Posts Tagged ‘Grisedale Tarn’

‘Et Strat Clut vastata est a Saxonibus’ (And Strathclyde was devastated by the Saxons) – Welsh  Annales AD 946.

‘This year King Edmund ravaged all Cumberland, and granted it to Malcolm, king of the Scots, on the condition that he should be his fellow-worker as well by sea as by land.’ – Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for AD 945.

‘How king Eadmund gave Cumberland to the king of the Scots.’ – A.D. 946. ‘Agapetus sat in the Roman chair ten years, six months, and ten days. In the same year king Eadmund, with the aid of Leoling, king of South Wales, ravaged the whole of Cumberland, and put out the eyes of the two sons of Dummail, king of that province. He then granted that kingdom to Malcolm, king of the Scots, to hold of himself, with a view to defend the northern parts of England from hostile incursions by sea and land.’   Roger of Wendover, Flowers of History, circa 1235.

King Edmund

King Edmund

In the year 945/6 a British king of Cumbria (the kingdom of the Strathclyde Britons) called ‘Dunmail’ was probably defeated in battle by the West-Saxon English king Edmund. The event has become legendary. A small kernel of historical truth has been embellished over the centuries to make of King Dunmail a veritable King Arthur or an Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, an heroic figure who lies sleeping, to be called upon one day to return and save his people in their hour of need. I will discuss the historical facts and setting in a forthcoming article. Dunmail was probably Cumbrian King Dyfnmal ap Owain (Donald son of Owen), and he certainly wasn’t the ‘last king’ of the Cumbrians. But here I’d simply like to draw together just a few of the myriad versions of the legend.

Let’s begin with William Wordsworth. In his 1805 poem The Waggoner he wrote:

Meanwhile, uncertain what to do,
And oftentimes compelled to halt,
The horses cautiously pursue
Their way, without mishap or fault;
And now have reached that pile of stones,
Heaped over brave King Dunmail’s bones;
His who had once supreme command,
Last king of rocky Cumberland;
His bones, and those of all his Power
Slain here in a disastrous hour!

Dunmail Stones

Dunmail Stones

Countless generations of tourists to the Lake District have been told that this ‘pile of stones’, which can still be seen on Dunmail Raise as it rises south from Thirlmere, marks the spot of the battle and even, in many versions, Dunmail’s burial place.

Although the seeds of the legend of Dunmail find their origins in the comments of Roger of Wendover in the early thirteenth century quoted above, for a long time antiquaries and travel writers stuck to the basic facts and stated the uncertainty of matters. King Charles 1’s surveyor John Ogilby in his The Traveller’s Guide: Or, A Most Exact Description Of The Roads Of England (1699) only said that there was “a great heap of stones called Dunmail-Raise-Stones, supposed to have been cast up by Dunmail K(ing) of Cumberland for the bounds of his kingdom”.

In 1774, in A Tour of Scotland and the Hebrides, Thomas Pennant wrote:

On a high pass between the hills, observe a large Carnedd called Dunmail Wrays stones, collect6ed in memory of a defeat, A.D. 946. given to a petty king of Cumberland, of that name, by Edmund 1. Who with the usual barbarity of the times, put out the eyes of his two sons, and gave the country to Malcolm, king of Scotland, on condition he preserved in peace the northern parts of England.

William Gilpin said in his Observations, relative chiefly to Pictureseque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772, On several Parts of England; particularly the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland, and Westmoreland (1786):

 … we came to the celebrated pass, known by the name Dunmail-Raise, which divides the counties of Cumberland and Westmoreland. The history of this rude monument, which consists of a monstrous pile of stones, heaped on each side of an earthen mound, is little known. It was probably intended to mark a division, not between these two northern counties; but rather between the two kingdoms of Scotland and England, in elder times, when the Scottish border extended beyond its present bounds. And indeed this chain of mountains seem to be a much more natural division of the two kingdoms, in this part, than a little river in champaign country, like the Esk, which now divides them. It is said, this division, was made by a Saxon prince, on the death of Dunmail the last king of Cumberland, who was here slain in battle…

Dunmail Raise

Dunmail Raise

Around the same time, 1784, Thomas West wrote in A guide to the lakes of Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire:

… the road ascends to Dunmail-raise, where lie the historical stones, that perpetuate the name and fall of the last king of Cumberland, defeated there by the Saxon monarch Edmund, who put out the eyes of the two sons of his adversary, and; for his confederating with Leolin, King of Wales, against him wasted his Kingdom, and then gave it to Malcolm, King of Scots, who held it in fee of Edmund A.D. 944 or 945. The stones are a heap and have the appearance of a karn, or barrow. The wall that divides the counties is built over them, which proves their priority of time in that form.

It’s only when we get to the Romantic era of Wordsworth and later into the Victorian and Edwardian periods that the legend really starts to take shape. I particularly like John Pagan White’s 1873 poetic rendition in his Country Lays and Legends of the English Lake Country:

KING DUNMAIL.

They buried on the mountain’s side
King Dunmail, where he fought and died.
But mount, and mere, and moor again
Shall see King Dunmail come to reign.

Mantled and mailed repose his bones
Twelve cubits deep beneath the stones ;
But many a fathom deeper down
In Grisedale Mere lies Dunmail’s crown.

Climb thou the rugged pass, and see
High midst those mighty mountains three,
How in their joint embrace they hold
The Mere that hides his crown of gold.

There in that lone and lofty dell
Keeps silent watch the sentinel.
A thousand years his lonely rounds
Have traced unseen that water’s bounds

His challenge shocks the startled waste,
Still answered from the hills with haste,
As passing pilgrims come and go
From heights above or vales below.

When waning moons have filled their year,
A stone from out that lonely Mere
Down to the rocky Raise is borne,
By martial shades with spear and horn.

As crashes on the pile the stone,
The echoes to the King make known
How still their faithful watch they hold
In Grisedale o’er his crown of gold.

And when the Raise has reached its sum,
Again will brave King Dunmail come ;
And all his Warriors marching down
The dell, bear back his golden crown.

And Dunmail, mantled, crowned, and mailed,
Again shall Cumbria’s King be hailed ;
And o’er his hills and valleys reign
When Eildon’s heights are field and plain.

Grisedale Tarn

Grisedale Tarn

W. T. Palmer’s version of 1908 in The English Lakes is more elaborate, literally more inventive and certainly historically incorrect regarding the English king involved and the identity of the Cumbrians themselves:

The cairn of Dunmail, last king of Pictish (sic) Cumbria slain in battle with Edgar (sic) the Saxon, is here, a formless pile of stones. There is a legend concerning this spot.

The crown of Dunmail was charmed, giving to its wearer a succession in his kingdom. Therefore King Edgar (sic) of the Saxons coveted it above all things. When Dunmail came to the throne of the mountainlands a wizard in Gilsland Forest held a master-charm to defeat the purpose of his crown. He Dunmail slew. The magician was able to make himself invisible save at cock crow, and to destroy him the hero braved a cordon of wild wolves at night. At the first peep of dawn he entered the cave where the wizard was lying. Leaping to his feet the magician called out, “Where river runs north or south with the storm” ere Dunmail’s sword silenced him forever. The story came to the ear of the Saxon, who after much inquiry of his priests found that an incomplete curse, though powerful against Dunmail, could scarcely harm another holder of the crown. Spies were accordingly sent into Cumbria to find where a battle could be fought on land favourable to the magician’s words. On Dunmail raise, in times of storm even in unromantic to-day, the torrent sets north or south in capricious fashion. The spies found the place, found also fell-land chiefs who were persuaded to become secret allies of the Saxon. The campaign began. Dunmail moved his army south to meet the invader, and they joined battle on this pass. For long hours the fight was with the Cumbrians; the Saxons were driven down the hill again and again. As his foremost tribes became exhausted, Dunmail retired and called on his reserves—they were mainly the ones favouring the Southern king. On they came, spreading in well-armed lines from side to side of the hollow way, but instead of opening to let the weary warriors through they delivered an attack on them. Surprised, the army reeled back, and their rear was attacked with redoubled violence by the Saxons. The loyal ranks were forced to stand back-to- back round their king; assailed by superior masses they fell rapidly, and ere long the brave chief was shot down by a traitor of his own bodyguard.

“My crown,” cried he, “bear it away; never let the Saxon flaunt it.”

A few stalwarts took the charmed treasure from his hands, and with a furious onslaught made the attackers give way. Step by step they fought their way up the ghyll of Dunmail’s beck—broke through all resistance on the open fell, and aided by a dense cloud evaded their pursuers. Two hours later the faithful few met by Grisedale tarn, and consigned the crown to its depths — “till Dunmail come again to lead us.”

And every year the warriors come back, draw up the charmed circlet from the depths of the wild mountain tarn, and carry it with them over Seat Sandal to where their king is sleeping his age-long sleep. They knock with his spear on the topmost stone of the cairn, and

from its heart comes a voice, “Not yet; not yet; wait awhile, my warriors.”

In 1937 Arthur Mee wrote in The Lake Counties:

A little south of Wythburn the high road crosses over into Westmorland. Beside it at the top of the pass is a great heap of stones known as Dunmail Raise, with its own little tradition of something that happened on this boundary 1000 years ago. Here, it is thought, the battle took place in which the Saxon king Edmund defeated Dunmail, the last king of Cumbria, whose territory was then handed over to King Malcolm of Scotland.

More recently another writer put it thus:

Dunmail Raise marked the boundary between Cumberland and Westmorland, the name coming from a heap of stones which in folklore marks the burial place of the last King of Cumberland, King Dunmail or, as sometimes spelt, Domhnall. In 945, King Edmund, who ruled almost undisputed over the remainder of England, joined forces with King Malcolm of Scotland in order to defeat the last bastion of Celtic resistance in his kingdom. In his last battle, King Dunmail was killed by Edmund himself. His body was carried away by faithful warriors, and buried under a great pile of stones.

King Edmund is reputed to have captured Dunmail’s two sons and had their eyes put out. The Crown of King Dunmail was thrown into Grisedale Tarn on the Helvellyn range. Legend has it that the crown was enchanted, giving its wearer a magic right to the Kingdom, thus it was important to prevent it from falling into Saxon hands. On victory, Edmund gave Cumberland to King Malcolm of Scotland, and it was only when Canute came to the throne that Cumberland came back under English rule in exchange, 87 years later, for Lothian.

The Kingdom of Cumbria -  Strathclyde

The Kingdom of Cumbria – Strathclyde

In their Ghoulish Horrible Hair raising Cumbrian Tales (1981), Herbert and Mary Jackson add yet more details:

In the aftermath of a ferociously fought battle near Dunmail Raise, just south of Thirlmere reservoir, between King Dunmail of Cumberland and the Saxon army, in the year circa 940 AD, the following legend is written:

After the battle, as King Dunmail lay dying, his last words were. “My crown, bear it away, never let the Saxon flaunt it.”

For it was known that whoever wore the crown of Dunmail would succeed to the Kingdom of Cumbria. The King’s personal body guard removed the crown from the head of their dying monarch and with unprecedented gallantry fought their way through the Saxon lines.

Eventually they reached Grisdale tarn, where with all due ceremony and reverence, the crown was consigned to its deepest waters, with these words, “Till Dunmail come again to lead us.”

Each year, on the anniversary of the King’s death, his warriors return to the tarn. The crown is retrieved and carried back to the cairn of stones under which their beloved Dunmail lies. In turn, the warriors knock with their spears on the topmost stones of the cairn.

From that grave a voice cries out. “Not yet; not yet – wait a while my warriors.” The day is yet to come when the spirit of Dunmail will re-join his warriors and crown a new King of Cumbria.

King Owain, Dunmail’s father, came to the throne in circa 920. A battle took place on the flat of a mountain top at Ecclfechan. What happened to Owain after the battle against the English in which he lost in 938 is not known. But his son went on to succeed him.

Shortly after this, another battle took place as they fought step by step up the Ghyll of Dunmail’s beck – broke through all resistance on the open fell, and, aided by a dense cloud, evaded their pursuers. Two hours later the faithful few met by Grisdale Tarn, and consigned the crown to its depths – “till Dunmail come again to lead us.” And every year the warriors come back, draw up the magic circlet from the depths of the wild mountain tarn, and carry it with them over the Seat Sandal to where the king is sleeping his age long sleep. They knock with his spear on the topmost stone of the cairn and from its heart comes a voice. “Not yet; not yet – wait a while my warriors.”

Cumbrian Flag

Cumbrian Flag

It’s all wonderful stuff but there is not a shred of historical evidence for any of it. That a battle was fought in 945/6 between a Cumbrian (Strathclyde British) king and the English king Edmund is quite likely and it’s also quite possible that Edmund was in league at this time with King Malcolm of Alba (Scotland). It’s even possible that the king was the historically attested Cumbrian, King Dyfnwal ap Owain, and even that his two sons had their eyes put out by Edmund – although the earliest mention of this blinding was by the thirteenth-century Roger of Wendover. All the rest is legend, if not purely literary myth, but is a great yarn.

I will show in my forthcoming article that Dunmail/Dyfnwal certainly wasn’t the last king of Cumbria and probably didn’t die in the battle against the English either; facts that haven’t stopped local sub-aqua clubs searching for Dunmail’s crown in Grisedale tarn! I hope they find it.

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What is the connection between England’s most famous Romantic poet and the generally humble Grisdale family? Did Wordsworth ever know there was a connection and if he did would he have cared? A story of parallel universes.

Dove Cottage, Grasmere

Dove Cottage, Grasmere

One fine late September day in 1800, poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy walked with their brother John the few miles over the hills from their home at Dove Cottage, Grasmere, to Grisedale Tarn, a tiny mountain lake at the head of Grisedale Pass, overlooking Lake Ullswater, in the English Lake District. John had for some months been visiting his family in their native county, but now he had to return to his duties as a Captain of an East India Company ship. Grisedale Tarn was one of John’s favourite spots; he loved to sit and fish there. It was here that William and Dorothy made their farewells and ‘they had waved him off down the path to Patterdale where it leaves Grisedale Tarn’ – from there to proceed to Penrith.

Just over four years later John was shipwrecked and died.  ‘John Wordsworth had sailed early in 1805 in command of the East Indiaman Abergavenny, which was wrecked by the fault of a pilot off the Bill of Portland on 5 Feb. The captain, who behaved with great courage, and over two hundred persons were lost.’

Amelia Murray had seen the loss of the Abergavenny; she wrote:

One morning, coming down early, I saw what I thought was a great big ship without any hull. This was the Abergavenny, East Indiaman, which had sunk with all sails set, hardly three miles from the shore, and all on board perished.

Had any of the crew taken refuge in the main-top, they might have been saved; but the bowsprit, which was crowded with human beings, gave a lurch into the sea as the ship settled down, and thus all were washed off—though the timber appeared again above water when the ‘Abergavenny’ touched the ground. The ship had sprung a leak off St. Alban’s Head; and in spite of pumps, she went to the bottom just within reach of safety.

The Wordsworth siblings were very close, perhaps as a reaction against their rather severe and often absent father, and William was distraught following his brother’s death. It wasn’t too long before he started to put his feelings into his poetry. Later the same year he started to write an elegy to John called: Elegiac Verses in Memory of My Brother, John Wordsworth. The complete verses are reproduced at the end.

The Earl of Abergavenny

The Earl of Abergavenny

It is said that Wordsworth hadn’t wanted to visit Grisedale Tarn again for some time after his brother’s death – it would bring back too painful memories. But on 8 June 1805, in the company of a neighbour, he trekked up to Grisedale Tarn to fish. It was here he started to compose his elegy to his brother. It seems he left in tears, unable to remain, but he returned a few days later with Dorothy and Mary (his wife). “Leaving them behind at Grisedale Tarn, he began to walk in his brother’s footsteps… to Patterdale”

In Memory of My Brother, John Wordsworth, Commander of the E. I. Company’s Ship, The Earl Of Abergavenny, in which He Perished by Calamitous Shipwreck, Feb. 6th, 1805, to give it its full title, wasn’t published until 1842.

Dorothy Wordsworth wrote to her friend Miss Jane Pollard after her brother’s death:

Grisedale Tarn

Grisedale Tarn

… It does me good to weep for him, and it does me good to find that others weep, and I bless them for it. … It is with me, when I write, as when I am walking out in this vale, once so full of joy. I can turn to no object that does not remind me of our loss. I see nothing that he would not have loved, and enjoyed…. My consolations rather come to me in gusts of feeling, than are the quiet growth of my mind. I know it will not always be so. The time will come when the light of the setting sun upon these mountain tops will be as heretofore a pure joy; not the same gladness, that can never be—but yet a joy even more tender. It will soothe me to know how happy he would have been, could he have seen the same beautiful spectacle…. He was taken away in the freshness of his manhood; pure he was, and innocent as a child. Never human being was more thoroughly modest, and his courage I need not speak of. He was ‘seen speaking with apparent cheerfulness to the first mate a few minutes before the ship went down;’ and when nothing more could be done, He said, ‘the will of God be done.’ I have no doubt when he felt that it was out of his power to save his life he was as calm as before, if some thought of what we should endure did not awaken a pang…. He loved solitude, and he rejoiced in society. He would wander alone amongst these hills with his fishing-rod, or led on by the mere pleasure of walking, for many hours; or he would walk with W. or me, or both of us, and was continually pointing out—with a gladness which is seldom seen but in very young people—something which perhaps would have escaped our observation; for he had so fine an eye that no distinction was unnoticed by him, and so tender a feeling that he never noticed anything in vain. Many a time has he called out to me at evening to look at the moon or stars, or a cloudy sky, or this vale in the quiet moonlight; but the stars and moon were his chief delight. He made of them his companions when he was at sea, and was never tired of those thoughts which the silence of the night fed in him. Then he was so happy by the fireside. Any little business of the house interested him. He loved our cottage. He helped us to furnish it, and to make the garden. Trees are growing now which he planted…. He staid with us till the 29th of September, having come to us about the end of January. During that time Mary Hutchinson—now Mary Wordsworth—staid with us six weeks. John used to walk with her everywhere, and they were exceedingly attached to each other; so my poor sister mourns with us, not merely because we have lost one who was so dear to William and me, but from tender love to John and an intimate knowledge of him. Her hopes as well as ours were fixed on John…. I can think of nothing but of our departed Brother, yet I am very tranquil to-day. I honour him, and love him, and glory in his memory…. March 16th, 1805. Grasmere.

After the poet’s death in 1850, at a meeting of The Wordsworth Society held at Grasmere, in July 1881, it was proposed by one of the members, the Rev. H. D. Rawnsley, then Vicar of Wray, to erect some memorial at the parting-place of the brothers. In June 1882 Rawnsley wrote:

A proposition, made by one of its members to the Wordsworth Society when it met in Grasmere in 1881, to mark the spot in the Grisedale Pass of Wordsworth’s parting from his brother John—and to carry out a wish the poet seems to have hinted at in the last of his elegiac verses in memory of that parting—is now being put into effect. It has been determined, after correspondence with Lord Coleridge, Dr. Cradock, Professor Knight, and Mr. Hills, to have inscribed — (on the native rock, if possible)—the first four lines of Stanzas III. and VII. of these verses:

“Here did we stop; and here looked round

While each into himself descends,

For that last thought of parting Friends

That is not to be found.

Brother and friend, if verse of mine

Have power to make thy virtues known,

Here let a monumental Stone

Stand–sacred as a Shrine.”

The rock selected is a fine mass, facing the east, on the left of the track as one descends from Grisedale Tarn towards Patterdale, and is about 100 yards from the tarn. No more suitable one can be found, and we have the testimony of Mr. David Richardson of Newcastle, who has practical knowledge of engineering, that it is the fittest, both from shape and from slight incline of plane.

It has been proposed to sink a panel in the face of the rock, that so the inscription may be slightly protected, and to engrave the letters upon the face of the panel thus obtained. But it is not quite certain yet that the grain of the rock— volcanic ash—will admit of the lettering. If this cannot be carried out, it has been determined to have the letters engraved upon a slab of Langdale slate, and imbed it in the Grisedale Rock .

It is believed that the simplicity of the design, the lonely isolation of this mountain memorial, will appeal at once to the few who pass this way, Traveller or Shepherd.

And we in our turn appeal to English tourists who may chance to see it, to forego the wish of adding to it, or taking anything from it, by engraving their own names; and to let the Monumental Stone stand, as the poet wished it might ‘… stand, sacred as a Shrine.’

The Brothers' Parting Stone

The Brothers’ Parting Stone

The stone was duly engraved and is called The Brothers’ Parting Stone. English and other tourists can still see it to this day, though it is rather weather-worn.

I tell this story mainly because when I first heard it, while walking in the Lake District as a young man, I found it touching. But was the only connection Wordsworth had with the name Grisedale (or Grisdale as William and Dorothy tended to call it, using its older form) the name of the tarn? Not at all, as I will tell.

William Wordsworth was a Romantic poet and he didn’t really understand the working life and people of the Lakes he did so much to eulogize and popularize. Canon Rawnsley interviewed (to use an anachronistic term) quite a few local people after Wordsworth’s death regarding their dealings with the poet. One Westmorland farmer who had met Wordsworth answered Rawnsley’s questions thus:

Why… Wordsworth never said much to folk; quite different from li’le Hartley (Coleridge) as knawed the insides of cottages for miles around, and was welcomed in ’em all.

When asked, “Do you think that he had any friends among the shepherds?” he replied:

Naay, Naay, he cared nowt about folk, nor sheep, nor dogs – his hobby was potry.

It is just not the case that, as one rather starry-eyed American writer I recently had the misfortune to read wrote:

Wordsworth is not simply narrating to his readers what rural life is like; he is demonstrating it to them in the most realistic way that he knows how. Unlike other poets, Wordsworth knows rural life and can properly create a dialogue between two rural figures because he has been in conversation with rural people before. Not only is Wordsworth familiar with rural life, but he is also educated, making it that much easier for him to say what he wants to say in the way he wants to say it, thus portraying rustic living as accurately as he can to an audience that may not have been exposed to a realistic account of rural life before.

The life and work of William Wordsworth and the lives of the common people of the land he loved were parallel universes, they never really touched. If they ‘saw’ each other now and again they quickly ‘unsaw’; to borrow the language of China Mieville’s superb novel The City and The City.

Wordsworth House, Cockermouth

Wordsworth House, Cockermouth

William had of course been born in Cumberland, in 1770, in the ‘pocket’ – and decidedly ‘rotten’ – borough of Cockermouth. His parent’s house, now unsurprisingly called Wordsworth House, was and is ‘the largest, newest (built 1745), and most splendid house in Cockermouth in 1774, so large and splendid that it remains unmatched in the town to this day: this was his “father’s house.” Wordsworth’s birthplace was a spacious town mansion, with impressive drawing rooms on the first floor and plenty of bedrooms for a large family and servants on the second, plus a subterranean ground floor that opened out at the rear to an exquisite long garden running down to the river Derwent.’ Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described Wordsworth House in his book ‘The Buildings of England – Cumberland and Westmorland’ as ‘quite a swagger house for such a town’.

How had such a magnificent house come to be built in a tiny town which at the time ‘consisted of one road enclosed between the Derwent and a wall, with access to the countryside through gates at either end of the street’.

It had been built in 1745 by a gentleman called Joshua Lucock, the then High Sheriff of Cumberland, a member of an old but inbred and struggling aristocratic family. Eventually the family became so inbred that many of them ended up literally mad. And where did Joshua Lucock get the money for such a fine house? The answer is that like so many hard-up aristocrats before and since he had married into wealth derived from despised ‘trade’. He had married Mary Grisdale in 1729. Mary was the only surviving child of Wilfred Grisdale, a Matterdale man ‘made good’.

East End of London

East End of London

Wilfred had gone to London and made a fortune as a brewer in Goodman’s Fields – in the stinking sink of the East End. He soon used this wealth to make himself a gentleman. As early as 1707/1708 he had obviously already made a considerable amount of money because in that year he was able to buy ‘Wood Hall’ (Woodhall), a large manor house near Bridekirk, outside Cockermouth, from the Tolson family. In 1827 Wilfred bought and became the Lord of the Manor of Brigham and Hewthwaite, Bridekirk; and with this he also became the owner of Hewthwaite Hall. The seller was the indebted Jacobite Lord Wharton

When Wilfred Grisdale died in 1732, in his rather complicated will (of which I have a copy) he left the bulk of his wealth to his daughter and her husband – Joshua Lucock. Unfortunately Mary (Grisdale) Lucock didn’t live long enough to enjoy the fruits of her father’s work. She died in 1737, aged only 29. Eleven years late Joshua Lucock was married again, this time to Elizabeth Raisbeck. And in 1745 with the money he had got from his wife he had built what is now Wordsworth House in Cockermouth.

In 1756 the wealthiest and most powerful man in Cumberland and Westmorland (if not in England), James Lowther, later Earl Lonsdale, perhaps the most feared and hated man in England, basically bought Cockermouth lock stock and barrel, ‘at the astronomical cost of £58,000 (over £500,000, in modern terms)’, including, in 1761, Lucock’s house, and put it in his ‘pocket’. It became one of his many pocket boroughs, used to give him more clout in Parliament.

Lowther’s land buying was “not so much investing money … as buying up the perquisites of a social class, the undisturbed control of the life of a neighborhood.”

Lowther appointed William Wordsworth’s father John Wordsworth as his steward and agent for Cockermouth and gave him use of Lucock’s house.  As Kenneth R. Johnston puts it in his excellent study The Hidden Wordsworth:

John Wordsworth Sr. was Lowther’s law or land agent. In the late twentieth century this sounds like the steward or overseer of an estate. But in the mid-eighteenth century it signified mainly a political business agent, or nonstop campaign manager, comprising the tasks of borough monger, ward heeler, vote canvasser, election rigger, briber, and payer-off of innkeepers—none of which were regarded as reprehensible or, within reason, illegal activities. Such agents were not popular, since they tended to treat people as their master treated them.

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

It was in this house that William Wordsworth and his brothers and sisters were born and raised. ‘John Wordsworth, the poet’s father, moved to Cockermouth as agent to Sir James in 1764, and in 1766 married Anne Cookson and moved rent free into what is now known as Wordsworth House. Here four sons and a daughter were born…. Their mother died on 8 March 1778 when William was eight, and he spent most of his time with relatives in Penrith. His father died in Wordsworth House five years later on 30 December 1783. In 1784 all the children finally left the house to be cared for by relations.’

The poet would later often write about his childhood in what he termed ‘my father’s house’. Here is just one example:

“I, a four years’ child,
A naked boy, among the silent pools
Made one long bathing of a summer’s day,
Basked in the sun, or plunged into thy streams,
Alternate, all a summer’s day, or coursed
Over the sandy fields, and dashed the flowers
Of yellow grunsel; or, when the crag and hill,
The woods, and distant Skiddaw’s lofty height,
Were bronzed with a deep radiance, stood alone
A naked savage in the thunder-shower….”  (1799)

I’m pretty sure that William Wordsworth never knew that his ‘father’s house’ had been built with Grisdale money; money earned in the squalor of the breweries and taverns of London’s East End. He lived, as I’ve said, in a parallel universe.

John Paul Jones' Raid on Whitehaven

John Paul Jones’ Raid on Whitehaven

There are of course other links between England’s most illustrious and revered poet and our simple Grisdale family. On 11 April 1778, when the poet was just eight, and through Lowther family influence, William Wordsworth’s uncle Richard Wordsworth had been appointed Collector of H.M Customs for the important Cumberland port of Whitehaven. A town created and controlled by the Lowthers. Only eleven days later Whitehaven was to witness the raid of Scottish pirate, turned founder Captain of the American Navy, John Paul Jones. After Richard’s death in 1794, two Grisdales were to hold the same position: Benjamin Grisdale, who I wrote about recently and, a little later, William Grisdale, the son of successful corn factor Matthew Grisdale. It would be good to find out what both their relationships were with the Lowther family; because without that family’s support they could never have hoped to be appointed to such prestigious and potentially lucrative positions.

What I call ‘Big History’ isn’t the sweeping narratives of Fernand Braudel’s longue dure, nor is it the deep history of life on earth (both of which I love). It is for me the fact that one can start anywhere at any time and quite easily find connections with other events or people anywhere else at any other time – even if they are parallel universes. How a Matterdale Grisdale’s money built William Wordsworth’s family house is just one example. It’s ‘Six Degrees of Separation’, though the connections often need fewer than six steps.

In Memory of My Brother, John Wordsworth, Commander of the E. I. Company’s Ship, and The Earl Of Abergavenny, in which He Perished by Calamitous Shipwreck, Feb. 6th, 1805:

I

THE Sheep-boy whistled loud, and lo!
That instant, startled by the shock,
The Buzzard mounted from the rock
Deliberate and slow:
Lord of the air, he took his flight;
Oh! could he on that woeful night
Have lent his wing, my Brother dear,
For one poor moment’s space to Thee,
And all who struggled with the Sea,
When safety was so near.

II

Thus in the weakness of my heart
I spoke (but let that pang be still)
When rising from the rock at will,
I saw the Bird depart.
And let me calmly bless the Power
That meets me in this unknown Flower.
Affecting type of him I mourn!
With calmness suffer and believe,
And grieve, and know that I must grieve,
Not cheerless, though forlorn.

III

Here did we stop; and here looked round
While each into himself descends,
For that last thought of parting Friends
That is not to be found.
Hidden was Grasmere Vale from sight,
Our home and his, his heart’s delight,
His quiet heart’s selected home.
But time before him melts away,
And he hath feeling of a day
Of blessedness to come.

IV

Full soon in sorrow did I weep,
Taught that the mutual hope was dust,
In sorrow, but for higher trust,
How miserably deep!
All vanished in a single word,
A breath, a sound, and scarcely heard:
Sea–Ship–drowned–Shipwreck–so it came,
The meek, the brave, the good, was gone;
He who had been our living John
Was nothing but a name.

V

That was indeed a parting! oh,
Glad am I, glad that it is past;
For there were some on whom it cast
Unutterable woe.
But they as well as I have gains;–
From many a humble source, to pains
Like these, there comes a mild release;
Even here I feel it, even this Plant
Is in its beauty ministrant
To comfort and to peace.

VI

He would have loved thy modest grace,
Meek Flower! To Him I would have said,
“It grows upon its native bed
Beside our Parting-place;
There, cleaving to the ground, it lies
With multitude of purple eyes,
Spangling a cushion green like moss;
But we will see it, joyful tide!
Some day, to see it in its pride,
The mountain will we cross.”

VII

–Brother and Friend, if verse of mine
Have power to make thy virtues known,
Here let a monumental Stone
Stand–sacred as a Shrine;
And to the few who pass this way,
Traveller or Shepherd, let it say,
Long as these mighty rocks endure,–
Oh do not Thou too fondly brood,
Although deserving of all good,
On any earthly hope, however pure!