The Verneys

by Nick

My mum got me The Verneys by Adrian Tinniswood for my birthday. It’s been a fun read so far, and while this isn’t a full review – I haven’t finished it yet! – here are a couple of anecdotes that made me smile.

The first is the account of Sir Edmund Verney’s machinations to find his son, Ralph, a suitable marriage. Edmund got involved in negotiations over the wardship of Mary Blacknall, whose father had been one of the wealthiest men in Abingdon. It was Mary’s cash he was after; her inheritance was around £16,000. Mary’s uncle, perhaps wise to Edmund’s intentions, imposed a condition that there should be no early marriage to a Verney, and that Mary should be allowed to make her own choice of partner. Surprise surprise, shortly after going to live with the Verney’s, Edmund’s wife Margaret wrote to Mary’s aunt and uncle:

Your niece and my son are now married… Mary desired so much to have it privately done as we had very few present at it; but now it is past I hope we shall see… yourself here.

Mary herself also wrote to her aunt and uncle:

I think it fit to acquaint you that now I am married, in which state I hope God will give me his blessings and make it happy to me. Sir Edmund and my lady would have had you at the marriage; but I prayed them it might be privately done, and so it was.

A young love affair, with the fifteen year old Ralph falling head over heels for the thirteen year old newly arrived Mary? Not quite. It turns out Edmund wrote first drafts of both these letters for his wife and daughter-in-law to copy out and send!

The second is Sir Edmund’s obsession with armour in the build-up to the Bishops’ Wars – in particular, his “pot” (the armoured helmet worn by cavalrymen), which he hoped would protect him from pistol fire. At the beginning of the First War he wrote to Ralph asking for:

A pot for the head that were pistol proof, it may be I would use it, if it were light.

As the English army waited by the banks of the Tweed, the pot still hadn’t arrived. When another requested helmet arrived but turned out to be too small, Edmund didn’t waste any time berating Ralph:

If the pot I expect daily from him [the armourer] be so too, I am undone. This [the other helmet] will come upon no part of my head, it is so very little.

Thankfully for Edmund, the First War was settled by talking rather than by fighting. By the time the Berwick negotiations were underway, the pot still hadn’t arrived, but Edmund was more sanguine about it:

I will keep it to boil my porridge in.

In this case, the smile it provoked in me was rather wry – because Edmund was famously killed defending the king’s standard at Edgehill in 1642, and was not wearing any armour. Who knows, maybe he would have survived if he had been wearing his pot?

Edmund was a reluctant royalist. His words about his grudging support for Charles I are almost too good to be true – and bear in mind they’re recorded by Clarendon much later in his history of the civil wars, so the pathos is probably added for effect – but none the less stirring for that:

For my part, I do not like the quarrel, and do heartily wish that the king would yield and consent to what they [Parliament] desire; so that my conscience is only concerned in honour and in gratitude to follow my master. I have eaten his bread, and served him near thirty years, and will not do so base a thing as forsake him; and choose rather to lose my life (which I am sure I shall do) to preserve and defend those things which are against my conscience to preserve and defend.

Tinniswood ends his account of this incident with a nice coda illustrating how the record of an incident can become massively distorted by ideology. Edmund Ludlow records that a royalist captain, John Smith, sneaked into the parliamentarian ranks after the king’s standard was captured, and said that it was more appropriate for an officer to bear it than a rank-and-file soldier. He was given it, then made his escape back to the royalist lines. If you’ve read any of Blair Worden’s Roundhead Reputations – or indeed his introduction to A Voyce from the Watchtower, the surviving parts of Ludlow’s memoirs pre-bowdlerisation by John Toland – then you’ll know that there are huge problems with Ludlow as a source. But leaving that aside, just compare Ludlow’s account with those from the other side:

Royalist narratives describe how Smith charged in among the enemy with his rapier drawn, crying “Traitor, deliver the standard!” and tell how he stabbed Chambers [the parliamentarian soldier who had captured the standard], ran a cuirassier through and then rode off again, bearing his trophy.