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What Charles Dickens thought of elections in Northants and our great unsung literary heroes

Mike Ingram investigates some of the less well known Northamptonshire literary achievers

Northamptonshire is sadly not normally recognised for its literary connections. We have all heard of the brilliant Alan Moore, writer of V for Vendetta, Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the poets John Clare and John Dryden (Britain’s first ever Poet Laureate), as well as H.E. Bates (Darling Buds of May). There are many more excellent authors both fiction and non-fiction in the county today, many of whom generally go unrecognised such as Louise Jensen who wrote the best-selling psychological thriller The Sister or Nicky Fitzmaurice, author of What Can I Do?: A Guide to Understanding, Coping and Ultimately Surviving Past Domestic Violence? 

However, our literary traditions and connections go back much much further. Who has heard of John of Northampton or Geoffrey de Vinsauf for example? And what about James Harrington or poet Mary Leapor? Both Vinsauf and John were literary giants of their time, their books furnishing the shelves of kings and queens and were still being read all over Europe three hundred years later! And we must not forget that these were before the printing press and all copied by hand too! 

Geoffrey de Vinsauf (de Vino Salvo in Latin) was not of local birth but came to Northampton’s fledgling university to teach. A mandate of Bishop Hugh of Lincoln and the pipe rolls of Henry II both show the existence of a studium at Northampton by the end of the twelfth century. Vinsauf came to teach at Northampton from Paris between 1175 and 1181. He was one of the most influential authors of theoretical studies on poetry, rhetoric, and the arts in England. Later poets and authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower and many more across Europe all demonstrate his influence. What happened to him in the town is best described in Vinsauf’s own words from his poem ‘Causa magistri Gaufredi’:

There came to the town from the North a low fellow who could teach quarrelling better than anything else. He vexed me with insults; he terrorised my pupils; he upset the town with his errors; he was much given to making protests. If I taught, he disparaged me: if I was silent, he did not forbear:  if I went away, he took possession: if I hid myself, he was aggressive still. His infamy attained its height when he joined with other enemies of mine. He came; he found me; he attacked me: Robert was all frenzy. At Paris he behaved as a comrade, but at Hampton as an enemy…One night my friend (for to me he made himself appear so) came in arms to do me injury. It was the dead of night. A stone flung by one of my enemies struck his companion between the brow and the nose. The noise woke the neighbours, who roused the populace: they kindly brought succour: he desisted from his intent. A confederate laid my enemy low, but he accused me of the deed.”

Another author and master who was in Northampton at this time was Daniel of Morley. He had also taught in Paris, before going to Toledo to be instructed in the learning of the Arabs, which, he said, covered almost the same subjects as the liberal arts, which comprised arithmetic (number), geometry (number in space), music (number in time), and astronomy (number in space and time). On his return to England, he found that the study of Roman law was being vigorously pursued to the neglect of the liberal arts. However, he discovered that at Northampton they still flourished. He therefore came to the town and presumably taught. At the same time, he wrote his ‘Philosophia Magistri‘ in which he summarized what he had learned of Arabic science.  

It is around the same time that two important but often ignored chronicles were written in the town. The first, the latin Chronicle of St. Andrew’s written at Cluniac priory of St. Andrew’s in Northampton and preserved in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. St. Andrews was founded by the third Earl of Northampton, Simon de Senlis I and was only the second Cluniac priory in England. It was also an alien priory with its priors being chosen by its mother house in Charité-sur-Loire in France until the Hundred Years War. Although now completely lost, St. Andrew’s covered most of the area which is Semilong today. The annals begin at A.D 1 and up to 1140, written in the same hand. It is then continued in different hands in what appears to be a generally contemporaneous record through to the year 1339. It also includes details of the 1264 battle of Northampton not found elsewhere. There are a number of striking similarities with ‘the Melrose Chronicle,’ particularly the second half written from 1140 until the end of the chronicle in 1270. This is not surprising as the Bishop of Melrose at this time was Waltheof, brother of Simon de Senlis II, sometimes Earl of Northampton. 

A second chronicle (although incomplete) was written in Anglo-Norman around 1237 at Delapré Abbey. It recounts the lives of the earls of Northampton from Siward, the first earl (d. 1055) and includes events involving the Cluniac nunnery of Delapré (or St. Mary de la Pré). It is a possible source for the now lost Latin text ‘Vita et Passio Sancti Waldevi’ which told the story of Waltheof, the second earl. 

Although not born in the county, Thomas Bungay from Bungay, in Suffolk. He was born around 1214 and educated at Oxford and Paris before becoming the 10th Franciscan ‘Reader in Divinity’ at Oxford in the mid-13th century. He entered the Friars Minor (Franciscans) at Norwich. He wrote Quaestio in Aristotelis de Caelo et Mundo, a commentary on Gerard’s edition of Aristotle’s work ‘On the Heavens.’ At an unknown date he came to Northampton where he died around 1294 and was buried at Greyfriars in the town. However, he is better known from later English legend, which made him Roger Bacon’s sidekick in the stories that developed around that scholar’s knowledge of alchemy and supposed mastery of magic. In some versions, he is killed by the German mage Vandermast. There was also an Elizabethan stage play, a comedy based on these legends, written by Robert Greene circa 1589 called The Honorable Historie of Frier Bacon and Frier Bongay

Although Henry III banned Northampton from having a university in 1264, by the early 1300’s Northampton seems to have been a centre of religious learning. During this century a number of nationally important writers either came from the town or moved to it. 

One of the most important was Robert of Holcot, one of the first divines of the fourteenth century. He was born in the village of Holcot in Northants around 1290 of a good family. He joined the Friars Preachers (Dominicans) and became a Doctor of Divinity at Oxford and for a long time was professor of scripture and morals there. However, at some point he returned to Northampton. He was known as “Doctor firmus et indefatigabilis,” (the firm and unwearied doctor). Although now all but forgotten, during the middle-ages he was highly influential and famous throughout Europe, writing twenty-six treatises on various branches of theology and philosophy. He fell victim to the Black Death during an outbreak in Northampton during 1349 and was buried in the town’s Dominican Church. His memory was much venerated, especially as he caught the illness whilst ministering sufferers in the town. Even after his death a huge proportion of his works were issued in repeated editions from the chief continental presses as soon as the art of printing had been discovered. Holcot’s ‘Lectiones super librum Sapientiae’ (Commentary on Wisdom) written around 1333, was one of the most popular commentaries of the late middle ages and has been identified as a prime literary source for Chaucer’s ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ written in the 1390’s. It made his name famous throughout medieval Europe, and surviving catalogues show that every well stocked library in Europe had a copy. It was still being printed in 1480 and went through many further editions including one printed in Lyon in 1497 and in Cologne in 1586. Queen Elizabeth I is known to have had a copy of this book too. Holcot was still being read in the sixteenth century when the Parisian theologian, Jacques Almain, wrote a work engaging Holcot’s opinions. 

John of Northampton sometimes known as John Avon, was a Carmelite Friar, Doctor and Professor of Divinity.  He was described as ‘an excellent Preacher, and outdid all others of his time, in the Knowledge of the Mathematics; for he, not only knew all in that Science, that had been ever known before, but made many notable Discoveries.’ His book, ‘The Philosophical Ring’ was famous throughout Europe. It was a perpetual almanack to “find every year for ever, the moveable feasts, the immoveable, the aspects of the heavens, the changes of the moon, and all things relating to the ordering of the divine offices according to the several solemnities throughout the year.” He died about 1350, probably of the plague, and was buried in his friary at Northampton. Another considerable theological writer from Northampton’s Carmelite friary was William Beaufeu, Doctor of Divinity and prior of the house. He was the author of ‘On Miracles of the Virgin’ and ‘Lecture of Lentinus,’ as well as translating several other works. He died in 1390 and was buried in his friary.

Godfrey Grandfeld was born in Northampton and was one of the Austin Friars in the town. He was a Doctor of Divinity of Cambridge, a philosopher and divine of considerable importance. He seems to have gone to Rome, where he became chaplain to the cardinal bishop of Frascati. Around 1303 he was consecrated a bishop by Pope Benedict XI and sent back to England. He was for a while, the suffragan bishop of Lincoln, before returning to the Austin Friars in Northampton.  He died and was buried in the town around 1340, leaving behind many sermons and lectures as monuments of his learning.

Thomas Vaux, 2nd Baron Vaux of Harrowden was the eldest son of Nicholas Vaux, 1st Baron Vaux and his second wife, Anne Green, daughter of Sir Thomas Green of Greens Norton. Anne was the older sister of Maud Green who had married Sir Thomas Parr, making Vaux a first cousin to Queen Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife. His wife, Elizabeth Cheney, was also a first cousin of Catherine Parr. As such Vaux belonged to a cultured circle in the courts of Henry VIII and Edward VI and a friend of other court poets such as Sir Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. In 1531, he took his seat in the House of Lords. However, he did not attend Parliament between 1534 and 1554. Instead, he retired to his country seats at Harrowden and Irthingborough until the accession of Mary I, when he returned to London for her coronation.  Vaux died in October 1556.

Two of his poems were published the following year in ‘The Songes and Sonettes of Surrey’ (Tottel’s Miscellany). Thirteen other pieces signed ‘L[ord] Vaux’ appeared in the popular poetic anthology entitled ‘The Paradyse of daynty deuises,’ George Puttenham, in his 1589 ‘Art of English Poesie’ noticed Vaux’s poetic achievements and described him as “a noble gentleman” who ‘much delighted in vulgar making’ (i.e. vernacular poetry), but “a man otherwise of no great learning.” His broadside ballad entitled ‘The Aged Lover renownceth Love,’ enjoyed a very wide popularity at the end of the sixteenth century. Three verses of it are quoted with intentional inaccuracy by Shakespeare in ‘Hamlet,’ where they are sung by the First Gravedigger.

There are also plenty of other Shakespearian connections to Northamptonshire in his works. Siward, the first Earl of Northampton features in ‘Macbeth’ as general of the English forces, who helps Malcolm fight Macbeth. The first scene in the first act in his ‘King John’ is set in Northampton Castle from where he murdered his nephew by throwing him from the walls (although entirely fabricated). Sir Henry Green of Drayton House features as one of the three continual councillors (referred to as “caterpillars”) in ‘King Richard II,’ generally listed as “Bushy, Baghot and Green.” He also appears in the anonymous Elizabethan play ‘Thomas of Woodstock’. Shakespeare’s Roman war tragedy, ‘Coriolanus’ is on the surface a story of famine in Rome is causing unrest between the common people and the patricians. However, it is almost certainly based on the Midland Revolt in Northamptonshire during 1607. And, we cannot forget Shakespeare’s completely inaccurate story of Northamptonshire born and bred ‘Richard III’ either. Even that has been suggested to be a disguised account of Lord Robert Cecil from Burghley House who like Richard had scoliosis. 

As we are looking at Shakespeare, we cannot forget his granddaughter Elizabeth, the last of his direct descendants. She lived and died in Abington’s manor house, now the museum in the park. Elizabeth was born to Susanna Shakespeare the oldest child of William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, and Doctor John Hall. In 1629, Elizabeth first married Thomas Nash, then after his death Elizabeth married John Bernard of Abington. She died in Abington on 17th February 1670 aged 64. Her name was added to the gravestone following an archaeological investigation in 1902, led by an amateur historian engaged upon research into Shakespeare and his family.

Another prolific writer from the county was Sir Robert Dallington. Despite the name, he was born in Geddington (although he almost certainly had links to his namesake village) in 1561. He seems to have spent a number of years as a schoolmaster. In 1592, his translation of ‘The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,’ was published, giving it its best-known English title, ‘The Strife of Love in a Dream.’ It was a rich source of images & material for the Elizabethan poets, dealing with matters such as time, words, art, & love. It was probably this book that brought him to the attention of the Manners earls of Rutland.  It was not long after that he was closely associated with the brothers and was arrested with them in the aftermath of the Essex rebellion of 1601. Around the beginning of 1596 Dallington set out on a long and leisurely journey through France and Italy. On his return he wrote accounts of his travels, they were some of the earliest travel guides to be published in England. ‘A Survey of the Great Duke’s State of Tuscany, in the yeare of our Lord 1596,’  was published in 1605, followed the next year by ‘A Method for Travell: shewed by taking the view of France as it stoode in the yeare of our Lord 1598.’ Both helped to bring European art and culture back to England at a time when it had been all but forgotten. Dallington became a respected councillor for both of King James’ sons Princes Henry and Charles (later King Charles I).  In 1613 he published another book entitled ‘Aphorismes Civill and Militarie’ dedicated to Prince Charles. 

In 1624, on Prince Charles’s recommendation, Dallington was appointed master of Charterhouse school. In 1630 Dallington gave the great bell to St Mary Magdalene Church in Geddington and five years later, at his own expense, he built their schoolhouse and gave twenty-four threepenny loaves every Sunday to twenty-four of the poor of the parish for ever. By the following year, he had grown so infirm that the governors appointed three persons to assist him in his duties of master. Dallington died in 1637 aged seventy-six and was buried at Charterhouse.  In his will he left £300 to be invested on behalf of the poor of Geddington. A wooden shelf for the loaves of bread and his directions for the charity can still be seen in Geddington Church today. 

The county had its fair share of contentious authors including Robert Crowley (died 1588) who wrote against popery. However, one of the county’s most controversial authors was James Harrington. He was born in Upton in 1611 and for a time a resident, with his father, in the manor house at Milton Malsor, (something that is recorded on a blue plaque on the Manor). There is also a monument to his mother Jane in the chancel of Holy Cross church, Milton Malsor. According to the memorial, she died on 30 March 1619, when James was 7 or 8 years old. In May 1647. His early life is unclear, but he eventually became a gentleman groom of the royal bedchamber. After King Charles’ death Harrington devoted his time to the composition of his ‘The Commonwealth of Oceana.’ This work was an exposition on an ideal constitution, designed to facilitate the development of a utopian republic. Just as it was passing through the printing press, the book was seized on the orders of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. Harrington, however, managed to secure the support of Cromwell’s favourite daughter, Elizabeth Claypole who lived at the manor house in Narborough, then in Northants. His work was restored to him, and appeared in 1656, newly dedicated to Cromwell. Following the Stuart Restoration, on 28 December 1661, Harrington was arrested on a charge of conspiring against the government and, without a trial, was thrown into the Tower. He was then moved to St Nicholas Island off the coast of Plymouth. Harrington was eventually released, and he died 11 September 1677 at Little Ambry, Dean’s Yard, Westminster. He was buried next to Sir Walter Raleigh in St Margaret’s, Westminster. There is a slate wall memorial to him at St Michael’s Church, Upton.

Another generally forgotten, controversial poet from the county is Leonard Welsted. He was born in Abington in 1688, the son of Leonard, the rector of Abington Church. He married a daughter of the famous musician and composer Henry Purcell and obtained a place in the office of one of the secretaries of state. Initially he supported the Torys but later changed his allegiance to the Whigs.   Welsted’s first poem, ‘Apple-Pye,’ was written in 1704. He went on to write at least twenty-three more, some of which were set to music. In 1717 Welsted published ‘The Triumvirate, or a Letter in verse from Palemon to Celia from Bath,’ which was a satire on John Gay, Alexander Pope, and John Arbuthnot’s play ‘Three Hours After Marriage.’ Pope who is regarded as one of the greatest English satirical poets, and the foremost poet of the early eighteenth century took his revenge on Welsted along with the whole of the Scriblerus Club, an informal association of authors, based in London. In the ‘Dunciad’ Pope accused Welsted of squeezing money out of patrons and saying:

Flow, Welsted, flow! like thine inspirer, beer.

Though stale, not ripe; though thin, yet never clear.

In the ‘Art of Sinking in Poetry’ Pope introduced Welsted as a didapper and as an eel, and his verse was ridiculed. In May 1731 Welsted was made one of the commissioners for managing the state lottery. He died at his official residence in the Tower of London in August 1747. In 1787 John Nichols published an anthology of all Welsted’s works with a memoir and notes.

In stark contrast to Harrington and Welsted was Mary Leapor. Described as “one of the most interesting of the natural poets,” Mary was born in Marston St. Lawrence around 1722, daughter of Phillip, a gardener, and Anne. The village, four miles north-west of Brackley had been home to Charles Chauncey during the reign of Charles I, who after falling foul of archbishop Laud left for America to become President of Harvard. It was also the birthplace of William Blencoe who became the head of Charles II’s secret service and was known as “the Decipherer” for his ability to crack codes. 

Little is known about Mary’s early life. Although she probably received a rudimentary education at the local free school, or at the free school in Brackley on the south side of the Chapel, she was largely self-taught.  According to her father she began writing “tolerably” at the age of 10. He also noted that “she would often be scribbling, and sometimes in Rhyme”. 

As soon as she was old enough, she managed to find a position as a kitchen maid with Susanna Jennens (“Parthenissa” in Leapor’s poetry), who was a writer of verse and connected to Lady Mary Wortley Montague and her circle. Susanna clearly recognised Mary’s talent and encouraged her writing, allowing her the use of her library. She later went to work for Sir Richard Chauncy’s family at Edgcote. Chauncey’s son remembered Mary as being “extremely swarthy, and quite emaciated, with a long crane-neck, and a short body, much resembling, in shape, a bass-viol.” He also described her as having a “fondness for writing verses there displayed itself by her sometimes taking up her pen while the jack [spit] was standing still, and the meat scorching” However, her devotion to writing whilst food burned soon led to her dismissal.

Around 1744 or 1745 she returned home to Brackley to care for her widowed father, although she continued to write. It was at this time she met Bridget Freemantle, the daughter of a former rector, who became both her friend and mentor. This relationship seems to have marked a turning point for Leapor as Bridget not only suggested that Mary publish a volume of poetry by subscription, but also also attempted to have her play, a blank-verse tragedy called ‘The Unhappy Father’, produced at the Covent Garden Theatre in London. Tragedy however struck on 12 November 1746 when Mary died from measles at the age of 24 without her seeing any of her work in print. It is not known whether she was buried in the parish church of St Peter with St James, or in the now-demolished St James’ church, which stood in Goose Green close to where Mary is believed to have lived.

In 1748, Bridget Freemantle arranged for the publication of a collection of Mary’s poems in a book called ‘Poems upon Several Occasions’ with some 600 subscribers for the benefit of Philip Leapor. In it her vibrant and witty verse, gives a vivid – and often comic – portrait of the world in which she lived, of her family and friendships and of her thoughts on literature, society and religion as well as a depiction of the world women inhabited in the early eighteenth century. A second volume of poetry and drama (‘Poems Upon Several Occasions. Vol. II.’) was published three years later by Samuel Richardson. Today Leapor’s work is celebrated for its sharp observations about life as a woman in the 18th century. She remains one of the few female labouring-class writers of the period

In 2018, the Mary Leapor window was added to the newly refurbished Brackley Town Hall. In green glass it has the words from her poem ‘An Essay on Woman,’ called ‘Too soft for business and too weak for power.’ In 2019 the Mary Leapor Memorial was unveiled in the Lady Chapel of St Peter’s Church Brackley with the Latin aphorism “Poeta Nascitur Non Fit” (A Poet is born not made) and a quotation from Mary’s poem, ‘Mira’s Will’ , in which she foresaw her early death saying ‘My departed Shade I trust to Heaven.’ On the plaque there are also laurel leaves, which Mary described as “the true emblem of my rhyme.”

Mary’s contemporary Hester Chapone could not have had a more different upbringing. She was born in 1727, the daughter of Thomas Mulso, a gentleman farmer of Twywell near Thrapston. As such, she received a far better education than most girls of the period, learning French, Italian and Latin. Aged nine, she earned her mother’s disapproval when she wrote her first romance ‘The Loves of Amoret and Melissa.’ Hecky Mulso, as she was familiarly called, developed a beautiful voice, which earned her the name of “the linnet.” While on a visit to Canterbury she made the acquaintance of the learned Mrs Elizabeth Carter, and soon became one of the admirers of the novelist Samuel Richardson. was associated with the learned ladies known as “The Bluestockings” who gathered around Elizabeth Montagu. In 1750 four short pieces of hers were published in Samuel Johnson’s journal ‘The Rambler’. Ten years later she married solicitor John Chapone, the son of the moral writer, Sarah Chapone. However, within a year he was dead. 

In 1773 she wrote her most famous work, ‘Letters on the Improvement of the Mind’ for her 15-year-old niece. The book focused on encouraging rational understanding through the reading of the Bible, history and literature. It also encouraged the study of book-keeping, household management, botany, geology, astronomy. Only sentimental novels were to be avoided. The work was published anonymously, in an edition of 1,500 copies and dedicated to Mrs. Montagu. By 1800 it had been through at least 16 editions. A further 12 editions had appeared by 1829, at least one of them a French translation. Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the founding feminist philosophers, described the book as one of the few examples of the self-improvement genre that deserved praise. Wishing for a quiet retreat she hired a house at Hadley and took her youngest niece as her companion. Her health failed rapidly, and she died on Christmas day 1801, aged 74.

We cannot conclude our look at Northamptonshire’s literary past without mentioning Charles Dickens. In 1835, before he became famous, he was a junior reporter for the Morning Chronicle and was sent to cover the elections in the newly created North Northants. The campaign trail turned violent and at one meeting on the hustings, Dickens witnessed a large body of armed horsemen led by clergymen and magistrates charge the crowd “striking about them in all directions.” The man was disarmed after he threatened opponents with it on three occasions. Dickens wrote to his then fiancée Kate that he had not seen “anything more sickening and disgusting,” describing the Conservatives as “a ruthless set of bloody-minded villains.” Dickens stayed at the White Hart, now the Royal Hotel, in Kettering’s Market Place. He described how the voters were “drinking and guzzling and howling and roaring in every house of entertainment there is.” He noted that the “conservative electors” were ‘such beasts’, that he and his fellow reporters were forced into hiding in his room at the White Hart. Dickens then convinced his fellow journalists into hiring and driving their own post-chaise to Boughton House where they had dinner, and their carriage crashed into a water-splash caused by their near-sighted driver “overcome with potations of ale and egg flip.” From Kettering he also went to Northampton where he stayed overnight. He finishes his letter to Kate, Damn the Tories – they’ll win here I am afraid.

The following year, Dickens published the first instalment of what would be his first novel ‘The Pickwick Papers.’ One of Mr Pickwick’s stopping places on his tour was The Saracens Head in Towcester. His account of the Eatanswill elections was no doubt inspired by what he witnessed in Kettering. His second novel ‘Oliver Twist’ first appeared in 1837. Oliver was raised in a workhouse in the fictional town of Mudfog, which he says was located 70 miles north of London. It is believed that it was based on Kettering’s workhouse. So, all those characters such as Mr. Bumble, Mrs Mann and Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker were all Kettering folk.  Dickens was a friend of the Watson family and a regular visitor to Rockingham Castle. It provided the inspiration for Chesney Wold, in his ‘Bleak House,’ which was first serialised in March 1852. Dickens wrote and produced playlets in the Long Gallery there. His wife Kate also wrote a cookbook under the pen name “Lady Maria Clutterbuck,” a character she’d been in one such play. He also dedicated ‘David Copperfield’ to the Watsons and possibly wrote it there during one of his visits. 

Only a few miles from Rockingham is Rushton Hall. Dickens became a great friend of its owner Clara Thornhill. Over the years he visited it many times, and it is believed the Great Hall in Statis House, where Miss Haversham had her wedding breakfast laid out, in his novel ‘Great Expectations’ is based on the Great Hall there. 

So, there you have it. A brief introduction to some of Northamptonshire’s poets and authors. There are many more. Whilst we are all trapped in self isolation, why not go on a voyage of discovery and search out their works – many are available online?

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