The Addiction Of Non-Fiction – the pitfalls of writing history….

I’m doing quite a lot of work at the moment on a non-fiction book, a biography of Sir John Arundell, “Jack For The King” – the man who held Pendennis Castle for the King, aged 70, against everything Thomas Fairfax and the Army of Parliament could throw at him.
He’s an absolutely fascinating chap, and the main thing I’m discovering is that there’s an awful lot of rubbish written about him.

As an instance: one source has him down as having five sons, three of whom died young in the service of the King.
Another one has him down as having four.
A contemporary sexton’s account has one of John’s sons as an ensign who died at the battle of Windmill Hill, in Launceston, in 1643, and being buried there.
One of his sons turns up recorded as a brother in some accounts.

And all of that’s interesting – it’s fascinating – to unpick, but the problem is that when I’m not unpicking the tortuous genealogy of the Trerice Arundells, I’m a novelist.

So okay. I’m assuming, if you read my blog, you either read or write historical fiction, so I’ll give you a scenario.

Three members of a family die within eight weeks, one long summer: a mother, a son and a daughter.
Plague is reported in neighbouring parish records, but mortality bills aren’t kept in the parish where they’re buried.
Father is away at the time with two of his other sons, about twenty miles away in a castle under siege.

Now you could extrapolate a number of things from that. You could interpret it to mean that one son hadn’t gone with his father and his brothers to the castle’s defence, and that perhaps the family were intending to not put all their eggs in one basket, leaving at least one of the male line on the family estate to make sure that no roving Roundheads settled themselves there while all the handy Arundells were locked up inside Pendennis keep.
You could interpret it that all three died of the epidemic that we know was rife in the locality (although we don’t know what it was.)
You could interpret that after burying her eldest son and her daughter in the space of a month, unsupported by her husband and her other sons, worn out by war and worry – Mrs Arundell died quietly two weeks after her firstborn.

You could, and a novelist probably would, and a historian can’t.

It’s interesting to try and keep a narrative in your head when you’re writing a biography, but it’s also tempting to attribute thoughts and feelings to the people in it. (We assume that Mrs Arundell loved her husband and her children, and that their absence, and loss, would have grieved her. We don’t know it, because we have no evidence to support it: none of their correspondence survives. Although the fact of six children implies a degree of familial affection, doesn’t it?And again, with my novelists’s head on, I interpret a lack of correspondence to mean that he didn’t spend prolonged periods of time away from her, if he could help it.)

It’s out there. The information that’s going to make up a coherent whole is out there. It’s just piecemeal, and the trick is to find the pieces that are in the original jigsaw, and not the pieces that have been put in two hundred years later by someone with an agenda of their own. And I know what the picture looks like.
At the moment, it’s as if someone’s jumbled up two or three separate jigsaws, all equally interesting. (Little brother Thomas. And that’s all I’m going to say. Little brother Thomas deserves a monograph of his own, if only to blow a particular persistent myth about the Civil War in Cornwall right out of the water…)

I think I’ve got the corners. I think I’ve got eight corners, actually – John and little brother Thomas – and that’s all right, because let’s just say that you’re not going to mistake one for another in their particular avenues of activity during the 1640s.

Thomas’s picture is significantly different than John’s, and that’s going to make things easier, too.
But for now, it’s back to looking for straight edges.

Goring. Distinctly not boring.

Well. What a marvellous, wicked, wanton, dissolute, all-round menace of a caricature Cavalier he was, and now here he is, turning up in Fairfax’s South-Western campaign of 1645 just in time for me to make sport with him.

(An aside – he might have been a most rascally Royalist type, but there’s something strangely appealing about him…)

His early days should have tipped Charles Stuart off to the fact that he was a little bit fly.Lord Goring was a courtesy title only – probably more courteous, and possibly less well deserved, than “Take your hands off there sir!” Goring – as he was the son of the first Earl of Norwich. He had an enigmatic limp gained in his soldiering service at Breda, in the Low Countries . He had a reputation, to quote Clarendon, as a man who “would, without hesitation, have broken any trust, or done any act of treachery to have satisfied an ordinary passion or appetite; and in truth wanted nothing but industry (for he had wit, and courage, and understanding and ambition, uncontrolled by any fear of God or man) to have been as eminent and successful in the highest attempt of wickedness as any man in the age he lived in or before. Of all his qualifications dissimulation was his masterpiece; in which he so much excelled, that men were not ordinarily ashamed, or out of countenance, with being deceived but twice by him.

Officers stationed in York in 1641 proposed to petition the king and parliament for the maintenance of the royal authority. A second faction was in favour of more violent measures, and Goring, in the hope of being appointed lieutenant-general, proposed to march the army on London during the trial of the Earl of Strafford in 1641. This proposition not unreasonably being rejected by his fellow-officers, he dropped them nicely in it by betraying the plot in April 1641. (A nice example of taking one’s ball and going home.) As a result, he was called to give evidence before the Commons, who commended him for his services to the Commonwealth. Having been commended, he promptly declared for the King in August.

Now, this is where it gets whizzy. Appointed Governor of Portsmouth by people who should have known better, he surrendered the port to the besieging Army of Parliament in September 1642, and scuttled off to the Netherlands for a spot of light recruiting. (And, one assumes, a little light recreational drinking and whoring.) In December that year he returns, after what success is not recorded, and then some fool – oh! that will be the Earl of Newcastle! – appoints him to a cavalry command. He defeats Fairfax at Seacroft Moor, in one of his occasional flashes of brilliance, in March 1643, and then cocks it all up again in Wakefield two months later and is taken prisoner by Fairfax in an attack on the town. April 1644, he effects an exchange, and then – this is the man who’s handed over Portsmouth and then lost Wakefield, remember – some numpty gives him charge of the Royalist left flank at Marston Moor. Which commission he carries out initially with great success…. and then allows his troops to scatter in search of plunder. I am delighted to relate that Oliver Cromwell took full advantage of this shocking want of discipline and gave him a right pasting.

In August Rupert dispatched him to the south of England to serve as  as lieutenant-general of the Royalist horse. (God alone knows what Rupert was thinking.) His campaign in the south-west was so vicious that he and his men were cordially loathed by the local residents to the extent that after the battle of Langport in July 1645 the local Clubmen massacred as many fleeing Royalists they could lay hands to in revenge for the Royalist depradations. Which rather makes you wonder about the calibre of officers he attracted…. great minds thinking alike and all.

He made no further serious resistance to the parliamentary general, but wasted his time in frivolous amusements. In November 1645 he obtained leave to quit his disorganised forces and retire to France on the ground of health – possibly the threat to his own of his comrades being so sick and tired of his wanton viciousness, debauchery, and general excessive cavalier-ishness that they might have considered knocking him on the head.

There he is, ladies and gentlemen, Lord George Goring. I couldn’t have invented him if I’d wanted to.