Another re-blog of one of my early posts today – I’m about to lock myself away in a Landmark Trust property for a week so that I can complete the sixth Quinton novel without the distractions of drilling, hammering etc that are currently taking place at home! Details of ‘Quinton 6′ coming this way soon… But in the meantime, this post still seems quite apposite: if anything, there are even more shock horror headlines proclaiming something to be ‘the worst x since y’ or ‘the biggest z ever’, and Pepys, of course, recently had a star turn on TV in the atrocious mini-series about ‘The Great Fire’. Just one slight factual update, though, and that’s to point out that I’ve stood down from the committee of the Samuel Pepys Club.

Originally posted on Gentlemen and Tarpaulins:

Last week saw the anniversary of Samuel Pepys’s birth in 1633, and Twitter was abuzz with the inevitable superlatives – the greatest English diarist! the founder of the modern Royal Navy! One only needed Queen to belt out ‘Pepys, Saviour of the Universe’, with Brian Blessed bellowing ‘Sam’s alive?!’, and the hyperbolic overdose would have been complete. There’s been plenty from this ‘Daily Mail headline’ school of historical analysis of late – witness the hysterical reaction in the Twitterverse to recent defence cuts (‘Navy at its smallest since Henry VIII!’, ‘Army at its smallest since the Zulu war!!/Agincourt!!!/Mount Badon!!!!’ and so forth, as if such comparisons have any validity at all – one might as well come up with such equally astute observations as ‘Fewer novels featuring starving urchins being written now than in Charles Dickens’s day’). No doubt this is all part and parcel of the Anglo-Saxon world’s obsession…

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Just in case anybody didn’t know, I’m [a] Welsh, and [b] an author of naval historical fiction.

Now, the world contains quite a lot of Welsh people. The world also contains a lot of authors of naval historical fiction. But the number of current Welsh authors of NHF, as I’ll call it for the sake of brevity, can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. Indeed, it’s possible that they can be counted on one finger, but I suspect I’m tempting fate by suggesting that – especially in an age when so many books are self-published exclusively in electronic format that it’s simply impossible to keep up with the origins of who’s written what. Indeed, for all I know there might well be an entire collective of NHF authors somewhere up in the Valleys, having violent arguments about the merits of Forester and O’Brian in the bar of The Admiral and Floozy at Aberflyarff. But assuming this isn’t actually the case, it’s clear that there have never been very many of us. I suppose one could count that outrageous old yarn-spinner Tristan Jones, but I’m not sure if someone who essentially fictionalised much of his own life qualifies. Wikipedia describes Showell Styles as a Welsh author, and he certainly wrote plenty of NHF, including the Midshipman Septimus Quinn series (which I’ve never read), the Lieutenant Michael Fitton books (ditto), and many individual titles including Admiral of England, about Sir Cloudesley Shovell, which does adorn my shelves. But Styles was Birmingham born and bred, so although he became an ‘adopted Welshman’, I’m not sure if he qualifies, either. On a similar basis, Patrick O’Brian lived in Wales – but only for four years, before moving to France because he couldn’t stand the weather.

Don’t worry, this post isn’t turning into a plea from a lonely lost soul for fellow practitioners to identify themselves so we can meet in the Admiral and Floozy to do what all Welsh people do all the time, namely to indulge in close harmony singing of cheery songs about rain and death. (TV and film stereotypes, passim – see the excellent Wales in the Movies channel on You Tube.) All of the foregoing is actually by way of introduction to the curious fact that one of the very first books that could be termed ‘naval historical fiction’ was written by a Welshman, with a Welsh central character – and what a character! The Legend of Captain Jones was written in 1631 by the somewhat unlikely figure of David Lloyd, an Oxford-educated clergyman, born at Llanidloes, who became Dean of Saint Asaph after the Restoration. This story of the mightily exaggerated adventures of a braggart Welsh sea-captain-cum-soldier was first published in 1636, had a second part added to it in the 1640s, and went through several editions thereafter; it seems to have been a popular children’s story after the Restoration, no doubt the Pirates of the Caribbean of its day (although with an infinitely more plausible hero…) To a considerable extent, it lampoons the great seamen, warriors and explorers of Queen Elizabeth’s time – Sir Walter Raleigh even turns up as a character, a la Blackadder – and some scholars have regarded it as a satire on Captain John Smith, of Pocahontas fame. (See, for example, the article by Alden T Vaughan in The William and Mary Quarterly, 45, 1988.)

Title page of the 1671 edition of The Legend of Captain Jones; Folger Shakespeare Library via Creative Commons

Title page of the 1671 edition of The Legend of Captain Jones; Folger Shakespeare Library via Creative Commons

The full text is freely available online, so I’m not going to quote from it at great length. (As I said to many of my students during my teaching career, ‘No, I’m not going to summarise it for you, go away and read the whole thing’. ‘Aww, sir, but it’ll be so much quicker if you summarise it…’) Although it’s not great poetry by any means, it’s certainly great fun, and actually pretty readable by the standards of some early seventeenth century literature. Try this, for instance:

‘Mongst all those Bluster’ng sirs that I have read

(whose greatest wonder is that they are dead)

there’s not any Knights, nor bold Achiever’s name,

So much as Jones’s in the Book of Fame.

They much of Greece’s Alexander brag,

He’d put ten Alexanders in a Bag.

Eleven fierce Kings, backt with two thousand Louts

Jones with a Ragged Troop beats all to Clouts.


Born in (yes, in) a Welsh mountain, Jones goes off to sea at eighteen. Among other exploits, he wrestles a bear, fights a lion, defeats eleven Native American kings and their armies, fights duels, defeats the Spanish (but is captured, made a galley slave, has a personal interview with King Philip II, and is finally ransomed), fights a giant, rejects marriage to the Queen of No-Land, and ends up single-handedly winning Queen Elizabeth’s war against the Irish Earl of Tyrone. At one point he goes back to his native land to recruit men, and the author has a field day at the expense of his countrymen’s foibles, for instance their apocryphal reputations for thieving and drinking, and their obsession with incredibly convoluted patronymics (one of my own ancestors, from exactly this period, is the spectacular Jenkin ap Harry ap Jenkin ap Harry Malephant):



Jones lost no time, goes in five days to Wales

Shewes his commission, tells them glorious tales;

He need not beat a drum, nor sound his trumpet,

His name’s enough to make these Britons jump at

This brave employment under such a Chief

Whose fame’s reserve enough for their relief.

Perplext he was in choosing his commanders,

For he still fancied best his old Highlanders;

But many worthies of the lower parts,

Offer to him their fortunes and their hearts.

But all respects put by, he inlisteth ten

Of his old gang, all hard bred mountain-men

For his Life-guard, Thomas Da Price a Pew,

Jenkin Da Prichard, Evan David Hugh,

John ap John Jenkin, Richard John dap Reese,

And Tom Dee Bacgh,a fierce Rat at green cheese,

Llewelling Reese ep David Watkin Jenkin,

With Howell Reese ap Robert, and young Philkin, 

These for his guard, his Officers in chief,

Lieutenant Colonel Craddock, a stout thief

With Major Howell ap Howell of Pen Crag

Well known for plundering many cow and nag

Captain Pen Vaare, a branch of Tom John Catty,1

Whose word in’s colours was, YE ROGUES HAVE AT YE.

Griffith ap Reefe ap Howel ap Coh ap Gwilin,

Reese David Shone ap Ruthero ap William,

With many more whose names ’twere long to write,

The rest their acts will get them names in fight.

We must conceive they all were men of fame

For here we see them all men of great name.

Jones with these blades advanceth to the Dale 2

There lines himself and them with noble Ale…


[1 – Twm Sion Cati, ‘the Welsh Robin Hood’

2 – Lloyd adds a marginal note here to point out that this is a village on Milford Haven! It would actually have been well known to 16th and 17th audiences as the place where King Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty, landed in 1485.]


Finally, Jones retires back to Wales, and the staunchly Royalist Lloyd can’t resist a suggestion that if he had been born later, he would easily have won the Civil War for the Cavaliers. But Lloyd’s final epitaph for the larger-than-life hero also has a neat double entendre sting in the tail:


Tread softly (mortals) ore the bones

Of the world’s wonder, Captain Jones;

Who told his glorious deeds to many,

But never was believed of any:

Posterity let this suffice,

He swore all’s true, yet here he lyes.


So even if Welsh naval historical fiction is a pretty small and exclusive genre, I’m very happy to be in it alongside David Lloyd and his hero. You can forget Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain America – come on, Hollywood, give us a film of Captain Jones!


Some new memorials today, in what will be the final post in this series for a few weeks – next week, I’ll return to other matters!


In the summer, I gave a talk on Cornwall’s place in naval history as part of the Penzance Literary Festival. We also managed to fit in a number of places of interest around the event, one of which was Mylor, where traces of the old naval victualling yard can be found adjacent to a splendid parish church. The churchyard contains this memorial to trainee sailors who died aboard HMS Ganges, which was anchored off Mylor until it moved to Shotley in 1899. I’ve included a close-up of one side of it so you can get an idea of the ages of those commemorated here.

Next, here’s the memorial in the naval cemetery at Lyness, Orkney, to the crew of the battleship HMS Vanguard, which blew up accidentally while moored in Scapa Flow, off the island of Flotta, on 9 July 1917, with the loss of 843 of the 845 men on board.

Finally, I’d better include a genuine dead admiral or two in a post with this title, otherwise a certain former student of mine will sue me under the Trades Descriptions Act…again… Here are the memorials to several naval generations of the Hyde Parker family at Long Melford church, Suffolk, including the one famously involved in Nelson’s ‘blind eye’ incident at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801.


…and here’s the reblog of Part 2…

Originally posted on Gentlemen and Tarpaulins:

A few more memorials this week – and by popular demand (OK, that’s one of you, and you know who you are…), here are some from the seventeenth century. First of all, here’s the glorious wall monument to Sir William Penn at St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, with his armour and banners above it, then the much more modest floor slab over the grave itself. Penn was one of Cromwell’s generals-at-sea, and some have given him the credit for introducing the line of battle into naval tactics. After the Restoration, he became one of Samuel Pepys’s colleagues on the Navy Board and in 1665 became the one and only ‘Great Captain Commander’ in the history of the Royal Navy, being largely responsible for the conduct of the fleet in the victorious Battle of Lowestoft. (That was on 3 June 1665, so the day on which I’m publishing this post is the…

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As promised, here’s my reblog of the first post in my ‘Dead Admirals Society’ series, with number 2 to follow shortly. I hope to put up a new post in this series next week.

Originally posted on Gentlemen and Tarpaulins:

I’ve done a fair bit of travelling in the UK over the years, and invariably seek out items of naval interest wherever I am, notably the graves or monuments of naval personnel. It’s good to see that there’s now more awareness of, and interest in, such memorials than when I started my research over thirty years ago: for example, the 1805 Club, founded in 1990, works to conserve the graves of Georgian naval heroes, the Victoria Cross Trust does the same for VC winners, while the National Maritime Museum has a useful database – albeit a markedly incomplete one that’s quite difficult to find, thanks to the byzantine structure of the museum’s website.

Despite all this, though, the impression that I’ve taken away most often when visiting such sites has been one of dire neglect, even in cases where the individuals in question are counted among the country’s great…

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‘Hang on’, you say, ‘where are Parts 1 and 2, then?’

Well, in the relatively early days of this blog, I posted a couple of items under this title and promised that at some point in the future, I’d do some more. I didn’t really expect ‘some point in the future’ to be such a long time coming, but I guess that’s life… Next week, though, I’ll reblog the first two posts in the series for those who missed them, and will then post a new Part 4 in the following week unless something unexpected crops up that I feel moved to blog about.

In a nutshell, this is a fairly random collection of pictures of interesting naval graves and memorials that I’ve come across during the course of my travels; not just admirals, but naval figures of all ranks and degrees of fame or obscurity. This week, a naval grave that I know very well, as it’s only about five miles as the crow flies from where I live – the niche tomb of the notorious (or unjustly scapegoated?) Admiral John Byng, the only British admiral ever to be executed, in the family vault of the Lords Torrington at Southill church, Bedfordshire – which also contains the remains of his father, George Byng, first Viscount Torrington, the victor of the battle of Cape Passaro in 1718. I had the honour of giving the tribute to Byng in Southill church on 14 March 2007, the 250th anniversary of the execution, before members of the Byng family, including the current Viscount Torrington.

Admiral John Byng's niche tomb

Admiral John Byng’s niche tomb

John Byng's niche at bottom left, beneath that of his father George, Viscount Torrington

John Byng’s niche at bottom left, beneath that of his father George, Viscount Torrington

General view of the Byng vault at Southill, Bedfordshire

General view of the Byng vault at Southill, Bedfordshire

Next, a fascinating memorial that I came across in the splendid church at Kalmar, Sweden, a few years ago while researching the fourth Quinton novel, The Lion of Midnight, namely the memorial to Gustav von Psilander (1669-1738). He achieved considerable renown in Sweden for his part in ‘the Battle of Orfordness‘, 17/27 July 1704, when he refused to strike his flag to a squadron of nine British warships, leading to a battle that lasted for over four hours – despite the two countries not actually being at war with each other at the time.

Gustav von Psilander memorial, Kalmar church

Gustav von Psilander memorial, Kalmar church

Finally, there’s the memorial in Bedale, Yorkshire, to probably the most famous Poo in naval history – namely the spectacularly named Admiral Sir John Poo Beresford. Apologies for the somewhat fuzzy shot of the latter, I didn’t have a very good camera at the time! No apologies for the shocking pun, though.

Memorial to Sir John Poo Beresford, Bedale

Memorial to Sir John Poo Beresford, Bedale


Another reblog of one of my early posts this week. I’ve nothing really to add to this piece, on the importance of getting the importance of religion right in historical fiction (and especially naval historical fiction), except to add that it’s something I’m currently grappling with to an even greater extent while writing ‘Quinton 6′ – details of which will be revealed here in the near future!

Originally posted on Gentlemen and Tarpaulins:

Religion is often something of an elephant in the room of historical fiction. If the past really is a foreign country where they do things differently, faith is about as different as it gets, and for secular authors in today’s secular western societies, reconstructing its all-pervasiveness is perhaps one of the trickiest challenges of all. Indeed, perhaps it’s a challenge that can never truly be met successfully. The actual mindset of the most profound medieval piety, for example, is unlikely to be very appealing to most modern readers – after all, its nearest modern parallel is the blinkered fundamentalism seen in much TV news coverage of events in the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and so forth. Too many authors, though, seem to pass up the challenge entirely. I love the ‘Mistress of the Art of Death’ books by the late, lamented Arianna Franklin, having stumbled upon them by chance…

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