Thursday, 17 January 2013

Monarchy and Staffordshire-a 1000 year connection

Staffordshire’s connection with Royalty goes back over 1500 to the beginning of kingship in England. Saxon England before uniting under one Crown was divided into the petty kingdoms of Mercia, Northumberland and Wessex. Mercia was one of the most powerful states ruled by Offa who ruled from 757 to 796 over an area that included Staffordshire and Cheshire. His capital was Tamworth and such was his reputation that he was known as an able ruler throughout Europe. Offa minted his own currency and built the defensive system that kept the marauding Welsh at bay. The Staffordshire Hoard, some of which is exhibited in the City Museum in Hanley, dates from this time.

100 years after Offa’s time Staffordshire found itself on the front line following the invasion and settlement of Vikings. The northmen had established colonies to the North and East of the county. The great warrior Anglo-Saxon king Alfred beat the raiders armies and the torch of organising resistance passed to his formidable daughter Ethelfreda, one of the most capable women in English history. She took the fight to the Danes by building “burghs” or forts in Stafford and Derby. She pushed them back north and made peace with them in York in 918 where they recognised her supremacy.

The area did not take kindly to a new invader after 1066. Staffordshire rose in rebellion against William the Conqueror in 1069 and he came to Stafford to personally supervise the brutal repression of the uprising. Moorland communities suffered greatly and the chroniclers noted the punishment meted out to villages such as Longnor and the starving people.

Medieval Kings came to Staffordshire for two principal reasons en route to Wales and Chester to embark for Ireland of for pleasure to enjoy hunting. In the former category was one of the greatest Plantagenets the awesomely energetic Henry II who stayed in Chesterton in 1157 no doubt he will have seen the newly built castle in the town that took the name of the fortification. King John who gave Leek its market charter in 1207 liked the county for the chase and hunted in Kinver and Cannock Forests. There is no evidence to suggest that he visited the “Queen of the Moorlands”. Two inept monarchs who spent time in the county were Edward II who beat down a rebellion in a skirmish near Burton in 1322.Richard II who was lead a captive through the streets on Newcastle by his cousin the usurper Bolingbrook later to become Henry IV in 1399. Both men were later savagely murdered.

Staffordshire was involved at the beginning and the end of the Wars of the Roses. In 1459 at Bloreheath Queen Margaret of the mad Henry VI witnessed the route of his army by the Yorkists and fled Mucklestone Church as legend had it by getting a blacksmith to reverse her horseshoes to confuse any pursuers. In 1485 the army of the Welshman Henry Tudor passed through Staffordshire before meeting Richard III at Bosworth. The man who guaranteed Henry’s victory William Stanley lead his army through Newcastle drawing on retainers in Cheshire and Staffordshire legend has it that a knight from Rudyard, Ranulph killed Richard that fateful August date.

The Tudors rarely visited this part of the country one who did was Elizabeth who visited the county town in 1578. It was a very lavish affair and the Queen following representation from the town which was suffering a decline said that she would do all she could to protect the declining hat industry and ensure that a assize would be held in Stafford  “forever”. But the historical character of this period most closely associated with Staffordshire was the doomed Mary Stuart Queen of Scots who was held at two castles Tutbury and Chartley near Uttoxeter. The gaunt ruins still stand. It was from Chartley that Mary allowed herself to be drawn into the plot to assassinate her cousin Elizabeth. The coded messages from the plotters being passed in the false bottom of barrels of beer from Burton. As a consequence of her involvement in the conspiracy Mary was executed.

Elizabeth’s successor, son of Mary Stuart, James I it seems had little time for the county and is reputed to have damned the area as  “fit only to be cut into thongs to make highways for the rest of the country”. James was not in modern parlance a “hearts and minds” man and threatened to bare his backside once, impatient with displays at public adoration. Perhaps the feeling was mutual, as there was a strong Staffordshire connection in the “Gunpowder Plot”.

The county tended to side with Parliament in the Civil War the result of the stubbornness and vanity of the next monarch Charles I. After the king raised the standard to begin the war in 1642 in Nottingham travelling back through Uttoxeter. He seems to have been hated by many in the county. One battle was fought in the war at Hopton Heath near Stafford the following year. Two prominent men with strong Staffordshire connection determined Charles’s fate the judge at his trial in 1649 Bradshaw and the Newcastle born Thomas Harrison who signed the death warrant. Harrison suffered a gruesome fate on the restoration to the throne of Charles’s son Charles II. Harrison was butchered one January day in 1661.

Charles II had knowledge of Staffordshire as a consequence of fleeing the Battle of Worcester in 1651. He spent a few weeks on the run from parliamentary forces some of the time spent squeezing his over 6-foot frame in an oak at Boscobel. Royalists used to celebrate oak apple day in late May to commemorate Charles return to the throne. Charles recalled this event up to his dying day in 1685. He asked the Staffordshire priest from Boscobel, Huddlestone to convert him to Roman Catholicism.

Religion played a key role in the fate of monarch throughout the 17th and 18th century. The Protestant belief of George I ensured the success of the Germans from Hanover who replaced the Stuarts after 1714. The pottery from the developing industrial areas in North Staffs proclaimed the succession. But it was under threat and the area witnessed the final act in the religious struggles that had dogged the country for two hundred years. Charles Edward Stuart more popularly known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie” intended capturing the throne for his family and Roman Catholic faith. Initially he was successful and following his coronation in Edinburgh as Charles III marched south on a whirlwind campaign as cities and towns such as Lancaster, Manchester and Stockport fell to his Highland army. On December 3rd 1745 the battle hardened Scots arrived in Leek. Terrified townspeople cowered as the rebel army went on the rampage. After several hours they left to march towards Derby where realising the game was up as an army led by King George’s son William, Duke of Cumberland advanced to Stone. Realising that they risked being cut off from home they retreated. Cumberland’s forces arrived in Leek pursuing the Scots and were treated as liberators. Charlie and his army met their nemesis at the Battle of Culloden near Inverness in April 1746.

The focus shifts to a country experiencing the Industrial Revolution. Royal sons of George III spent three days in September 1806 staying at Trentham Hall visiting the new factories of Spode and Wedgwood. George Prince Regent and William Duke of Clarence were somewhat dissolute individuals obsessed with drink, women and gambling. In fact the more prudish non-conformists sorts of the district refused to meet the debauched pair. Mr Spode and Mr Wedgwood had fewer qualms. Prince Regent whilst at Etruria was interested in a modern piece of technology- a steam engine. They moved on a day later to Longport to inspect the Kinnersley Glass works. The appreciative locals were plied with free drink again annoying the Methodists. The two succeeded to the crown as George IV followed after his death in 1830 by Clarence who became William IV.

Victoria through her lone reign did not visit the North of the County. There is a story that as a child, in company with her mother the Duchess of Kent, she passed through Leek. She stayed at her Prime Minister Robert Peel house at Drayton in the 1840s and following his death unveiled an equestrian statute of beloved Albert in Wolverhampton in 1867.

It was once said that we have had three wastrel monarchs on the British throne Charles II, George IV and Edward VII. Charles had an interest in science, George in the arts and architecture whilst Edward was a good shot. History has not been kind to Victoria’s eldest son who was described by Rudyard Kipling as a “corpulent voluptuary” which probably explains why he never got a peerage. In between the strenuous round of country weekends games of baccarat and womanising Edward as Prince of Wales did visit Stoke taking time to open the Sutherland Institute in Longton in 1877.

His son’s reign was an eventful one. George V became King on the eve of the First World War. The model of kingship he took differed greatly from his father; George aimed for bourgeoisie respectability. He and his wife Queen Mary visited North Staffordshire frequently. In 1900 as the Duke of York he opened Leek Technical School. And two years after his Coronation he visited North Staffordshire on a two day visit in Appril 1913. He visited major pottery manufacturers in Stoke including an exhibition at the Kings Hall. But it was the visit he made in 1925 when he conferred City status on Stoke, which was the most profound. The visit was an eventful one with visits to lay a foundation stone at the Infirmary and a civic luncheon at the Town Hall.