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Half-a-dozen kings and queens we never had

These days, the succession to the throne is a fairly straightforward business. It wasn’t always the case, however, and English history is littered with those who, had events taken a slightly different term, could have got to wear the crown. They are the might-have-beens of our history, and here are six of the best-known…

William Adelin (1103-1120) – would have been an alternative King William III
The youngest son of William the Conqueror, King Henry I had acted quickly to grab the throne for himself when his brother, William Rufus, was murdered in the New Forest in 1100. Henry fathered many sons, but only one of them was by his wife, Matilda of Scotland. It was in this 12th century Prince William that the hopes of England’s Norman dynasty lay. Referred to as ‘Adelin’ (a corruption of ‘Aetheling’, the Anglo-Saxon term for the heir to the King) and rex designatus (king-designate), William was proclaimed Duke of Normandy but held the title in name only, although after his mother’s death in 1118 William acted as regent during his father’s absences from England. However, he died – along with at least two of his illegitimate half-siblings and much of the Anglo-Norman nobility – in the White Ship sinking of 1120. A direct consequence of this tragedy was a succession crisis which plagued the rest of Henry’s reign, resulting in the Anarchy, a 19-year civil war in which William’s sister Matilda and their cousin Stephen – who was meant to have travelled on the White Ship but did not due to illness – fought for control of England.

Empress Matilda, Lady of the English (1102-1167) – would have been Queen Matilda I
The daughter of Henry I, Matilda (also known as Maud) had been married off to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V but was a widow by the time she was 23. After her brother’s death (see above), she was proclaimed as the heir to the throne but this was unpopular with the Anglo-Norman nobility; when her father died in 1135 her cousin was crowned as King Stephen. Backed by her (second) husband Geoffrey of Anjou and her illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester, Matilda tried to take the throne for herself in that long period of civil war known to history as the Anarchy. The closest she got was in 1141 when her forces captured Stephen; she entered London but was not crowned because of bitter opposition from the local populace. She then had to free Stephen in exchange for Robert (who had also been captured), and by the following winter Stephen had her trapped in Oxford Castle; she escaped over the frozen River Isis. Subsequently, a stalemate ensued with Matilda’s forces in control of the south-west of England while Stephen controlled the south-east and the midlands, although much of the country was in the hands of local barons who were happy to take whatever advantage they could get. Eventually, Matilda’s son Henry took over the fighting and by 1153 had negotiated a peace deal with Stephen; when the latter died, the former succeeded to the throne as King Henry II.

Louis of France (1187-1226) – would have been King Louis (or perhaps Lewis) I
The son of King Philip II of France, Louis fought against King John (his uncle on his mother’s side) in the latter’s unsuccessful attempt to recapture Normandy in 1214. When John tried to renege on the Magna Carta, the English barons offered Louis the throne; in May 1216 he landed in Kent, entered London with little resistance and was proclaimed (but not crowned) as King. He soon had control of over half of England, but when John died in October most of the barons deserted Louis in favour of John’s nine-year-old son, Henry III. Louis was defeated by Henry’s regent, William Marshal, at the battle of Lincoln in May 1217, and he was subsequently forced to make peace, a condition being that he had to agree that he had never been the legitimate King of England. In 1223, though, he did become King Louis VIII of France.

Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales (1330-1376) – would have been an alternative King Edward IV
Known to history as the Black Prince, the eldest son of Edward III was an exceptional military leader in an age when prowess on the battlefield went hand-in-hand with effective kingship. It was he who defeated the French as the battles of Crecy and Poitiers, key English victories in what would become known as the Hundred Years War. He was also the first Prince of Wales to have used an emblem consisting of three white ostrich feathers; this heraldic device, which he is believed to have inherited from his mother’s family, was used as his ‘shield for peace’ – the one he used for jousting. He died one year before his father; the throne passed to his son Richard who was just nine years old at the time and who would eventually be overthrown by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who became King Henry IV. Somewhat ironically, the Black Prince and Henry are buried yards from each other in Canterbury Cathedral.

James Scott, Duke of Monmouth (1649-1685) – would have been James III of England and James VIII of Scotland
The oldest of Charles II’s illegitimate sons, Monmouth claimed that his father had actually been married to his mother, Lucy Walter – a claim that Charles always denied. This claim, though, made Monmouth a factor in various schemes to have Charles’s brother, the Duke of York, excluded from the line of succession for being a Catholic; as a result of this, Charles had Monmouth exiled. When his uncle became King James II in 1685, Monmouth – Protestant, popular and an experienced military commander – landed in Dorset in an attempt to capture the throne. His makeshift force was no match for the regular army, though, and he was defeated at the battle of Sedgemoor by John Churchill (the future Duke of Marlborough). Subsequently, Monmouth was captured in Hampshire and executed on Tower Hill; it is said that the executioner, Jack Ketch, botched the deed to the extent that the Duke was still alive after two or three chops with the axe, and the job eventually had to be finished with a knife. It is also said that, following this, someone realised that no-one had done an official portrait of the Duke, so his head was sewn back onto his body. Curiously, many years later a descendant of his claimed to have found documentary proof that Charles II and Lucy Walter had been married; apparently he presented this to Queen Victoria, who burned it.

Sophia, Electress of Hanover (1630-1714) – would have been Queen Sophia I
In 1700, the only surviving son of Princess Anne, sister-in-law and heir of William III, died. With William a widower who was unlikely to remarry and Anne having recently miscarried for the twelfth time, an undoing of the Glorious Revolution loomed, prompting Parliament to pass the Act of Settlement which ensured that the crown could not pass to a Catholic. The closest Protestant relative, and therefore the presumptive heir, was Sophia, a granddaughter of James I; she was the daughter of Elizabeth of Bohemia (the ‘Winter Queen’) and had married the Elector of Hanover. She was a 71 year-old widow at the time of the Act of Settlement but she did have five living children and three legitimate grandchildren, so the question of the survival of the royal line wasn’t an issue. Thus was it decreed that after the deaths of William and Anne, the crown would pass to Sophia and her descendants. Although much older than Anne (who became Queen in 1702), Sophia enjoyed considerably better health; she was keen to move to London but Anne – acting out of suspicion, jealousy or both – opposed this. In the event, Sophia died in Hanover in 1714 after collapsing while running to take shelter from the rain. Anne herself died a month later, and the crown passed to Sophia’s son George, the first of the Hanoverians.


Some royal trivia

Following on from my musings about The Crown, here are some interesting facts about the British royal family. If you’ve ever wondered about their surname, the Queen’s full title or how the line of succession works, wonder no further…

Is it the House of Windsor, or Mountbatten-Windsor?

The official name of the British royal family is Windsor and has been since 1917, when George V changed the name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor because of anti-German sentiment in Britain and the Empire during the First World War (this had become increasingly problematic after the Germans had developed a twin-engined bomber called the Gotha G.IV which was capable of crossing the Channel and therefore bombing London). ‘Windsor’ was chosen because of that name’s long association with the monarchy.

The Mountbatten complication arose in 1952 when Elizabeth II succeeded to the throne, leading to questions about whether her children would use their father’s surname. By birth, Prince Philip had been a member of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glucksburg (which provided the royal families of Denmark and Greece, hence his nickname ‘Phil the Greek’) but when he took British citizenship in 1947 he abandoned his foreign titles and took the surname Mountbatten, which was that of his mother's family (his mother was the daughter of Prince Louis of Battenburg, who had relinquished his own German titles and changed his name to the more English-sounding Mountbatten in 1917). While the idea of changing the royal family’s name to the House of Mountbatten (or Mountbatten-Windsor) was obviously supported by Prince Philip’s uncle, Lord Mountbatten, it was opposed by (among others) the Queen Mother and the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

In 1952 it was declared that the royal family would continue to be called the House of Windsor, but a 1960 declaration states that descendants of the Queen and Prince Philip can use the surname Mountbatten-Windsor if they want to. Surname usage among the Queen’s children and grandchildren varies. Princes Charles and Andrew were both referred to as ‘Lieutenant Windsor’ when they served in the Royal Navy, while Prince Edward has styled himself as ‘Edward Windsor’ for his TV work and his daughter, who does not have a royal title or a peerage, is called Lady Louise Windsor. Princess Anne and Prince Andrew both entered the name ‘Mountbatten-Windsor’ in official marriage register entries, while Prince William was referred to as ‘William Arthur Philip Louis Mountbatten-Windsor’ by the French courts during a lawsuit against a magazine that had published topless photographs of his wife. Meanwhile, Princes William and Harry have both used the surname ‘Wales’ while Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie have both used the surname ‘York’, referring to their fathers’ titles.

The Queen’s full title

“Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith”

This varies slightly in the “other Realms” of which she is head of state, and in Canada it is of course given in French as well. The Queen’s title is partly reiterated in the lettering on our coins – D.G.REG.F.D. stands for Dei Gratia Regina Fidei Defensatrix, which is Latin for ‘By the Grace of God, Queen and Defender of the Faith’.

‘Defender of the Faith’ dates back to the 16th century. In 1521, Henry VIII was granted this title by the Pope in recognition of his opposition to the ideas of Martin Luther. He wasn’t the only one; his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was also a Defender of the Faith as were two Kings of Scotland, James IV and James V. The Pope revoked Henry’s title in 1530 following the break with Rome, however in 1544 Parliament voted to give Henry the title as a defender of the new Anglican faith. It’s in this sense that it has been passed onto his successors.

‘Head of the Commonwealth’ is more recent – it was created for George VI in 1950. Before this, the Commonwealth was a group of countries which all had the same monarch, but this changed when India wished to become a republic but remain a member. The solution was to give the monarch a new title. Today, most Commonwealth member-states are republics; there are 31 of them, along with 16 Commonwealth Realms – the ones which have the Queen as their head of state – and five more that have their own monarchies.

The line of succession 

Succession to the British throne is determined by legitimacy, religion and descent. The rules as they now stand date back to the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Act of Settlement (1701). Succession is limited to those who are who are born within wedlock, in communion with the Church of England (ie. not of the Roman Catholic faith) and descended from Sophia, Electress of Hanover (1630-1714; more on her in a later post). The rules are the same in each of the 16 Commonwealth Realms – they have to be, in order for them all to have the same monarch. In 2011 the Prime Ministers of the Realms decided on some changes to the rules of succession, and the changes – which in this country fall under the Succession to the Crown Act 2013 – became law last year; specifically, the rule which disqualified anyone who married a Roman Catholic was got rid of, as was the the male-preference primogeniture requirement (ie. boys before girls, regardless of who was born first) for anyone born after the rule-change.

At the time of writing, and limiting it to the descendants of HM Queen Elizabeth II, the line of succession is as follows:
1.       HRH Prince Charles (68), eldest son
2.       HRH Prince William (34), grandson
3.       HRH Prince George (3), great-grandson
4.       HRH Princess Charlotte (1), great-grand-daughter
5.       HRH Prince Harry (32), grandson
6.       HRH Prince Andrew (56), son
7.       HRH Princess Beatrice (28), grand-daughter
8.       HRH Princess Eugenie (26), grand-daughter
9.       HRH Prince Edward (52), son
10.   James, Viscount Severn (8), grandson
11.   Lady Louise Windsor (13), grand-daughter
12.   HRH Princess Anne (66), daughter
13.   Peter Phillips (39), grandson
14.   Savannah Phillips (6), great-grand-daughter
15.   Isla Phillips (4), great-grand-daughter    
16.   Zara Tindall (35), grand-daughter
17.   Mia Tindall (2), great-grand-daughter

The line continues through the descendants of the Queen’s late sister, Princess Margaret, and then to the eligible descendants of their father’s siblings, followed by the eligible descendants of previous monarchs. No complete line of succession is maintained so the exact position of those who are far down the list is uncertain. An unofficial list compiled in 2011 contains the names of 5,753 living and eligible descendants of the Electress Sophia; in this, Prince Philip – the oldest living great-great-grandchild of Queen Victoria – is 679th in line to his wife’s throne.


Historical accuracy and The Crown (with particular emphasis on Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden)

(Warning: contains spoilers)

I’ve really been enjoying the new Netflix drama The Crown which depicts the early part of the Queen’s reign, looking in particular at relations within the royal family as well as with the government. The show’s writer, Peter Morgan, has previous experience of exploring what goes on behind royal closed dooers with his take on the relationship between the Queen and her Prime Ministers in his play The Audience; as the titular weekly meetings (‘audiences’) between HM and PM are confidential a good writer like Morgan has plenty of scope to imagine what was said in the light of what the historical record tells us happened. The same can be said of what members of the royal family said to each other, and what Morgan has produced in The Crown is a dramatisation that tends, for the most part, to stick with what really happened. Historical accuracy is the key – most of the time, anyway.

I like the way Winston Churchill is depicted. By the time of his second ministry (1951-55), Churchill was very much a leader in decline – “like an aeroplane at the end of its flight, in the dusk, with the petrol running out, looking for a safe landing” was how the man himself, who became Prime Minister for the second time just over a month short of his 77th birthday, put it. It’s rather interesting to see this part of his life dramatised as it usually gets overlooked in favour of his ‘wilderness’ period in the 1930s or, of course, the War – and the elderly, stooping Churchill dealing with a young Queen is a role that John Lithgow plays to perfection.

Anthony Eden, by contrast, tends to be overlooked unless the focus is on Prime Ministerial failures; he is certainly not the only one who waited for years before he got the top job and was unable to make a success of it when he finally did. He was, as shown in The Crown, an ill man; as Prime Minister, he was on a variety of prescription drugs including amphetamines and barbiturates – which may have accounted for his poor judgement, especially over the Suez crisis which defined and destroyed his premiership (this series of The Crown ends the year before Suez, and I am not so sure if Eden’s portrayal in The Audience gives us many clues as to how this will play out in The Crown because his evasions when confronted by the Queen in The Audience served mainly as an historical precursor to Tony Blair and Iraq – plus ca change, and all that).

Eden was recovering from surgery – a botched intestinal operation meant that he had to have two more – at the time when Churchill suffered a stroke in June 1953. The stroke was not public knowledge at the time. The Crown shows the Queen being kept in the dark about the incapacity of both her Prime Minister and his deputy in the summer following the Coronation. She probably was, although I did pick up a hint in a biography of Churchill (the Roy Jenkins one) that Sir Alan ‘Tommy’ Lascelles, HM’s private secretary who is depicted in the show as some sort of dark force behind the throne, was in on the secret as were at least three press barons who ensured that this was one story that stayed out of the papers. It is, though, an exaggeration to say that the government was totally rudderless at the time, for the Chancellor, R.A. Butler, acted as the head of government between June and August with no problems, just as he had done when both Churchill and Eden were out of the country at the same time the previous year. 

Did Churchill really postpone the Coronation just so he could cling to power? This is made explicit in The Crown, as it was in The Audience. The argument he actually used against having it in 1952 was that the country could barely afford it, and if you look at the historical record you’ll find that it’s not unusual for a British monarch to wait over a year before being crowned. Queen Victoria had waited 13 months, Edward VII 19 months (although that one did have to be postponed for six weeks after he was taken ill) and George V 13 months. The Queen’s father, George VI, was crowned after just five months but that was an exception – his coronation had originally been intended to be that of his brother, Edward VIII (who, had he chosen his duty over Mrs Simpson, would have been crowned after 14 months). A 14-month wait between accession and coronation would not, in this light, be an aberration. 

That said, Churchill did have a limpet-like approach to staying in Downing Street from 1952 onwards, which makes it likely that he saw the succession of the Queen as a reason not to step down as soon as he might otherwise have done (the King had been considering persuading him to retire before he died). Indeed, a notable feature of Churchill’s second ministry was how he was always finding reasons to stay on a few more months, much to Eden’s frustration – as well as the prospect of working with a new monarch and the prestige that went with helping to usher in the start of the new Elizabethan age, there was the prospect of dealing with a new US President (Eisenhower took office in January 1953) and an ultimately unrealised dream of having a summit with the Soviet Union’s post-Stalin leadership in the hope of ending the Cold War, or at least reducing the tensions somewhat. He had a bit of luck, too, for had Eden been in good health when Churchill had his stroke there’s little doubt that Eden would have become PM in the summer of 1953.

Then, near the end, there was his eightieth birthday in November 1954 – he was only the third person to serve as PM while an octogenarian (the others were Palmerston and Gladstone) – and the unveiling of the controversial full-length Sutherland portrait. Here, The Crown is spot-on. Lady Churchill (her husband had been knighted in 1953) rather liked the artist, but Churchill detested the final result and wanted the presentation ceremony – the portrait was a gift to him from both Houses of Parliament – to go ahead without it. In the event, though, the ceremony went ahead as planned and was even televised; the best Churchill could say of the portrait was that it was “a remarkable example of modern art”. Opinion about the portrait was divided, although tellingly people who disliked Churchill (such as Aneurin Bevan) tended to like it while admirers (Lord Hailsham, for example) did not. The idea had been that the portrait was meant to hang in Parliament after Churchill’s death, but as it had been a personal gift he took it to Chartwell, where Lady Churchill had it destroyed; it was by no means the only portrait of her husband that met this fate. Churchill finally stepped down as PM in April 1955, just over five months after he turned 80.

There are two points at which the narrative of The Crown diverges significantly from what really happened. Chronologically, the first is the political crisis that developed during the Great Smog of ’52, an exaggeration on Morgan’s behalf. There was little or no panic at the time; London was well-known for its poor air quality and the occasional ‘pea-souper’ (also known as a ‘London particular’), which occurred when certain weather conditions caused fog to combine lethally with the coal smoke that emanated from power-stations and thousands of domestic fireplaces. The December 1952 one was without doubt the worst, lasting longer than usual (five days) and claiming many lives – at the time, they estimated that 4,000 had died but later research puts the figure at closer to 12,000 (this would lead to the Clean Air Act four years later). There was little criticism of the government at the time, with most of the media focus being on the effects of the smog. Churchill did not lose a secretary in a collision with a bus (most public transport was suspended due to very poor visibility), and Venetia Scott is in any case a fictional character (one of few such characters in The Crown; incidentally, the actress who plays her, Kate Phillips, was in Wolf Hall – as was Claire Foy, who plays the Queen). Churchill’s real-life secretaries, by the way, didn’t have the benefit of being on the other side of the door when the great man rattled off his ideas while he was having a bath; they had to take notes while sitting in the bathroom as he splashed around. Sometimes the truth really is stranger than the fiction.

The second point at which The Crown strays from the historical record is in the depiction of the denouement of Princess Margaret’s doomed relationship with Group Captain Townsend (Vanessa Kirby and Patrick from Coupling really stealing the show here). The show sticks with the widely-held public perception of the affair – that the Queen was coerced by the government, headed by Anthony Eden who was by now the PM, into forcing her sister to abandon her plans to marry the divorced Battle of Britain hero. In actual fact, papers from the National Archives show that Eden – himself a divorcee who had remarried – was sympathetic (and doubtless aware that public opinion was overwhelmingly in favour of the marriage); in contrast to the harsh option he offers to the Queen in The Crown, the compromise that HM and her second PM were able to work out would have allowed her sister to carry on living in the country, keep her title and even keep her Civil List entitlement in the event of her marrying Group Captain Townsend, the only downside being that she would have had to renounce her place in the line of succession. This was the option that was presented to Margaret before she made her decision.

Much though I might quibble over certain aspects of historical accuracy, I did enjoy the show which has clearly been exceptionally well-researched (even down to the silly nicknames – the fifth Marquis of Salisbury, the grandson of the Victorian PM, really was referred to as ‘Bobbety’). I liked how they really tried to get under the skin of the Queen’s marriage, and how they tied in events with flashbacks to the Abdication crisis; it was fascinating how they managed to involve the outcast Duke of Windsor (who really did come back for Queen Mary’s funeral but opted to stay away from the Coronation) so much. A second series is in the pipeline; for this, we can look forward to the Suez crisis, Tony Armstrong-Jones and the Profumo scandal, among other things.


Dr Johnson and the 'ghost' of Cock Lane

If there’s one thing London has in abundance, it’s ghost stories – I was merely scratching the surface when I did an article on who London’s ghosts are last month. In fact, London is said to be one of the most haunted cities in the world. The historian Peter Ackroyd, in his book London: The Biography, has even described London as “a spectral city, so filled with imitations of its past that it haunts its own inhabitants”. Traditionally, Londoners have tended to be a credible lot when it comes to ghosts, and nowhere is this better displayed than in one of the most famous London ghost stories of them all, the tale of the Cock Lane ghost.

This story was the media sensation of its day (1762), and a few years ago a book – The Cock Lane Ghost: Murder, Sex and Haunting in Dr Johnson’s London by Paul Chambers – was published about it. The sub-title gives a hint as to why the story so fascinated people at the time, and it’s well worth a read if you can get hold of a copy.

The titular Cock Lane – “narrow, steep and surrounded by towering buildings that place it in almost permanent shade” – was and remains a small street near Smithfield Market, and it was there that the story began in 1759 when a couple calling themselves William and Fanny Kent took up lodgings in the home of Richard Parsons – a clerk at the local church, appropriately enough given his name, but also an alcoholic and a debtor. The couple were not all they seemed. Not only were they not married, they were actually forbidden from marrying by law, he having previously been married to her sister, who had died (one of the reasons why they’d moved to London had been to get away from her family, who had disapproved of the marriage in the first place and were incensed by Kent’s subsequent relationship with Fanny).

William Kent could be a bit naïve – on more than one occasion, he lent money to people who had little chance of being able to repay him. One such person was his new landlord, Richard Parsons, in whom he was also foolish enough to confide the true status of his relationship with Fanny. When Fanny fell ill, Kent had her moved elsewhere, but she contracted smallpox and died in early 1760. Some time later, Kent took legal action against Parsons over the unpaid debt.

In early 1762, mysterious noises started to be heard in the Parsons house – knocking and scratching sounds, for the most part. Some of the neighbours were already under the impression that the place was haunted by the time a local clergyman, the Reverend Moore, paid a visit, and as he had Methodist inclinations it didn’t take much for him to be convinced that the ghost was real (Chambers does well to give some context here, pointing out that early followers of John Wesley were noted for their credulity as far as the supernatural was concerned, which made them an easy target for mockery from those who feared their popularity). Furthermore, communication with the ghost – one knock for yes, two for no – seemed to establish that the ghost was that of Fanny, who was claiming that Kent had poisoned her with arsenic.

From then on, the story spread like wildfire. Two rival newspapers locked in a circulation war, the Public Ledger and the Daily Gazetteer, began to give detailed accounts and crowds rushed to Cock Lane to witness the phenomenon for themselves. A neighbour, whose “reputation as a local troublemaker was on a par with that of Richard Parsons himself”, appointed herself as a mistress-of-ceremonies for the regular séances that were conducted in a darkened bedroom at Parsons’s house for curious and credible visitors. Even the great and the good – among them the Duke of York (George III’s brother) and Horace Walpole (the writer and son of the first Prime Minister) – went to Cock Lane to see what all the fuss was about and listen to the noises made by ‘Scratching Fanny’, as the ghost was quickly nicknamed.

By now, things were becoming serious as William Kent had to all intents and purposes been publicly accused of murder (and accused in person, for he’d even gone to one of the séances himself, as had a former servant of his who knew him to be innocent). It was by this point well-known that the ghost only seemed to make itself known in the presence of Parsons’s daughter, Betty, and it was decided that the matter should be investigated by a committee of ‘learned men’ which included a lord, a couple of priests who were less credulous than the Rev. Moore (one of whom, indeed, was “famous for his work in detecting frauds”), a physician of whom “little is known”, a hospital matron to act as lady-in-waiting (a woman, of course, would be needed to search young Betty) and – who else? – Samuel Johnson. If something required a little more intellectual weight in London at the time, there were few better candidates than the man who had completed the Dictionary a few years previously. As far as ghosts were concerned, he was sceptical; “as a devoutly religious man, he could not rule them out entirely, but neither could he believe in the many spooky tales doing the rounds ... ‘I make a distinction,’ said Johnson, ‘between what a man may experience by the strength of his imagination and what imagination cannot possibly produce.’”

Betty was moved to another house and questioned by the committee; she denied that she was making it all up. However, the ghost had previously promised that she would prove that she was real by striking Fanny’s coffin. Therefore, in one of the stranger turns of events in London’s history, the committee ending up paying a midnight visit to the crypt of St John’s, Clerkenwell (where Fanny had been buried). “For a few minutes,” Chambers writes, “some of the most eminent and respected gentlemen in London society could be found standing in a dark, damp and smelly crypt at midnight waiting for a spectre to communicate with them by banging on a coffin lid.” When this didn’t happen, they concluded – in Johnson’s words – that “the child has some art of making or counterfeiting a particular noise, and that there is no agency of any higher cause”. Even the Rev. Moore now believed that the ‘ghost’ was not real, and a couple of weeks later Betty, having been moved to another house, was found to have a piece of wood concealed about her person.

Parsons and several others (but not Betty, who was a minor) ended up on trial for conspiracy; they protested their innocence but were found guilty. Parsons was sentenced to two years imprisonment, and also had to stand in the pillory - although, in contrast to many other criminals, the crowd (many of whom had doubtless believed the ghost to have been real) treated him kindly. Some of those involved were widely mocked for their part in the saga; Hogarth went to town on the Methodists (his piece ‘Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism’, reproduced in Chambers’s book, contains several references to the Cock Lane story), while Samuel Johnson could be “such a pompous and forthright character that many took the opportunity to portray him as a believer in the ghost. The fact that he had stood in the crypt at midnight ... caused further mirth.” The comedy actor Samuel Foote (who from his brief appearance in this book strikes me as someone I would like to know more about) was keen to do a play about the Cock Lane ghost (‘Fanny Phantom’, he called it) and wanted to use it to lampoon Johnson (who’d slighted him in the past) but thought better of it after becoming convinced that Johnson, a much bigger man, would beat him up if he did. The sub-plot about the play, in which Foote took the mickey out of someone else, is hilarious – although the undeserved ridicule that Johnson received over the Cock Lane story remained a sore point for years. Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, was even drawn to comment that “many of my readers, I am convinced, are to this hour under an impression that Johnson was foolishly deceived. It will therefore surprise them a good deal when they are informed ... that Johnson was one of those by whom the imposture was detected.”

The ghost’s legacy was a long one; “ripples ... carried through into the Victorian era and beyond”. ‘Scratching Fanny’ became a bedtime story aimed at scaring children into behaving themselves. Dickens mentions it in several of his books, while the term ‘Cock Lane’ became a byword for a farce which highlighted public gullibility. Interestingly, the spiritualist movement of the nineteenth century produced many a medium who relied on the same basic technique that Betty Parsons had used, and like Betty many of them were eventually caught out. Chambers ends his study with a few pages on what happened to the main protagonists, or rather on what little is known of William Kent and the Parsons family after their fifteen minutes of fame; we even have what appears to be a partial confession from Betty herself towards the end of her life (although she was found out, she never admitted to it). Chambers concludes with his suspicion that the ghost noises were originally a team effort by Parsons and some of his friends; “it is often remarked that the séances took place in crowded rooms that were poorly lit ... the noises could be heard coming from different directions”, although once Betty was on her own she had to do the noises herself.

This book was a most engrossing read, one of those accounts of an historical event where the author is both entertaining and informative. I, of course, was drawn to it on account of my admiration for Samuel Johnson as well as my recent researching into London’s ghosts, but I believe that anyone with even the smallest interest in London’s rich and fascinating history would enjoy it.


The history of a modern travel route

Good news! My latest piece for the Times Literary Supplement – reviewing Gillian Tindall’s The Tunnel Through Time, a book which reveals the history of those parts of London that are on the new Crossrail route – is in the latest edition; it can be found on page 32.