West Yorkshire market town of Pontefract
Pontefract Local History




Of all the books written by J S Fletcher, When Charles the First Was King is probably the best known and most loved within this part of the world. However, it is not true to say that Fletcher's name as a writer was made following publication of this historic yarn. Neither was it Fletcher's first book as it is often assumed. Success came late in his career when Fletcher turned to writing detective fiction in what was an already crowded market. In time his reputation as a leading writer of the mystery genre became well established.

When Charles the First Was King is often said to be the novel with the most easily identifiable areas of any title by Fletcher. In the book the author decided to use real names and actual settings with vivid descriptions that enabled his readers to view the scenes in their mind's eye. In his usual manner, the descriptions of local settings are excellent, but to those with knowledge of the district and its history, this story of the Civil War period and the sieges of Pontefract Castle has a poignancy which is remembered long after the book has been returned to the shelf.

Of the Land I Live In - is the title of the opening chapter. It is an excellent introduction and one that is very useful even to those who are familiar with the district. From it, one receives an education in the detailed setting of the scenes that accompany the reader. Chapter one is clearly based on the author's profound knowledge of the area around Wentbridge, Smeaton and the Went Hills. It is a description that has probably remained almost unchanged from the time of the Civil War to the time when Fletcher himself lived there as a boy in the late 1880's and very little to this day.

In the opening chapter, Fletcher makes the point that the house and farmstead at Dales Fields in which Will Dale lives no longer exists. However, he hastens to add that the meadows on the top of Went Hill are to this day called Dale's Fields.

The reader is told by the writer...

If you will take your chart of Yorkshire and draw with your pen a straight line from Doncaster to Wakefield, from Wakefield to Wetherby, from Wetherby to York, from York to Goole, and from Goole to Doncaster again, you will have enclosed the tract of land of which I have spoken.

Fletcher is generous with Will Dale's narrative, giving him one whole chapter of introductory description, almost as if he were writing one of his many topographical pot-boilers. The narrative is more than he was to offer to any of his other characters in the books that were to follow. He pinpoints precisely the site of the farm house and where the building once stood in relation to landmarks that can still be easily identified.

Fletcher continues...

I have said that Dale's Fields stands at a good altitude, which is indeed a grateful truth. For standing at my door of a clear evening, and looking east and north-east, I can behold two great hills rising up near Selby, the one called Hambleton Haugh, the other Brayton Barugh, and beyond them the long nave and high tower of Selby Abbey....As for situation it lieth somewhat lonely....It stands on the left-hand side of the highway as you go from Doncaster to Ferrybridge, and is distant exactly one and a half miles from the cross roads at Darrington and about three-quarters of a mile from Wentbridge.

This romantic yarn romps along at a pace that would be the envy of any modern author. Fletcher spices the text to maintain interest with well known land marks such as Pontefract Marketplace and the Buttercross, Beastfair, Wentbridge, Smeaton and of course the woods of Brockadale.

The main theme of this tour de force surrounds the strife experienced between two feuding families, the Dale family of Dale's Fields and the Watson's of Castle Farm. This imposing dwelling with its crenellated facade can be seen today in the fields to the left side of the Stapleton to Smeaton road. A tract of flat land leading to Smeaton and its crags follows a direct line from behind the farm. It is across this featureless piece of land that the drama to settle the family disagreement is finally played out, the result of which is the avenging of the murder of Will Dale's father at the hands of evil men.

After a lengthy saga involving the turbulent Civil War years, family murder, deception and kidnap, Will Dale finally settles an old score with his arch enemy Rupert Watson, the patriarch of the rogue clan who has for so long plagued, terrorised and done bloody murder to the Dale family. Accompanied by his friend Ben, Will on the eve of his wedding, pursues the now blind old Rupert Watson on horse back from the gate of Castle Farm toward the precipitous limestone crags at Smeaton and the spectacular sheer drop to the valley below. The only problem being that Watson's old mount is also blind, as blind as its master.

“Will!”, said Ben, "Tis Rupert Watson! He hath risen from his bed - see, he hath his night clothes on - he hath come a-riding in his madness. A blind man riding! See,'tis the old grey horse he used to ride to market."

"And tis blind, too"....

We stood silent and breathless at the roadside until the ghostly pair were close upon us. Then we saw that it was indeed Rupert Watson, clad in his night-clothes, with his white hair and beard falling about his face, and his sightless eyes burning with a fierce light. I shut my eyes and shivered, for the sight was a terrible one-a blind man riding a blind horse...

...we found the blind horse and its blind, mad rider standing on the highest bit of road, with their heads turned across the land as if they could see....For before them in the moonlight stretched a long, level piece of moorland, nearly a mile across, with neither wood nor hedge to bar their progress, and at its furthest limit a great drop of a hundred feet over Smeaton Crag.

"A last ride, good Greyfoot !" he shouted. "A last ride together across the land. Let all the ghosts, and the dead men, and the devils of hell follow us. ON! on!"

Will Dale and his companion ride swiftly after farmer Watson in an attempt to stop him on his last wild ride over the fields. They head towards the crags calling after horse and rider to stop, until...

And suddenly they came to the smooth, broad surface of the crag, and beyond it the deep blackness of the valley, and beyond the village of Smeaton sleeping in the moonlight across the vale. The awful figure in front abated nothing of their speed, but were over the Crag like a flash of lightning and lost in the abyss below.

I pulled my own panting and suffering beast, and, drawing back near to the Crag, laid myself along the ground and looked over. Far beneath me lay the gray horse and its rider, and beyond them the tiny Went ran babbling by with the moonbeams dancing on the rippling waters.

Thus came Rupert Watson to his end.

The purists amongst Fletcher collectors may be interested to know something of the background development behind When Charles the First was King. For many years Fletcher had nurtured the story in the back of his mind. On the dedication page of the first single edition, published by Gay and Bird in 1894 he wrote this lengthy address:-


It gives me the most sincere pleasure to ask your acceptance of this book. No small part of its contents was conceived and put into shape at your own house, and you, I believe, were the first person to see it in print in its original form. Now that it has attained whatever glory there may be in a popular edition, I feel that I may venture to associate your name with it. You at any rate, being a Yorkshireman, will readily understand the feelings which prompted me to revive some legends of that particular bit of Yorkshire in which we are both more especially interested. I only wish that it had been within my power to make this romance of Osgoldcross and of my own village more worthy of this corner of historic England. But that is impossible-no pen can do justice to the woods and meadows which stretch from your windows along the Vale of Went, nor to the old-world traditions that still cling to them. All that any man can do is to love them-and there you and I are at one. This book, then, is a tribute to Osgoldcross, and a pledge to my affection for you and yours.
I am, my dear Kaberry
Always yours sincerely,

Sept.14, 1894.

The Hollies is a magnificent Victorian redbrick house standing on the left side of the road half way between Carleton Green and the railway bridge. It has, I feel, a place of distinction in Pontefract history as the house were probably the most famous of our local novels was first discussed and finally planned.

Mystery and J S. Fletcher appear to go hand in glove, not only in the books that he wrote but in his personal life and publishing history. It is interesting to note that Fletcher's most famous historical romance was first published in serial form between 1891 and 1892. It appeared in The Month, a catholic periodical of the day. The title of the serialised publication was The Scythe and the Sword - A Romance of Osgoldcross, becoming better known one year later as When Charles the First Was King.

Messrs Richard Bentley - publishers in Ordinary to Her Majesty the Queen had paid £25.00 for the sole rights for one year, with a further £25.00 payable if the whole edition was sold out "in ordinary course". For some reason Bentleys objected to the original title and suggested the book should be renamed for publication. It first appeared under its new title in three volume form in 1892 and was probably one of the last Victorian three decker novels ever to be published. Only five hundred copies of the first run were printed and it received flattering reviews. Whether a good thing or bad, Fletcher was likened by the literary critics to R D Blackmore and the book was dubbed "The Lorna Doone of the North".

There are interesting similarities in both of these regional novels that are worthy of closer study. Each book features a fierce feud between two rival families. Both are written in part in the difficult dialects of the counties of Yorkshire and Devon. The authors make it clear in which sovereign reign the books are set. Civil strife plays a prominent role in When Charles the First was King, whereas Blackmore's period of crown rule is that of Charles the Second and James the First. The stories are told in the first person by two farming sons who grow from boyhood into manhood, fight for the justice of their family, their King, marry and eventually settle down in more peaceful times.

One of the most interesting comparisons are the geographical settings and historical detailing. On the one hand we have the beautiful, pastoral Went Valley in the Wapentake of Osgoldcross, and on the other, the equally lovely but rugged Doone Valley of Exmoor, both stories taking place in these rustic surroundings. Fletcher and Blackmore take pride in describing the rural locations, overtly taken from their love of the area as well as their own profound political and historical knowledge of the times.

At the start of When Charles the first was King, Will Dale's father is murdered one dark night on the lonely stretch of road between Ferrybridge and Darrington, shot by the Watson's whilst riding home from York. At the beginning of Lorna Doone, Jan Ridd's father is shot by the Doone’s when returning home from Porlock Market, and thus in both stories the stage is set for a long and bitter family dispute. Essentially, this takes place between Will Dale and Dennis Watson, John (Jan) Ridd and Carver Doone. In each book there is the all too familiar backdrop of national unrest. In the reign of Charles the First, Fletcher recalls the English Civil War and the battle of Marston Moor in 1644, this being a major turning point in the battle between the crown and parliament. Whilst in the reign of James the First, Blackmore records the Monmouth Rebellion and the Battle of Sedgemoor fought in 1685, the last battle ever to be fought on English soil.

Fletcher always enjoyed creating young strong females for his novels. Here we have Rose Lisle and although he did not use her name as the eponymous heroin for the title, as does Blackmore in Lorna Doone, both are the main catalyst to the story and the overall calming influence on the two hot-headed males. The first meetings between the couples are similar, Will Dale falls from a tree in the Went Valley, Jan Ridd tumbles whilst climbing a waterfall in the Doone Valley, both youths are comforted by the dulcet tones of the girl they are to eventually marry.

The similarities in the two books echo throughout the pages. The times are highly charged politically. Will Dale becomes embroiled in the Civil War and finally comes face to face with Oliver Cromwell. Jan Ridd encounters the notorious 'hanging' Judge Jeffreys who presided over the 'Bloody Assizes' following the defeat of the Duke of Monmouth at Sedgemoor.

There are comparisons too in the publishing history of the books. As with Fletcher's novel, the first edition of Blackmore's book also had a small print run of 500 copies, appearing anonymously in 1869 also as a three-Decker novel. Whereas, When Charles the First was King, sold out quickly within the first year, Lorna Doone only had three hundred sales.

Each book has a highwayman; Fletcher creates the likeable Philip 'Black Phil' Lisle, father of Rose, whilst Blackmore introduces his readers to Tom Faggus. They are rascals who become respectable citizens and fight for the King at Marston Moor and Sedgemoor respectively. Both characters are finally "killed off" by their creators.

As aforementioned, Fletcher describes the pursuit of Rupert Watson by Will Dale who after all he has done to the Dale family, attempts to save his enemy from certain death. And so it is with Jan Ridd, who, following a chase across Exmoor after Carver Doone shoots Lorna at their wedding, tries to save his life as he perishes finally in a bog.

However, it is in the closing paragraphs that bear the closest similarities, Will Dale writes of his wife’s virtues...

And now for myself and my dear, dear wife, whom truly I believe to have grown in every grace and virtue as the years have gone by... The years have come and gone, and every day she has grown dearer, and, as I think, more beautiful.

Whereas, Jan Ridd finishes with the following epitaph...

Of Lorna, of my lifelong darling, of my more and more loved wife, I will not talk; for it is not seemly, that a man should exalt his pride. Year by year, her beauty grows, with the growth of goodness, kindness, and true happiness - above all with loving.

Plagiarism was rife amongst authors of this era, more so than today. Fletcher may have been influenced by Blackmore's book and maybe even Thomas Hardy's - The Trumpet Major when he wrote his Civil War book, but this tenuous link between the Yorkshire author and the Wessex novelist is a story yet to be told.

Roger Ellis

When Charles the First Was King by Roger Ellis was published in the Digest Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 3, September 2007.


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