St Augustine of Canterbury
Britain had already been a Christian land in late Roman times, but the Anglo-Saxons who flooded in during the fifth and sixth centuries supplanted the old faith with their own belief in such gods as Tiu, Woden, Thor and Frigg – the Germanic deities after whom our weekdays are still named. Late in the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great saw an opening to reassert Rome’s control of this far-off island, when the Christian daughter of King Charibert of Paris married the pagan King of Kent. To this end, he sent an obscure Benedictine monk called Augustine as a missionary. The mission was a shot in the dark, and nearly collapsed even before reaching Kent. Yet Augustine proved so adept on arrival that he converted the Kentish king, founded the English Church, built cathedrals at Canterbury and Rochester as well as St Augustine’s Abbey, and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Needless to say, this resounding success was rewarded by canonisation.
St Bertha (ca 565-after 600)
The fact that King Aethelbehrt of Kent’s wife Bertha was directly descended from Clovis, first king of all the Franks, goes to show what prestige Kent already enjoyed by the sixth century. She was a devout Christian, and shared her convictions with her pagan husband. Without her influence, it is doubtful whether Augustine would have met with a positive reception in England; indeed, Pope Gregory the Great even wrote to acknowledge Bertha’s piety. Although her son, the future King Eadbald of Kent, repudiated her beliefs, her daughter Aethelburg married a Northumbrian king and so carried Christianity further north. The oldest church in the English-speaking world, St Martin’s in Canterbury, was built for Bertha’s benefit, and she was made a saint for her role in re-establishing Christianity in England.
Odo of Bayeux (d 1097)
If Odo had an epithet, it would be ‘the Odious’. As Bishop of Bayeux and half-brother to William of Normandy, he participated in the Battle of Hastings; and, after the victorious Normans had purloined almost all Anglo-Saxon land and wealth, Odo took a share second only to the Conqueror’s. He was made Earl of Kent, settling near Harrietsham. It was probably he who ordered the English to celebrate their own downfall by embroidering the Bayeux Tapestry, which ended up at his home cathedral. For a holy man, he took an unhealthy interest in mammon. At the Trial of Penenden Heath in 1076, he was successfully arraigned, despite being William’s right-hand man, for stealing Church property. Undaunted, he illegally planned a military expedition to Italy, possibly with the aim of making himself Pope, for which he was gaoled for five years. He later supported a failed rebellion against William II, and mercifully died in Sicily on the First Crusade.
St Anselm of Canterbury
Anselm of Aosta in the far north-west of Italy was Archbishop of Canterbury for the last sixteen years of his life, during which time he was twice exiled for defying the English monarch. He is however better remembered as the Father of Scholasticism. This was a way of thinking critically that came to dominate Europe for half a millennium. Anselm sought to restore the credibility of Roman Catholic doctrine at a time when mysticism was normal. Arguing that faith in God’s existence preceded knowledge, he advocated inferring all facts from faith and depending only on Aristotle for earthly evidence. All contradictions between faith and observable ‘truths’ were to be resolved by arcane disputation among clerics – a practice ridiculed in later centuries as concerning the number of angels that can stand on a pinhead. Though canonised for his ingenuity and dutifully buried in the Cathedral, Anselm is reviled by modernists for having held back the scientific revolution for centuries.
Thomas Becket (1120-70)
Becket is revered today for being murdered in the Cathedral by four of King Henry II’s knights. Ironically, until his grisly end, he was deeply unpopular. Though born in Cheapside, Becket was altogether Norman, a scion of the invader overclass that still lorded it over their Saxon vassals. He’d originally been Lord Chancellor, but was appointed by his friend the King to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury so that they could reassert royal authority over the Church. Once in position, however, the cussed Becket refused to play ball. Even after being allowed home from exile, he continued to be a bane, and even excommunicated three bishops for carrying out the King’s wishes. The bloody denouement was the stuff of gangster movies, when four goons wasted the rival gang leader after being sent only to rough him up. At least St Thomas the Martyr has had the last laugh in folk mythology.
King Stephen (ca 1094-1154)
Stephen of Blois was a grandson of William the Conqueror. Already wealthy, he made a profitable marriage that brought in valuable estates in Kent and Boulogne. He had sworn to support his cousin Matilda’s claim to the throne, she being the daughter of King Henry I and soon to be widow of the Holy Roman Emperor. After she married Geoffrey of Anjou, however, the Anglo-Normans and the English Church turned against her, and Stephen usurped the throne on Henry’s death in 1135. He then spent his entire reign fighting off rebellions, not least an invasion by the Empress Matilda that became the centre-piece of the 18-year Anarchy. His desperate plans to secure the succession for his son Eustace failed when the lad died in 1153. Resigned to ceding the throne to the Angevins, he set about patching up the damage, but soon died at Dover and was buried with his wife and son at Faversham Abbey.
Simon de Montfort (1208-65)
De Montfort came to England from the Paris area at the age of 21, hoping to succeed to the Earldom of Leicester. Though speaking no English, he was welcomed by King Henry III, whose court was French-speaking. In 1238 he married Eleanor of England, Henry’s sister and the Earl of Pembroke’s widow, who had inherited Sutton Valence Castle from her first husband. Repeated disputes with the feeble king eventually turned to civil war in 1263, when the populist but anti-Semitic de Montfort led a baronial revolt seeking parliamentary reform and a Jewish pogrom. After a temporary reverse, he spectacularly won the Battle of Lewes (1264), capturing Henry and his son Edward. He then innovated his ‘Great Parliament’, the first to embrace the citizenry. Unluckily for him, the charismatic young Prince Edward escaped and led a superior force of disaffected barons against him at Evesham. De Montfort and his men were cut to ribbons, and democracy would have to wait.
King Edward I (1239-1307)
Edward Longshanks, the young prince who turned the tables on the Baron’s Revolt, was to prove a match for more than just Simon de Montfort. The clue is in his epithet, ‘Hammer of the Scots’, earned by his savage treatment of the Auld Enemy after he’d already wreaked havoc in Wales and gone crusading. This made him wildly popular in England, though he was more feared than liked by those about him. His imposing physique and violent temper did at least aid him in restoring order among the barons after the turmoil of his inept father’s reign. His legislative amendments brought temporary stability, although he did enshrine anti-Semitism in English law for centuries. He chose to live with his first wife Eleanor of Castile at Leeds Castle, where she bore many of their sixteen or so children. Sadly, his successor would be his son Edward II, the disastrous monarch who would quickly undo all his work.
Eleanor of Castile (1241-90)
Like most royal matches, King Edward I’s with Eleanor was political, intended to reinforce English control of Gascony. Nevertheless, it was a strong one. The two would remain devoted for life, even if the story of Eleanor saving the King’s life on the Ninth Crusade by sucking poison from an assassin’s wound is far-fetched. Their compatibility may have owed something to a common temperament, her feistiness being a foil for his own. Yet she by no means shared in his popularity. Barely able to speak English, she spent her time at their home at Leeds Castle trading in properties with recklessly borrowed money. Most of the numerous children she bore died young, and her only son who grew to adulthood was her very last child, the hopeless Edward II. Even so, after she died near Lincoln, the distraught King had memorial crosses erected at each stop on the long walk home with her body, the last of them being at Charing, Middlesex.
Wat Tyler (d 1381)
Walter Tyler won notoriety as the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt, the direct cause of which was a new fourpenny poll tax. Tyler, who was probably from Kent or Essex, led a pitchfork army from Canterbury to London to demand rights for the peasantry. After crossing London Bridge, his men wreaked havoc, and the young King Richard II felt bound to meet Tyler and offer concessions. In this winning position, however, Tyler’s hubris let him down. At a second meeting at Smithfield, he provoked one of the King’s men into insulting him, whereupon he attacked first the noble and then the Lord Mayor, who cut him down with his sword. His head was displayed on the end of a pole as a warning. And so the Revolt, which had come close to success, failed for want of a modicum of restraint. Tyler nevertheless became a folk hero, and has a road named after him in Kent’s county town.
John Ball (ca 1338-81)
John Ball, a priest originally from Colchester, was evidence of the idea that socialism is merely a restatement of radical Christian values for a secular age. Having lived through the Black Death, he grew appalled by its consequences, notably the inequality of wealth that persisted among the overworked survivors. For his unorthodox utterances, this ‘Mad Priest of Kent’ was jailed in Maidstone. He was released by insurgents during the Peasants’ Revolt, whereupon he proceeded to the rebel army’s rallying point at Blackheath. There he made a stirring speech beginning, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” and exhorting workmen to “cast off the yoke of bondage” in a distinctly Marxist tone. When the revolt failed, Ball was imprisoned, tried, and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. Even King Richard II himself turned up in St Albans to enjoy the spectacle, and got into the redistributive spirit by sharing Ball’s body-parts around.
Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s-1400)
The consequence of writing ‘The Canterbury Tales’, the most famous of all medieval works in English, is that Chaucer is generally known for little else, despite his extraordinarily rich life. The son of a London vintner, he was captured as a teenager during an invasion of France and ransomed by King Edward III. Marrying one of the Queen’s attendants brought a family connection with his future patron, John of Gaunt. From 1367 he remained in the King’s service, initially as a diplomat; his visits to Italy crucially introduced him to Petrarch and Boccaccio. He started writing poetry seriously around 1370, commencing his magnum opus in 1387. By then he had moved to Greenwich and become MP for Kent; he was additionally a senior bureaucrat in customs and public works. Remarkably, in his spare time he even wrote a ‘Treatise on the Astrolabe’. He was the first to be buried at Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner.
Catherine de Valois (1401-37)
When Catherine entered history in 1420, she was an 18-year-old ingénue who happened to be the daughter of King Charles VI of France. Her appeal to King Henry V of England was not just sexual: by marrying her, he became heir to the French throne. Their marriage lasted only two years before he died of dysentery, bequeathing Leeds Castle to her. By then she’d borne him an heir; it was not her fault that he was Henry VI, whose utter incompetence sparked the Wars of the Roses. Less blamelessly, she then defied a Parliamentary decree to get embroiled with an ambitious Welsh courtier called Owain ap Tudur. Their bastard son would father the Harri Tudur who abused his royal connection to usurp the English throne in 1485. Given her talent for unwitting trouble-making, she is appropriately best known for the scene in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ when she gets to speak the foulest of words; pure ‘Carry On’, but funnier.
Margaret of Anjou (1430-82)
Amid a succession of unloved foreign Queens of England, Marguerite d’Anjou takes the biscuit. She was the daughter of René, King of Naples, a man described as “all crowns and no kingdoms”. Landing his 15-year-old daughter’s marriage to the King of England must have struck him as an absolute godsend. Even better was the fact that her new husband, Henry VI, was an idiot, so she was free to rule the roost. Having seized Placentia Palace in Greenwich, she pursued the same preoccupations as Nero’s mother, Agrippina: her own wellbeing, and her son’s succession. All else was expendable, not least public safety. It was her crass imperiousness that prompted the Yorkist revolt, and her bloody-mindedness that sustained the conflict beyond endurance. She was hated with a passion, and none shed a tear when, in 1471, she was defeated at Tewkesbury and her young son killed. Shattered, she fled to France and lived her last decade as a pauper.
The Duke of Clarence (1449-78)
George Plantagenet was one of those rare individuals better known for his manner of death than anything he did. He grew up in Greenwich, the son of Richard of York and brother of two future Kings of England, Edward IV and Richard III. When Edward took the throne in 1461, he became the 1st Duke of Clarence. Had he been patient, he might have succeeded himself, being older than Richard; but he was inclined to mental instability and questionable decision-taking. When his father-in-law the Earl of Warwick turned against the Yorkists in 1469, the foolhardy Clarence backed him in the belief that he would be installed as king in his brother’s place. Disappointed, he returned to the Yorkist cause, but repaid his brother’s forgiveness by again rebelling in 1477. This time, King Edward had him tried for treason and executed. According to tradition, he was imaginatively drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine.
King Richard III (1452-85)
Arch-villain, as per Shakespeare, or just an unlucky pragmatist? It’s hard to be sure about Richard. He was raised with elder brother George in a tower at Placentia Palace in Greenwich after their father Richard of York fled the country. He stuck loyally with his eldest brother, Edward IV, throughout the bitter civil war. Come Edward’s death in 1483, however, he took on another hue. He used a legal ruse to argue that Edward’s young sons Edward and Richard were conceived illegitimately, and seized the crown for himself; the two ‘Princes in the Tower’ were never seen again. He might have argued that it was necessary for England’s sake, given the imminent threat from the Tudors. All was lost in any case at Bosworth in 1485, when the usurper Henry VII ended Richard’s life, the Plantagenet dynasty, the Wars of the Roses, and the Middle Ages. Richard’s skeleton was eventually found in 2012 and respectfully reburied at Leicester Cathedral.
Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530)
Thomas Wolsey’s life encapsulated the principle that supping with the devil demands a long spoon. From humble origins in Suffolk, he became a priest after studying theology at Oxford. He was appointed chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury and rector of Lydd, although it’s doubtful that he preached there. He was royal chaplain under Henry VII, and his rise to fame and riches grew meteoric under Henry VIII. He became Archbishop of York in 1514 and then a cardinal; yet his secular power was no less impressive, culminating in the Lord Chancellorship. It all went pear-shaped when Henry took a fancy to Anne Boleyn. Wolsey was charged with securing Henry’s divorce from Queen Catherine. Seeing the likely consequences, he actively resisted. Henry responded by relieving him of his government titles and Hampton Court Palace, and then summoning him to be tried for treason. Wolsey saved himself a lot of pain by expediently dying en route.
Queen Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536)
Catalina de Aragon was one of the more pitiable figures in history. Her illustrious parents were Ferdinand and Isabella, who’d completed the reconqista of Spain and unified the Spanish nation. At 15, she married Prince Arthur, heir to the English throne, who died after just five months. Seven years later, she wed his brother, King Henry VIII. Living at Leeds Castle, she acquitted herself well, even serving as regent in Henry’s absence. Her one failure lay in the matter of providing a male heir. The nearest she came in six pregnancies was a would-be Henry IX who died after seven weeks; only the future Mary I survived. In 1533 her impatient husband had the marriage annulled, took up with Anne Boleyn, and ejected Catherine from court. She was shunned, moved from place to place, and took to wearing a hair shirt; and still she refused to recognise the divorce. When she died, daughter Mary was even forbidden to attend the funeral.
Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556)
It fell to Nottinghamshire-born academic Thomas Cranmer to pick up the pieces of King Henry VIII’s repudiation of the Roman Catholic Church. Cardinal Wolsey turned to him at Cambridge for support on the matter of Henry’s divorce. It led Cranmer to tour Europe in search of academic advice, during which his encounters with Protestant activists influenced his theological thinking. In 1532, he was surprisingly summoned to the Canterbury archbishopric. As a theological Mr Fixit by royal appointment, he smoothed the passage of Henry’s matrimonial convulsions, whilst under Edward VI he created the Anglican liturgy, including the Book of Common Prayer. Such achievements came back to bite him, however, for he inevitably fell foul of the Catholic Queen Mary. Tried for treason and heresy, he recanted his beliefs, but to no avail; Mary wanted an example made of him. At the last moment, he dramatically renounced his recantation, cursed the Pope, and died a Protestant martyr’s fiery death at Oxford.
Anne Boleyn (ca 1501-36)
Nan Bullen was probably born at her family’s second home in Norfolk, but is most closely associated with Hever Castle. After a couple of proposed marriages had fallen through, in 1526 she drew the attention of the priapic King, who already enjoyed her elder sister Mary as a mistress. Anne refused to sleep with him unless as his Queen. His ardour for her became the primary driver of his campaign to divorce his wife, even though it meant forcing a historic rupture with the Roman Catholic Church. Not until 1533 could they marry, just three months before Anne gave birth to the future Queen Elizabeth I. There followed three miscarriages in three years, however, prompting the King to transfer his interest to Jane Seymour. To this end, he had various trumped-up charges brought against Anne, including adultery, incest and intended regicide. Being a decent cove, however, he graciously permitted her head to be severed by an expert swordsman.
Anne of Cleves (1515-57)
After Jane Seymour’s death, Henry VIII decided to strengthen his alliance with German Protestants by marrying one of the Duke of Jülich-Cleves-Berg’s two daughters. Hans Holbein the Younger was famously sent to paint accurate portraits of both so that Henry could make his choice. When in 1540 the King informally met his bride-to-be Anna von Kleve at Rochester Abbey, however, he was sorely unimpressed. The feeling remained when they were officially introduced at Blackheath; and he proved incapable of consummating their marriage at Greenwich. After six fruitless months, he got her to agree to an annulment. The ever-loyal Thomas Cromwell, who had presided over the fiasco, paid with his life. At least Anne was treated well: Henry called her his “Beloved Sister”, and granted her the use of several houses, including Hever Castle. She resided last at the Manor House in Dartford, where she outlived all Henry’s other wives, and indeed him.
King Edward VI (1537-53)
For one whose birth was greeted with such an outpouring of joy, the life of Edward VI was strangely disappointing. He never got to meet his mother, Jane Seymour, because she died suddenly a fortnight after giving birth to him at Hampton Court. He succeeded his father Henry VIII at the age of nine. The Council ruling on his behalf functioned calamitously, ushering in military defeat, economic problems, and revolt. Only in religious reform did his reign see anything coherent. The young Protestant king oversaw a radical advance in the Reformation, as Archbishop Cranmer and Bishops Latimer and Ridley established the Anglican liturgy. Conscious that his half-sister Mary would not stomach the new orthodoxy, Edward worked with the Council to bar her from power, issuing his ‘Devise for the Succession’ in 1553. By that time, however, he had contracted a fatal lung illness, possibly tuberculosis. He resorted to the Placentia Palace in Greenwich, where he died aged 15.
Queen Jane (1537-54)
Even by Tudor standards, the fate of Lady Jane Grey was dismal. Like Edward VI, she was a great-grandchild of Henry VII, but through a cadet branch. Living at Halden Place in Rolvenden, she seemed secure from courtly intrigue. In May 1553, she married Guilford Dudley, the Duke of Northumberland’s son, in a triple wedding. The King, however, was fatally ill, and a month later reversed his father’s Third Succession Act that had restored Edward’s two illegitimate sisters to the succession. By July, he was dead, and Lady Grey became Queen Jane. When her father-in-law belatedly rode off to apprehend Edward’s elder sister, Mary Tudor, the Catholic Earl of Arundel staged a putsch. Mary was hailed queen, and Jane’s support evaporated. Since Jane hadn’t wanted the job, Mary showed clemency at first; but when her father joined Wyatt’s Rebellion, the Nine-Days’ Queen was done for. Young Jane was even shown Dudley’s headless body before facing the chop herself.
Sir Francis Drake (1540-96)
Drake’s bravado at sea earned him the ultimate accolade, the contemptuous Spanish nickname ‘El Draque’: the Dragon. The quintessential English national hero, his story used to be known to every schoolchild. In an era of Spanish mastery of the seas, he plundered the Spanish Main, burned King Philip II’s fleet at Cadiz, and enjoyed a game of bowls before seeing off the Armada. Less well known is his Kentish connection. His family had fled a Catholic rebellion in their native Devon when he was nine, settling at Upnor, where his father became vicar. It was their proximity to the Medway that first drew Drake to seafaring. It’s often forgotten that Queen Elizabeth knighted Drake at Deptford not for his military exploits but as a navigator. He was in fact the first man ever to captain a ship all the way around the world. For an encore, he even claimed California as an English colony en route.
Edmund Spenser (ca 1552-99)
Spenser must be acknowledged as one of the most talented (not to mention prolific) poets in the English language. On the other hand, he was a world-class toady. Born in London, he made his way via the Merchant Taylors’ School to Pembroke College, Cambridge. The Master there was John Young, who later became Bishop of Rochester. In 1578, Young invited Spenser to join him as secretary. Thereafter, Spenser spent many years in Ireland. He was not popular, possibly because of his view that Ireland would never be subjugated until its language and culture had been obliterated; Irish insurgents eventually burnt his home. While there, however, he wrote the first three volumes of his masterpiece, ‘The Faerie Queene’. It was intended to be a 12-volume apotheosis of Queen Elizabeth I. Although it won him a £50 pension, he managed only six volumes, which probably cost him his knighthood. It’s not known whether the Queen even read it.
Henry Brooke, 11th Baron Cobham (1564-1618)
Henry Brooke was perfectly happy as the 11th Baron Cobham and Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports when a regime change wrong-footed him. Brooke was the son of the 10th Baron, the man reckoned to have been the basis of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, whom the Bard originally named Oldcastle after Brooke’s ancestor. Henry’s brother Sir George, an altogether sharper character, was involved in a plot to kidnap the new Catholic king, James I, and replace him with Arbella Stuart. This so-called ‘Bye Plot’ was discovered, and Sir George executed. The investigation also revealed a ‘Main Plot’ in which his brother, Henry, was to travel to Spain, collect a vast amount of money, and share it with Sir Walter Raleigh for seditious purposes. Brooke’s understandable motivation was probably to stop the King stealing his estate to give to a Scottish favourite, the Duke of Lennox. Both Brooke and Raleigh spent most of the rest of their lives in the Tower.
John Donne (1572-1631)
A Londoner, John Donne was born Catholic in a Protestant society. Faced with limited career prospects, he spent his substantial inheritance on women and travel. At length he landed a job as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, whose daughter he married secretly, for which he was initially thrown in gaol. Living in poverty with numerous children drove him to despair. He sought respite in politics; but it was poetry that changed his life. He started writing poems for wealthy patrons, including anti-Catholic works. His expedient transformation was completed in 1615, when he became an Anglican priest and took on the rectory of Sevenoaks. It’s uncertain how often he preached there, especially after becoming Dean of St Paul’s, where he eventually was buried. One of the tricksy Metaphysical poets, his erotic and satirical works later gave way to religious reflection. Most famously, his ‘No man is an Iland’ invites us to regard every death as our own, presumably even his.
John Evelyn (1620-1706)
Evelyn’s family had grown rich manufacturing gunpowder. He grew up with grandparents in Lewes, attending grammar school before going to Oxford. His studies then took him to the Middle Temple in London, just in time for a tumultuous period in British history. Evelyn witnessed the Civil Wars, the execution of King Charles I, the Dutch Wars, Cromwell’s dictatorship, the Restoration, the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, and the Glorious Revolution. This whole period, from 1640 to his death, he recorded in his diaries. Forty years of it he spent at Sayes Court, Deptford. What makes his memoir particularly interesting is the fact that, being a well-travelled polymath, he covered culture as well as politics. He actually wrote books on numerous topics. A particular interest was trees, but he also penned forward-looking works on pollution, forestation, and conservation. He even co-founded the Royal Society. He is celebrated in the name of the American toiletries company Crabtree & Evelyn.
John Locke (1632-1704)
Locke, a Puritan from Somerset, devoted his life to thinking. He did some work, for example as a physician to MP Caleb Banks near Wye in 1679; but philosophising was his thing. His one good contribution was turning Sir Francis Bacon’s empirical ideas into Empiricism: the theory that knowledge derives from verifiable experience, not rationalisation. From that promising start, however, he rationalised endlessly. Among his suppositions was the belief that the mind is a Blank Slate. Although discredited at book length by neuroscientist Stephen Pinker, this canard still encourages authoritarians determined to programme children with their own convictions. Locke also asserted that rulers who fail to respect the hypothetical ‘Social Contract’ are liable to be replaced. This progressive-sounding notion was seized upon by American revolutionists wanting to get on with the business of slave-owning and colonial expansion. Anyone interested to know the source of the unverifiable philosophical speculations of the Declaration of Independence need look no further than John Locke.
Titus Oates (1649-1705)
Oates from Rutland took a well-trodden path, donning a priest’s robes so as better to deceive others. He became vicar of Bobbing in 1673, following which he falsely accused a Hastings headmaster of sodomy in the hope of getting his job. Charged with perjury, he fled to the Navy, where he himself was found guilty of that very crime, but escaped a death penalty because of his ‘calling’. He then swapped religions from Anglican to Baptist to Catholic and back. Despite his record, he was taken seriously when he alleged a Popish Plot to kill Charles II; so seriously that numerous innocent men were executed. Parliament even awarded him an apartment and an income. Once found out, he was castigated mercilessly, but could not legally be executed. Any psychiatrist would now see in Titus Oates a pathological liar. The fact that the political elite was so readily deceived is a C17 lesson that resonates four centuries later.
Edmond Halley (1656-1742)
The great mystery about Halley is how to pronounce his name. It rhymed either with Crawley or Valley; we can discount the misconception that led Bill Haley to call his band the Comets. Halley came from a wealthy manufacturing family in Middlesex and studied astronomy at Oxford. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society at 22 on account of his impressive star maps. Famously, he prompted Newton to write up the earth-shattering ‘Principia’, which Halley himself paid to have published. The achievement that immortalised him, however, occurred in 1705, when he correctly predicted that the comet he had observed in 1682 would return every 76 years. In 1720 he succeeded John Flamsteed as Astronomer Royal, taking up residence in Greenwich. He lived a long life, but not the 102 years necessary to see his Comet again. He died at home, and is buried in Lee Green. As for Halley’s Comet, it will be back in 2061.
Daniel Defoe (1660-1731)
As the author of ‘Robinson Crusoe’, Daniel Foe takes credit for one of the most popular characters in world literature. Almost all else about him was however a mess. Although the son of a wealthy London tallow-chandler and beneficiary of his wife’s rich dowry, he was always in debt or bankrupt, and in and out of debtors’ prison. What’s more, as a Presbyterian, he was ever the outsider. His contrarianism got him into further trouble, especially as he wrote compulsively: he penned hundreds of works under around 200 pseudonyms, including ‘Defoe’. More than once he was literally pilloried. After participating in the failed Monmouth Rebellion, he was lucky to escape the Bloody Assizes. He later offended George I, and went into hiding for months on the outskirts of Cranbrook, where he probably wrote his magnum opus. The shambolic anti-hero of his other great novel, ‘Moll Flanders’, could have been an allegory of himself. He died while hiding from creditors.
Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726)
Vanbrugh was a type very familiar today: a rich and powerful establishment figure who ostentatiously devoted himself to radicalism. Contrary to the homely myth of Leigh Hunt’s biography, he started life with a silver spoon in his mouth, being descended from Flemish cloth-merchants. At 22 he committed himself to William of Orange’s campaign to overthrow James II and was imprisoned in France, including in the Bastille, for nearly five years. Back in London, he failed in theatre management; but there was no doubting his talent, or versatility. He wrote two successful Restoration comedies, the latter of which particularly scandalised Tories with its libertarian outlook. His more enduring achievements, however, came in the world of architecture. He designed the most extravagant of C18 stately homes, including Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace. As befitted a Whiggish man of means, he also built himself a handsome abode, Vanbrugh Castle in Greenwich Park, where he spent the bulk of his married life.
Beau Nash (1674-1761)
Richard ‘Beau’ Nash was a supreme English dandy. His early life was highly conservative: Oxford, the Army, the Bar. It wasn’t for him. Instead he made himself the unofficial but indispensable Mr Fixit of Bath’s social scene. He would get anyone into the right function with the right people, so long as he was remunerated. He turned the city into the most fashionable in Britain, whilst gambling and womanising furiously. A handsome chap with outrageous fashion sense, he was plainly quite a catch: after he left one distraught mistress, she spent the rest of her life living in a hollow tree. Having turned Bath into his personal kingdom, Nash made Tunbridge Wells a colony, just as soon as his counterpart there – the redoubtable Bell Causey – popped her clogs. From 1735, under this self-appointed ‘Master of Ceremonies’, the town became an essential port of call for high society. When he died, Bath gave him the municipal equivalent of a state funeral.
Thomas Bayes (1701-61)
Bayes is a name familiar to every scientist, but sadly not to the public. Bayes had two interests: religion, and maths. Like his father, he was a Presbyterian minister, and moved from London to become Minister of Mount Sion chapel in Tunbridge Wells from 1734 to 1752. He was perhaps goaded by David Hume’s attack on belief in miracles to formulate his lasting contribution to maths, Bayes’ Theorem. He never published it in his lifetime, so only won posthumous recognition. His concise mathematical formula demonstrated how, for example, the likelihood of having a disease varies dramatically according to its incidence in a population and the accuracy of the test for it. This gave rise to the concept of Bayesian probability, the idea that likelihoods change as we acquire more information. Anyone in politics and the media who understands this will appreciate that simply applying the average mortality rate of a disease to a whole population is not science.
William Pitt the Elder (1708-78)
The 1st Earl of Chatham was actually nicknamed The Great Commoner because of his long refusal to accept a title. It only came about because, in 1766, he felt the need to join the House of Lords in order to comply with the King’s wish that he form a new government. He had already been informal leader of the Cabinet between 1756 and 1761. His family’s long connection with politics went back to his grandfather, who had got rich by finding a massive diamond. Pitt, however, stood out not for aristocratic connections but outstandingly erudite debating skills in Parliament. Though unpopular with the Commons, his energetic foreign policy earned him public adulation; even Pittsburgh was renamed after him on being taken from the French. He was initially buried at Hayes Place, the house near Bromley he had bought in 1754; but politicians of all persuasions joined in requesting that he be reburied with a monument at Westminster Abbey.
Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-84)
Johnson did not start life well. He never cried as a baby, was sickly, and had a scarred face in consequence of a botched operation for scrofula. He then developed embarrassing tics, now recognised as Tourette’s. At their first encounter, Hogarth assumed he was an idiot, but was then astonished by the man’s conversational brilliance. Johnson was after all a genius. Even as a child he performed prodigious feats of memory. He is most associated now with the Dictionary of the English Language (1755) that became his bequest to mankind. Yet his accomplishment as a man of letters went much further. He has been described as the world’s only great critic of English literature, and his aphorisms and witticisms were of the highest order. He also wrote poetry and drama, and moved to Greenwich in 1737 to complete his play ‘Irene’. The world is lucky to have had the assiduous James Boswell to record it all.
Commander James Cook (1728-79)
James Cook was the captain who boldly went where no European had gone before. A Yorkshireman, he joined the merchant navy and later the Royal Navy, earning note for charting the St Lawrence River at Wolfe’s Siege of Quebec. It earned him the command of HMS Endeavour on an expedition to Tahiti (1768-71) to observe a Venus transit. He continued in search of Australia, making landfall at the place he famously named Botany Bay. On his return, he landed at Deal. His second voyage (1772-5) was a failed attempt on HMS Resolution to locate Antarctica, though he greatly expanded knowledge of the South Pacific. Cook was awarded honorary retirement as an officer of Greenwich Hospital; but he soon fatefully accepted the challenge of seeking the Northwest Passage, again on Resolution (1776-9). Foiled by ice, he returned to Hawaii, which he had named the Sandwich Islands after his sponsor. There, like fellow circumnavigator Magellan, he was stabbed to death by natives.
Lord Sydney (1733-1800)
Thomas Townshend would be forgotten if it hadn’t been for one historic event on his watch. He had been MP for Whitchurch in Hampshire for nearly three decades when, in 1783, he was ennobled. By that time, his father had died and left Frognal House near Chislehurst to him. He at first intended to call himself Lord Sidney after the stout republican Algernon Sidney, from whom he was descended. Concerned that the Sidneys might make something of it, he opted instead for Sydenham, after the nearby Kent town. Further thought led him to a compromise: Lord Sydney. It happened to be in 1788, during his time as Home Secretary, that the first convict ship reached Australia. Arthur Philip, as first governor of New South Wales, named the new penal colony in Sydney’s honour. But for Townshend’s change of mind, Australia’s biggest city would now be called Sydenham. As for Lord Sydney, he lies buried in Chislehurst church.
Captain John Montresor (1736-99)
Montresor’s legacy in Kent is Belmont House, which he built in 1783 and occupied for ten years before being charged with embezzlement. By then, he already had a colourful history. He was born in Gibraltar, and trained as a British Army engineer. He served with Braddock in the French & Indian War in America, and then Wolfe at Quebec. His next few years have the flavour of a Boy’s Own frontier adventure. He even acquired an island in New York harbour that he named after himself. He became the Army’s chief engineer, and from 1776 participated in several battles of the Revolutionary War. After three years, he came home and resigned from the Army, but had walked into trouble: he was made to appear before Parliament to account for his expenditure. Certainly he wasn’t hard up, having a property in Portland Place in addition to Belmont. After having his assets confiscated by the state, he eventually died in Maidstone gaol.
Thomas Paine (1737-1809)
Thomas Pain single-handedly triggered the loss of Britain’s American colonies. A Quaker from Norfolk, he followed his father into stay-making. After a spell as a privateer, he set up a failed business in Sandwich before moving to Margate, where his wife died in childbirth. He then drifted from job to job, an untrustworthy ne’er-do-well. In 1774, he left his second wife and emigrated to Pennsylvania. Now ‘Paine’, he penned ‘Common Sense’, a vengeful work of anti-royalist propaganda that whipped colonial grievance into open sedition. Following the War, Paine returned to Britain, but fled to revolutionary Paris after being arraigned for treason. Ever the turncoat, he sought to help the French king and was sentenced to be guillotined; but Robespierre expired just in time. Paine died back in America, barely mourned after lambasting President Washington. Hailed today as a leftist firebrand, it was actually Paine who enabled the slave-owning elite to commence their aggressive conquest of French, Spanish and Indian territory.
Kitty Fisher (1741-67)
Catherine Fisher showed what a difference a century makes. From lowly origins in London, she had little but her looks and her wits to fall back on. She no longer had to depend on royal favours, however: the absolutist and mercantilist Stuart era had given way to the nascent industrial revolution, putting money in lots more pockets. Fisher revelled in the luxury showered on her by rich patrons. An outrageous exhibitionist, she deliberately exposed her private parts to the public in an ‘accidental’ fall from a horse, got Joshua Reynolds to paint her portrait many times in the most flattering manner, and made sure to promote endless gossip. Envious of her old rival Maria Gunning’s marriage to one of her former customers, Lord Coventry, she allowed a doting admirer, MP John Norris, to marry her and house her at his country home, now Benenden School. She died after only four months there, and is buried in the local churchyard.
Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820)
Most people can name more astrophysicists then they can botanists; but there is one with a Kent connection who ought to be a household name. Joseph Banks became famous when he accompanied James Cook on his first voyage. So important was he to the mission that Botany Bay was named in his honour. He discovered 1,400 new plant species, bringing home tens of thousands of specimens, and became a key player in the establishment of Kew Gardens. He was also instrumental in setting up other important maritime missions, for example Vancouver’s exploration of North-West America and Bligh’s expeditions that, despite the mutiny on HMS Bounty, helped establish breadfruit as a major food source in the Caribbean. His outstanding contribution to science was recognised in his presidency of the Royal Society, which he held for 41 years. In 1779, Banks married Dorothy Huguesson of Provender House near Faversham, where some of the trees he planted can still be seen today.
William Eden, 1st Baron Auckland (1745-1814)
William Eden was from the same aristocratic County Durham family as the C20 prime minister Anthony Eden. His first noteworthy action was a failed mission to end the American Revolutionary War in 1778. He did however gain a reputation as an expert on commerce, and later became Britain’s spy chief. Eden moved to Eden Farm in Beckenham, where he was neighbour and friend to prime minister William Pitt the Younger. Pitt became very close to Eden‘s daughter Eleanor; he would visit her on his way from London to Walmer, where he occupied the Castle as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. As poignantly depicted in Carol Reed’s 1942 biopic, Pitt was so wed to his career that he ultimately spurned her, for which Eden never forgave him. Even worse, his eldest son drowned himself in the Thames. The Auckland Islands south of New Zealand were named after him by their discoverer, Abraham Bristow, in 1806.
William Cobbett (1763-1835)
Cobbett was the original social justice warrior. Though best known for ‘Rural Rides’ – a travelogue that includes two accounts of 1820s Kent – he was predominantly a lifelong scourge of the ruling class. The connection was the Corn Laws, legislation aimed at sustaining landowners’ profits by restricting foreign food imports. Like much of Cobbett’s copious writing, ‘Rural Rides’ was intended to dramatise its impact on ordinary people. Yet he would have had no truck with the anti-nation stance of today’s radicals: Britain belonged to the people, not the rulers, and must be sustained. He signed up to the Army at 20, spending a year at Chatham before serving in America. He returned to marry an American at Woolwich. Though he escaped retribution more than once by fleeing overseas, his loyalty never wavered. Indeed, he cheekily opened a shop in Philadelphia loudly supporting the King. Despite his antislavery stance, he even lambasted the sanctimonious William Wilberforce.
Sir Thomas Hardy (1769-1839)
Hardy, from Dorset, joined the Navy from grammar school, and worked his way up through the ranks. He was a first lieutenant at the time when, in 1796, he got a new senior officer: Commodore Nelson, who made him master and commander of his own corvette. In 1798, the two hunted down the French fleet and smashed it at the Battle of the Nile. Although Hardy disapproved of Nelson’s paramour Lady Hamilton, he was still flag captain at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. Two years later, the pair joined up on HMS Victory, blockading the French fleet at Toulon before chasing it across the Atlantic and back. At length, on October 21st, 1805, the tragic finale arrived. At Trafalgar, Nelson ignored Hardy’s advice to retire, and was shot dead. Hardy later became First Sea Lord and Governor of the Greenwich Hospital, where he died and is buried. He will never have forgotten Nelson’s last words: “God bless you, Hardy”.
The Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)
Arthur Wellesley came from an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, but used to point out that being born in a stable did not make a man a horse. He had a stratospheric career in the British Army. Already a general by 1803, he won a decisive victory over the Maratha Confederacy. He then distinguished himself in the Peninsular War, and was made a field marshal in 1813. With the War won, he briefly became ambassador to France, until called upon to take on Napoleon himself at the century’s most momentous battle, Waterloo. As usual, it was his ability to conserve his own forces that won the day. Though Commander-in-Chief of the Army until his death, it was politics that consumed him thereafter. He joined the Tories, and became prime minister from 1828 to 1830. Having always fancied residing at Walmer Castle, he made himself Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports from 1829, and so lived and died there.
Richard Trevithick (1771-1833)
When Richard Trevithick was born, steam power was only that. Newcomen had invented his atmospheric engine in 1712, good for pumping water, and half a century later Watt added the separate condenser, tripling its efficiency. Yet locomotion remained a dream. Like Newcomen, Trevithick was set on making mining less onerous; but locomotion was no easy challenge, beset by theoretical and technical difficulties. His solution depended on high-pressure steam power, which could be dangerous. In 1803, four of his men were killed in an explosion at Greenwich, which his older rival Watt exploited mercilessly. Trevithick pressed on regardless. Having demonstrated the world’s first road locomotive, the Puffing Devil, at Camborne in 1801, he triumphantly staged the first-ever railway journey at Merthyr Tydfil on February 21st, 1804. He struggled to exploit his breakthrough commercially, however. After living for over a year at Dartford, he died penniless at the Bull hotel, and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Sir Francis Austen (1774-1865)
Francis Austen was another unfortunate whose achievements are overshadowed by an illustrious relative. Born in Hampshire, he attended the Royal Naval Academy, and in his early twenties was ordered to Ramsgate to form the local Sea Fencibles – a naval Home Guard – to help defend against Napoleonic invasion. It landed him the command of his own ship, HMS Peterel, in which he proved highly effective at harassing enemy shipping: he captured 40 French ships that the Navy had the option of turning against their former owners. He ended up sailing under Nelson in the fleet that chased the French both ways across the Atlantic. He missed Trafalgar while on duty elsewhere, but later fought in the War of 1812. After a long career that earned him many honours, he was made Admiral of the Fleet at 89. Since his sister Jane’s favourite character Fanny Price adored her seafaring brother, we can assume that Austen had at least one famous admirer.
Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-65)
Paxton from Bedfordshire looked special from an early age. Spotted by the Duke of Devonshire at 20, he was made head gardener of Chatsworth. Arriving at 4.30am on his first day, he had explored the gardens, briefed his team, and met his future wife by 9am. He worked marvels in the coming years, culminating in the Great Conservatory and the Lily House. So ingeniously designed were these iron-and-glass structures that they prompted the idea for his chef-d’oeuvre, the Crystal Palace. Being prefabricated, it could be removed from Hyde Park after the 1851 Great Exhibition. Paxton re-erected it at Penge, and moved to the area. His achievements did not stop there. He wrote a ‘Pocket Botanical Dictionary’ in addition to various magazines; he cultivated the Cavendish banana that is now standard in the West; he designed several great houses, including Mentmore Towers; and he even spent 10 years as an MP. He died at his home, Rock Hills, in Sydenham.
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81)
Nobody observing the primrose-loving ‘Dizzy’ in 1825 could have believed he’d become a distinguished Conservative prime minister. Of Italian-Jewish ancestry, he was born in Bloomsbury, boarded at school in Blackheath, and at 12 converted to Anglicanism. He looked the Romantic writer and radical he aspired to be, especially when early forays into the law, journalism and business speculation failed miserably. He was drawn to politics by the 1832 Reform Bill crisis. Supportive of protectionism, he gravitated to the Tories, despite having alienated its old guard with his satirical writings. By 1837 he was elected MP for Maidstone. In 1868, he became prime minister, and again from 1874 to 1880. Under Disraeli, the Tory party transformed to today’s ‘One Nation Conservatives’, preaching aristocratic support for workers as a counterweight to the mercantile class. His death was met with grief, especially from the adoring Queen Victoria. Even Gladstone, whom he’d often bested in debate, managed to sound magnanimous.
Emperor Napoleon III of France (1808-73)
As nephew of Emperor Napoleon and grandson of Empress Josephine through an earlier marriage, Louis-Napoleon was a chip off the old block. He had two serious addictions, sex and power, and sought the latter to secure the former. His path was barred by King Louis Philippe I, whom he tried to depose with farcical rebellions. After the 1848 Revolution, he became President democratically by offering that potent mix, nationalism and socialism, but then ruled autocratically, even banning beards as subversive. When democracy failed him, he declared himself Emperor. His reign saw developments in infrastructure and some minor reforms, but he failed abjectly as both politician and general in the face of Bismarck’s rise in Prussia. Taken prisoner at Sedan in 1870, he was deposed and later exiled to his bolthole, Camden Place in Chislehurst, where he’d kept a mistress on an earlier exile. At his death, he was suffering from multiple painful maladies. So ended the glorious French monarchy.
Charles Darwin (1809-82)
It’s curious that Darwin, nowadays on most people’s list of the top scientists ever, was told by his father while young that he would never make anything of himself. His response was to join a five-year circumnavigation of the globe as naturalist on HMS Beagle. As he made observations and collected samples, a world-changing idea formed: natural selection. After returning in 1836, he methodically chose to marry his cousin Emma Wedgwood, and settled down for the rest of his life at Downe near Bromley. There, despite a chronic tropical illness, he completed the studies that would inform his ‘Origin of Species’ in 1859. He generously shared the credit with Alfred Wallace, who’d expressed the same idea without the evidence. Ever the gentleman, Darwin was anxious to avoid the religious controversy his book would inevitably spark, had eminent friends in Lyell, Hooker and Huxley to put the case. Though internationally revered, he was never honoured by his nation.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92)
Tennyson had two great strengths that have maintained his reputation to the present day. One was his talent for quotable quotes, such as “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all“. The other was his ability to tell stories in verse that painted vivid pictures. His most famous, of course, was ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ with its ill-fated foray into the Valley of Death, which he managed to glorify without mitigating the blunder that prompted it. Though his poetry was unashamedly sentimental and populist, his medieval and mythological themes proved an inspiration to the Pre-Raphaelites. Tennyson was born in Lincolnshire, but his family moved to Tunbridge Wells when he was 30 and, a year later, to Boxley, north of Maidstone. He didn’t marry until he was 40. That same year, he succeeded Wordsworth as Poet Laureate, which he remained for an incredible 42 years until his death – a record.
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63)
Thackeray was once placed on a par with Dickens. He is remembered today for ‘Vanity Fair’, which still enjoys a glorious reputation as a satire of Victorian society; but the rest of his work goes largely neglected. Thackeray came from Calcutta, where his father worked for the East India Company. After coming to England and failing to graduate from Cambridge, he spent his life as something of a ne’er-do-well, living at times in Tunbridge Wells. Only when he got married and had three children did he start, in his words, to “write for my life”. It was the serialised adventures of Becky Sharp in ‘Vanity Fair’ (1847-8) that made all the difference to his wealth and fame. His happiness was not terribly long-lived, however. After his wife became suicidally insane, he devoted himself to eating and drinking, and died suddenly of a stroke; 7,000 attended his funeral. Paradoxcally, his widow survived him by 31 years.
Charles Dickens (1812-70)
If the Royal Navy hadn’t temporarily relocated his father to Portsmouth at the time of Dickens’ birth, he’d be a thoroughgoing Man of Kent. When he was four, the family moved to Sheerness, then Chatham. Young Dickens used to admire Gad’s Hill in Rochester on his way to school, and decades later bought it to retire to. He proved a career novelist of the highest order, producing a dozen classics of which most authors might be proud to claim just one. Dickens was highly familiar with and fond of East Kent, and buildings in the Medway towns, Canterbury and Thanet are recognisable in his works. He had a particular association with Broadstairs, notably ‘Bleak House’ where he wrote ‘David Copperfield’. He especially dramatised the misery of indebtedness, sparked by his father’s self-inflicted misfortunes. His talent lay in doing so whilst usually maintaining a wry distance, despite sometimes lapsing into excessive sentimentality. Notwithstanding his marital misdemeanours, he died a national hero.
Augustus Pugin (1812-52)
If Pugin had never designed the tower in which Big Ben resides, it is debatable whether he would now be remembered much. The great art critic John Ruskin thought not; but Pugin certainly made a statement with his many neo-Gothic commissions all over the country, especially churches. He was the son of a draughtsman who’d fled the French Revolution. Having been raised a Presbyterian, he suddenly converted to Roman Catholicism at 22. This usefully opened up a lot of new business contacts among Catholics; and Pugin wholeheartedly embraced the sumptuousness of Catholic culture. This was nowhere more evident than at ‘The Grange’ in Ramsgate, which he designed from scratch as his new home in 1843-4, along with the adjacent Saint Augustine‘s Church. His end was as macabre as it was premature. On a train journey with his son, he dramatically lost his mental faculties, and never recovered them before his death seven months later.
Samuel Plimsoll (1824-98)
Having failed to make a living as a coal merchant, Samuel Plimsoll experienced the pain of living in penury. It persuaded him to commit to improving conditions for others. Being a Bristolian by birth, he decided to adopt a maritime cause, namely the issue of ‘coffin ships’: vessels that were overladen and in danger of sinking. After becoming MP for Derby, he campaigned for legislation to set a maximum draught for each merchant ship. He was vehemently opposed, and backed down after going berserk in the House. Nevertheless, public pressure led to his demands being met in 1876. The visible result was the ‘Plimsoll line’ painted around ships’ hulls, above which sea-level must not rise. Plimsoll’s name became known worldwide. He had a second bite of the cherry in 1870, when the plimsoll shoe was named after him on account of the line of the sole running around it. He retired to Folkestone, and was buried at Cheriton.
Lt General Augustus Pitt Rivers (1827-1900)
Yorkshireman Augustus Lane-Fox was a career soldier. After fighting in the Crimean War, he did weapons instruction at Woolwich, and later set up the Hythe School of Musketry. During his various postings overseas, he was a fanatical collector of ethnological objects, which he innovatively organised so as to demonstrate their evolution over time. He particularly developed the philosophy that archaeological artefacts must be collected irrespective of their artistic merit, a landmark change from current practice. In 1880 his cousin left him a vast estate in the West Country with the proviso that he adopt the surname Pitt Rivers. When he left his 22,000 ethnological exhibits to Oxford University, they were given that name; and today the Pitt Rivers Museum remains among the most important in the world. On his retirement in 1882, Pitt Rivers became the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments. It was at his behest that the Kit’s Coty monuments near Aylesford were protected with railings.
Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913)
John Lubbock was a banker in the family tradition who became the first president of the Institute of Bankers. He was also a politician, serving twice as MP for Maidstone. But his passion was for the past. This was unsurprising, since his childhood neighbour at High Elms in Downe was Charles Darwin. In 1864, his interest in palaeontology earned him membership of the X Club, an elite group of supporters of natural selection led by Thomas Huxley. He had a parallel interest in archaeology, and in 1865 wrote the seminal text-book ‘Pre-Historic Times’, in which he coined the terms ‘palaeolithic’ and ‘neolithic’. For good measure, after his first wife died, he married Augustus Pitt Rivers’ daughter Alice. He saved the Avebury stone-circle from destruction, for which reason he became Baron Avebury in 1900. Although born in Eaton Square, he was a Kent man through and through. He actually rebuilt Kingsgate Castle as his family home, and died there.
William Morris (1834-96)
William Morris was less a man than a phenomenon. He was such a bowl of contradictions that he defies definition. Having started life as an evangelical Protestant, and courted Anglo-Catholicism at Oxford, he professed himself an atheist. While enjoying a privileged background, he expressed socialist ideals. His lifestyle was ostensibly bohemian, but thoroughly bourgeois. Yet the breadth of his creative power is unsurpassed. In his lifetime, he was best known as a poet, but today is reckoned a designer without equal. He was close to the Pre-Raphaelites, with whom he formed both friendships and profitable business associations. His Kentish connection is the Red House in Bexleyheath, which he co-designed with Philip Webb in 1859. It was a showcase of his Arts & Crafts Movement, with its commendable emphasis on traditional authenticity; Burne-Jones and Rossetti helped decorate it. Though Morris and wife Jane intended it as a home for life, he tired of it after five years.
Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh (1844-1900)
At his birth, Prince Alfred was second in line to the throne behind the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. At 14, he entered the Navy as a midshipman. By the age of 23, he was being sent around the world visiting the colonies on Queen Victoria’s behalf. Whilst in Australia, he was shot in the back by an Irish assassin, who was spared lynching but presently hanged. Alfred survived, and back home married Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna, sister of Tsar Alexander III, with whom he moved into Eastwell Manor. They had four daughters, one of whom became Queen of Roumania. Their eldest son Alfred killed himself in his twenties. Alfred’s marriage was unhappy, his wife taking a dim view of British royalty. It perhaps was a relief when, in 1893, his uncle died and he succeeded as Duke of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha in Germany. He died just seven years later of throat cancer.
Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928)
Alice Ellen Terry had two great interests in life: the stage, and men. She had the theatre in her blood, coming from a family of actors in Coventry, and took up the trade from her earliest years. She joined Henry Irving’s company in 1878, and for the last two decades of the C19 became Britain’s greatest living actress, in both Shakespeare and comedy. Late in life, she even appeared in five silent movies. By then she had demonstrated the phenomenon, well known in sport, of the great player who proves a poor manager, when she took over the Imperial Theatre from Lily Langtry; it went out of business four years later. She also scandalised society with her string of men that included three husbands. The Pre-Raphaelites were particularly fond of her, and John Singer Sargent artfully painted her as Lady Macbeth. She spent her last 28 years living in Small Hythe, where she retired and died.
William Waldorf Astor, 1st Viscount Astor (1848-1919)
Willy Astor is chiefly remembered for two things: inheriting a vast amount of money, and giving much of it away. He was the great-grandson of John Jacob Astor, who had made himself the richest man in America through fur-trading. Willy inherited his father’s fortune in 1890. Having got into a rift with his Aunt Lina over who was the senior Mrs Astor in New York, he decamped to England and faked his own death, earning much derision when the truth came out. In 1893 he bought Cliveden, and ten years later Hever Castle, which he renovated as the new family pile; he gifted Cliveden to his son and daughter-in-law Waldorf and Nancy as a wedding present. In 1908, he funded the construction of London’s Waldorf Hotel. He also gave prodigious amounts to charity and the British war effort. It earned him a Baronetcy, plus a lot of flak for allegedly buying his way into the aristocracy.
Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924)
Francis Hodgson managed the feat of writing not one children’s classic, but three. The death of her father when she was two left the family in straitened circumstances, so in 1865 they left Manchester for Tennessee. Aged 19, Hodgson began writing in order to raise money, and three years later married a trainee doctor called Swan Burnett. Her big literary breakthrough was ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ in 1885. At 37, she started travelling annually to England, initially for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. Between 1898 and 1907 she lived at Great Maytham Hall in Rolvenden, where she made the discovery that would later inspire ‘The Secret Garden’. Her marriage had broken up after 26 years whilst she was suffering from depression following the death of a child. She ill-advisedly married a much younger man, Stephen Townsend, who was after her money; she divorced him after two years. Her consolation was the further success she enjoyed in 1905 with ‘The Little Princess’.
Lord Kitchener (1850-1916)
Herbert Kitchener will never be forgotten for the WW1 recruitment poster in which his stern face and pointing finger informed the reader that “Your Country Needs You”. It was typical of his style: tough and uncompromising. He was born in the west of Ireland after his father, an Army officer, bought land there. After being educated in Switzerland, he attended the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. He joined the Royal Engineers, serving in Palestine, Cyprus, and the Sudan. In 1898, he won the Battle of Omdurman, and was made Baron Kitchener of Khartoum. In the Boer Wars he was associated with a scorched-earth policy and the confinement of Boers in primitive ‘concentration camps’. At length, in 1911, he bought Broome Park near Canterbury, which he started renovating for his retirement. On June 5th, 1916, however, HMS Hampshire, on which he was sailing to meet the Tsar, struck a mine off Orkney. She went down with all 737 men on board.
Alice Liddell (1852-1934)
The world can thank Alice Liddell for one of the world’s great fictional characters. On July 4th, 1862, on a boating trip with her two sisters in Oxford, she asked Lewis Carroll for a story. Crucially, she then requested that he put it in writing. And so ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’ was born. The fictional Alice was not a depiction of Liddell, but Carroll did pay literary homage to her, spelling out her full name in an acrostic at the end of ‘Through the Looking-Glass’. Furthermore, his allegory of that boating trip, ‘A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale’, is imperfect unless Alice is Alice. The rumour that Carroll hoped to marry Alice is unfounded; a rift between him and the Liddells was probably caused by her sister Lorina’s excessive affection. Liddell would actually marry the Hampshire cricketer Reginald Hargreaves. After his death in 1926, she lived and died at Westerham, appropriately owning a Rolls-Royce with the registration number A1.
Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna (1853-1920)
In a world where it was customary to marry off royal princesses into foreign courts – whatever the young women concerned thought of it – it was encouraging that the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna of Russia and Prince Alfred of the UK actually loved each other. Indeed, their marriage went ahead despite universal opposition, especially from Queen Victoria. The objectors were nevertheless proved right. Maria was miserable at Eastwell Manor, hating Britain, the Church of England, and the Royal Family. After happily leaving when Alfred was posted to Malta, she changed the course of history by deterring her daughter from marrying the future King George V. In 1893, she did briefly find happiness in Germany, where her husband became the Duke of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha. She supported Germany during WW1, which sparked the Russian Revolution that brought the death of her nephew Nicholas II and destroyed the Romanov dynasty. She lost everything, and died unloved in Switzerland.
Vincent van Gogh (1853-90)
It seems hard to believe that van Gogh ever stayed in Kent during his short and turbulent life, but he did. Aged 23, having lost his job with an art dealer in Paris, he applied to teach in England. His only response came from headmaster William Stokes, who offered him a post at his boarding school in Ramsgate. Though van Gogh received only board and lodging, he reported that he enjoyed a rare spell of tranquillity there. It was rotten luck that the school was moved to Isleworth after just two months. Van Gogh was of course the most tortured of creative geniuses. Absurdly underrated in his lifetime, he suffered rejection and derision despite the lifelong support of brother Theo, who unfortunately predeceased him. His misery famously led him to cut off his ear, and then cut short his life. He does at least get the recognition he deserves today, even meriting his own museum in Amsterdam.
Margaret Zborowski (1853-1911)
Margaret Laura Carey might best be described as a career heiress. She was born in Manhattan as a great-granddaughter of America’s richest man, John Jacob Astor, and an only child. In 1875, she married the globe-trotting Dutch diplomat Alphonse, Ridder de Stuers, who handily was also an art collector. After having four children, they sensationally divorced in 1892. Within hours, she married a self-styled American count called Eliot Zborowski, son and heir of Martin Zabriskie who owned much of New York. Zborowski was killed in a motor-racing crash in 1903, leaving all to his widow. Now hyper-rich, she treated herself to Higham Park near Canterbury in 1910, paying £17,500 for its 225 acres and 12 houses. She then effortlessly spent £50,000 on refurbishing it. Unfortunately for her, it was only a year before she died. The beneficiary of this life of resourceful inheriting was her son Louis, who at 16 found himself very rich indeed.
Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Bourne (1854-1945)
Frank Bourne is best remembered for a piece of fiction. In the 1964 film ‘Zulu’, which depicted the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in 1879, Nigel Green played the character named after Bourne who, delivering a sentry’s report, uttered the chilling words, “Zulus to the Southwest. Thousands of them!” The real Frank Bourne was much smaller than Green, and much younger; he had become the British Army’s youngest Colour Sergeant at 21, and was still only 24. For his valour, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, second only to a VC. Bourne would have a long career in the Army. He later served as Adjutant of the Schools of Musketry in Hythe and Dublin. At the latter, he was responsible for training sharpshooters who later used their skills against the British Army for the IRA. A Sussex man, he retired to Beckenham, and only died there on the day after VE day, making him Rorke’s Drift’s last survivor.
William Willett (1856-1915)
Willett, a builder, is known for just one thing: British Summer Time. Although he came from Farnham, he spent most of his life living in Chislehurst. It was while riding his horse through Petts Wood early one summer morning that he noticed most people were still in bed, and realised it would save a lot of daylight if the clock were moved forward in the spring. He proposed that it be advanced by four weekly 20-minute increments during April that would be reversed in September. He did get some political support for the idea, including from Winston Churchill; but nothing happened until WW1, when an urgent need to preserve coal stocks forced action. The practice of advancing the clock by an hour was introduced in May 1916, a fact commemorated in the Willett memorial sundial at Petts Wood. Perhaps one day someone will complete his work by abolishing the habit of putting the clocks back in October.
Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)
Conrad’s status as one of the world’s greatest English-language novelists is astonishing, considering that he only learned the language in his twenties. He was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, the son of a Polish noble. He went to sea, and his maritime adventures, including smuggling, formed the basis of his early fiction. In 1878 he began a 16-year career in the British merchant navy, finally as a captain. He became a British subject and settled at Aldington. The novels for which he is now famous mark a lurch away from Victorian realism towards modernism, concerning human drives, dilemmas, and isolation. Politically, however, he is regarded today with ambivalence. His classic extended story ‘Heart of Darkness’ proposes the sameness of different races, but only because all are equally dangerous. This helps explain why the obscure Simone Weil is marked by a major avenue in Ashford, whilst the world-famous Conrad, who died in Bishopsbourne, gets only a new-build side-street.
E. Nesbit (1858-1924)
Edith Bland, née Nesbit, was born in Kennington, Surrey but spent years moving around Europe after her father died. She spent three years at Halstead Hall in Kent, on which she modelled the location of ‘The Railway Children’ in 1905. Her relationship with Hubert Bland was not easy. After getting her pregnant before their marriage, he continued doing the same to others, and had one lover move in permanently. Nesbit occupied herself by writing prolifically for a children’s audience, introducing more grown-up plots than was customary in the Victorian era, as well as a high literary standard. She and her husband did share an interest in radical politics: they joined the incipient Fabian Society, and named a child after it. Nesbit later retired to New Romney, where she died of lung cancer induced by her chronic smoking. It emerged in 2011 that she plagiarised her best-known book from Ada Graves’s ‘The House by the Railway’, published nine years earlier.
Sir Henry Royce (1863-1933)
Although he was born near Peterborough, it was in Manchester that Frederick Henry Royce set up an manufacturing business in 1884. Eventually deciding that he must expand outside of electric cranes and dynamos, Royce looked to the expanding automotive business. In 1904 he produced his first model, which he showed to London showroom owner Charles Rolls. The two united to form a perfect partnership, with the energetic Rolls as front man and the quietly spoken but fiercely determined Royce providing the expertise. The duo lasted only until 1910, however, when Rolls was killed in a plane crash. Royce’s marriage broke up two years later and, plagued by ill-health, he moved south. He took up residence in St Margaret’s Bay with his full-time nurse from 1913 to 1917. In the 1930s, his commitment to aero engines created the world-record breaking ‘R’ engine, whose successor the Rolls Royce Merlin would become the cornerstone of Britain’s aerial defences in 1940.
David Lloyd-George (1863-1945)
Few prime ministers had such a chequered record as David Lloyd George. Born in Manchester of Welsh parents, he narrowly became MP for Carnarvon Boroughs in 1890. He used his silver tongue effectively in climbing the greasy pole; it also brought him a string of bedroom companions. With WW1 going badly, he finally ousted his boss Herbert Asquith in December 1916, succeeding him as Coalition premier. On the plus side, he is remembered for somehow getting the War won, and in 1918 for expanding the franchise to all adult men, plus some women. On the other hand, he made a hash of the Chanak Crisis in Turkey, allowed the Irish Free State’s secession, and saw the economy crash. His slump in popularity ended Liberal government in Britain, ushering in the Labour Party. His acquaintance with Kent was brief: he lodged with his friend Sir George Markham at Beachborough Park in 1911 while recovering, aptly, from a throat complaint.
Lord Northcliffe (1865-1922)
Though he was born in Dublin, Alfred Harmsworth was the son of an English lawyer, and moved to England at two. He was not well educated, but knew what he liked: newspapers, and power. His brilliant idea was to open up the national press market by introducing the ‘Daily Mail’ for the middle classes and the ‘Daily Mirror’ for women. His stance was unapologetically populist. He grew circulation dramatically with a competition to win a pound a week for life. With the profits, he bought ‘The Observer’ and ‘The Times’, thereby also gaining control of the highbrow sector. During WW1, he became a kingmaker, siding with Lloyd George in the ‘Shell Crisis’ that brought down Asquith. So influential was he in building public morale that the Germans sent a warship to shell his home, Elmwood in St Peter’s, Broadstairs. Harmsworth was made 1st Viscount Northcliffe of St Peters in 1918 in recognition of his war efforts.
Marie Lloyd (1870-1922)
Considering that many C20 superstars are already fading into oblivion, it is remarkable that Marie Lloyd is still recalled nearly a century after her death. She came from Hoxton in London, being born Matilda Wood, and made her solo singing debut there at 15. Whilst perfecting her craft on the stage between the ages of 17 and 23, she lived at New Cross. After establishing a reputation as a boisterous entertainer, she left to go globetrotting, earning international popularity. Unlike today’s stars, her appeal did not depend on her looks but her irrepressible personality. She sang and danced with bravado, which mattered considering that the lyrics and her interpretation of them were risqué by the standards of the day. Meanwhile, she had a tumultuous private life, going through two divorces. As late as 1919, she enjoyed a hit with her best-remembered number, the singalong ‘My Old Man Said Follow The Van’.
Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939)
Joseph Leopold Ford Hermann Madox Hueffer was born in Surrey, the half-German, half-English grandson of Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown. He attended the Pretorius school in Folkestone and, after marrying Elsie Martindale in 1894, came to live on Romney Marsh. In 1898 he met Joseph Conrad, whom he introduced to Aldington, and collaborated with him on his own novels ‘The Inheritors’ and ‘Romance’. During WW1 he composed propaganda for the Government, but also managed to survive the Somme. His most notable achievements were the novel ‘The Good Soldier’ and his tetralogy ‘Parade’s End’, which particularly studied marriage and adultery. Hueffer was also a significant literary critic. He was friends with James Joyce and Ezra Pound, and is supposed to have discovered DH Lawrence. He changed his name to Ford Madox Ford in 1919 because of anti-German sentiment. Anthony Burgess thought him the best C20 British novelist, although that opinion would not be widely shared today.
Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
Churchill’s life was sufficiently event-filled to fill volumes. Born at Blenheim Palace, he became a cavalry officer at 20, and fought at Omdurman. In 1899, while covering the Boer War as a journalist, he escaped from a PoW camp. He became an MP in 1900, Home Secretary in 1910, and First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911; his career was almost shattered by the disastrous Gallipoli campaign he masterminded. Between the Wars, he remained a voice in the wilderness arguing for rearmament; but, following Chamberlain’s failure, he became the obvious choice for Prime Minister. He proved an inspired and inspirational war leader, far cannier than his reckless opponent. His eloquence made a crucial difference in winning over the Americans. Though surprisingly voted out in 1945, he returned to power five years later. Having written copiously about English-speaking history, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. Through nearly half his life, he resided at his beloved Chartwell.
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