WHEN CHARLES THE FIRST WAS KING
THE LORNA DOONE OF THE NORTH
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
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.
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
"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
I. KABERRY, Esq.,
OF THE HOLLIES, CARLETON, PONTEFRACT
MY DEAR KABERRY,
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,
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
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
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
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.
||When Charles the First Was King by
Roger Ellis was published in the Digest Magazine, Volume 1,
Issue 3, September 2007.