranged in the most perfect order, and with the nicest art are placed so as to imitate columns, stars, and other devices.

After seeing the curiosities of the Tower, we sailed to the new docks, appropriated for the vessels in the West India trade, of which 300 homeward bound may lie in the basin at one time, and a dock for those outward bound is making. The fleet was arrived only 2 or 3 days, and we saw an immense crowd of them pressing towards the yards to discharge their lading. The buildings are of stone, 7 stories high, built very strong to contain the heavy stores which are frequently put in them. A moat, wall, and palisade surround the whole, and sentinels are placed to prevent depredations. The circumference is great, but I cannot guess at it.’

21 August 1804
‘And now, London, I must bid thee “Farewell.” Thou art the centre of Good and Evil, of Virtue and Vice! How many and how various are the characters which inhabit they walls! How magnificent thy palaces! How mean they cottages! How miserable some, how happy others! Some fatten on the spoils of poverty, others starve in the midst of plenty. How many thousands are insufficient to supply the luxury of some, while others want a crust of bread to satiate the calls of hunger! . . .’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 6 July 2011.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Conquistador in love

Pedro de Alvarado, one of Spain’s most successful and famous conquistadors, conqueror of much of Central America, died 480 years ago today. He seems to have left behind very little autobiographical material, but there are a few hand-written English translations of diary entries made at the time when the Aztec chief, Moctezuma, was being seized by Hernán Cortés. They tell less of military matters than of his falling in love with an Aztec princess.

Pedro de Alvarado was born into a large noble family in 1485 in Badajóz, Extremadura, close by the Spain’s western border with Portugal. Little is known of his early life, but in 1510 he sailed with his father and several brothers to Hispaniola, a Spanish colony (the island now being shared between Haiti and the Dominican Republic). In 1518, he was appointed leader of an expedition to the Yucatán, and, the following year, he captained one of the 11 ships led by Hernán Cortés to Mexico. The fleet arrived at their first stop in Cozumel, then sailed around the north of Yucatán Peninsula making their way to Cempoala where they set about establishing alliances. Cortés managed to imprison king Moctezuma, but left Alvarado in the control of the restless capital, Tenochtitlán (now, Mexico City). 

When the indigenous gathered in the square to celebrate a festival, Alvarado feared an uprising and ordered his men to strike first. About 200 Aztec chiefs were massacred. In turn, the Spanish quarters were besieged by an angry mob. Upon his return, Cortés quickly planned a nighttime retreat from Tenochtitlán. On the night of 30 June 1520, known as noche triste (‘sad night’), Cortes and his men attempted to leave the city quietly but were spotted by the Aztecs. Fierce fighting erupted, and Alvarado, who was leading the rear guard, narrowly escaped. The Spanish recaptured Tenochtitlán in 1521, and in 1522 Alvarado became the city’s first mayor.

In 1519, Alvarado had taken a Nahua noblewoman as concubine, and in time she gave him three children. He was formally married twice to high-ranking Spanish women, though had children with neither. He also had two other illegitimate children.

In 1523, Alvarado conquered the Quiché and Cakchiquel of Guatemala, and in 1524 he founded Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala. This became the first capital of the captaincy general of Guatemala, later including much of Central America, of which Alvarado was governor from 1527 to 1531. In 1532, he received a Royal Cedula naming him Governor of the Province of Honduras. He was then appointed governor of Guatemala for seven years and given a charter to explore Mexico. Subsequently, he was preparing a large expedition to explore across the Pacific as far as China, but he was called to help put down a revolt in Mexico. There he was crushed by a horse, and died on 4 July 1541. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Catholic Encyclopedia.

The only evidence I can find of Alvarado having left behind any autobiographical works is the two letters addressed to Cortés in 1519 (which can be read in The Conquistadors: first-person accounts of the conquest of Mexico by Patricia de Fuentes). However, the Newton Gresham Library at Sam Houston State University has several pages of diary entries, handwritten transcriptions in English from a diary kept by Alvarado. Apart from providing digital copies of just eight pages, it offers no further information or provenance for the material. Here are two of the entries - both seemingly about the writer falling in love. (I have indicated - by question marks in square brackets - where I cannot read the handwriting to be sure of the exact spelling of a name.)

13 November 1519
‘Such a thrilling adventure Don Pedro has had today! We accepted the Moctezuma’s invitation to visit the temple this morning, and on our way our procession was suddenly stopped by the appearance of a palanquin a short distance ahead. How frightened the richly liveried servants did appear when I spurred my horse forward to see what infidel they were carrying! Lifting the curtain of the carriages, I was startled to look into the face of the beautiful lady I had seen watching from the temple the day we entered the city. Her dark eyes revealed the fear caused by my abrupt appearance and she drew herself into a corner of her palanquin. What a rude fellow I was to frighten her.

When we arrived at the temple, our page Orteguilla, attracted my attention, drew me aside, and presented me with some exquisite flowers.

“Señor”, he said, “a slave from the princess Nenetzin [?], daughter of the great being, told me to give these roses to Tonatiuh with the red beard. If thou woulds’t care to see a beautiful infidel read the flowers and follow me.”

In the shade of the turret, I found my lovely princess whom I had frightened in the carriage. Cierto! Such a charming lady no other cavalier has been so fortunate to behold! How beautiful she appeared in white with the long scarf concealing half of her radiant face and falling to the mat upon which she was sitting. Masses of dark hair gave her a majestic crown which her sparkling black eyes and mischievous smile brought enchantment to a noble knight’s heart. I kissed the flowers and returned them to her. Through the services of my page, an interpreter, I was convinced of her love for me. She told how she had dreamed of my coming; how she had pictured my white face, my big blue eyes, and my golden locks flowing over my shoulders. I must take that my beard falls in proper ringlets upon my breast. She believes me a god and has given me the name Tonatiuh meaning “child of the son” Ah! Holy mother, she has won Don Pedro’s heart. She is too true and beautiful to be an infidel. I took my chain with iron crucifix, given me by my dear mother, and asked her wear it always for my sake. [. . .] and my beautiful princess is no longer a heathen, but a Christian. From this day forward, Alvarado doth pledge his heart and sword to Princess Nenetzin [?].’

16 November 1519
‘A happier warrior than I cannot be, for the best of fortune has been mine today. My princess Nenetzin has been worshipping at our Christian shrine, and has rejected her former belief in order to accept that of our holy faith.With true reverence and understanding did she permit me to place my chain with crucifix around her next, as a seal to her love for Christ.

Moreover, there is exceedingly great joy among all our company tonight, for the might Moctezuma, successfully coerced by Señor Cortes and his noble companions, now resides in our palace under our protection.’