Archive for January, 2013

‘I will bury him myself. And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory… I have longer to please the dead than please the living here.’ Antigone, Sophocles.

Thomas Howard, the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, unfurled the Royal Banner in Carlisle in February 1537. He was declaring martial law in the North of England. Martial law wasn’t really law at all; it was simply a suspension of the accepted process and procedures of English law. It meant that anyone taking part in or supporting a rebellion, or defying the crown in any way, could be summarily dealt with as a traitor. They could be executed without the bother or uncertainties of a jury trial.

Royal Banner of Henry the Eighth

Royal Banner of Henry the Eighth

Howard had taken it upon himself to ‘unfurl the banner’ in the name of King Henry VIII, whose authority had been challenged by the recent uprising in Lincoln, by the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’ in Yorkshire, Northumberland and Durham and by a serious rebellion in Westmorland and Cumberland. Henry had broken with Rome and, advised by the unpopular Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, was setting about dissolving and robbing catholic England’s monasteries and abbeys. He was also increasing the tax burden of the people and encouraging the theft of common land via private enclosure. All of these measures were deeply unpopular over great swathes of the country. They were obviously resented and resisted by monks, friars and other clergymen, but also by gentry and commoners as well – though for different reasons.

The uprising in Lincoln in late 1536 had managed to muster thousands of people to the cause but had ended after just two weeks. Just as the King’s representatives were about to wreak their revenge on the Lincoln rebels, a more serious challenge arose: the people of Yorkshire and surrounding parts of Northumberland, Durham and Lancashire had also rebelled. Under the leadership of lawyer Robert Aske, this was essentially a conservative protest and one that the rebels wanted, if at all possible, to keep non-violent. Aske himself christened it the ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’, a name that perhaps unfortunately has stuck. The rebels didn’t want to challenge the King’s right to rule, rather they wanted to pressure him to stop the dissolution of the monasteries, restore the link with Rome and suppress the spread of Lutheran versions of Protestantism. They also hoped that some of Henry’s hated advisers would be removed, particularly Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, who they blamed for both the religious policies and, as importantly, their own worsening economic plight.

The Holy Wounds Banner of the Pilgrimage of Grace

The Holy Wounds Banner of the Pilgrimage of Grace

In this sense the Pilgrimage of Grace was both a social and a religious revolt. The impetus came from below, from the ‘commoners’, but some of the local gentry joined in willingly, while others needed to be coerced.

Under Aske’s leadership, the leaders of the rebellion called themselves ‘Captains of Poverty’ or sometimes, in the case of monks and priests, ‘Chaplains of Poverty’. These captains started to call out the northern ‘host’, usually a thing done by the king or the local barons. Their numbers swelled, to reach around 28.000 – 35,000 by October 1536. They were disciplined and organized and more than enough to face down, and defeat if necessary, the 4,000 mercenary troops, under the Duke of Norfolk, who Henry had sent to put them down. The rebels had captured Pontefract castle without much trouble.

Robert Aske - Leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace

Robert Aske – Leader of the Pilgrimage of Grace

This isn’t the place to retell the events and causes of the Pilgrimage of Grace. There are many fine histories of what happened. In brief, Norfolk knew he couldn’t defeat the rebels by force of arms, so he prevaricated and seemed to play along with, even sympathize with, their demands. A truce was called on 27 October at Doncaster Bridge and on 6 December Norfolk promised a royal pardon in the name of the King. He also promised that many of the rebels’ demands would be met. Eventually, and not without great deliberation, the northern rebel host dispersed and the Pilgrimage was effectively over. It is only in retrospect that we can judge them naive.

All this was not to Henry’s liking. Henry’s instinctive and invariable reaction was always to crush any opposition, not to make concessions or compromises. He soon reneged on the pardon and had many of the leaders or sympathizers of the revolt executed. He never took England back to Rome and he redoubled his drive to dissolve the monasteries and expropriate and appropriate their considerable wealth.

Let us return to events in Westmorland or Cumberland (which together I rather anachronistically will call Cumbria). This was a region that the Duke of Norfolk himself was to call the ‘poorest shire in the realm’. During the Pilgrimage appeals had been made to the people of these counties to join in and to take the Pilgrims’ Oath. Local ‘Captains’ were appointed and some of them were to go to Yorkshire on at least two occasions to consult with Robert Aske and the other leaders. Two of the most prominent Cumbrian captains were Nicholas Musgrave and Robert Pullen, but several others went as well.

The Cumbrian captains started to gather support. To try to remain anonymous they usually called themselves ‘Captain Poverty’ – like their Yorkshire colleagues. Eventually a force of 15,000 was gathered and was planning to march on Carlisle, the administrative and military centre of the ‘West Marches’. But before they could progress any further, news came that the Pilgrimage was over and, despite the fact that Sir Francis Bigod and John Hallam tried to resurrect it, unsuccessfully as it turned out, the Cumbrian rebel host disbanded and returned home.

Over Christmas 1536, and into the early New Year, the commoners started to fear that their local gentry had abandoned them and that they had slipped off to London to declare their allegiance to King Henry. They were right. Madeleine Hope Dodds and Ruth Dodds wrote in 1915, in their still seminal two volume study The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Exeter Conspiracy:

The chief reason for the agitation was the departure of so many gentlemen to court. The commons distrusted the King, who might have the gentlemen beheaded, and they distrusted the gentle men, who might betray them to the King. When the gentlemen were away, the bailiffs and other officers found it impossible to keep order.

And that might have been that were it not for Henry’s reprisals. He wanted all the leaders of the Pilgrimage hunted down and executed as traitors. In early January 1537, it became known that ‘Captains’ Nicholas Musgrave and Thomas Tibbey were in the Westmorland town of Kirkby Stephen. On 6 January, Thomas Clifford, the ‘bastard son’ of Henry Clifford, the first earl of Cumberland, was sent to the town to capture them. ‘Musgrave was warned and with Thomas Tibbey he took refuge in the church steeple, so defensible a position that Clifford was obliged to withdraw without his prisoners’. This, we are told, ‘stirred the country greatly’. A watch was to be kept for them in every town. ‘The men of Kirkby Stephen plucked down all the enclosures in their parish and sent orders to the surrounding parishes to follow their example.’

Things started to get tense. In Cumberland, one of the King’s men, Sir Thomas Curwen, wrote that ‘The west parts, from Plumland to Muncaster, is all a flutter’. He told how ‘on Saturday 13 January a servant of Dr Legh came to Muncaster. The whole country rose and made him prisoner. He was carried to Egremont and thence to Cockermouth. A great crowd filled the market-place, crying, “Strike off his head!” and “Stick him!”

Kirkby Stephen Church

Kirkby Stephen Church

The region was in ferment and it only needed a spark to set it alight. This spark was provided on 14 February when ‘bastard’ Thomas Clifford returned to Kirkby Stephen, once again trying to capture Musgrave and Tibbey. This time he came with a troop ‘mosstroopers from the waters of Esk and Line ’. These were rough border reivers, ‘strong thieves of the westlands’, with a penchant for violence.

Musgrave and Tibbey fled to their old fastness in the steeple, and there defied their pursuers. The townsfolk took no part either for or against the rebels, but while Clifford and some of his men were debating how to take their quarry, the rest of the riders, following their inbred vocation, fell to plundering. This was more than flesh and blood could bear. The burgesses caught up their weapons and fell upon the spoilers, causing a timely diversion in favour of the men in the steeple. Scattered about the narrow streets of the town, the horsemen were at a disadvantage and soon showed that their prowess was not equal to their thievishness. Two of the townsmen were killed in the skirmish, but their enraged fellows drove the borderers from the town and followed up their retreat until they were forced to take refuge in Brougham Castle.

Moss Troopers

Moss Troopers

Musgrave and Tibbey had escaped again. But having witnessed the brutality of the King’s forces, the local people realized that they would get no quarter or justice either from the King or the local nobility. They could expect no fair hearing of their economic or other grievances. ‘The commons saw that they were committed to a new rebellion, although they had risen in defence of their property ; indeed, a panic seems to have spread through the countryside that they would all be treated like the people of Kirkby Stephen. The two captains raised all the surrounding country and sent the following summons to the bailiff of Kendal, whom they knew to be on their side’:

To the Constable of Mellynge. ‘Be yt knowen unto you Welbelovyd bretheren in god this same xii day of februarii at morn was unbelapped on every syde with our enimys the Captayne of Carlylle and gentylmen of our Cuntrie of Westrnerlonde and haithe destrowed and slayn many our bretheren and neghtbers. Wherfore we desyre you for ayde and helpe accordyng to your othes and as ye wyll have helpe of us if your cause requyre, as god forbede. this tuysday, We comande you every one to be at Kendall afore Eight of the clok or els we ar lykly to be destrowed. Ever more gentyll brether unto your helpyng honds. Captayn of Povertie. ‘

None of the local gentry joined them and very few priests. They were more afraid of losing their aristocratic privileges and the wrath of the King than they were concerned about Henry’s religious reforms. The ‘commoners’ were on their own. Their plans were simple. ‘They had long before decided that the first step in case of a new rebellion was to seize Carlisle.’

Thomas Howard 3rd Duke of Norfolk

Thomas Howard 3rd Duke of Norfolk

The Duke of Norfolk was still in Yorkshire continuing his clean-up and reprisals after the Pilgrimage of Grace. Carlisle was commanded by Sir John Lowther, Thomas Clifford and John Barnsfeld. They were out-numbered and they were worried. They knew that they needed the help of Sir Christopher Dacre, who, in the absence of his nephew Lord William Dacre, welded the most power in the area. Christopher Dacre’s loyalty to the crown was still much in doubt and the Clifford and Dacre families were old adversaries – enemies even. On 15 February the three Carlisle commanders wrote to Sir Christopher Dacre:

In the King our sovereign lord’s name we command you that ye with as many as ye trust to be of the King’s part and yours, come unto this the King’s castle in all goodly haste possible, for as we are informed the commons will be this day upon the broad field … further that ye leave the landserjeant with the prickers of Gillisland so that he and they may resist the King’s rebels if the said prickers of Gillesland will take his part, or else to bring him … and that ye come yourself in goodly haste. (Castle, of Carlisle, 15 February at 10 hours.)

When the Duke of Norfolk, who was in Richmond, heard about the danger in Cumbria, he too wrote to Dacre on the same day:

Cousin Dacres, I know not whether you received the letter I sent you yesterday. I hear those commons now assembled draw towards Carlisle, and doubt not you will gather such company as you may trust and, after your accustomed manner, use those rebels in a way to deserve the King’s thanks and to aid your nephew, my very friend, whom I look for every hour. I will not instruct you what ye shall do, for ye know better than I. Spare for no reasonable wages, for I will pay all. And spare not frankly to slay plenty of these false rebels; and make true mine old sayings, that ‘Sir Christopher Dacre is a true knight to his sovereign lord, an hardy knight, and a man of war’. Pinch now no courtesy to shed blood of false traitors; and be ye busy on the one side, and ye may be sure the duke of Norfolk will come on the other. Finally, now, Sir Christopher, or never. (Richmond, 15 Feb.) Your loving cousin if ye do well now, or else enemy for ever.

Norfolk had written to the king the previous day informing Henry that ‘when Cumberland’s bastard son, deputy captain of Carlisle, came to take two traitors at Kirkby Stephen, they keeping the steeple, his horsemen, in great part strong thieves of the Westlands, began to spoil the town, and the inhabitants rose to defend both their goods and the traitors. A skirmish ensued, in which one or two rebels were slain, and Thomas my lord’s bastard son, was forced to retire to Browham (Brougham) castle. The country has since risen, some say 4,000 or 5,000 together, and are sending for others to aid them.’

Norfolk thought that ‘no such thing would have occurred if this enterprise had been handled as it was promised’.

By 16 February about 6,000 local Cumbrians were camped on Broadfield Moor, a few miles south of Carlisle. They were ‘more or less effectively armed and mounted’. They knew Carlisle was, as it has always been, the key to controlling the region. They didn’t have gentry leadership, but in no way were they a rabble, as too many histories have disparagingly called them. They were in fact the very same people, the same ‘host’, which the local barons would usually call out when they needed military support. Clifford and the other commanders of the town had been busy rallying the local ‘artisans’ to the defence of the town. The Cumbrian host didn’t really know how to go about attacking or besieging a fortified town.

Carlisle Castle

Carlisle Castle

On Saturday 17 February, the host prepared for the assault on Carlisle. ‘The rebels carried a cross as their banner principal… It does not seem to have been such a vigorous attack as the word now implies. They approached within bow-shot, and showered arrows on the defenders who appeared on the city walls. This went on until they exhausted their supply of arrows, when they retired a little way to consider what to do next.’

After the failure of their attempt to take the town, the rebels were considering how best to attack again when, suddenly, Sir Christopher Dacre arrived on the scene with ‘five hundred border spearmen’ – called ‘prickers’. The commons broke and turned to flee. This emboldened the defenders and they sallied forth from Carlisle. Together with Dacre’s men they set about the now fleeing commoners. The mosstroopers were ‘in no mood to spare the countryfolk who had beaten them so ignominiously on Monday’.

The rejoicings in London were great. Sir Christopher Dacre was the hero of the hour. It was said that he had slain 700 rebels or more and taken the rest prisoners, hanging them up on every bush.

Exactly how many of the commoners were massacred is not known. Perhaps not the 700 reported. But compare this with the fact that in the whole of the more famous Pilgrimage of Grace (I exclude the later reprisals) there had only been one death – and that was accidental. Hundreds of prisoners were taken back to Carlisle, including it seems Thomas Tibbey, but not Nicholas Musgrave. The rest of the host fled back to their homes or went into hiding. Christopher Dacre had proved his loyalty and was later rewarded for his decisive intervention.

On the day of the attack and subsequent massacre, the Duke of Norfolk was still at Barnard’s Castle in Yorkshire and had raised 4,000 men – ‘everyone they could trust.’ But news soon reached him that this ‘splendid little army’ would not be needed. Norfolk was delighted. He wrote to King Henry that Christopher Dacre had ‘shown himself a noble knight’ and that ‘seven or eight hundred prisoners were taken.’ He was, he wrote, ‘about to travel in all haste to Carlisle to see execution done.’

Norfolk arrived at Carlisle on Monday 19 February. This is when he ‘unfurled the banner’ and imposed martial law, not just on Cumbria but on the whole of the North of England. He used the pretext of the Carlisle events to be better able to punish those involved in draconian fashion, as well to be able to more easily and brutally punish those involved in the Pilgrimage of Grace itself. Norfolk reported that: ‘There were so many prisoners in the town that he found great difficulty in providing for their safe-keeping.’ ‘He wrote that night to the Council to promise that if he might go his own way for a month he would order things to the King s satisfaction. It would take some time, because he must himself be present at all the convictions and proceed by martial law, and there were many places to punish.’ He added, significantly, that ‘not a lord or gentleman in Cumberland and Westmorland could claim that his servants and tenants had not joined in the insurrection.’

Proclamations were issued which ‘commanded all who had been in rebellion to come to Carlisle and submit themselves humbly to the King’s mercy.’  ‘The country people began to straggle into the city in scattered, dejected bands. They had lost their horses, harness, and weapons in the chase; they were in instant fear of a traitor’s death for themselves, and of fire, plunder, and outrage for their homes and families.’ Norfolk wrote that ‘they were contrite enough to satisfy any tyrant’ and ‘if sufficient number of ropes might have been found (they) would have come with the same about their necks’

Taking advice from the local lords, Norfolk chose seventy-four of the ‘chief misdoers’. ‘That is of the braver and more determined of them, and turned the rest away without even a promise of pardon’.

On 21 February, Norfolk wrote to Thomas Cromwell: ‘The poor caitiffs who have returned home have departed without any promise of pardon but upon their good a bearing. God knows they may well be called poor caitiffs; for at their fleeing they lost horse, harness, and all they had upon them and what with the spoiling of them now and the gressing (taxing) of them so marvellously sore in time past and with increasing of lords’ rents by inclosings, and for lack of the persons of such as shall suffer, this border is sore weaked and specially Westmoreland; the more pity they should so deserve, and also that they have been so sore handled in times past, which, as I and all other here think, was the only cause of this rebellion.’

Norfolk knew that if he left justice to the mercy of local juries he probably wouldn’t be able to execute as many as both he and, importantly, the King and Thomas Cromwell wanted. ‘Many a great offender’, he said, would be acquitted if juries were called. He was quite honest about this. He later wrote to the King:

All the prisoners were condemned to die by law martial, the King’s banner being displayed. Not the fifth part would have been convicted by a jury. Some protested that they had been dragged into rebellion against their will. The most part had only one plea, saying, ‘I came out for fear of my life, and I came forth for fear of loss of all my goods, and I came forth for fear of burning of my house and destroying of my wife and children… A small excuse will be well believed here, where much affection and pity of neighbours doth reign. And, sir, though the number be nothing so great as their deserts did require to have suffered, yet I think the like number hath not been heard of put to execution at one time.

As the Dodds wrote: ‘They had not, in fact, turned against the law, they had risen to defend all that the law should have defended for them from Clifford’s police, the thieves of the Black Lands.’

Henry the Eighth

Henry the Eighth

Henry was pleased with what Norfolk and the defenders of Carlisle had done. His reply to Norfolk on the 22nd was blunt and brutal. He started with his thanks: ‘We have received your letters of the 16th, about the new assembly in Westmoreland, and your others of the 17th by Sir Ralph Evers, touching the valiant and faithful courage of Sir Chr. Dacres in the overthrow of the traitors who made assault upon Carlisle, reporting also the good service done by Thomas Clifford, and the perfect readiness of all the nobles and gentlemen in Yorkshire and those parts to have served in your company against them. We shall not forget your services, and are glad to hear also from sundry of our servants how you advance the truth, declaring the usurpation of the bishop of Rome, and how discreetly you paint those persons that call themselves religious in the colours of their hypocrisy, and we doubt not but the further you shall wade in the investigation of their behaviours the more you shall detest the great number of them and the less esteem the punishment of those culpable…  We desire you to thank those that were ready to have served us. We have thanked Sir Chr. Dacres in the letters which you shall receive herewith, and will shortly recompense him in a way to encourage others.’

Referring to Norfolk’s decision to declare martial law, Henry continued:

We approve of your proceedings in the displaying of our banner, which being now spread, till it is closed again, the course of our laws must give place to martial law… Our pleasure is, that before you shall close up our said banner again, you shall, in any wise, cause such dreadful execution to be done upon a good number of the inhabitants of every town, village, and hamlet, that have offended in this rebellion, as well by the hanging them up in trees, as by the quartering of them and the setting of their heads and quarters in every town, great and small, and in all such other places, as they may be a fearful spectacle to all other hereafter, that would practise any like mater.

Finally, as these troubles have been promoted by the monks and canons of those parts… you shall without pity or circumstance, now that our banner is displayed, cause the monks to be tied up without further delay or ceremony.

Anyone who had participated in the uprising and escaped was still pursued. On February 28 the earls of Sussex and Derby and Sir Herbert Fitzherbert wrote to the King from Warrington in Lancashire: ‘There came lately to Manchester one William Barret, a tanner dwelling in Steton in Craven, who declared to the people that my lord of Norfolk at this his being in Yorkshire would, as he heard, either have of every plough 6s. 8d. or take an ox of every one that would not pay, and that every christening and burying should pay 6s. 8d. Being apprehended and brought before us, he confessed he was one of those who made the late assault at Carlisle and shot arrows at those in the town, and that the constables of the townships, after divers bills set upon church doors, warned him and his company so to rise, alleging that one of the Percies would shortly join them. We think he deserves the most cruel punishment; but Mr. Fitzherbert says the words are no ground for putting him to death, and that he cannot be indicted in one shire for an offence committed in another; we therefore forbear to proceed till we know your pleasure.’ (Warrington, 28 Feb.)

This brings us to the main point of this short article. What was to be the fate of the 74 rebels that Norfolk and the local lords had picked for summary execution? Henry had ordered Norfolk to hang ‘them on trees, quartering them, and setting their heads and quarters in every town’. We don’t know how many of them, if any, were actually hung, drawn and quartered as Henry had clearly wanted, and as was often the case for traitors under martial law. The punishment itself was described by Chronicler William Harrison as follows:

The greatest and most grievous punishment used in England for such as offend against the State is drawing from the prison to the place of execution upon an hurdle or sled, where they are hanged till they be half dead, and then taken down, and quartered alive; after that, their members and bowels are cut from their bodies, and thrown into a fire, provided near hand and within their own sight, even for the same purpose.

Gibbet Irons

Gibbet Irons

It’s most likely that none of the rebels were hung, drawn and quartered. Even Robert Aske was finally spared this fate. They were in all probability all ‘hung in chains’. When Norfolk later wrote to Thomas Cromwell, he said, ‘All in this shire were hung in chains.’  What was hanging in chains? It was a form of punishment and deterrence used for centuries in England until it was abolished in 1834. An eighteenth century French visitor to England, Cesar de Saussure,  described what happened:

There is no other form of execution but hanging; it is thought that the taking of life is sufficient punishment for any crime without worse torture. After hanging murderers are, however, punished in a particular fashion. They are first hung on the common gibbet, their bodies are then covered with tallow and fat substances, over this is placed a tarred shirt fastened down with iron bands, and the bodies are hung with chains to the gibbet, which is erected on the spot, or as near as possible to the place, where the crime was committed, and there it hangs till it falls to dust. This is what is called in this country to ‘hang in chains’.

But in Tudor times the punishment was often even more barbaric. People were frequently hung alive in chains and they first starved in agony before putrefying on the gibbet. How many of the rebels were ‘gibbeted’ alive and how many dead is not known. The point of these executions was of course not simply to kill people, it was also to make them and their relatives suffer and to be so terrifying that it would act as a deterrent to any future challenges to royal authority. The cadavers were not allowed to be removed and buried. They should remain rotting, sometimes for years, in full sight of their communities. For the condemned and their relatives this was not just a question of suffering and grief, it was also a matter concerning their eternal souls: Many still believed that the resurrection of the dead on judgement day ‘required that the body be buried whole facing east so that the body could rise facing God’

Hanging in Chains

Hanging in Chains

The rebels were hanged (in chains) in their own villages, ‘in trees in their gardens to record for memorial’ the end of the rebellion.

Twelve were hanged in chains in Carlisle for the assault on the city, eleven at Appleby, eight at Penrith, five at Cockermouth and Kirkby Stephen, and so on; scarcely a moorland parish but could show one or two such memorials. Some were hanged in ropes, for iron was ‘marvellous scarce’ and the chain-makers of Carlisle were unable to meet the demand. The victims were all poor men, farm hands from the fields and artisans of the little towns; probably the bailiff of Embleton was the highest man among them. Only one priest suffered with them, a chaplain of Penrith.

Once the executions of these poor men had been carried out, in village after village throughout Cumberland and Westmorland, their women wanted to bury their husbands, sons and fathers. Like latter-day Antigones, they thought this to be their natural right and duty. But Henry’s law, like that of Creon, forbade it. At great risk to their own safety and lives, the women crept out at night and cut down their men and secretly buried them.

In May, when Norfolk heard that ‘all’ the rebels’ bodies had been cut down and buried, he ordered the Cumberland magistrates to seek out the ‘ill-doers’. They sent him nine or ten confessions in reply, but he did not consider these nearly enough: ‘It is a small number concerning seventy-four that hath been taken down, wherein I think your Majesty hath not been well served.’

The Dodds write: ‘Of all the records these brief confessions are the most heart-breaking and can least bear description. The widows and their neighbours helped each other. Seven or eight women together would wind the corpse and bury it in the nearest churchyard, secretly, at nightfall or day break. Sometimes they were turned from their purpose by the frightened priest, and then the husband’s body must be buried by a dyke-side out of sanctified ground, or else brought again more secretly than ever and laid in the churchyard under cover of night. All was done by women, save in two cases when the brother and cousin of two of the dead men were said to have died from the “corruption” of the bodies they had cut down.’

Norfolk asked the King what he should do with these offenders. They were all, he said, women: ‘the widows, mothers and daughters of the dead men’. Thomas Cromwell was displeased, suspecting that Norfolk had ordered or countenanced this. Norfolk tried to placate him and shift any blame to the Earl of Cumberland. He wrote to Cromwell:

I do perceive by your letter that ye would know whether such persons as were put to execution in Westmorland and Cumberland were taken down and buried by my commandment or not: undoubtedly, my good lord, if I had consented thereunto, I would I had hanged by them; but on my troth, it is 8 or 9 days past since I heard first thereof, and then was here with me a servant of my lord of Cumberland called Swalowfield, dwelling about Penrith, by whom I sent such a quick message to my said lord, because he hath the rule in Cumberland as warden, and is sheriff of Westmorland and hath neither advertised me thereof, nor hath not made search who hath so highly offended his Majesty, and also commanding him to search for the same with all diligence, that I doubt not it shall evidently appear it was done against my will.

We don’t know what the subsequent inquiries about these women’s actions disclosed and what, if any, were the consequences.

Henry's Field of the Cloth of Gold

Henry’s Field of the Cloth of Gold

This brutal episode in English history is usually given scant mention in histories of the period, particularly in histories of Henry VIII  – concerned as they depressingly are with political machinations, battles and the deeds of ‘great men’. Yet surely such events tell us more about the real history of England, or better said the real history of the English people, than do Henry’s dealings with the Holy Roman Emperor, the Papacy, his opulent and ostentatious ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ or his tedious litany of marriages?

Of course the Pilgrimage of Grace and the Cumbrian rebellion had failed – although taken together they were the most significant challenge Henry would ever face at home. But in the case of the Cumbrian rebellion, its significance does not lie in its success or failure. It lies in the fact that it is just another much neglected example of what happens when ordinary English people try to protest against the repression of their rulers, their economic pauperization or the suppression of their religious or other rights. As Leveller leader Colonel Thomas Rainborough was to write in the seventeenth century:

For really, I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first, by his own consent, to put himself under that government.

Antigone buries her brother

Antigone buries her brother

What I find a pity is that Antigone’s poignant and courageous act of burying her brother, whether it really happened or not, has been studied and dissected for at least two thousand years. German Philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel even saw it as a clash of right against right: familial natural right against the right of the state; others interpret it differently. Yet ‘only’ five hundred years ago, dozens of poor Cumbrian women did the same thing and ran the same risk as Antigone, but they are hardly remembered at all. Who would dare today to present their bravery and humanity as a clash of two equally valid rights?

Sources:

Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 12; Madeleine Hope Dodds & Ruth Dodds, The Pilgrimage of Grace and the Exeter Conspiracy, (1915); M. L. Bush, The Pilgrimage of Grace: A Study of the Rebel Armies of October 1536, (1996); Michael Bush & David Bownes, The Defeat of the Pilgrimage of Grace: A Study of the Postpardon Revolts of December 1536 to March 1537 and Their Effect, (1999).

‘Twas strange, ‘twas passing strange; ‘Twas pitiful, ‘twas wondrous pitiful. Othello; William Shakespeare.

One cold night in 1766, a 50 year old butcher called Thomas Parker was treating his friends to a few drinks at the Cross Keys Inn in Carleton, near Penrith, Cumberland. He was on his way to his home in nearby Langwathby after a successful day at Penrith market. He had decided, like countless Englishmen before and since, to drop into the local pub for a bit of refreshment. It seems that in his high spirits he flashed his money around a bit. ‘Being somewhat the worse for drink,’ the landlord stopped serving him. He urged Thomas to stay overnight in the Inn. Declining the offer, ‘the shaggy sot pressed on his way’. Not far from the inn ‘this poor muddled man’ was ‘beaten to death… after a violent struggle with the assassin’. When his body was found the next day, it appeared that the attack had been brutal and his purse had been stolen.

Three days later Thomas was buried in Saint Cuthbert’s Church in Edenhall. The parish register states:

Thomas Parker, householder, November 21st. This man was found murdered on the road from Penrith to Edenhall, near the place called Nancy Dobson’s Stone, on Tuesday night, the 18th of this instant….

The Cross Keys Inn, Carleton, Penrith

The Cross Keys Inn, Carleton, Penrith

Who had murdered Thomas Parker? Suspicion soon fell on two men who had been drinking with him: a certain ‘Lee’, who had disappeared, and Parker’s 27 year old godson, Thomas Nicholson. Nicholson was arrested on ‘suspicion’ and sent for trial at the next Carlisle Assizes. He sat in jail for ten months until his case came before the court on 22 August 1787. The evidence against him was, it seems, compelling, but it was all circumstantial. A jury today would probably have found a ‘reasonable doubt, but not the one in 1767. Thomas Nicholson was found guilty of murdering his godfather.

English justice had often been arbitrary and was more often than not a form of social repression and control. It is true that murderers, even traitors, were no longer hung, drawn and quartered, but simple hanging was no longer deemed enough. In the early eighteenth century, there had started to be a sort of punishment inflation. People were being hanged for such crimes as simple larceny i.e. theft. Parliament decided it needed a new law ‘for better preventing the horrid crime of murder’. It felt that ‘some form of further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment’. In 1751 it introduced and passed The Murder Act, saying that, ‘in no case whatsoever shall the body of a murderer be suffered to be buried.’ The Act mandated either public dissection or the ‘hanging in chains’ of the cadaver. Not infrequently both.

Judgement Day for Dissected Bodies

Remember this was the Age of the Enlightenment. An age which, in the previous century, had seen that ‘great’ French Enlightenment thinker Rene Descartes cutting up live animals. When they screamed in agony he told his colleagues not to be concerned because animals couldn’t feel pain as that were only ‘machines’. In England, our Enlightenment thinkers wanted to get a better understanding of human anatomy. But human cadavers on which to experiment were in short-supply. People wanted to bury their dead for simple compassionate and familial reasons and because many still believed that the resurrection of the dead on judgement day ‘required that the body be buried whole facing east so that the body could rise facing God’. The 1751 Murder Act was a welcome bonanza for the early anatomists.

The dissections performed on hanged felons were public: indeed part of the punishment was the delivery from hangman to surgeons at the gallows following public execution, and later public exhibition of the open body itself.

Hanging in Chains

Hanging in Chains

If the court decided instead to sentence the convicted murderer to ‘hanging by chains’, often called ‘gibbeting’, rather than dissection, the procedure was equally gruesome. A contemporary French visitor to England, Cesar de Saussure, wrote:

There is no other form of execution but hanging; it is thought that the taking of life is sufficient punishment for any crime without worse torture. After hanging murderers are, however, punished in a particular fashion. They are first hung on the common gibbet, their bodies are then covered with tallow and fat substances, over this is placed a tarred shirt fastened down with iron bands, and the bodies are hung with chains to the gibbet, which is erected on the spot, or as near as possible to the place, where the crime was committed, and there it hangs till it falls to dust. This is what is called in this country to ‘hang in chains’.

The chains or iron straps were designed to ensure that the body stayed upright and didn’t fall apart while it decayed and putrefied. The stinking body would often be ‘left hanging, sometimes for years, as a gruesome warning. ‘

'Chains'

‘Chains’

This was the fate to which the Carlisle judge sentenced Thomas Nicholson. He was, says the record, to be ‘hanged by chains’.

It wasn’t that hanging by chains was a new punishment, only introduced by the 1751 Act. Not at all, it had gone on for centuries. All the Act did was regularise it. In fact, in the late 1600s: ‘So much highway robbery and other violent crimes were going on – and being prosecuted – that foreign travellers remarked on the great number of gibbets that lined the road from Portsmouth to London. Highwaymen and violent offenders were hanged, their corpses often dipped in tar and then suspended in irons from a post and cross-beam placed near the scene of their crimes. If they weren’t cut down by relatives stealthily in the night and secretly buried, they dangled preserved literally for years along the roadside as a gruesome warning against crime.’

Until the seventeenth century people could be gibbeted in this way while still alive. They might even be placed instead in an iron cage and left to starve. The last case of live gibbeting in Derbyshire’s Peak District happened in the 17th century on the aptly named Gibbet Moor, behind Chatsworth House:

The condemned man was a tramp. He had murdered a woman by pouring boiling fat down her throat when she refused him food. Left to die slowly in his gibbet, the tramp’s torture was drawn out when a well-meaning traveller gave him food. It is said that screams from the moors so distressed the Duke of Devonshire that he personally acted to end live gibbeting in Derbyshire.

The Murder Act had stipulated that convicted murderers were to be executed (by hanging) and then gibbeted or dissected two days after their conviction unless that day were a Sunday and then the gap should be three days. This was the case with Thomas Nicholson, who was, says the Edenhall Parish record, ‘executed and hung in chains near the same place (where the murder had occurred) on August 31st 1767’.

Beacon Hill, Penrith

Beacon Hill, Penrith

The precise place of Thomas’s execution was on the eastern spur of Beacon Hill, near ‘Cowdraik Quarry’, a place chosen so that it could be clearly seen from both the Cross Keys Inn and the town of Penrith itself. It is said there was a large crowd.

For seven months, Nicholson’s body hung in the gibbet, crawling with maggots and picked over by carrion birds, until it blew down. The people of Edenhall, perhaps feeling compassion for the man’s local relatives, gathered Nicholson’s bones into a winding sheet and buried them nearby.

Was Thomas guilty? Well it seems he likely was. His accomplice in the crime, Lee, was hung in York sometime later for other crimes. Before he died, Lee confessed to his part in Thomas Parker’s murder, saying that he was ‘the instigator and Nicholson the perpetrator’.

A spot near where the gibbeting took place was ‘long after distinguished by the letters, large and legible, ‘T. P. M.,’ signifying ‘here Thomas Parker was murdered’. It is said that here on winter nights Nicholson’s unhappy spirit appears again.

William Jobling

William Jobling

Hanging by chains wasn’t abolished in England until 1834. Poor miner William Jobling was gibbeted after his execution at Durham on the 3rd of August 1832, for the murder of a colliery owner. ‘His gibbet was erected at the place of the crime at Jarrow Slake and is described as being formed from a square piece of oak, 21 feet long and about 3 feet in diameter with strong bars of iron up each side. The post was fixed into a 1-1/2 ton stone base, sunk into the slake. Jobling’s body was hoisted up to the top of the post and left as a warning to the populace.’

The body was encased in flat bars of iron of two and a half inches in breadth, the feet were placed in stirrups, from which a bar of iron went up each side of the head, and ended in a ring by which he was suspended; a bar from the collar went down the breast, and another down the back, there were also bars in the inside of the legs which communicated with the above; and crossbars at the ankles, the knees, the thighs, the bowels the breast and the shoulders; the hands were hung by the side and covered with pitch, the face was pitched and covered with a piece of white cloth.

Twenty-one year old bookbinder James Cook became the last man in England to suffer being hung in chains, for the murder of creditor John Paas, at Leicester on the 10th of August 1832. ‘His head was shaved and tarred, to preserve it from the action of the weather; and the cap in which he had suffered was drawn over his face. On Saturday afternoon his body, attired as at the time of his execution, having been firmly fixed in the irons necessary to keep the limbs together, was carried to the place of its intended suspension.’ According to The Newgate Calendar: ‘Thousands of persons were attracted to the spot, to view this novel but most barbarous exhibition; and considerable annoyance was felt by persons resident in the neighbourhood of the dreadful scene. Representations were in consequence made to the authorities, and on the following Tuesday morning instructions were received from the Home Office directing the removal of the gibbet.’

In Book Twelve of The Prelude William Wordsworth wrote:

 We had not travelled long, ere some mischance
Disjoined me from my comrade; and, through fear
Dismounting, down the rough and stony moor
I led my horse, and, stumbling on, at length
Came to a bottom, where in former times
A murderer had been hung in iron chains.
The gibbet-mast had mouldered down, the bones
And iron case were gone; but on the turf,
Hard by, soon after that fell deed was wrought,
Some unknown hand had carved the murderer’s name.
The monumental letters were inscribed
In times long past; but still, from year to year
By superstition of the neighbourhood,
The grass is cleared away, and to this hour
The characters are fresh and visible:
A casual glance had shown them, and I fled..

The gibbet-mast that Wordsworth saw ‘mouldered down’ wasn’t actually that of Thomas Nicholson, although the poem refers to the place, but that’s beside the point.

Once again I would like to leave the last word to A. E. Housman, from the ninth verse of his poem 1887 in A Shropshire Lad. Note that hanging in chains was also called ‘keeping sheep by moonlight’:

 On moonlit heath and lonesome bank
The sheep beside me graze;
And yon the gallows used to clank
Fast by the four cross ways.

A careless shepherd once would keep
The flocks by moonlight there,        *
And high amongst the glimmering sheep
The dead man stood on air.

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
To men that die at morn.

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,
Or wakes, as may betide,
A better lad, if things went right,
Than most that sleep outside.

And naked to the hangman’s noose
The morning clocks will ring
A neck God made for other use
Than strangling in a string.

And sharp the link of life will snap,
And dead on air will stand
Heels that held up as straight a chap
As treads upon the land.

So here I’ll watch the night and wait
To see the morning shine,
When he will hear the stroke of eight
And not the stroke of nine;

And wish my friend as sound a sleep
As lads’ I did not know,
That shepherded the moonlit sheep
A hundred years ago.

It was probably in March 1916 that a young former Manitoba University Arts’ student called Percy Grisdale boarded a troop train in Winnipeg for the journey across Canada to Halifax in Nova Scotia.  Percy had decided to abandon his studies and follow the call of ‘King and Country’. On 8 September 1915 he enlisted in the 61st (Winnipeg) Infantry Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Some training followed before the battalion was to make its trip to Europe and the horrors of the trenches in France. This is the story of one year in Percy’s life.

Manitoba University

Manitoba University

Percy John Grisdale was born in Winnipeg on 20 March 1896, the first of four children of English-born Joseph Grisdale and his Anglo-Métis wife Annie Bunn. Percy’s father Joseph was a bank manager in Selkirk, Manitoba. I will tell his family’s story at a later date. I know nothing about Percy’s early life, but he must have been a bright boy because in 1914 he was admitted to the Arts Faculty of Manitoba University. His parents were very likely proud of their son’s achievement – as I guess would have been his uncle, John Grisdale, the retired Bishop of Qu’Appelle.

Why Percy chose to abandon his studies and voluntarily join the Canadian Expeditionary Force we don’t know. We might today question, or better lament, the call of ‘King and Country’, knowing how, at least on the British side, the young soldiers were destined to be ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ in a completely unnecessary imperialistic war that had nothing to do with them. But thousands upon thousands of young men did in fact respond to this patriotic call, not just in the English-speaking world, but in Germany and France as well.

On his Attestation to join the Expeditionary Force in September 1915, Percy gave his height as 5ft. 8.5inches. He had brown hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion. He had a scar on his right knee.

Halifax Harbour in 1916

Halifax Harbour in 1916

Once the troop train carrying the 61st Battalion arrived in Halifax, the soldiers had to wait a while until their transport ship was ready. One report of a similar arrival reads: ‘As they waited their turn to board the vessel, the restless soldiers were marched around Halifax, given leave, and sometimes accommodated in local barracks.’

In fact the 61st’s troop ship was to be the magnificent RMS Olympic, the sister ship of the ill-fated RMS Titanic. It was to be the first of many voyages the Olympic was to make ferrying Canadian soldiers to the war and bringing back casualties.

RMS Olympic in prewar days

RMS Olympic in prewar days

Soldier Harold Allen wrote on a post card: ‘Have arrived here at last after some trip, this is a glorious boat the name of which you may know. We hope to sail soon along with several other Bn (battalions). This is a rotten town & it is raining like the devil.’

Much of what I will tell about this ship and its role as a Canadian troop ship during the war is taken from an excellent article by David R. Gray called Carrying Canadian Troops – the Story of RMS Olympic as a First World War Troopship, published by the Canadian War Museum. Gray writes:

As the Canadian commitment to supplying troops for her European war effort grew during the course of 1915, a consistently available means of transporting them was considered essential. Hence the Canadian Government requested from the British Admiralty the use of Olympic as a troop transport. The Admiralty responded favourably and in February 1916 assigned Olympic the job of ferrying Canadian troops across the Atlantic to Europe. As one of the largest and fastest ships afloat, she was perfect for the role. Olympic left Liverpool for Halifax, on the first of what would be many trips, on 22 March 1916, arriving six days later.

The RMS Olympic was: ‘The first of three similar sister-ships, that included the Titanic and the Britannic, the Olympic was built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast and launched as RMS Olympic in 1910, a year earlier than Titanic, with her maiden voyage taking place in 1911. As the newest and largest of the trans-Atlantic liners, Olympic was described with all the superlatives later applied to Titanic: “Ocean Greyhound,” “Finest Steamer Afloat,” “Largest vessel in the World,” and “Queen of the Ocean.” At 882 feet in overall length, with a gross registered tonnage of 45,324 tons and a total of nine decks.’

RMS Olympic as a troop ship

RMS Olympic as a troop ship

The Olympic had been refitted as a troop ship in 1915 and had already carried many troops to the Mediterranean and elsewhere. When she arrived in Halifax she was already camouflaged: ‘Painted grey, dark grey for the hull and a lighter grey for the superstructure.’ With 5,737 soldiers aboard, including the 61st (Winnipeg) Battalion and Private Percy Grisdale, the Olympic departed Halifax on 5 April 1916 bound for Liverpool. The ship’s captain was Sir Bertram Hayes. The departure was not without incident:

As the pilot who had guided Olympic out of the harbour was transferred by small boat from Olympic to the armed yacht HMCS Stadacona, the much smaller vessel had difficulty manoeuvring in the wind. As the two drifted together, Stadacona’s masthead caught and carried away two of Olympic’s lifeboats. Fortunately, damage to both vessels was minimal, and Stadacona was able to retrieve the two lifeboats.

Most of the many thousands of Canadian soldiers who were to travel to war on the Olympic were amazed at the ship and their accommodation. Private Gray, who made the same voyage later in the year, wrote:

… I’m pleased to say the good fortune, or special providence or whatever it is, which has followed me ever since joining the army was with me still. I have a lovely little stateroom with 3 beds in it and the men with me are all right… and we have lots of room, a nice mahogany wardrobe to hang our clothes and drawers for small things. Electric light switch at the bed side, mattress & pillows white sheet & blanket, a fan blowing fresh air through a ventilator under my bed and so on, everything lovely. After a stroll round the deck and she is a big one, I began to think of a bath, but all bathroom(s) were locked and no hot water, but where there’s a will there’s a way. I found a steward and a quarter did the rest. I got a cold salt water bath and got some clean clothes on and went to bed about 11 o’clock and in 5 minutes time I opened my eyes and it was 6 am next morning.

The soldiers had to enjoy such luxury, it wouldn’t last long.

Canadians at Bramshott Camp

Canadians at Bramshott Camp

When the Olympic arrived in Liverpool on 11 April, the 61st Battalion boarded trains for their camp in Bramshott, Hampshire. It was a place that was to be home to countless Canadian soldiers in both the First and Second World Wars. Another Canadian soldier, Kenneth Foster, who also arrived in England in 1916, describes part of the journey:

So…. we experienced our first train ride in England. And believe me — they sure could travel for the size of them. We arrived at our destination about 8 o’clock in the evening at the village of Hazelmere, in the county of Hampshire. It was raining hard when we got off the train. I remember only too well how we were stalled at the station for an hour or more, for there seemed to be some mis-understanding as to where the camp at Bramshott really was. Eventually we got away, and after a march of about two miles we arrived there, tired, wet and hungry; so after partaking of a little nourishment we all hit the floor, and although it was mighty hard we soon fell asleep.

On awakening the next morning I found the camp to be large, with hundreds of huts capable of housing from forty to fifty men—a regular war village with Post Office, stores, theatre, etc., like hundreds of others which were scattered all over different parts of the British Isles.

More Canadians at Bramshott Camp

More Canadians at Bramshott Camp

Training was rather desultory it seems and ‘consisted mostly of long route marches, plenty of drill, and the usual turn at guard.’ Like Foster, Percy Grisdale would probably have found some time to get out of camp. Foster had visited ‘several villages and towns in Hampshire; for instance, Grayshot, Godalming, Guilford and others, the names of which I have forgotten’.

During the First World War, the Canadian Army authorized the formation of 260 infantry battalions to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Of these battalions, ‘only a small fraction…  ever reached France to serve on the front lines. The remaining battalions, most often upon arrival in England, were broken up and primarily absorbed into a reserve battalion.’ This is what happened to the 61st (Winnipeg) Battalion. On 7 July 1916, it was absorbed into the 11th Reserve Battalion which formed part of the Canadian Training Depot at Tidworth Barracks on Salisbury Plain.

It’s probable that Percy Grisdale was still with the 61st battalion when it was absorbed and moved to Tidworth. From there soldiers were quickly transferred individually or en masse to units serving in France. Percy was transferred to the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR), which had already seen action at Ypres and on the Somme.

Most likely Percy arrived as a reinforcement for the RCR in July or August 1916. Without seeing his full service record it’s impossible to know. Of course it is also possible that he had been transferred earlier as an ‘individual augmentee’, as had Private ‘Pete’ Thompson, also of the 61st, who had travelled to England with Grisdale on the Olympic and joined the RCR in early June 1916.

Royal Canadian Regiment Soldiers on the Somme

Royal Canadian Regiment Soldiers on the Somme

In either case, Percy would not have been with his new regiment during its first major battle of the war, the Battle of Mount Sorrel, which took place on 2 June in the Ypres salient in the Flanders region of Belgium.  With the arrival of spring in April 1916, the Germans had made new offensive attacks. Before the Battle of Mount Sorrel, the RCR was involved in skirmishes throughout the Mount Sorrel area but was mostly involved in trench line duty.

In 1917 an RCR officer who was there wrote:

Our first fight of any importance was the 3rd Battle of Ypres on the 2nd June 1916 when, after a four hours intensive bombardment from a large number of guns of all calibres, we were heavily attacked three times in succession by the Enemy. We repulsed all three attacks by our rifle and Machine Gun fire with heavy loss to the Enemy. Our losses were approximately 250 all ranks… After this battle we had to go back to a rearward area to refit and reorganize.

On June 6, 1916 the regiment was relieved by the 28th Battalion. On June 7, 1916 four mines that had been underneath the RCR’s position the previous day exploded and almost obliterated the entire 28th Battalion. It was probably not very long after this that Private Percy Grisdale joined his new brothers in arms.

Between June and August some extremely gallant trench raids and expeditions were carried out by the Regiment. One raid carried out was discovered by the enemy before starting, and came under the intense fire from rifles, bombs and machine guns at close quarters. In spite of this the party rushed forward and inflicted heavy losses upon the enemy, but every man except one was wounded. Two officers and some men came out into the open and worked for two hours under fire collecting and bringing in the wounded.

Canadian Soldiers on the Somme

Canadian Soldiers on the Somme

On September 8th the RCR, ‘owing to the high state of training and discipline… performed a very difficult feat on September 8th, when it came up from reserve and occupied a line just after dusk over absolutely strange ground, made unrecognisable by shell fire, and in so doing was obliged to change front twice. They occupied their position on time.’ And on September 16th ‘two companies went forward to attack an enemy trench over open ground, in full view of the enemy, in face of deadly rifle and machine gun fire, starting at a distance of over 800 yards and being practically wiped out when less than 50 yards from the enemy’s trench’.

We know that Percy Grisdale took part in all these engagements and had survived. But then, after a brief rest in the latter part of September, on October 8th the 7th Brigade, of which the RCR was a part, was ordered to attack Regina Trench, a well-defended German trench line on the Ancre Heights, 1.5 kilometres north east of the small village of Courcelette. The whole battle, which lasted more than a month, was to become known as the Battle of Ancre Heights.

A map of the Regina Trench

A map of the Regina Trench

The Staufen Riegel was a German trench along a ridge running from north-west of the village of Le Sars, south-west to Stuff Redoubt (Feste Staufen) close to the German fortifications at Thiepval on the Somme. It was the longest such trench on the German front during WW1. The Canadians called it Regina Trench after the town of Regina in Saskatchewan.  It had been repeatedly attacked for two months, without much success and with great causalities. It was briefly captured by the 5th Canadian Brigade on 1 October, and again on the 8th October by the 1st and 3rd Canadian Divisions – including the Royal Canadian Regiment. One historian of the Royal Canadian Regiment wrote this about its role in the attack of 8th October:

A, C, and D Companies were to lead the assault.  Although much uncut wire was encountered, they were able to drive swiftly to the trench were they proceeded to occupy the German lines.  Unknown to them, was the fact that the rest of the attacking battalions had not reached the trenches, leaving The RCR alone in the German Trenches.

The Regiment, unaware of their current circumstance, attempted to begin consolidation of their position.  Shortly the Germans began a counter-attack from three directions, and despite this, The Regiment continued to make gains in the trenches.  As the Germans had a great advantage in numbers, they began pushing back The Regiment.  The Regiment realized immediately that they had to withdraw promptly because of a high rate of casualties.  A covering force of 81 men allowed the remainder of The Regiment to withdraw as well as possible in the daylight.  As the covering force made their way back, they told horror stories of men buried in mud, and of several wounded men whom it had been impossible to rescue.  At night three strong work parties went out and after working for hours reported that no wounded man from The Regiment remained on the battlefield.

Private Percy John Grisdale (1896-1916)

Private Percy John Grisdale (1896-1916)

In fact the Canadian casualties had been horrific. The RCR lost ‘12 Officers and 277 other ranks’. ‘We were’, wrote a RCR officer, ‘the only regiment in the Division which got to their objective from which, however, we were eventually blown out, returning at 5.00 p.m. the same night with a trench strength of 81 by actual count. “A” Company having only 5 men left.’

When the regiment had arrived on the Somme it had 719 men in total. By the end of October 8th they had lost 648! One of those who died while attacking the Regina Trench on the 8th of October was former Manitoba University student Percy Grisdale.

One soldier, Charles Douie, who had fought at the Battle of Ancre Heights, wrote in The Weary Road in 1929:

… here above the Ancre lie many of the most gallant of my regiment, men who were my friends, men whose memory I shall revere to the end of time. Some of them were soldiers by profession; others had turned aside from their chosen avocations in obediences to a call which might not be denied… they have passed into silence. We hear their voices no more. Yet it must be that somewhere the music of those voices lingers…

Given Percy’s bishop uncle, perhaps this poem by Siegfried Sassoon, called They, might also be apt:

The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race,
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’

‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.’
And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’

Percy Grisdale is buried in Vimy Memorial Cemetery, France.

Canadian War Memorial at Vimy

Canadian War Memorial at Vimy

When we think about the Balearic island of Minorca (or Menorca) today, we tend to imagine sunny beach holidays. Perhaps we might also have heard a little about the island’s long and turbulent history, which goes all the way back to classical antiquity and beyond. What is not as well known is that the island was captured and held by the British on more than one occasion. The last time was between 1798 and 1802 during the early French Revolutionary Wars. And it is here that we find one member of the Grisdale family.

The Battle of the Nile

The Battle of the Nile

When Admiral Horatio Nelson had audaciously and convincingly defeated the French in a naval engagement off the coast of Egypt in August 1798, known to history as the Battle of the Nile or the Battle of Aboukir Bay, France’s power in the Mediterranean had been destroyed – at least for the time being. Britain wanted to recapture Napoleon’s Mediterranean conquests and they needed bases other than Gibraltar to make the sea a British lake.

The British “quickly chose Minorca and its fabulous harbour of Port Mahon where its whole fleet could safely anchor. This was against the advice of Nelson who had written to the Admiralty in July, ‘I have no scruple in deciding that it is better to save the kingdom of Naples and risk Minorca, than to risk the kingdom of Naples to save Minorca.’”

Bay of Fornells, Minorca

Bay of Fornells, Minorca

Janet Sloss in Exit Britannia (2002) tells us that Admiral St Vincent, the Commander of the British Mediterranean fleet, informed the Secretary of State for War, Viscount Henry Dundas, that the British forces then based in Gibraltar and Lisbon would be sufficient to capture Minorca. Even before Nelson’s victory in Egypt, St Vincent had advised London:

We can take possession of Minorca without awaiting the finale of Sir Horatio Nelson’s exploit. Two line of battle ships and a few frigates will achieve it by pushing the transports at once into Fornells. I feel the importance of General Stuart being at the head of them. No man can manage Frenchmen so well as him and the British will go to Hell for him.

General Sir Charles Stuart was the commander of the British forces defending Portugal against a French and Spanish attack and had impressed both Admiral St Vincent and London. In August 1798, London appointed Stuart to lead the capture of Menorca. Henry Dundas told him: ‘From the good correspondence which subsisted between His Majesty’s troops and the inhabitants of Minorca during the time that island was under the dominion of this country (1763-1782), His Majesty hopes and expects that no material opposition will be made by them to your gaining a footing on the island, and that every practicable measure will be adopted to secure to His Majesty the possession of that very important island.’

Leaving Lisbon, Stuart sailed for Gibraltar at the end of September, collected three regiments and embarked with them at the end of October, heading for Menorca. And Rear-Admiral Duckworth was ordered to go with the Powerful, the Majestic, the Vanguard and the Swallow corvette to Mahon, followed a week later by two more ships of the line, the Bellerophon and the Zealous.

Admiral John Duckworth

Admiral John Duckworth

By the 7th of November, Duckworth had assembled a squadron of 25 English ships. He approached the island from the south, heading for the north coast. Sir Charles Stuart was in command of the troops.

They made a feint at Fornells, while the real landing took place at Addaya. When they saw that the Spanish battery at the entrance of the bay had been evacuated and the powder magazine blown up, 800 British troops went on shore. At that moment, 2,000 Spanish troops approached from different directions, but were repulsed on the left and checked on the right by the guns of the Argo. The 800 men kept their positions until more divisions were put on shore. As darkness fell, the Spanish troops disappeared.

On the 7th of November, Duckworth, with a squadron of 25 English ships, approached the island from the south, heading for the north coast. Sir Charles Stuart was in command of the troops. They made a feint at Fornells, while the real landing took place at Addaya. When they saw that the Spanish battery at the entrance of the bay had been evacuated and the powder magazine blown up, 800 British troops went on shore. At that moment, 2,000 Spanish troops approached from different directions, but were repulsed on the left and checked on the right by the guns of the Argo. The 800 men kept their positions until more divisions were put on shore. As darkness fell, the Spanish troops disappeared.

I won’t retell the ensuing events here because many excellent histories exist. Suffice it to say that on 14 November 1798 the Spanish forces surrendered. The terms of capitulation were negotiated by Major General Sir James St. Clair Erskine:

The garrison shall not be considered as prisoners of war but shall march out free with their arms, drums beating, colours flying, with twelve rounds of cartridge per man. The said garrison shall be sent with all due convenience to Spain at the expense of His Britannic Majesty to one of the nearest ports of the Peninsula, excepting the first battalion of the Swiss regiment of Yann and the detachment of dragoons to Numancia. Deserters will be restored to the British army. The inhabitants of this island shall be allowed to live in the free exercise of their religion, enjoying peaceably the revenues, property and privileges which they possess and enjoy at present. The ‘universities’ or Corporation of the Island shall be maintained in the enjoyment of the particular privileges and franchises which have been granted to them by the ancient Kings of Spain as they now possess them, and as they have been allowed to them in the treaties which have taken place as often as this island has passed from one dominion to another.

British capture of Minorca, 1798

British capture of Minorca, 1798

The British had taken possession of the island without losing a single man. But Charles Stewart was concerned about his position. He wrote to Admiral Nelson:  ‘To fortune alone we owe the possession of Minorca, while I sincerely and from the bottom of my heart congratulate you upon a victory which does such credit to your judgement and resolution. My situation is extremely critical for I learn that the whole of the Spanish army has approached the court in consequence of the surrender of this island, and that they mean to make a descent before a reinforcement arrives…In regard to troops, I have scarcely 3,000 men. St Philip’s Castle is demolished, and… Ciudadela Sound by no means answers the purpose of securing either of the ports of this island… Consequently, I shall resist their landing in the first instance and, if I have time, erect temporary posts at the mouth of the harbour of Mahon, to which I will retire… and await a reinforcement or effect a retreat.’

Reinforcements soon started to arrive, including in May 1800 the 17th Regiment of Foot (the Leicestershire Regiment) and with it a young 23 year old Lieutenant  called Joseph Grisdale. With the start of the French Revolutionary Wars the regiment found itself in Ireland. It soon added a second battalion in Deptford and both battalions were then sent to North Holland to fight under the Duke of York against the French Revolutionary Army. Given his age it’s quite likely Joseph Grisdale was already with them. Returning soon to Dover they then departed for Minorca.

In Minorca the British had converted the island into one of their principal Mediterranean bases. ‘Many expeditions were launched from the island, and (Britain) used the island as a base for its operations along the Spanish Coast.’

Charge of the 17th Regiment at the Battle of Princeton

Charge of the 17th Regiment at the Battle of Princeton

Who was Joseph Browne Grisdale, to give him his full name? He was in fact the first son of the Rev. Dr. Browne Grisdale (1750—1814), the eminent Chancellor of the Diocese of Carlisle, Chaplain in Ordinary to His Majesty and a powerful local Justice of the Peace. Joseph was born in Carlisle in 1777. I have written briefly about Browne’s family in earlier articles. Browne’s brother Benjamin had also become a priest and, as the chaplain of the 33rd Regiment of Foot under General Charles Cornwallis, had participated in the American Revolutionary War and been captured by the American at the Siege Of Yorktown in 1781. Joseph’s  17th Regiment had also been taken into captivity at Yorktown and it is possible that it was through this connection that Joseph had got a commission. We don’t know. Joseph’s younger brother John  (born 1780 in Carlisle) was an extremely talented young man. He went to Cambridge University, gained high academic honours there as ‘second wrangler’, became a London lawyer; only to die prematurely in London in 1812; aged just 32.

Whether Joseph had attended Carlisle Grammar School like his brother I don’t know. But joining the army, like joining the Church, was always an option for sons of up and coming families. It was the option that Joseph had chosen. Sometime in the last years of the eighteenth- century, Joseph got (or bought) a commission in the British army; in (as we have seen) the 17th Regiment of Foot.

Dr. Browne Grisdale and his wife Ann Dockray weren’t very lucky with their children, for in April 1801 an announcement appeared in The Monthly Magazine which, under ‘Deaths Abroad’, reported:

At Minorca, J. B. Grisdale, esq, lieutenant in the 17th regiment of foot, much lamented by his brother officers.

Signing Peace of Amiens

Signing Peace of Amiens

We don’t know how young Lieutenant Joseph Grisdale died. Was it an accident, from disease or during a skirmish with the local Minorcans? As the French or Spanish threat to the island diminished the regiment’s 1st battalion soon shipped out of Minorca for Dover and from there moved to Madeira. The second battalion stayed till 1802 when the Treaty of Amiens was signed and it was agreed to hand Minorca back to the Spanish. They were then sent to Ireland and subsequently disbanded at Cork.

One day in late August 1900 at Geluk’s Farm near Belfast in South Africa two companies of the 1st Battalion the King’s Liverpool Regiment were cornered and being attacked by the Afrikaner farmers – the Boers. Many of the company involved were killed, others escaped and one won a Victoria Cross. One of those who died was Liverpudlian Thomas Grisdale.

In 1895 a nineteen year old Thomas Grisdale was living in a pretty squalid area of Toxteth in Liverpool. His boss was foreman Mr Berrick in Dolling Street, Toxteth, and Thomas worked with him ‘carting’ goods on and off trains.

The King's Liverpool Regiment Memorial

The King’s Liverpool Regiment Memorial

Whether for reasons of adventure or simply trying to better his position, Thomas decided to join the army. He signed up for the Liverpool militia in October 1895 aged, he said, ‘19 years 4 months’. Two months later he enlisted in the regular army with the King’s Liverpool Regiment. He was first attached to the 2nd Battalion but then transferred to the 1st. Having recently returned from Nova Scotia, the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, or ‘Liverpools’ as they were generally known, was first posted to garrison duty in the West Indies, but in 1897 they were sent to Cape Colony (Cape Town) in South Africa, where relations between the British and the Boers were once again deteriorating. From the Cape the first battalion, including Thomas, was moved to the town of Ladysmith in Natal, where the ‘1st King’s formed a company of mounted infantry and underwent intensive training’. They were still there two years later when war was declared on 11 October 1899 (the Second Boer War) and Natal was invaded by a Boer force under General Piet Joubert.

Boer Fighters

Boer Fighters

Under General George White 16,000 British soldiers set out from Ladysmith and elsewhere to confront the Boers, but British tactics were out-of-date and they suffered heavy losses in the first major engagements. Regarding Thomas and the 1st Battalion of the Liverpools:

The 1st Battalion was in Ladysmith when war was declared. They were not present at either Glencoe (20th October 1899) or Elandslaagte (21st October). On the 24th Sir George White, being anxious to engage the attention of the Boers and so prevent them falling on General Yule’s column, then retreating from Dundee to Ladysmith, moved out of the latter town and fought the action of Rietfontein. The force which he took out was—5th Lancers, 19th Hussars, Imperial Light Horse, Natal Mounted Volunteers, 42nd and 53rd Batteries RFA, No 10 Mountain Battery, 1st Liverpools, 1st Devons, 1st Gloucesters, and 2nd King’s Royal Rifles.

Sir George threw out the Lancers and Hussars to seize some ridges and protect his right. The Gloucesters advanced on the left and the Liverpools on their right, the Devons being in support afterwards in the firing line and the King’s Royal Rifles at the baggage. The general’s intention was not to come to close fighting. The two field batteries did admirable work, silencing the Boer guns and keeping down the enemy’s rifle-fire, and what was a tactical success might have been accomplished at very slight loss, but the Gloucesters pushed rather too far forward and suffered severely. Before 2 pm firing had ceased, the Boers had withdrawn westwards, and the danger of that part of their army attacking General Yule was over.

On 26th October General Yule’s force entered Ladysmith, wearied and mud-bedraggled, after a march entailing very great bodily hardship to all and very great anxiety to those in command.

The Boer's 'Long Tom'

The Boer’s ‘Long Tom’

Over the next few days, as the Boers were gathering north of Ladysmith, the British army, including Thomas’s 1st Liverpools, attacked again. But a lot of ‘bungling’ followed; bungling for which many of those in charge were soon to be castigated back home in Britain. I won’t tell the whole tale; the main engagement is usually known as the battle of Nicholson’s Neck. The upshot was that the British retreated to Ladysmith where they were to be besieged by the Boers for the next four months. The Boers literally brought up their big gun; the so-called Long Tom. They bombarded the town but try as they might, and they made several attacks, they couldn’t take Ladysmith.

The Boer bombardments were conducted at no particular time, particularly by their two 6 inch guns. On 24th November 1899 Long Tom caught a company of the King’s Liverpools massed in the open, inflicting 9 casualties, five of them dead.

British soldiers defending Ladysmith

British soldiers defending Ladysmith

‘During the siege of Ladysmith the Liverpools were located on the north side of the town, and were not in the terrible fighting when the attack was made upon the southern defences on 6th January. Of course a feint was made on the north of the town, but the attack was not pressed as it was at Caesar’s Camp and Waggon Hill…. On the night of the 7th December Colonel Mellor and three companies of the Liverpools seized Limit Hill, “and through the gap thus created” a squadron of the 19th Hussars penetrated some four miles to the north, destroying the enemy’s telegraph line and burning various shelters, etc.’

As the weeks passed conditions in the town got worse and worse for both its inhabitants and for the British soldiers. By the end of February a relief force under General Redvers Buller had, despite several humiliating defeats, managed to fight its way up from the Cape to Ladysmith and the siege was relieved. The Boer besiegers trekked away across the veldt. One of the defeats the British relieving force had suffered was called the Battle of Spion’s Kop, after which Liverpool Football Club’s Anfield ‘Kop’ is named. Winston Churchill, who was there after his daring escape from a Boer concentration camp, wrote, ‘Corpses lay here and there. Many of the wounds were of a horrible nature. The shallow trenches were choked with dead and wounded.’

On 1st March 1900 … the 1st Liverpools and other troops, now emaciated and worn to absolute weakness, crawled some five miles north of Ladysmith to harass the enemy in their retreat, and did effect some good work in that way.

Relief of Ladysmith. 1900

Relief of Ladysmith. 1900

All this Thomas Grisdale had experienced. But his military career was not yet over. General Buller soon decided to go on the offensive and the British moved into the Boer heartlands of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The Liverpools were often in action, for example at Amarsfoori on 7 August and at Van Dykes Vlei on 21 August. But then:

On the following day Buller’s army advanced to Geluk, some five or six miles, the (Liverpool) battalion with the Gordons and mounted troops of Dundonald’s Brigade, acting as rear-guard. A very difficult spur, with steep sides, was crossed, and the high hills on the further side occupied. These had been held by the Boers in strength, but they had retired on Buller’s approach. As soon as the infantry of the rear-guard had arrived in camp, the mounted troops of the rear-guard were attacked rather sharply, but they managed to hold their own and to beat off the Boers. Two companies (‘C’ and ‘E’) of the Liverpool Regiment, who formed part of the advance guard, fell into an ambush and lost considerably, leaving, it was reported, some eighty men either killed, wounded, or prisoners in the hands of the Boers. Shortly after arrival in camp, five companies of the Regiment were sent out on outpost duty, taking up a short line and entrenching—two companies were entrenched in front and furnished sentries, with three companies entrenched in rear in support.

William Heaton VC - A soldier with Thomas Grisdale at Geluk

William Heaton VC – A soldier with Thomas Grisdale at Geluk

One member of the two Liverpool companies that were ambushed was Private William Edward Heaton:

On the 23rd August, 1900, the Company to which Private Heaton belonged, advancing in front of the general line held by the troops, became surrounded by the enemy and was suffering severely. At the request of the Officer Commanding, Private Heaton volunteered to take a message back to explain the position of the Company. He was successful, though at the imminent risk of his own life. Had it not been for Private Heaton’s courage there can be little doubt that the remainder of the Company, which suffered very severely, would have had to surrender.

Private Heaton was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry. Twenty-four year old Private Thomas Grisdale was also one of the soldiers at Geluk’s Farm. He unfortunately did not survive, at least not for more than a few hours. The official ‘Natal Field Force’ casualty roll tells us that Private T. Grisdale, number 5080, of the 1st Battalion The King’s (Liverpool Regiment) was ‘killed on 24 Aug 1900 at Geluk’.

Like countless young British men over the centuries Thomas was never to return home. As the poet A E Housman once put it:

We pledge in peace by farm and town
The Queen they served in war,
And fire the beacons up and down
The land they perished for.

“God save the Queen” we living sing,
From height to height ’tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-third.

Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you’ve been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will save the Queen.

Thomas's grandfather Wilfred Grisdale in Penrith

Thomas’s grandfather Wilfred Grisdale in Penrith

So who was the father of Thomas Grisdale who might or might not have been proud that his son had died to ‘Save the Queen’? His parents were William Grisdale and Margaret Robinson. They had arrived in Liverpool from Penrith, Cumberland in the early 1860s with their three young Cumberland-born children. Seven more children were to be born in Liverpool. Thomas was the couple’s seventh child and was born in the first half of 1876. William was born in Penrith in 1838, the first son of carpenter Wilfred Grisdale (1815-1893) by his first wife Hannah Robinson. William also became a carpenter but probably finding it difficult to make a living moved to Liverpool. He worked first as a labourer but later found work as a joiner. The family lived at 10 Leslie Street in Toxteth Park. The street was later erased from the map when large swathes of Liverpool’s slums were cleared in the second half of the twentieth century.

Although from Penrith the family had, as you might expect, originally come from Matterdale. Thomas’s great grandfather William (1785- 1866) was born there but had moved to Penrith where he was a ‘Dancing Master’. He was the son of Matterdale blacksmith Wilfred Grisdale (1711- 1795) and his young wife Ruth Slee. (I’m sorry there are so many Wilfreds and Williams!) Another son of Wilfred the blacksmith, also called Wilfred, emigrated with his family to Canada in 1816 and founded a veritable Grisdale dynasty in Ontario and Michigan. William, the brother of Penrith Dancing Master Wilfred, emigrated to Victoria, Australia in 1853, joined the gold rush, and later found a decapitated man. Another member of the family became a ballet dancer at Drury Lane, married well, went to Boston but died hawking fish in Falmouth.

Our Private Grisdale’s parents must have been devastated when they heard of his death. Father William died in Liverpool in 1906 in Dolling Street, Toxteth. After his death his wife Margaret was admitted to Toxteth Park Workhouse and died there in 1907.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

When a young unemployed cotton bleacher from Bolton in Lancashire walked into the annual meeting of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) being held at Exeter Hall in London’s Strand in May 1865, he didn’t know that his life was about to change. A hymn inspired him and a discussion would lead him down the path to becoming a missionary himself, and later on a Bishop in the Canadian prairies. The young man’s name was John Grisdale. This is the first part of his fascinating story.

Preaching at Exeter Hall

Preaching at Exeter Hall

The hymn that inspired John was a favourite of his former teacher, the Rev. Canon Henry Powell, who was present at the London meeting. The hymn referred, as John’s obituary in a Bolton newspaper in 1922 tells us, to ‘India’s Coral Strand’; it is called From Greenland’s Icy Mountains and was written in 1819 by Indian missionary Reginald Heber. I include it here because the sentiments tell us a lot about about how missionaries such as Powell, and later John Grisdale, saw their job and the world at large:

From Greenland’s icy mountains, from India’s coral strand;
Where Afric’s sunny fountains roll down their golden sand:
From many an ancient river, from many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver their land from error’s chain.

What though the spicy breezes blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases, and only man is vile?
In vain with lavish kindness the gifts of God are strown;
The heathen in his blindness bows down to wood and stone.

Shall we, whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high,
Shall we to those benighted the lamp of life deny?
Salvation! O salvation! The joyful sound proclaim,
Till earth’s remotest nation has learned Messiah’s Name.

Waft, waft, ye winds, His story, and you, ye waters, roll
Till, like a sea of glory, it spreads from pole to pole:
Till o’er our ransomed nature the Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator, in bliss returns to reign.

After the meeting John talked with Canon Powell. He “expressed a desire to enter upon Christian work in a larger field”. Powell was obviously pleased that his former pupil wanted to follow him into a missionary life and “used his influence” to get John admitted to the CMS’s  Islington Missionary College, where he would spend the next five years training to be a missionary.

Let’s go back a bit to see what had led John to be in London in 1865.

He was born in 1845, in Tongue Moor, Bolton, Lancashire, the second child of Bolton cotton weaver Robert Grisdale (1819-1897) and his wife Alice Yates (1821-1897). The family soon moved to another part of Bolton: to Slater’s Lane in Little Bolton. In the year of John’s birth Frederick Engels wrote this about the Lancashire towns and about Bolton in particular:

Among the worst of these towns after Preston and Oldham is Bolton, eleven miles north-west of Manchester. It has, so far as I have been able to observe in my repeated visits, but one main street, a very dirty one, Deansgate, which serves as a market, and is even in the finest weather a dark, unattractive hole in spite of the fact that, except for the factories, its sides are formed by low one and two-storied houses. Here, as everywhere, the older part of the town is especially ruinous and miserable. A dark-coloured body of water, which leaves the beholder in doubt whether it is a brook or a long string of stagnant puddles, flows through the town and contributes its share to the total pollution of the air, by no means pure without it.   – The Condition of the Working Class in England (Leipzig, 1845)

St Peter's, Bolton Le Moors

St Peter’s, Bolton Le Moors

Later in life John would tell of how he was “formerly an errand lad” around the town. While his father toiled in the mills John attended the Bolton Parish School. This was an Anglican school attached to Bolton Parish Church (Saint Peter’s) and was overseen at the time by the vicar of Bolton: the Rev. Canon Henry Powell we have already met. Henry had been made vicar of Bolton after many years as a missionary in Ceylon. Canon Powell taught John at the school. Another of his teachers was the Rev J Farrell Wright (whose own son was to become an Archbishop). Given John’s subsequent career as a missionary in India and then in Canada, it might prove informative to try to get a little flavour of how Canon Powell saw the “heathens” whose job it was the CMS’s missionaries to convert. In 1840, two years after arriving in Ceylon, Powell wrote home to his friend the Rev. Francis Trench in Reading:

The natives, among whom we live and labour, are a mild, inoffensive race of beings, but very indolent, uncleanly, indifferent, and deceptive. In fact, without charging them with any particular breaches of morality, I should designate their character as low, weak, and in nowise to be depended on. The men have no dress but a cloth tied round the waist, reaching to the knees. The women dress precisely the same, except in missionary stations, where they have been induced to add a jacket. The hair, both of the men and women, is turned up and fastened with a comb, as ladies’ hair in England; so that it is with great difficulty a new comer can distinguish male from female.

The religion which is commonly professed amongst the natives is Bhuddhism; though many are given up to devil worship, and others are Atheists, and of no religion at all. Idolatry, it seems, is very productive of Infidelity and Atheism. Satan may here almost literally be said ‘ to lead the poor creatures captive at his will;’ and so infatuated are they of their superstitions, that nothing but the power of the Divine grace can, I am sure, drive them out of those fastnesses in which they have entrenched themselves.

Their ignorance, also, is fearful in the extreme; and their minds have been so long neglected, and so unused to consideration, that it seems almost impossible to communicate ideas to them. Words seem to make no impression; they are listened to as a pleasant sound; they recreate, but fail to instruct. It is a fact, that the natives will sometimes listen to my instruction and conversation for a tolerable length of time; and though I broach none but the most elementary truths, yet even these are not understood or remembered, and they are unable to answer a single question upon what has been told them.

An old woman, indeed, told me the other day that she had heard the missionaries preach here for years; but she did not understand or remember what they said, for it was not her place to think, and she could not. This arises from their own destructive system; for, when they go to hear their idolatrous books read, which is, however, only once a year (but then for a whole week, night and day), they are not required to attend to what is said, but only to be present to hear, which is all that Bhuddh requires of them, and for which he will dispense merits according to the time that they attend. Indeed, they could not understand the reading, were they to pay attention to it, for it is in the Pali and Sanscrit languages, which they have never learnt.

Their indifference to religion, however, is even a greater obstacle to our success than their ignorance. This seems almost invincible. They do not care for the event; nor do they look upon religion as important. They are, indeed, a set of fatalists; and, holding very strongly the cold doctrine of metempsychosis, they look upon their present condition as the result of their conduct in some former state of existence; and, in consequence, seem to care very little what becomes of them for the future. Indeed, they have very few notions of religion in common with ourselves, and, apparently, do not wish to have. They acknowledge Christianity to be a good religion, but they cannot see why they should become Christians.

Of course that they didn’t want to be Christians didn’t stop the missionaries from trying to make them be; a pattern that John Grisdale would later follow in Canada.

Slater's Bleachworks, Bolton

Slater’s Bleachworks, Bolton

John was obviously a keen pupil of the religious doctrines he was taught in Bolton Parish School because he was eventually to become a religious ‘Sunday School’ teacher there. But John had to work too. At the time in Lancashire a type of unpaid child slavery still existed in the cotton milling industry.

As long as the English cotton manufacturers depended on slave-grown cotton, it could truthfully be asserted that they rested on a twofold slavery, the indirect slavery of the white man in England and the direct slavery of the black men on the other side of the Atlantic — Karl Marx, New York Daily Tribune, October 14, 1861

As well as the mills themselves, the cotton industry had many other associated trades. One of these was cotton bleaching – an extremely unhealthy job. The Grisdale family lived in Slater’s Lane, right next to Slater’s Bleachworks, and it was perhaps inevitable that John, and later his brother Levi, went to work there. He was perhaps in his early teens but could have been younger. John became an apprentice and he is listed as such in the 1861 census when he was fifteen. After completing his apprenticeship, we are told that “he was thrown out of work, and leaving Bolton in search of employment, he went to London”.

In the early to mid-1860s, thousands of Lancashire cotton workers had been thrown out of work, become destitute and even starved. It was the time of the so-called Lancashire Cotton Famine. This was a depression in the textile industry of North West England brought about by the interruption of imported baled cotton caused by the American Civil War. The North had blockaded the Southern ports. One historian writes:

The famine of raw cotton and the difficult trading conditions caused a change in the social circumstances of the Lancashire region’s extensive cotton mill workforce. The factories ran out of raw cotton to process, large parts of Lancashire region’s working society became unemployed, and went from being the most prosperous workers in Britain to the most impoverished.

Lancashire 'Cotton Famine' workers queuing for food

Lancashire ‘Cotton Famine’ workers queuing for food

That the Lancashire cotton mill workers were ever the most prosperous in Britain is ludicrous. They never were. But I’ll leave that to one side.

Rather than starve John Grisdale tried his luck in London and, when he had walked into the missionary meeting at Exeter Hall, his luck had been good.

We don’t know much about John’s five years of missionary training in Islington and I won’t try to reconstruct it here. But in 1870 John left the college and was ordained a clergyman in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. The Church Missionary Society then decided to send him to India; as a missionary to the heathens there. By the way, the word ‘heathens’ was the one used by the CMS, whose whole purpose, which was very explicit, was to convert the native “heathens” – the religious care of colonists generally being left to the SPCK (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the SPG (Society for the Propagation of the Gospel), although the lines were often blurred.

We know something of John’s short career in India from letters he sent home to the CMS and from a talk he gave to the  ‘Anniversary Meeting’ of the local  CMS ‘auxiliary Society’ at their meeting in Colchester on 13 May 1872. It was reported that “owing to the exceedingly unfavourable state of the weather… the general attendance was very small”. A motion was taken and passed asking the speakers to tell the audience something about “the character and reality of the work being done by the society”. John Grisdale “proposed to give them in plain language the experiences of a young Missionary on his first arrival in the country which was to be the scene of his labours”. “It was”, he said, “one Sunday morning in December (1870) that (we) first steamed into the Harbour of Bombay.” He was met by a missionary friend and taken to his house. John “truly rejoiced to see 70 native Christians taking part in the Liturgy and Services of the Church of England, in their own tongue, and a native Clergyman who was once a Hindoo, reading the service for them”. The next day he “went to see a large and important school in Bombay – the Robert Money School”. The Roman Catholics, Protestants, Mahommedans and Hindoos were “all mixed together”. They had, Grisdale said, “all come to this School which had for its avowed object their conversion to Christianity; they nevertheless seemed to come to the School from some decide preference to the others in Bombay”.

John then moved “105 miles to the north, to the sacred city of Nassach, the very centre of Hindooism in India”. He talked a lot about the Mission there, but another incident caught his attention. It seems that having travelled much during the day he had taken a longer night’s rest than usual and about half-past five in the morning, “when it was just dawning”, he heard voices outside his window. “In that heathen land” he heard the words of Bishop Ken’s morning hymn: “Awake my soul, and with the sun, thy daily stage of duty run.” When he went out he “found that nearby were some thirty of the sable daughters of Africa”. He continued:

The Church Missionary Society had an orphanage there for the purpose of receiving the girls captured by the Queen’s ships from the slavers, who still carried on their trade on the Eastern Coast of Africa… When rescued, these slaves are taken to Bombay, and from thence to Nassach, and an attempt was made to civilize them, and afterwards many of them were taken back to their own country. It was hoped, in this way, that their bodily slavery might turn out to be the setting free, not only of themselves, but many of their fellow-countrymen, from the trammels of idolatry.

St John's College, Agra

St John’s College, Agra

John continued his journey across much of the breadth of India; visiting the missionary stations in Jubbulpore and Benares before eventually arriving in Agra. Here he was “attached to St. John’s College”, a CMS missionary establishment occupying a fine building. He was appointed Professor of Pastoral Theology. His “especial duty”, he told his Colchester audience, “was to teach the Bible, and afterwards (he had) also the English class”. Every morning about 50 gathered around him – some “Mahommedans, some Hindoos”. He would open his class with a prayer and when the reading was over he would say: “Is there anything you would like to say as to the bearing of this chapter on Hindooism or on Mahommedanism?” And after they had spoken he would try “to show the superiority of Christianity”.

Soon after he was “summoned down to Calcutta, and afterwards to Burmah”. But he was so unwell that he thought he would have to go to the hospital in Rangoon. However, an English gentleman took him to his house, where he was “obliged to keep to his room for some weeks”. He related how every morning a “Mahommedan” used to come and ask:” How is your Highness’s health?” It seems that “this little fellow was the grandson of that cruel king who was reigning in Delhi at the time of the Indian Mutiny”. Grisdale hoped that this young member of that family “would reach the Kingdom of Christ”!

Missionary John Grisdasle

Missionary John Grisdasle

Because the climate had affected his health so much, John had written to the CMS in London requesting a transfer. A little later, in June 1871, he wrote again from Calcutta to the Rev. Wright, the corresponding secretary of the CMS. He brought up the subject of his health and enclosed a letter from his doctor. He also mentioned for a second time his intention to marry. In view of both these facts he asked that the CMS sanction both the marriage and the transfer so that he would be “enabled to make the necessary arrangements”. The CMS were to agree to John’s request and he soon returned to London. His intended wife, Ann Chaplin, was a carpet dealer back home in Bolton. When John was “invalided” back to England they were married in late 1871 in Lutterworth, Leicestershire (Ann having been born nearby in Hinckley) to where her parents had returned after their many years in Bolton. Their first son, Robert Chaplin, arrived in Chelmsford, Essex in September 1872.

Where would be a more conducive place for John’s future health and ministry? Canada was decided upon. Not ‘old’ Canada, but rather Rupert’s Land, which had only just been acquired for the British Crown from the Hudson’s Bay Company and whose “capital” was the 300 person settlement of what was soon to be called Winnipeg.

And so it was that the 27 year old Reverend John Grisdale, his new wife Ann, twelve years his senior, and their baby son, stood on the docks in Liverpool one day in late April 1873 about to board the ship Algeria. They were bound for New York, from where they would make their journey to Winnipeg and their new life. And there I will leave them. I will tell something of John’s long and successful career in Canada in Part Two.