My first literary prize!
Always aspiring to commit some of my life-experiences to paper in the form of a book-length narrative, I decided to join a local Writers’ Group. The principle of associating with others who are already on the journey is always a good starting point, and in my first writing competition with the group, they kindly awarded me the first prize, which included a glass goblet (I promised not to break it in the next 12 months!) and the princely sum of £15….. As we all know, the ‘journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step’, and in the world of letters, your first literary prize (however small) can be your first important step.
The task at hand was to write 1000 words about some aspect of the history of Huntingdonshire. I took as my starting point a line from TS Eliot. The pictures have been added as illustration for the benefit of this post, and did not appear in the submitted piece.
If you came at night like a broken king…
I have cycled the lanes and byways of Old Huntingdonshire for nearly 40 years, and there is hardly a day goes by when I don’t learn something new about this extraordinary little corner of the East Midlands. One day, about 25 years ago, having laboriously climbed over the wold from Hamerton, past the four houses and redundant church that make up Steeple Gidding, a road sign to Little Gidding beckoned me, teasing me along a narrow single-track lane that led to a cluster of buildings and a small church, it’s remoteness advertised by the tufts of grass growing down the middle of the lane. Little did I realise at the time that my unplanned visit that day might lead to a lifelong connection with this isolated little community which, over time, began to release some of its secrets.
“If you came at night like a broken king….”. This line, taken from TS Eliot’s Fourth Quartet ‘Little Gidding’, a poem inspired by his visit in May 1936, intriguingly points to the community’s past royal connections. Bear in mind that this tiny hamlet is so remote that even people living in the nearby locality have never paid a visit nor, sometimes, do they even know it exists. So how did a king find his way there, not just once, or twice, but three times?
It is a story set in the early 17th century. Nicholas Ferrar, a former businessman and prime mover in the Virginia Company, as well as a member of parliament, had given up his life in the city and had brought his extended family to a ruined farmhouse in west Huntingdonshire to begin laying the foundations of a contemplative religious community. In 1633 they unexpectedly received a visit from King Charles I on his way to Scotland, and their work on the Gospel Harmonies immediately caught his interest. The Harmonies were an attempt by the Ferrars to bring together parallel readings of the Bible so that they might be seen both separately and as a continuous whole. This was achieved by cutting and pasting diverse sections of the Bible so as to create a more fluent reading of the narratives. The King liked them so much, he asked them to prepare a special set of Harmonies of the Book of Kings and Chronicles, which were duly sent to the him the following year, richly bound and gilded in purple velvet.
Sadly, Nicholas Ferrar died before the King’s second visit to Little Gidding, just a few months before the beginning of the Civil War. In 1642, on his way north to rally his troops at York and then to raise the royal standard at Nottingham, he once again stopped by Little Gidding, taking advantage of an opportunity to rest and receive refreshment. He first visited the little church of St John, the absence of images and icons telling him of the widespread local puritanical enforcements. “What will not malice invent?” he was heard to comment. Then after taking refreshment and inspecting the latest editions of the Harmonies, the King gave five pieces of gold to the widows of the community, money he had won playing cards the night before.
When the Civil War defiantly turned in favour of the Parliamentarians, the King had to make an escape from the siege of Oxford in April 1646, disguised as a servant, and he began to make his way north under the cover of darkness, sleeping and resting in safe houses during the day. His ultimate intention was to surrender himself to the Scottish army, with whom he thought he might meet with greater clemency. He travelled with two of his most trusted companions, Dr Hudson and Mr Ashburnam, and they arrived in Huntingdonshire in early May. The ‘broken king’ climbed the hill to Little Gidding, crossing the grassy meadow below the manor house, still known to this day as King’s Close, and were received warmly by the Ferrar family. Sadly, this warm reception of the King was to lead to the later destruction of part of the church, and the theft of all the plate and furniture of both house and church.
John Ferrar was aware that Little Gidding was not a convenient safe house for the King. His previous two visits were well documented and known publicly, and suspicion would immediately fall on them in the event of a search party roaming the area. So John Ferrar wisely accompanied the King to a safe house in nearby Coppingford, and it was from there that he made his way north towards Stamford. Charles finally put himself into the hands of the Scottish Presbyterian army at Newark, was transferred to Newcastle, and after nine months of negotiating with the Parliamentarians, was handed over to the enemy in exchange for the huge sum of £100,000, with promises of further funds for the Scots in the future. The fate of Mr Ashburnam is unknown, but Dr Hudson met with a grisly end at the hands of the puritans. He finally surrendered himself on the promise of favourable terms, but these were ignored by his captors. Like many other prisoners of war in Newark, he was thrown over the battlements into the river Trent.
When the Puritans learned of Little Gidding’s involvement in the King’s escape, the Ferrars hastily escaped, possibly to France, and left their estate knowing that it would be
destroyed and robbed in their absence. The whole of the west front of the church was destroyed, including the west gallery and the organ. The wood from the organ was used to build a fire where several of the estate’s sheep were roasted. The one notable thing that was recovered 200 years later was the brass eagle lectern, which had been thrown into a nearby pond, and is now housed for safe-keeping in Ferrar House.
However, despite this act of sinister vandalism, the restored church today is very much as the Ferrars would have known it.