Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
At the Gloucester Election of 1810, young Lord Dursley puts his reputation on the line as the rightful heir to his father's title and honours...
'Cleave to the Crown though it hang on a thorn bush.'
When Election Day came, Dursley couldn't get the phrase out of his head. He knew it pertained to King Richard III, Duke of Gloucester, and his fate on Bosworth Field three and a quarter centuries ago. The old Coat of Arms of the city had depicted Richard's emblems, the York and Lancaster roses, the boar's head and a sword, horseshoes and nails, symbols of the ironworks and smithy trades. “For the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost,” Carrington had declaimed from under the eaves of his minatory brow.
More inspiring was the Commonwealth Coat of Arms which had superseded it, with its rampant lions bearing swords, and a crown built of stone bricks. Fides Invicta Triumphat was the underpinning legend. Unconquered faith triumphs.
Dursley thought of including the motto in his speech, but decided against it. It was sailing too close to the wind. A Shakespearian theme might inspire oratory. Not one to wax lyrical about 'this sceptr'd isle, 'this other Eden', his mind ran upon Bolingbroke's role in Richard II, the subtle art of engaging the modest voter in a bid for a fairer society. The more he considered this, the more he liked it. It was radical and daring and smacked of a new regime in tune with something in the air he couldn't quite label. He would remind his listeners of their historic links with the Crown for the last thousand years and how the Berkeley dynasty had played a sterling part in husbanding Gloucestershire's resources. His mother had done her best to stifle amusement at the notion. What would be uppermost in everyone's mind, she said, was taxation.
The carriage turned into Westgate and a sharp draught funnelled through the jetties from the Quay. Blossom showered down from the whitebeams and cherry trees. With Dursley, were Bloxsome, the attorney, and his old tutor, Carrington. Lord Berkeley had failed to put in an appearance at breakfast and the Countess had said briskly: “Fitz, your father is indisposed this morning. He sends apologies and says, pray, take the barouche. He will catch up with you when he has collected himself.” It was not a promising start, but a Whig candidate could not afford to dwell on that now.
It was a Friday, not a market day, but the enfranchised of the county had turned out in force.
“A good crowd to see you presented with the Freedom of the City, Carrington,” Dursley quipped as they drew up in front of the Tolsey, a classical building which served as the Town Hall. It was surmounted by urns and a pediment carved with the Gloucester arms.
They were all there in the oak-panelled hall, Lord Moreton Ducie, the Duke of Beaufort and his brother, Lord Edward Somerset, the Packers and Purnells, the Clutterbucks, Hyetts, Gardners and Lysons', Sir Berkeley Guise and members of the Clifford family. They all knew what was best for their own prosperity and how that was certain to benefit the nation. Lawyers consorted with landowners, the Militia with merchants. Divinity graduates tried to put themselves in the way of a living. Messrs Hodgkinson and Jessop were among the crowd, a pair of civil engineers drafted in to estimate the next stage of the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal which had languished for want of subscribers for many years. There was a sense of wheels turning, and wheels within wheels. The hum of optimism struck the Viscount as thick with conspiracy.
“Good to see you, young Dursley,” Norfolk greeted him with a convivial slap on his shoulder blade. “The petitioner for the Whigs. Ha! Ha! A nip of port to irrigate the vocals, what say you? Gentlemen?”
“Your Grace is most hospitable.”
“Noted for it, my boy. Mustn't forsake my reputation, though it may forsake me! Now, where is Berkeley? I trust he don't continue to ail.”
“Unavoidably detained. He will be along in a jiffy, sir.”
“If not a well-sprung chariot. Ha! Ha!”
Carrington proceeded to engage the Duke over some confidential matter in buttery tones, thus enabling Bloxsome to hail a colleague among a coterie of chin-clutching advocates close by. “Well, I'm blessed. Tis a tidy while since you put in an appearance!” He turned to Dursley, “Your lordship, may I present to you William Fendall, a keen legal wit you wouldn't wish to fall foul of!”
Fendall bowed. He cut a distinguished figure, grey at the temples, well-groomed, soberly clad with his lawyer's falling bands. There was about his posture a suggestion that the law was a vehicle for dramatic irony. Fleetingly, he hesitated before looking Dursley full in the eyes, his own registering a fine interest. “Your humble servant, sir,” he declared with a stage bow. “For a moment there, the image of the Countess came winging across the years.”
“I take it you refer to my mother. You're a friend of hers?”
“Our paths did indeed cross at one period. I recollect your uncle, Mr Farren, was seeking to enter the profession. Whatever happened to William Farren, I wonder?”
“Never met the fellow,” said Dursley in faint discomfiture. The chamber was probably full of people he didn't know, but who knew him and were likely better informed of his family origins than he was.
With a nonchalant air, Fendall ran his gaze over the gathering. “There was a rumour he took off for distant climes.”
“He died,” replied Dursley, “for my aunt married a well-to-do Virginian.”
“The other Mr Farren omitted to mention that.”
“The other Mr Farren?”
“His brother, Mr Ellis Taylor Farren.” Fendall nodded towards their graceless host. “You see him there, where he's always to be found, in the shadow of the Duke.”
Dursley's eye homed on a thick-set fellow of middle years, a neater version of the late politician, Mr Fox. His demeanour was watchful, furtive, both bullish and bullied. “Never saw him in my life!”
“A butcher, sir, of some repute. Long patronised by His Grace and duly recognised by the city fathers. Ain't that right, Bloxsome?”
“I believe it is. If I may interrupt, your lordship is being signalled. It is time to advance to the podium,” said Bloxsome. “They will wish to draw lots for the speaking order.”
A hunted look hardened Dursley's pupils. He hoped to have the advantage of Sandys by being second to speak. He rifled his inner pocket for the rallying rhetoric that suddenly inspired no passion. There was no sign of the Earl. That wouldn't look well to this crowd, hungry for happenings, for change, for revolution. The New Inn and the King's Head had contributed hogsheads of cider and ale to the campaign which loosened the tongues of the rowdy element mustered behind the pillars at the back of the hall. Games of chance were going on, the exchange of ribaldry, raucous argument threatening fisticuffs, fiddlers were fiddling and tinkers tipsy. Redcoats moved among them, shoving them with the butt of their rifles when disorder threatened.
Sir Edwin Bayntun Sandys, having so far failed to reach the poll, lots were not drawn. Dursley was conducted to a chair at the back of the dais, well clear of the clamorous onlookers, while Sir Berkeley Guise read an address, already published in the Gloucester Journal, in which Admiral Berkeley recommended his nephew to the electors, promising he would devote himself heart and soul to the county's interests. His family's long-established connections in Gloucestershire were earnest of his suitability to represent its people in Parliament.
Minutes later found Dursley rising to speak. His limbs were numb, but he quickly gained the mastery of himself by imagining he was in audition for Mr Brunton. He trained his eye on a million dustmotes powdering the sunbeams from an oval window in the gallery. Embracing confidence with humility, he spoke of the great honour conferred by the Admiral's trust and of a pride in the Berkeley name and heritage that would never lose sight of civic duty, nor obligation to neighbours and tenantry.
“Howzat, then, Younker?” cried a surly voice among the mob. “Brag's a good dog, but Holdfast be better!”
“Aye, don't halloo till you're out of the wood, sir,” called a barrister.
Determined not to be baited, Dursley raised his voice to full forte. If he had caught anything from his father, it was that nobility did not have to justify itself. The Reverend Mr Hughes, his younger brothers' tutor, was more of a classicist than a modern thinker, but, last summer, had opened a discussion with him on the theories of Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations had proved surprisingly useful, dealing as it did with efficiency, the harnessing of human drives and mechanical invention. This was a new era and the past was fast uncoupling itself. Smith's writing had been consolidated by a recent essay of Mr David Ricardo who spoke about putting a wholesome value on labour.
It began to dawn on Dursley how gifted his mother was in practising those truths she knew by instinct and sharp observation. How irksome to have to recognise her simple genius and her relentless energy when he needed to think of her as foolish and misguided!
There were catcalls, grumbles about taxes, tolls, and hours at the treadmill which were like broomstick handles shaken at space. Dursley began to feel the first tremors of elation, akin to when he scaled the pele tower at Eton. The sea of upturned faces avidly expectant, shuffled below the blinding limelight from outside. He was riding the crest of the wave, his own man, detached from parental steerage and mere sibling awe. He could succeed, he knew it! Abandoning his notes, he sketched a gilded view of the future, a blend of egalitarianism and liberal landlords. His listeners were enthralled. As he drew to a resounding close, there was a stunned hush.
The next minute, riotous handclapping broke out. Shouts! Cheers! They were cheering him! Throwing their hats into the air! Stamping their feet! What had he said that wasn't the high-flown propaganda of the hustings?
Lord Ducie came forward to thank him and pumped his arm, followed by other notables who'd promised support. The Duke of Norfolk, a down-to-earth champion of the people, was unwontedly effusive. “Splendid, sir! Splendid! Need to tone it down in the Chamber, however! Credit to the Berkeley name! Not your pater's son, eh? Pity old Fox, rest his bones, ain't here!”
“That'll give Beaufort a run for his money,” said Ducie in Dursley's ear. “Itching to extend his influence in the city, but I can't see Sandys trumping you.”
As Dursley thanked them and turned away, he caught sight of his father in the shadows of the portico, the daylight behind him, leaning awkwardly on his cane. He was being ushered to a leather bench where he was swiftly attended by Bloxsome and members of the Dursley Town Council. Dursley sidled nimbly through the press towards him. Now, many familiar faces impinged upon his vision. Some nodded above their conversations. The snippets he overheard were not wholly to his liking.
“...no stranger to the footlights, I gather,” Fendall was saying. “Keeps the company of opera-dancers down at Chelt'nham.”
“In the blood, so I hear,” guffawed the next fellow. “Aunt was a trouper. Lily asserts she was the Diva of Dublin.”
“Rum business,” said a third. “He'd best make the Commons. The Lords won't wear his cockeyed history!”
He reached his parent, his euphoria dwindling.
“Well done, my boy! I hear you acquitted yourself with distinction!”
Bloxsome bowed. “You have the makings of a fine politician, if I may say so, sir.”
The Viscount snatched a glass of Meursault from the tray of a passing lackey and took a sip in acknowledgement. “You may, Bloxsome. The prophets shall yet prove false.”
Bloxsome consulted his timepiece: his brows shot up. “Beaufort's man will need to look sharp.”
“With Somerset past the post, he's not without representation.”
“Eleven o' clock is the deadline,“ said the Earl briskly. “Never could abide tardiness. A man fit for purpose should be punctilious in his habits!”
“I dare say my lord is eager for the capital dinner which will follow,” smiled the attorney.
The noise had risen in volume, carrying hints of hysteria. Presently, the High Sheriff, Nathaniel Clifford, rose and rapped his gavel several times so that the cacophany ebbed in waves.
“Attention! May I have your attention, please! There is an important announcement! Thank you! Gentlemen, I have in the last five minutes received a note of hand from the Tory contender, Sandys of Miserden. He deeply regrets that, owing to unforeseen circumstances, he is unable to proceed to the Poll and thanks all those who have so generously supported him.” Beaufort's agents looked at each other aghast. “That leaves only one conclusion, and it is with great pleasure that I pronounce the Whig petitioner, William Fitzhardinge Berkeley, Viscount Dursley, the proper person to take on his sponsor's mantle.” The crier of the court echoed that Lord Dursley was duly elected.
No show of hands! No moments of attenuated agony! No waiting for his opponent's address! The whole chamber broke into uproarious huzzahs. Dursley was stunned. A tingling chill travelled his spine. He glanced at the Earl and saw...what? A look he'd not quickly forget, but would only afterwards construe.
It was the crowning success of his life! They were clapping. They were calling his name. He made his way back to the dais and uttered a broken speech of gratitude, capped with a pledge to serve the people well.
“Mebbe you'll lend an ear to the common run,” boomed a savage-looking yokel in the crowd. “Youm at least half Johnny Raw!”
“Aye, pretty cant, but what credentials have ye, sir?”
“You've gammoned our betters, but you ain't gammoned us!”
Such phrases spiked the jubilation. The champion was escorted out by Militia and hustled into the civic coach, decked with swags of laurel and beribboned knots of may. His heart was thumping. He tugged at the window strap and hoisted it shut. A swarm of eager faces peered on the other side of the glass, grim, Hogarthian caricatures, scenting prey. His gut squirmed in antipathy. The tide had turned on a farthing, the welter of insults only half-drowned by the thrall. They were trying to uncouple the horses from the shafts while the vehicle rocked violently upon its well-oiled springs. Fortunately, the soldiers smartly intervened and the coach lurched off on its lap of honour behind the band of the South Gloucesters. The cavalcade processed along Westgate and Southgate, Eastgate and Northgate, past Butchers' Row and Bell Lane, the New Inn where Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days' Queen, had put up. It rattled past the homes and haunts of his mother's history of which he was selectively unaware and had no connection with. The streets were thick with people cheering and flag-waving. They had run out on the pavement for a spectacle and scarcely knew what it was about, or who was elected. It was like Palm Sunday and Dursley was beleaguered by emotions he could neither separate nor recognise.
And then he saw it. Scrawled on a wall were words that cut through the commotion and mocked the trumpet and thunder of victory: Berkeley's bastard beats all! By a fluke of chance, the very next moment, he caught sight of none other than Amy Knight, only a foot or two from the window. The gangling youth above her wore his formal hat pushed to the back of his head. Her expression, vividly captured, spoke of self-possession and wry amusement.
There was a grand banquet that evening at the King's Head Inn for nearly three hundred elite of Gloucestershire politics. Another speech was called for and, the adrenalin still coursing, Dursley met the obligation roundly. Lord Berkeley, looking ashen and exhausted, left early. When Dursley arrived home, his father had gone to bed.