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
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!