Tuesday, 9 April 2019

Across Devon Lands - Looking towards Literature post Saxon Queens

Across Devon Lands
Looking towards Literature post Saxon Queens

See Extract 7 from

Exeter Castle
from Rougemont Gardens

'As with so many other royal Saxon women linked with Devon’s history, Gytha’s life has descended into one of the dark ‘Her/storical’ holes, although there are glimpses of her movements transcribed within the manuscripts of contemporary texts, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles.' 

Talking about Tavistock: Mary Maria Colling; A C19 Maid-Servant Poet

 A – Z of Devon Women Writers & Places

Tavistock canal

Talking about Tavistock:
Mary Maria Colling
a C19 Maid-Servant Poet

...Green as an ivy you may be,
Though not to be compared with me
If I'm admired as thus I'm seen,
Tis not because my dress is green:
Know then, I'm more admired than you,
Because I'm green and fragrant too'.
('The Ivy and the Myrtle', Mary Maria Colling).

Mary Maria Colling
frontspiece from Fables

     Performance Poetry is not just a C21 phenomenon. Back in the late C18, a woman poet (who we'd now consider obscure and obsolete) regularly drew a crowd of admirers to the town of Tavistock, some of whom had travelled for miles to see and hear her pronounce her poems. Mary Maria Colling was a maid-servant who became protégé of the more well-known Anna Eliza Bray, wife of the then vicar of Tavistock. 

The Old Vicarage in Tavistock

      In a Literary Christmas 1836, Ann Pulsford relates that Anna recorded in her Autobiography (published posthumously in 1884), that she had first noticed Mary Colling at church; she was intelligent, of neat appearance and had written some poetry. Mary, then 25, was employed as a domestic servant in a house near the river not far from the vicarage, owned by the Hughes family. Bray collected and published Colling’s poems in 1831 as Fables and other Pieces in Verse, which according to one recent commentator ‘comprises a series of Aesop-style fables’. (See Erica Obey, "The Poor Girl's Talent": (Romantic Mentorship and Mary Colling's "Fables", in Keats-Shelley Journal Vol. 59 (2010).

Title Page of Fables

In her piece Pulsford notes that Colling was buried in Tavistock church graveyard and that the headstone remains in the churchyard in front of St Eustachius Church in Tavistock, but does not mark the original grave. (Photo alongside: taken from the contents list of Fables)
     I’ve not studied Colling's work or looked too deeply into the circumstances of her quirky writings as they interconnect with Anna Eliza Bray and the meeting points of their lives in Tavistock (and I might have missed other commentaries already written), but thought I’d jot down a few of my own observations about the two women. I’ve taken as my starting-point a passage from a paper by Meagan Timney, Mary Hutton and the Development of a Working-Class Women's Political Poetics, in which she comments:
What do we know about the working-class women who wrote poetry in the Victorian period? As so often happens in the study of non-canonical writers, their biographies exist in fragments, a miscellany of facts with very little cohesion. We may know that a writer was a "factory girl" or a "domestic servant"; however, we often know little of the circumstances in which she wrote, her family history, or the particularities of her work. It seems that the lack of extant working-class women's poetry lies in the historical (de)valuations surrounding their lives; the difficulties in recovering their texts is, in part, linked to the unavailability of biographical information. Perhaps deemed too unimportant by the establishment for a record of their lives to be kept, nineteenth-century working-class women poets all but disappeared from historical record, and we are only now in the process of rediscovering them.

       Taking into consideration the spirit of our age, when there is common consensus that we need to dig deep and look out for forgotten women from all fields, with Mary Maria Colling there’s an opportunity to take a closer look at the poet’s Devon background. I thought I’d do a little probing into the circumstances of the brief spell of Colling's intense celebrity in the popular Devon town which lies in the heart of Dartmoor

Photo: Tavistock abbey ruins
        Historically, since the time that its abbey was first founded, many centuries ago, Tavistock has been a central Devon site of learning and culture. I wonder if an intangible Genius Locii has drawn literary people there ever since, for as well as the C19 Anna Eliza Bray and her protégé, Mary Maria Colling. there are a number of women writers linked with the parish and its surroundings. I've already written about Elfrida daughter of Ordgar and brother of the abbey’s founder Ordwulf, in Writing Women on the Devon Land (see this extract from Royal Women; Devon Lands) and my poem about her titled 'On Whitehorse Hill', appears on Poethead website. No, there are no written documents connecting this important cultured early queen with Tavistock but given her close family associations with the place it is feasible to consider such links. Elfrida was one of the earliest of a chain of literary Tavistock women. Much more recently during the C19, a little band of women-who-wrote have clustered in the town. Journalist and poet Sophie Dixon gets more than a mention in the blogger post On the Ways to the Old Literary Roads around Okehampton. Although sources say Dixon was from Plymouth, I’m not sure; her journals often feature Tavistock. More research is needed regarding this important C19 journalist and poet. Then there was Rachel Evans, school-teacher and author who also lived in the town during the mid C19. She also appears in On the Ways to the Old Literary Roads. Elizabeth Rundle Charles was another of this mid C19 group of not to be forgotten C19 Tavistock born authors. She was mentioned briefly in an old blog post in Scrapblog a Writer from the South West. One day I hope to return to revisit her old haunts and textual contributions to our Devon literary heritage.   
                                                                              Tavistock Abbey ruins

      But here I must return to the focus of this post, Tavistock's maid-poet. For me, though missing the religious slant, the public furore which accumulated round Mary Maria Colling is reminiscent of the public acclaim instigated by another Devon woman, self-proclaimed prophetess Joanna Southcott, whose texts and rhymed prophecies and public proclamations quickly hooked in over one hundred thousand followers (the equivalent of today’s million Twitter followers). Southcott (whose family were from the east of the county) died in 1814, when over in Tavistock the budding poet was about ten years old. But there is something about the commonality of the women’s eccentric texts and their similar rural backgrounds – they were both from the lower social class and both worked in domestic service. Perhaps, also there is a parallel in the dark ending of these two women’s lives: Colling the poet died in obscurity after apparently succumbing to some kind of mental break-down, possibly Tourettes; Southcott, the prophetess, died in bizarre circumstances, after having self-identified as pregnant at the age of 64. However, whereas Southcott’s life and religious texts have left their mark, those of the servant-poet from Tavistock have more or less disappeared into the vacuum of non-entities. For the most part, if she or her poems appear in any literary forum, it is in connection with Anna Eliza Bray, the woman who took her on, mentored her, then it would seem as quickly, dumped her. However, I know you can find a bit about Colling via google searches and there is at least one significant paper written about her. 

      Maybe I’m being unfair here. Certainly, without Bray’s influence we would never have read Colling’s poems, let alone heard about her life. But from our more egalitarian C21 stance, the barely concealed social superior condescension evident in the appraisals Bray penned about her protégé are hard to stomach. 

Get an idea of the flavour of Bray's assessments from the extract in the photo, a short passage taken from Bray’s extensive letter- introduction to Fables and Other Pieces in Verse, which she wrote in the form of letters to her own literary mentor, the poet laureate Robert Southey.

  The volume of published poems within Fables is ordered so that Bray’s letters take precedence to the poet’s ‘Poems Inserted in the Letters’, thus ensuring that any reader - and indeed the poet herself – is/was reminded of the default hierarchy, of mentor and protégé. Some of the poems appear as insets in the main narrative, rather than as stand-alone lyrics in their own right. There are also intercepted annotations to the letters, which have the effect of lessening the impact of poems themselves. From the preamble to the very first letter Colling, the ‘poor girl’, is presented as a social outsider, ‘agitated’ and ‘artless’, ‘of the humbler class’, whose literary talents can only come to the fore after the kind and older, established author Mrs Bray has reached out across the social order networks and extended the hand of patronage to the girl of lesser social-standing. You can read more about how Bray’s preface to the text ‘textually subjects Colling to her patrons’, thus ensuring the social/literary pecking-order, in Erica Obey, "The Poor Girl's Talent": (Romantic Mentorship and Mary Colling's "Fables", in Keats-Shelley Journal Vol. 59 (2010). Collings ‘knows her place in society … her talent is couched as attractive naivete’ (Obey).i Bray also takes it on herself to assess the ‘errors of her[protégé’s] poetry - (though ‘not many’, they ‘consist mainly in bad rhymes, such “morn” and “storm”) – thus dismissively undermining her apparent and initial approval of them as worthy of publication.

         Colling’s moment of performance-poet fame was probably instigated by Bray herself after the latter persuaded poet laureate Robert Southey to write up a review of Maria’s work which was, I guess followed up with newspaper accounts (though I have not yet had a chance to research these properly), thus drawing attention to the young girl, as though she were freak object to be ogled at.
Bourgeois tourists congregated at the local inn to hear Colling recite from her prodigious memory or extemporise verses – after she had completed her household duties. (Erica Obey, "The Poor Girl's Talent").

         Putting aside the problems which the differences in the two women’s social position lead into when assessing the younger poet’s work, one of the threads that probably drew them together in the first place was their common interest in local gossip. Mrs Bray is known for her fictional and historical reinventions of a number of stories based on legends, folk-tale and local history and it seems that the young Mary was a fount of wisdom concerning local wives tales and of ghostly hauntings; she is said to have told her literary mentor the story about the infamous Lady Howard. 

Even to this day the legend about the ghost of this notorious Tavistock lady can send chills down peoples’ backs and you’ll find all sorts of accounts of her story out there on the web’ they usually mention a ‘phantom carriage’ and a ‘black dog’.
Lady Howard was presumably a person of strong will and imperious temper, who left a deep and lasting impression on the people of Tavistock: 

Photo: Remains of Gatehouse of Fitzford, in Tavistock
She bore the reputation of having been hard-hearted in her lifetime. For some crime she had committed (nobody knew what), she was said to be doomed to run in the shape of a hound from the gateway of Fitzford to Okehampton Park, between the hours of midnight and cock-crowing, and to return with a single blade of grass in her mouth to the place whence she had started; and this she was to do till every blade was picked, when the world would be at an end. (Baring Gould)

     Incidentally, I think sometimes the creepy goings-on of the ghost-story mean that the facts about this iconic C16 Devon woman, a flesh and blood C16 aristocrat, related to the highest of the land, become side-lined. Lady Howard was not just a ghostly phenomenon; she was born into the midst of a complex network of prominent aristocratic families, some of whom are still remembered for their involvements in literary activities of the period. This is not the time and space for me to get diverted away from the C19 poet but just to note that the real woman was Mary Howard daughter of Sir John Fitz and his wife Bridget. Bridget was daughter of William Courtenay 3rd Earl of Devon and his wife Elizabeth Manners. 

          But ... to return to the main concern of this post, Mary Colling and Anna Bray. To be fair on the latter, some passage of her report on her protégé in the preface to her poems do somewhat redress the balance and lessen the impact of her apparently condescending approach to the poet; though on the other hand, the general effect is to just emphasise the patron’s own preoccupation with social status and prestige. For example, Bray mentions that Mary Maria Colling’s paternal father was a ‘highly respectable yeoman’ from a long-established comfortable farming family, who had come up against some misfortune, thus leaving them to a ‘state of distress’. Her grandfather had had ‘all the bells tolled at his funeral’, which indicated ‘he’d been a person of some note’, whilst her father ‘is a very worthy honest man’. 

     There are suggestions as well that Bray was rather in awe of the younger woman; one or two of the prefacing letters, indicate she was almost mesmerised by her protégé’s naive charms: 

 ‘I should never have guessed the animating interesting being she could become in conversation … when I looked on the beautiful expression of her countenance … I could not help entertaining for her a degree of admiration that was not unmixed with reverence and regard'. (Letter in Fables)

     Indeed, the intense focus of detailed commentary, which the older writer has provided in her letter prefaces to the poems per se, indicate a degree of obsessive preoccupation, an emotional identification with the younger woman.ii

         The intricate detail of Anna Bray’s account, albeit patronising, does reveal much about her protégé’s background. In other words, without the intervention of Bray, whose own literary reputation was soon to make her one of the C19 most acclaimed writers, not only would the writing of the servant-woman from the lower rungs of the C19 social pecking-order never have surfaced, but her life-story would, like most others of her status, have been obliterated. Ultimately, Mary Maria Collings is quite fortunate in having left us more than a memory trace.

        The first letter in Bray’s account of Colling begins by relating how she first noticed the young woman in Tavistock church, where Bray’s husband was vicar. 

Photo: taken from one of the letters in Fables

Bray evokes the young poet’s presence quite vividly: she was ‘dressed exceedingly neat, and remarkable on account of the intellectual character of her countenance, who used to sit amongst several poor women immediately under the reading desk of Tavistock church’. Later in another letter Bray remarks that Colling, a ‘perfect country girl’, wore a ‘straw bonnet‘ and her ‘features are regularly handsome, especially the forehead, eyebrows and eyes’. We are informed that on 4th March 1831 Colling posted a sample of her poems to the vicarage and asked Bray to give an opinion on her work. We find Colling’s friends’ names, Mary Beauford and Charlotte Bedford. We learn about her prestigious memory and about her marvellous spelling feats. We are told that the young girl had often to skip school to stay home and nurse her mother and care for her siblings. At the age of 13 she had to leave school and a year later went into service with Mrs General Hughes, a ‘kind protectress’, who she stayed with until the end of Hughes’ life – and whose son later was kind to the young servant (she may even have remained in his service, Bray is not clear about this). There are hints in Bray’s account that even in these early days the young girl began to suffer from some kind of ‘severe illness’ herself. We find she was fond of flowers and that the garden of the house where she worked lay beside the river Tavy. 

          In the midst of her letter prefaces Bray also provides a long drawn out imaginative re-telling of Colling’s family background, a mysteriously romantic tale, which Bray had absorbed first-hand from her protégé (though, given Bray’s own propensity for richly embroidered historical reinventions, how much of the story is an exact reproduction of what the poet had told her is open to question, so we cannot be sure that this a true rendition of the young woman’s early life). However, much of the biography is related as though in the voice of the subject, ie as though we hear Mary Maria speaking to Bray, which apparently provides confirmation that this is the ‘real-deal’, not ‘fake-news’.

      Bray’s elaborated version printed in one or two national papers must have hooked in a few of the poet’s followers to go to Tavistock to gape first-hand at Devon’s new literary wonder-woman. The letters relate the mysterious background concerning Mary Maria’s maternal grandmother, wife of her grandfather George Philp - who had left Tavistock to join the navy; she had been focus of her granddaughter’s intense love (and possibly had instigated the girl's poetic gifts) until her death, when the child was only five. Here is an excerpt from the letter:

Photo: excerpt from one of Bray's Letters in Fables

Mrs Philp’s origins (we are told her maiden name was Mary Domville) contrary to the other immediate ancestors of the poet, were not local; she came from some unnamed place away from Devon and the implication is she was ‘well-bred’, ‘gentlewoman’, that her background was from another higher social class than that of her granddaughter – perhaps even aristocratic: she ‘did not talk like Devonshire people’ and according to Bray’s account, left a trail of mystery, sparking intrigue within the Tavistock community.

     I thought I’d dabble in the archives and see if I could fish out anything else about Mary Maria Colling to fill out gaps in her life-story or/and contradict anything of the biography as written by Anna Eliza Bray. I soon found Colling’s baptism record courtesy of one of the online family-history websites. Mary Maria Colling was born August 20th, 1805 and baptised on September 30th that year.

Baptism record of Mary Maria Colling
    Mary Maria appears in the 1841 census at St Matthew Street, in the home of her probable employer, Francis Hughes (he is 70, she is 36). And she is in the 1851 census, living at 87 Ford Street in   Tavistock, with her father Edmund Colling, 84, a labourer, her mother Ann, 76, Mary is then 45. It seems she died some three years later, on August 11th, in 1853, at the age of 49. 
                                   Photo: Death record of Mary Maria Colling        
     The death record says at the time of her death she was at Bannawell Street, which may be the site of what was once the Tavistock Union Workhouse, which first opened in that street in 1837. That fact fits the story that Colling’s last years were spent in an asylum: 

Before public mental asylums were established in the mid-nineteenth century (and sometimes even after that), poor persons who were mentally ill and mentally handicapped were often sent to be cared for in the workhouse. (Tavistock Workhouse Deaths)

     However, one account says that Colling was taken to an asylum in 1945, some years before her death; perhaps she was only visiting her parents at the time of the 1851 census. 

    Going back a few years, there is the banns/marriage record of the poet’s parents, Edmund Colling and Ann Philp. I think I might even have found the marriage record of Colling’s maternal grandmother. The names, dates and circumstances seem as though they may fit with the details as provided by Bray. A George Philp, Mariner, mariner, from the HMS Thunderer, married a Mary Dumbrell on 3rd March 1763. Dumbrell is not the same as Domville but in her letters Bray says that Colling was not sure of the spelling of her grandmother's name. She was resident in the parish of Alverstoke. The passage below is from an account about HMS Thunderer (taken from Kent History Forum). The date matches that of the marriage of George and perhaps suggests he met his mysterious bride after the ship returned to Portsmouth at the end of the Seven Years War

      The British maintained a close bloackade of the French Atlantic coast and after their defeats at the Battles of Lagos and Quiberon Bay 1759, the French had been reluctant to attempt breaking it. On March 9th 1760, two French ships, L'Achille of 64 guns and the frigate La Boufonne of 32 guns escaped from Brest and despite being chased and engaged by HMS Rippon (60), the two ships escaped and made it to Cadiz. HMS Thunderer in company with the ex-French HMS Modeste (64), HMS Thetis (44) amd HMS Favourite (16) were sent to prevent the two French ships leaving Cadiz. On the 14th July 1761, the two French ships got out of Cadiz and were chased by the British squadron. On the 17th July, HMS Thunderer finally caught up with L'Achille and the two ships exchanged broadside fire until HMS Thunderer came alongside L'Achille and the French ship was taken. During the engagement, one of HMS Thunderer's aftermost upper gundeck guns exploded and destroyed part of the stern, causing most of the 17 killed and 114 men wounded during the action. Captain Proby was amongst the wounded. The Bouffonne surrendered to HMS Thetis and both enemy ships were taken into Gibraltar.
    On the 10th February 1763, the Seven Years War was ended by the Treaty of Paris and in March, HMS Thunderer returned to Portsmouth and was paid off. The ship was recommissioned as a Guardship at Portsmouth and in September, received a new commander, Captain Samuel Hood. He remained in command until the ship paid off in July 1766 to be fitted as a troop ship, to carry troops to North America to try to restore order with the increasingly rebellios colonists, who were protesting about the imposition of new taxes intended to help pay off the mountain of debt arising from the Seven Years War. Captain Hood left the ship in North America and was appointed Commodore and Commander-in-Chief of the North America Station, flying his command broad pendant in the 50-gun ship HMS Romney. HMS Thunderer returned to Woolwich and paid off into the Woolwich Ordinary.

      The Philp's couple’s daughter Ann, Mary Maria Colling’s mother, was baptised in Tavistock in October 1776. There were other siblings, born before her, including George, whose baptism is recorded in the year 1764. There are a variety of other records about the Philp family in Tavistock available, indicating that they were well and truly established in the town. 

           I can’t help but wonder if the downturn in fortune and health of Mary Maria Colling’s last years, which have received scant attention by those who have written about her and her life, may have been helped on their way by the attentions of her patron Anna Eliza Bray and the consequent sensationalism of the brief period of public attention showered on the young woman. Perhaps this Devon poet was an early C19 victim of the phenomenon we consider to be a C21 manifestation – celebrities who’ve ‘lost it all’. Bray labelled her protégé as ‘mazed’ (Devon, ‘mad’) from their earliest encounters’; she is called thus in the Fables’ Preface. Obey does hint at such, when she comments that Bray’s suggestion that the young poet’s gift stems from ‘aberration’ or ‘disease’ may have been ‘foreshadowing Colling’s death in an insane asylum’. And in Dennis Low’s The Literary Protégées of the Lake Poets, the author includes part of a letter sent by Southey to Bray in which the poet laureate recommends a tempering of the outpouring over Colling. In other words (other perhaps than Mrs Bray herself) people at the time must have sensed the fragility of the young poet.

        I guess from the sensibilities of our modern age, our contemporary assessment of the poetry of this Devon C19 working-class female poet would not be too positive. We might agree with the conclusion of one of the reviews of the time – (published in the Monthly Review, vol 126), which noted that ‘there is scarcely a large village or town in the kingdom, in which one or more than one person might not be found capable of writing verses quite as good as those of Miss Colling, if not a great deal better’. 

     That may be so, but from the standpoint of feminist reassessments of forgotten women’s literature of the past (and especially from a local point of view, those originating in Devon),  it is doubly brilliant that these inventive and eccentric poems have lasted the test of time AND that they were ‘saved’ for posterity due to the keen interest of another Devon woman writer (albeit partly due to her own condescension and self-benefiting reasons). And additionally, it is fascinating to consider, as the critic Odey suggests in her paper on Bray and Colling, that left to her own devices Mary Maria Colling’s writing may have developed in other directions than the fables which have defined her minor long-lasting inclusion in Devon’s women literary chronology. Apparently, in her original notebooks, Colling used a number of self-invented names (including Meary, Marianne, and Marinna) pre-empting a strategy of modernist women writers, suggesting that she viewed herself as having several different identities. The young poet may have preferred to write about biblical themes and abstractions and perhaps, without intervention from her persuasive mentor, might have gone on to pen other more sophisticated poems. But then, if so, these imagined 'preferable' poems would probably would not have been published. I guess we should be proud we can quote the name and place of origin and even maybe recite a few lines of our Devon maid-poet, whose eccentric lyrics, like Devon landscapes and people, are idiosyncratic and unique.  

    You reading this might complain I have not included more from the original poems as written by Mary Maria Colling. I'd love to write another post one day and take a look at them in more depth but meanwhile if you head over to Google books you can read the collection of Fables and Other Poems at leisure. And please feel free to say what you think of them in a post comment.
i As far as I am aware at the time of writing Obey’s fascinating paper is the only one that has been written about this forgotten Devon poet.
ii In her paper Obey reflects that Bray was perhaps fascinated with the similarity between her own past as woman who’d lost her significant male and identified with the situation of Mary Maria’s abandoned grandmother – seeing her granddaughter’s work as redemption of family tragedy.

Tavistock from path on old viaduct

Friday, 8 March 2019

The Crediton Quest - an Excerpt

The Crediton Quest

'The white crescent moon there up in the south, set within a plume of rosaceous sky high behind the moor, broods over the silhouette of the crepuscular grey and silvery tors. How many early missionaries exalting in the exact same sight tracked back and forwards on the tracks mazing across these western Wessex lands?'

See Excerpt 4 from

on the blog page 

Saturday, 2 March 2019

Mid-Devon; Spirit of Place & Plath & Pedler

North of North Tawton 

'This topographical heartland of Devon’s palimpsest of invisible and lost criss-crossing labyrinthine landscapes and texts happens also to be the focal point of several of Devon’s foremost and famous literary sites. North Tawton is a place of pilgrimage for writers seeking other famed writers, for it is where the literary couple Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath spent the last years of their marriage.'

See Extract 3 from 

on the Blog-page -

Near Roman road south of North Tawton

Friday, 1 March 2019

Territories of the Mind - an Excerpt

Pages from M. P. Willcocks, Wings of Desire

'In the first decades of the C20 acclaim for Mary Patricia (or M.P.) Willcocks almost equalled that for Thomas Hardy, the then God of Westcountry novelists. Willcocks’ early novels, The WinglessVictory and A Man of Genius were published over a hundred years ago, in 1907/1908. Willcocks went on to pen a variety of books, both fiction and non-fiction. In those days her novels frequently featured in local newspapers; stressing they were meant ‘to last’, reviewers commented on the outstanding writing. In Essays on Modern Novelists, published in 1910, W.L. Phelps, comments that ‘thousands of reverend pilgrims, on foot, on bicycle, and in automobile, are yearly following the tragic trails of Mr. Hardy’s heroines’.

See Extract 2 
 Writing Women on the Devon Land
on the blog-page
Landscapes of the Mind

Opening pages from M.P.Willcocks. Mary Queen of Scots

Thursday, 28 February 2019

The Canon - or Not? An Excerpt

'The recognised notion of the literary history of southwest England’s C19/early C20 texts is of a distinctly male lineage, and indeed even now the prevailing view is that the ‘Victorian manuscript of the Westcountry'[i] was written in the context of a patriarchal culture'.

Extract 1


Cover of Williamson's Tarka the Otter

Skipping Qs or Rs, but Spending Time down in Sampford Peverell - Looking for Mid-Devon's Literary Links with a King's Mother

Writing Women on the Devon Land

 A – Z of Devon Women Writers & Places

Sampford Peverell Church & Richmond House once home of Margaret Beaufort
Sampford Peverell Church & Richmond House
once home of Margaret Beaufort
Photo Julie Sampson

Skipping Qs or Rs, 
but Spending Time down in Sampford Peverell - 
Looking for Mid-Devon's Literary Links with a King's Mother

        For the first time, I'm a little stuck in this A-Z. If anyone out there knows about a link between a woman writer and a Devon parish beginning with Q or R (she should have been living in any period ending 1965 or so - the time period of Writing Women on the Devon Land), well please do get in touch. She may have lived in the parish, or have written about the place or indeed stayed there at some point. I may have to give up with Q (Queen's Nympton? ) but R might be possible - Rackenford, Romansleigh, Rose-Ash? 

Lady Margaret Beaufort
Unidentified painter [Public domain]

       So, given the above comments, I've decided to pass on to S parishes, for which there are many choices. This time round I'm going for Sampford Peverell, whose connections with Henry VII's mother Lady Margaret Beaufort Countess of Richmond and Derby make the village an intriguing place to look at, especially for those who are interested in Devon's lost literary links. Sampford Peverell's Society website has a useful page about Margaret and the village, which notes how she had the old rectory built for her own use.

       I posted a short fragment of fiction about Margaret Beaufort Countess of Richmond and Derby on my previous blog Re-Imagining the Queen's Mother some time ago. The piece eventually became part of Matroyshka, a fictional sequence written around various woman who wrote in Devon. This blog also contains Imagining Translation, a short poem based on Margaret's links with Sampford Peverell.

          Both poem and fiction fragment were very much based on facts about Lady Beaufort, who is known to have visited and stayed at the village in 1467 (see Sampford Peverell Society).Then, twenty years later in 1487, a couple of years after her son became king, his mother spent time down in Devon again. By now, with popular consent she was called 'My Lady, the King's Mother'. 

Plaque in Sampford Peverell about Margaret Beaufort and the church
       During this time, as a keen and avid reader and translator, Margaret may have been reading a then popular chivalric French romance, called Blanchardine and Eglantine.[See note2). She is said to have purchased a copy of the text from Caxton, then commissioned him to print and publish it in the vernacular, which he did, in 1489.

    The historical narrative assessment of this important royal woman tends to stress her political involvements, and work as patron of other literary texts, but Margaret Beaufort is an important literary woman in her own right. She's considered by academics to have been 'Renaissance England's first female translator' and/or the 'first English woman in print' (see note1) and her own translations of two religious treatises are now being recognised as significant contributions in their own right to the canon of English literature.

      Margaret's contribution to the translated text of Blanchardine and Eglantine was as sponsor and patron of Caxton, but I have wondered if she may have studied the original work in French and perhaps used it as a practice text for her own later translations. Of course it is only in my imagination that she was reading and working on that text when she was down in her Devon manor, but given the dates, it is feasible to picture her in the process of turning over the story in her imagination as a theme for fictional re-invention. 

Mother of the man whose ultimate future depended on the outcome of the turbulent events in the autumn of 1483, during one of those especially critical periods, when the outcome of events taking place in the Westcountry would unfold and ultimately impact disastrously on the whole country, Margaret had taken centre-stage, masterminding the whole plot of the western based Buckingham Rebellion against Richard III.The support she gained in 1483 from
Westcountry noble-men may have left her with a soft spot toward the region and its people. Perhaps the manor at Sampford Peverell and its nearby villages (including Uplowman, where Margaret arranged for the building of the church) became a place of refuge for Margaret). Given that she also stayed at one of her other manors along the Devon lanes, at Torrington, Devon seems to have been close to her heart.

Uplowman church
now thought to be 
Margaret Beaufort 
wife of Thomas Courtenay
13th Earl of Devon

    The county may also have held a special place for her because many of her ancestors were rooted in the county, although Margaret may not have remembered her aunt of the same name, for she had died when her niece was only 5. (Granddaughter of Edward III, the earlier Margaret Beaufort had married Thomas, 5th Earl of Courtenay during the early upheavals of the Wars of the Roses. An effigy in Colyton church is now thought to be that of Margaret Beaufort Courtenay, Lady Margaret Beaufort's aunt).

       As well as her literary pursuits, Beaufort's interest in Devon may have been associated with the turbulent vicissitudes of the pre-eminent Courtenay family, whose main residence at Tiverton castle was less than two miles west along the trackways from Sampford Peverell. In 1467, Edward IV conferred the rich Devon estates of Henry, the latest attainted Courtenay Earl, on Walter Blount, 1st Baron Mountjoy, who'd recently been appointed Lord High Treasurer. By November of the same year that the Beaufort couple made their visit to Sampford Peverell, Blount had married, as his second wife, Lady Anne Neville, Duchess of Buckingham, who through her first husband, Humphrey Stafford 1st Duke of Buckingham, became Margaret Beaufort's mother-in-law. Just coincidence maybe. The Staffords' journey and stay in their Sampford Manor during that time was perhaps connected with that of the newly married Blounts, who may have been down in Devon viewing their newly acquired lands. The women had more than their respective lands in common. Like her daughter in law Anne Neville was a book addict and known for her piety and advanced learning. In her will she left Margaret several texts: 'a book of English called Legenda Sanctorum, a book of French, called Luun, another book of French epistles and gospels and a primer with clasps of silver gilt covered with purple velvet'. (See The Cultural Patronage of Medieval Women.)

        In and not far from the village of Sampford Peverell, there are still sites that in the fifteenth century must have been stand-out places in the landscape, likely to have been places-to-visit by the royal entourage. Just up the hill from Richmond House to the north (near the site of the original village) was the (probable) castle, which had been built just over one hunded years before -

Sampford Peverell had a castle or at least a castellated mansion built about 1337 and referred to as Sampford Castle. Its exact location is unknown but earthworks north of Sampford Barton may be the remains of this structure. There is also some evidence of either a possible moat or fish ponds. (Sampford Peverell Society)
Looking toward possible site 
of Sampford Peverell castle from the village
It's not easy to work out which family owned the castle in the late fifteenth century - it having passed through several prestigious locals' hands (including Dinhams/Aisthorpes and Peverells), but given that at this time it was Margaret herself who had inherited the manor from John, Earl of Somerset, I can't help wondering if she may even have stayed there herself. And then there were the nearby religious establishments - the Halberton Augustinian priory (or College) along the track toward Tiverton, at Halberton and the also Augustinian Priory just east at Canonsleigh, which I wrote about in an earlier blog-post The Mystery of the Ancrene Wisse and the Canononnesses at Canonsleigh. I'd love at this blog-point to be able to establish a link between at least one of the prioresses of Canonsleigh and Lady Margaret, who was famed for her charitable deeds, her piety and commitment to daily religious observance, and believe there may be some kind of close connection as yet unrevealed. 

      There are tantalising hints, waiting for someone who can fathom out the necessary archival documents to tease out the lost links. For instance, Margaret's extended royal networks may link to at least two, possibly more, of the abbesses who were prioresses of the abbey which was in Burlescombe only a few miles east of Sampford Peverell. The three prioresses whose time at the priory coincided with the framing period just before and just after Margaret Beaufort's lifetime, were Margaret Beauchamp (1410-49), Joan Arundell (1449-1471) and Alice Parker (1471-1488). Although the only one of these who I am able to identify with certainty is Joan Arundell, each of these names indicate that the prioress concerned probably came from one of the distinctive families who were knitted into the very genealogical fabric of the C15.

      Margaret Beauchamp of Canonsleigh may have been the Margaret Beauchamp who is named on some online ancestral sites as daughter of Thomas Beauchamp, 12th Earl of Warwick and Margaret de Ferrers; given this Margaret Beauchamp's estimated birth date, circa 1376, she would have been the correct age to fit that of the prioress and try as I might (although there are several Margaret Beauchamps in this period), as yet I am not able to find any other who fits dates and other life-facts. It is said that this Margaret married a John Dudley and that following his death became a nun. But as yet that is all I am able to find about her, except that she comes from the heart of a well-known C15 female literary network and also hooks into the royal familial network during the Wars of the Roses - all facts which in light of her possible Devon connections and the possibility of literary associates - make her intriguing.

      In 1410, one of Margaret Beauchamp's sister in laws, Elizabeth Berkeley (first wife of Richard 13th Earl of Warwick,), ordered a translation of Boethius' De Consolation Philosophie, which was eventually printed in Tavistock, in Devon in 1525. Another of Margaret Beauchamp (the nun's) sister in laws, Richard's second wife Isabel le Despenser, who died in 1439, was also known as a literary patron; she commissioned John Lydgate to write Fifteen Joys of Our Lady. (See The Cultural Patronage of Medieval Women). Meanwhile. Elizabeth Despenser's daughter, who was nun Margaret's niece (and incidentally, just to confuse things even more, was one of the other woman also like her aunt, named Margaret Beauchamp), took up her maternal family habit and became literary patron; she is linked with Talbot's Book of Hours and is also said to have commissioned Lydgate's life of Guy of Warwick (See for example, Book Production in the Nobel Household). One of her husband John Talbot's sisters, Anne Talbot, married Hugh Courtenay 4th Earl of Devon; it was their son Thomas who married Lady Margaret Beaufort's aunt of the same name. Through Anne Beauchamp 16th Countess of Warwick, one of the daughters of her brother and his second wife Isabel le Despenser, Margaret Beauchamp, nun was great aunt of Anne Neville, Queen Consort of England, wife of Richard III. 

      I must repeat that I am not sure about Margaret Beauchamp of Canonsleigh's identity, but wonder if my hunch is correct and she was the nun-daughter of Thomas 12th Earl of Warwick. I hope any history buffs out there seeing this may be able to connect up the missing dots about this woman, who was prioress up until 1449, just after Lady Margaret Beaufort's birth.

      The next abbess, Joan Arundell, followed Margaret Beauchamp as prioress of Canonsleigh until her death in 1470/1. An interesting conjunction of events, for this was only three years after it is known that Lady Margaret Beaufort was staying at Sampford Peverell. If the various online ancestral trees are correct, then Joan Arundell was daughter of John Arundell who was Sheriff of Cornwall and Vice Admiral of England under Thomas Beaufort Duke of Exeter - who was Margaret Beaufort's great uncle. In his will of 1433 John Arundell left '20 marks to Joan my daughter at Camalye'.

Although from our contemporary perspective, Joan Arundell is on history's sidelines, during the turbulent years leading up to Henry VII's reign, men in her family and kin were often in the thick of the action. For example, the year before she died, in 1469, Humphrey Stafford, 1st Earl of Devon, one of the richest Westcountry landowners of the time, who was step-son of Joan's nephew John Arundell through Katherine Chideock, the latter's second wife, was executed by a local mob in Bridgwater. Stafford, a Yorkist, was from a cadet branch of the earls of Stafford and may have been in service for his distant cousin, son of Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. A couple of years before, Humphrey Earl of Devon had been appointed Keeper of Dartmoor and Constable of Bridgwater Castle and he'd instigated the execution of Henry Courtenay 7th Earl of Devon. Things went badly wrong for him after this during some altercation in one of the skirmishes of the ongoing war. That's when Stafford was put to death. (See details on Luminarium).

      Other men in Joan Arundell's close family link up with literary patronage - which suggests that the women of the family were similarly engaged with books, reading and translation. Her great niece Elizabeth Arundell (daughter of John Arundell and his second wife Katherine Chideock, married Giles Daubeney, whose father William Daubeney is said to have requested Caxton to print an early book about Charles the Great. I'm not sure of the year, but presumably as Daubeney died in 1461, this must have been during the time of Joan Arundell's time at the Devon priory. This contact provides a clue that connects to both Canonsleigh prioress and Margaret Beaufort's own literary activities. 

          Thomasine Arundell, who was another of Joan Arundell's great nieces, (she was another of John Arundell's daughters by Katherine Chideock, and sister of Elizabeth), married Sir Henry Marney; he was a member of Henry VII's privy council and in Lady Margaret Beaufort's household.

Alice Parker, the third Canonsleigh prioress who took over from Joan Arundell in 1471, is also interesting to consider in light of possible links with Lady Margaret Beaufort. I'm not totally sure of who she was, just like her predecessors she is now on the margins of history, but all the signs are that Alice was one of the Parker family who were Earls of Morley. The Parker/Morley genealogical network is not easy to trace and there are differing accounts of them online. But as far as I am able to make sense so far, Henry Parker, 10th Baron grew up in Margaret Beaufort's household and was known as a translator. He was son of Alice Lovell Parker, 9th Baroness of Morley and William Parker, who was standard bearer to Richard III. Alice's brother Henry Lovell, 8th Baron Morley married Elizabeth de la Pole, who was daughter of Elizabeth Plantaganet. The name Alice recurs through Parker family generations - one of them was Alice Lovell Parker's daughter. However, that is as far as I can get, because the dates as given do not fit that of the Canonsleigh prioress. Possibly Alice at Canonsleigh was one of the daughters from one of the earlier cadet branches, or alternatively, the estimated dates which are provided on the online sites are not correct. Hopefully one day someone will work out who Alice, prioress, was.

        I'm wading a little deep here with this cross-section of mid to late C15 aristocracy in terms of their possible literary and social links with the prioresses of Canonsleigh and/or Margaret Beaufort. I do not pretend to have discovered anything important, yet nor have I covered half of the possible networks of connection. It's surely just the tip of a lost literary iceberg. I'm just trying to lay out how, with a little perseverance, the story of Margaret Beaufort and Devon branches out into a welter of literary and historical possibility.

           Dedications and inscriptions found on a variety of printed books from this era indicate that books were passed on between sisters, from mothers to daughters or other sororal pairs and between women from extended kinship groups. It's not difficult to re-invent a scene in a shadowed solar chamber high up in the Devon manor house next to the church, where a group of women (along with other female kin) all at the top of the social hierarchy and all closely allied to the royal family, pour over one of their beloved books. The readers might occasionally glance up and out through the window with its tiny criss-crossed glass panes and gaze over the landscape panning out over the low-lying patchworked lands of the Culm valley, with its scrublands and sheep-grazed strip lands. No sign of the canal snaking quietly beneath the trees and through the meadows, where we, now, can step onto the towpath and walk for miles west or east admiring the natural tranquillity of the scene. No sign of the once presence of a woman who's left us with such a rich literary and historical legacy; though hidden in our past, she still surely hovers in the very ether of this place.

Looking toward Sampford Peverell church
from the canal.
See also: Imagining Translatiion
1. PATRICIA DEMERS Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme
Vol. 35, No. 4, Special issue / Numéro spécial : Women's Translations in Early Modern England and France / La traduction au féminin en France et en Angleterre (XVIe et XVIIe siècles) (FALL / AUTOMNE 2012), pp. 45-61
2. Thomas Penn, Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England, (Penguin, 2011), 311.