WILLIAM BLUNDELL AND HIS MANX HISTORY

PHILIP W. CAINE

 

WHEN William Sacheverell, governor of the Isle of Man from 1692 to 1696, was writing a history of the Island he acknowledged same or all of his authorities. 'Among all our modern historians,' he said, `there is not one has given any tolerable account except Mr. James Chaloner, governor for Lord Fairfax, and the gentleman who has not been so kind as to transmit his name to posterity.'

In 1791 Colonel Richard Townley published a journal of his experiences in the Isle of Man. His visit was made in 1789. During his stay he received from Mr. James Oates a manuscript history of the Island, from which he seems to have copied whenever he was kept to his lodgings by bad weather. He conceived the idea that the author was a Welshman, a squire, and a justice of the peace, and he scarcely ever quoted him without a sneer.

Colonel Townley might have adopted a different tone if he had known that 'my Welsh author ' was the head of an old Lancashire family which had been on terms of mutual respect with his own. For in 1876 the Manx Society published a history of the Island written by William Blundell, Esquire, of Crosby, in the county of Lancaster, and printed from a manuscript in the Society's possession. Mr. Blundell and the contemporary Townley of Townley, also named Richard, were once in prison together, and Mr. Blundell set it down that 'Mr. Townley's cheerful society would make life pleasant anywhere.' Blundell's manuscript was very thoroughly prepared for publication, and was written at various dates between 1648 and 1659. It was almost completed when Chaloner's history came out in 1656, and Blundell delayed his work so that he might incorporate, with complimentary acknowledgments, some of Chaloner's information. The guess that he put his hand to it after 1659 is derived from a reference which he makes to 'the time of Oliver Cromwell.' It was in 1659 that Cromwell died.

Over two hundred years passed, therefore, between the time when the book was written and the time when it was printed. In view of facts which will be stated later, it may be conjectured that Blundell's finances became so straitened that he decided he could not afford the expense of printing, and he suffered all the disabilities imposed at that time upon Roman Catholics. Sacheverell began to write less than forty years later, when Blundell was alive, and yet when he saw the manuscript he did not know who had written it.

But the author's name was known to John Seacome, house steward to the Ninth Earl of Derby, who wrote a history of the House of Stanley, with an attached history of the Isle of Man, in 1736. It was known to John Feltham when he wrote his Tour of the Isle of Man in 1798, though it would appear that Feltham had simply seen the reference in Seacome, and did not know that a manuscript lent to him - actually, the manuscript which the Manx Society used - was a copy from Blundell. In 1859 the Manx Society reprinted the history written by Sacheverell, and their editor for that purpose, the Rev. J. G. Cumming, conjectured that Sacheverell's unknown predecessor was Seacome's 'great and learned Mr. Blundell of Crosby.' Their editor of the history now under discussion, Mr. William Harrison, adopted that conjecture, which of course was reasonable, and which we now know to be true. But we see that with the exception of the archivists to the Earls of Derby, then the Lords of Man, Mr. Blundell's learning and zeal did not bring him the prestige of authorship.

Four copies, at least, of the manuscript are known to have been made. Doubtless Blundell kept the original, but it could not be found when the Manx Society made enquiries from the owner of Crosby. One copy, naturally, was given to the Earl of Derby, and was kept in the library of Knowsley. Seacome saw it and held it in respect, though he did not use it. He preferred the shorter compass and the fluent and romantic style of Sacheverell.

The copy used by the Manx Society originally belonged to Edward Moore, nephew of the Rev. Philip Moore, and a member of the family represented by Mr. Arthur Hughes-Games Moore, J.P. Moore was in possession of it in 1760, for his name and that date are written on one of its pages. The Manx Society found parts missing, and completed it after borrowing a copy belonging to the Quayles of Bridge House, Castletown, and now in the Manx Museum.

The Bridge House copy contains several inscriptions. One is 'John Woods, Peeltown, October 14th, 1736.' Woods was vicar of German and one of the vicars-general, and was buried at St. Peter's Church, Peel, in 1740. Written twice is a statement that the book was given to 'me,' George Moore, by Colonel John Stevenson at Ashley, in January, 1767. Stevenson was a son of the famous patriot John Stevenson of Balladoole, Speaker of the House of Keys, and Mr. A. W. Moore states in Manx Worthies that he inherited Ashley Park, at Walton-on-Thames, from his first cousin, the Countess of Middlesex. His mother belonged to the Senhouse family of Nether Hall, Cumberland. George Moore was a prosperous merchant, became Speaker of the House of Keys, and was knighted. He was father-in-law of John Quayle, second of that family to hold the office of Clerk of the Rolls, and through that family association, presumably, the Quayles acquired the manuscript. Woods and the Stevensons had to acquire it first, and we may bear in mind the Woods family with which the Stevensons intermarried.

In a fly-leaf one finds the following note: ' When you have read this over, pray deliver it to my Lord Bishop of Man, together with the humble duty of his and your humble servant Ewan Christian.' The writer of this note, and the apparent owner of the book, must surely have been Ewan Christian of Milntown, Lezayre, and Ewanrigg, Cumberland, who, as a member of the House of Keys, was very actively associated with Bishop Wilson in negotiating the Act of Settlement. He died in 1719, and thus we have an idea of the period in which the manuscript was transcribed. The Edward Moore and Bridge House copies, says Mr. Harrison in a preface, agree minutely in each page. He draws the obvious deduction that they were transcribed by the same person from one copy.

Then there was the copy lent to Townley. Two persons named James Oates were members of the House of Keys - one between 1770 and 1788, and one between 1802 and 1806. They owned Glencrutchery, Onchan, and probably other estates - perhaps Oatlands in Santon.

Townley speaks of a copy - presumably the only copy of which he knew - ' now in the hands of George Tollett, Esq., Betley Hall, Staffordshire.' This is included in a list he gives of books relating to the Isle of Man. We are enabled to identify George Tollet through the Dictionary of National Biography. He was a Shakespearean critic and ' wholly devoted to books,' and his mother was Elizabeth Oates, of the Isle of Man. He died in 1779, and it would seem natural that a manuscript belonging to him which related to the Isle of Man would go back to the Oates family and be available to Townley ten years later. Tollet may have been born in the Isle of Man, for the date of his birth is 1725, and in 1727, as shown by a record quoted in Keble's Life of Bishop Wilson, ' When the Ecclesiastical Court had given an order for the widow Tollet to administer or bring in her husband's will, she was immediately suffered to go off the Island, contrary to law; by which the creditors are defrauded of their debt.'

This copy was offered for sale in 1938 in a catalogue issued by T. Thorp. The Manx Museum trustees did not feel justified in paying the price asked when they already possessed copies. The catalogue said that the manuscript bore the signature of George Tollet, dated 1771. It is probably the copy referred to by Mr. Harrison, in the preface to the Manx Society's volume, as belonging to Mr. G. E. Wicksted, of Shakenhurst, Bewdley, Worcestershire.

Though Blundell's history was not published it was put to an early and very remarkable use. The occasion was the decision of the Eighth Earl of Derby to try ' Illiam Dhone ' for treason. Among the papers preserved by Roger Kenyon, who served the Eighth and Ninth Earls of Derby, was ' A Discourse on whether the Kings of Man were absolute kings or not.' Kenyon's editor queried the date as about 1664; he gave the title but not the contents. But this is precisely the title of a chapter of Blundell. The question in Earl Charles' mind was whether William Christian, ' Illiam Dhone,' was protected by the general amnesty granted by King Charles of England, or whether the ruler of Man could punish for crimes committed against his own sovereignty. On the evidence of that entry in Kenyon, one cannot doubt that the Earl sought guidance in this study of the subject by a learned adherent of his father.

In 1695, seven years before the appearance of Sacheverell's history, Edmund Gibson, Bishop of London, published a new edition of Camden's Britannia, and included ' additions ' to the account of the Isle of Man. Clearly he used Blundell's manuscript, for on page 18 of Volume XVIII of the Manx Society, which gives Camden with the additions, there is a description of how the Lord's officers interrogated and entertained a stranger. This procedure, which Blundell had experienced for himself, makes one of his liveliest passages.

The whole of Gibson's additions, in fact, are condensed and conventionalised Blundell. Gibson refers twice to ' my author '; Blundell in his preface points out five mistakes made by Camden, and Gibson corrects just those five mistakes. And he does not correct two mistakes, made by Camden or by the person who translated his Latin, which Blundell had not found.

In 1722 Gibson revised Camden again, and this time obtained, in respect to the Isle of Man, the services of Bishop Wilson. Our bishop also gave assistance to Browne Willis, who in 1727 published a ' survey ' of a number of English cathedrals, including the cathedral in the Isle of Man.

Gibson was more fortunate than Camden himself, who, publishing in 1586, received his account of the Isle of Man from the bishop, John Meryck. Nothing Bishop Wilson did was done carelessly. He studied Blundell in the manuscript sent him by Ewan Christian, and made one marginal note in it; he studied Sacheverell, and the Manx Museum possesses the copy of Sacheverell which belonged to him, in which here are several of his annotations. One annotation appears in both books, and relates to the statement that William de Montacute obtained a grant of the Isle of Man but mortgaged it to Antony Bec, Bishop of Durham. ' This is a very great mistake,' comments the Bishop in the copy of Blundell; in the copy of Sacheverell he describes it as ' a gross mistake.' Yet it had appeared in Camden, so that neither Blundell nor Sacheverell was really at fault. Browne Willis makes this same remark, that Sacheverell's statement about Montacute and Bec was a very great mistake. Gibson and Browne Willis each undertook a great task, which must have occupied them several years. Observing their dates of publication, one may find further proof that the Bridge House and Moore copies of Blundell were made not later than the second decade of the eighteenth century.

What sort of person was Blundell? An epithet has been applied to him by the Rev. Thomas Ellison Gibson, who in 1880 published a volume called A Cavalier's Notebook, prefaced by a short biography, and I think few will quarrel with it - ' brave, loyal, and virtuous.' This ' notebook ' consists of extracts from Blundell's commonplace books; Mr. Gibson hoped to publish also a selection of Blundell's letters, but I am not aware that this hope was realised. He states that Blundell wrote ' A Short Treatise on the Penal Laws,' and had a few copies printed in London.

William Blundell was head of a branch of a distinguished Lancashire family, and as we have seen, he lived at Crosby, on the northern shore of the river Mersey. The town of Blundellsands is named after this family. He was born in 1620, and studied law at Lincoln's Inn. He tells us that he paid less respect to the study of the law than to the study of heraldry, upon which he made a collection of notes. He took up arms for King Charles, raising a company of a hundred dragoons, and in the march to Lancaster, in 1642, he received a wound which broke his thigh and left him permanently lame. He had to wear a very high-heeled shoe, and he calculated that he lost three inches in height. This put an end to his military activities - this, and possibly the eclipse of the Earl of Derby in the councils of the King - but did not diminish his zest for life. He travelled a great deal in

England and on the Continent, which inevitably meant that he rode a horse. He had, however, to be helped to mount. And he indulged a passion, remarkable for a man with this disability, for climbing towers and monuments. He counted 176 steps in St. Patrick's steeple in Dublin, 250 in Notre Dame, Paris - ' so far as I could well ascend ' - 342 in St. Martin's, Ypres, 310 in ' the new monument in Pudding Lane,' and in St. John's, Gant (Ghent), 426!

Like many a Royalist, he was imprisoned and had his estates confiscated. ' For my duty to the King,' he writes, ' I lost my limbs, my lands, and my liberty.' In 1648 he came to the Isle of Man. The phrase in which he gives his reason for coming has been repeated so much as to become almost a Manx classic. ' Wearied with being so often wakened at midnight to fly from the King's and Parliament's troops, equally feared because equally plundering, and finding no shelter under the Snodon hills, where the antient Britons found security . . . ' and so on. Townley probably conferred Welsh nationality on him because of this reference to the hills of Snowdon. He admired the Seventh Earl of Derby greatly, and at this or some other period was occasionally in the company of the Countess, but he was in no sense the Earl's intimate or his guest. He found lodgings in Douglas with ' a Scotchman by birth,' Mr. John Murrey. Mr. Murrey was one of the wealthiest of the Island's merchants - taking in ' passengers,' Blundell states, was a recognised sideline of trade - and he lives in Manx history through having issued the first known Manx coins. It is not clear how long Blundell remained in the Island, or whether he lodged in Douglas all the time, but the period was quite considerable. Like a seventeenth-century George Borrow, shall we say, he made contact with the governor and officials, the gentry, the clergy, the traders, and more or less everybody who could speak English.

He read everything that had been written about the Isle of Man, and his knowledge of history generally was vast. ' Learned ' was a very appropriate epithet for Mr. Blundell of Crosby. Almost every page of the manuscript has a marginal note quoting some author. But he sought to extend his information by direct inquiry, and in particular he wanted to learn the Island's laws and constitution. He studied what he calls ' the Manx papers ' and ' the Manx tradition.' ' You cannot discourse with any man of this Island,' he says, ' with the learned or the unlearned, no not with the meanest shopkeeper or mariner, but he will tell you what brave Orry's they have had, and how there bave been twelve of that name reigning one after another.'

The governor was chary about letting him inspect ' papers.' Blundell didn't resent this; he writes that ' the Earl of Derby's chief officer was too wise to prostitute the Island arcana, and to press had savoured of incivility.' But he became friendly with a member of the House of Keys, who in effect let him take what he wanted from a copy of the Statute Book. ' Among the four-and-twenty, I prevailed with one to make use of his key to open his cabinet.' The Keys, he says, wrote down and kept their manuscripts by them for their memory, and ' to inform their judgment, when called to consult, of all the approved customs of the Island, and of the new made laws.' He also says that ' my curious Key ' had collected the laws and customs ' for his better enabling himself to discharge the duty of this place.' Another ' paper ' he received was ' The Supposed True History of the Isle of Man,' which appears at the beginning of some manuscript copies of Parr's Abstract. It begins with the sentence, ' Manannan-Mac-Lea was the first that is known to have conquered this Island.' Blundell quotes and discusses it piece by piece. And, through Camden's Britannia, he had the Rushen monastery's Chronicle of Man.

His interest extended to the Manx people's modes of life, and one feels that he was a very careful and honest observer. On that subject, anything read in Blundell is worthy of respectful consideration.

Since he was a Roman Catholic, the Commonwealth would not allow him to buy back his estate. It remained in the hands of sequestrators for nine or ten years, and when he did get it back (in the name of friends) he had to produce 1,340. As seems to have been usual, the sequestrators paid one-fifth of the income to his wife, and left him as tenant in the actual Blundell demesne and mill. But the Crown in earlier periods, going back to the reign of Elizabeth, had treated the Blundells with other Catholics as ' recusants,' and had levied impositions which had not all been discharged. He had to meet all these, too, before he recovered his property, and they amounted to 1,167, with 34 more for costs. He received no restitution under Charles II, though he was in Breda, in Holland, on the day when the King set out on his return to receive the Crown. He pledged to the King his fortune and his life, and sailed with him to Dover.

He did not change his religion. In a letter prepared for submission to King James II, he states that in his small manor of forty houses or thereabouts, 'there are not, through the grace of God, any other but Catholics, except peradventure one or two daily labourers born in other places.' ' The small township abovesaid was many years remarked for these things - it had not in it a beggar, an alehouse or a Protestant.' He kept his chaplain, and like many Catholic gentlemen of the period, provided the chaplain with a room at the top of the house in which he might lie hidden. Yet it must not be supposed that he was a bigot; he had numerous Protestant friends, and he sets down in his commonplace book something he had been told by a Quaker. He seems to have been - making allowances for Mr. Ellison Gibson's enthusiasm - a benevolent squire and a kindly, even a forgiving, neighbour. He could write graceful verse, and one specimen which Mr. Gibson quotes is a description of dancing round the Maypole at Crosby.

Every now and then, when rumours went round that the Catholics were plotting against the constitution, William Blundell was one of the persons harried. Four times imprisoned by the Commonwealth, he was taken into custody again in 1689. This is when he had the cheerful society of Richard Townley. The final ' round-up ' took place in 1694, when he was 74.

When the King's messengers came to Crosby Hall, they met the heir of the house and asked for ' Esquire Blundell.' The young man brought them to his father's room and called his father, who arose and unlocked the door. The house was searched for arms, and some trifling things were taken, ' but the old gentleman, Esquire Blundell, who for more than thirty years hath been very lame, when they saw what a man he was, they did not think fit to carry him with them.' 1 His son was sent to Chester Castle as prisoner in his place. When the trial took place at Lancaster some months later, the informers against Blundell and the others had been greatly discredited. All the prisoners were acquitted, and ' Esquire Blundell ' was left in peace until his death in 1698.

What of Blundell's characteristics as a writer? Townley considered him ridiculously and insufferably pedantic. He comments on how ' even a sensible and learned man, for so my author certainly is (if extensive reading alone can make a man so) may be imposed on.' Blundell's sentences are diffuse and involved, and when one compares them with the reasonably straightforward statements which he set down in his commonplace books, one cannot help feeling that he is posturing. Yet some people may consider him quaint, and find that ' the quaintness gives them pleasure.

1 See the' Kenyon Letters' in 14th Report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, Part IV (1894).


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