Sunday, 29 July 2018

Trebian Talks. And Talks. And Talks.

As you may or may not know I'm a member of the Northamptonshire Battlefields Society. We campaign to protect our local battlefields, and as part of that we run a series of talks throughout the year, usually on the last Thursday of the month.

When we were putting the programme together last year I volunteered to do a talk on William Boteler. He was the man who was appointed as the Major-General for the East Midlands during the Protectorate. I'd come across him and his colleagues when I was at University. Had things turned out differently (like if I'd got a first instead of a 2:1) then he would have formed part of my PhD thesis on the Major-Generals' system. Instead I went out into the world of work, only to discover many years later that someone else had basically written my PhD thesis instead of me. I talked about it on this blog.

Following that piece the cross checking and work on the talk continued. As I was putting the information together and sorting it into a coherent narrative things kept popping up as being a bit odd. There was, for example, a story that Boteler made a practice of pulling down houses belonging to Royalists and Roman Catholics. That's a terrific story, and the details would make a good couple of slides, as evil black and buff coated puritans hounded  people from their homes, demolishing them around their ears. The details in the books and articles I had were sparse, so I went to the foot notes and found the sources. Luckily for me the primary source for the story was held in the local collection of Northampton library, so I was able to go and check it. An enormous 2 volume 18th century compendium of local stories compiled by a Northamptonshire Antiquarian, funded by subscription (who says crowd funding is a new idea?) it turned out to be. I greedily turned the pages only to find the truth was not exactly as reported elsewhere. What actually seems to have happened is he arranged to remove the ceiling beams from an abandoned, unfinished, property that had been built by a now bankrupt or severely financially embarrassed Roman Catholic. Oh. Another half mentioned reference tied him into something that happened prior to his appointment that has since been shown to be post Restoration propaganda. Ah.

Lyveden New Build. Never Finished. Now without roof beams
So how much else of what we know is true, then?

B*gg*r. The 45 minute talk that'd take a few evenings over a week or so to prepare was rapidly morphing into a serious piece of work. Yes and as I dug I found more inaccuracies, and more cases of historians repeating a statement from a previous work, copying the the source reference without, it appeared, going to check it themselves....

And the story, as it emerges, became even more interesting. Boteler's life held a mirror up to the real issues of politics, religion and society in the mid 17th century. Because there was no reason for anyone to argue for the rehabilitation of a second level down Cromwellian bureaucrat post the Restoration the work simply hasn't been done. In the time I had there was only so much I could check and research. Boteler, although born in Northamptonshire, probably ended his life in Surrey. but we don't know. There's probably a record, it's just it'd be a lot of work to find it, and who has the incentive to do so? The details of his early life in Northamptonshire are a bit vague, but I've never really been that interested in geneaological type And there's details in Ivan Root's article that aren't foot noted, and I can't check, so I'd have to go back to first principles, and to be honest I don't have the incentive to do it. No one is going to pay me to get this right. I can't see a biography of Boteler is going to be a big seller, and in any event the historians who have trodden this path before me haven't been able to find the truth.

Anyhow, this all distilled into a wide ranging and thought provoking  talk (I thought) that had stuff in it that our local history guru, Mike Ingram, didn't know or had bought into the myths and legends weaved round the man.

So, last Thursday, on one of the hottest evenings of the year, I shared my findings with about 35 of the faithful (a decent turnout given the weather and the fact the holidays have started). Alas, I did go on a bit, and then a bit more, and then a bit more. I overran by about an hour.

I was a bit surprised at this, - talking to a time limit used to be something I was good at.

Well, everyone stayed awake despite the heat and lack of air conditioning. And a few people afterwards were kind enough to say that they found it all really interesting.

So there you have it. Anyone else need an evening's talk about an obscure bloke from the middle of the 17th century (who admittedly did get mixed up in some entertaining stuff)? I can probably trim it down to an hour now I know how long the whole thing takes once I get going....


  1. That sounds to me like the foundation for a future Ph D - if the person who got in ahead of you failed to carry out as thorough an historiographical search as you have done. It is reasonable, though, to bear in mind that the 'inaccurate' past accounts are still 'history' - clearly someone had an axe to grind. Was Boteler's governance remembered with hostility by the locals? Why might that have been? Merely the fact of it, or was there something else behind?

    If no one noticed the passage of an extra hour, your talk must have been sufficiently

    1. Durston's book is really good, apart from some details of Boteler's biography.

      The talk went into why Boteler might have had a bad press and whether or not the locals liked or hated him. Generally the very top local nobs didn't like him (he threw the Earl of Northampton into jail for refusing to comply with the law on the provision of security bonds), but the "Godly Party" - that is lower level gentry who were religious Independents - were much more in favour.

      There's an outside chance I might put together a short biographical work on WB, but otherwise the talk is in my briefcase, should anyone else ever want me to give it.