Julius Caesar (100BC-44BC)
It is appropriate that the most famous Roman should have been the first true colossus to set eyes on Kent. When he landed in 55BC, Caesar was already celebrated as the great general Marius’s nephew who’d been captured by pirates but, after being ransomed, returned as promised to crucify them. Now, while engaged in the conquest of Gaul, he turned north. That first landing had value only as reconnaissance; but he came back the next year with a huge army that cut through the resident Celts like butter. After reaching modern-day Hertfordshire, he set up a client king and returned to Gaul. He wrote an account of the local peoples, insightfully remarking that, “By far the most civilised of all these are the ones who inhabit Kent“. His last ten years were taken up by his civil war with Pompey, his affair with Cleopatra, his dictatorship, and his bloody assassination on the floor of the Senate.
Emperor Claudius (10BC-54AD)
Soon after becoming Imperator in AD41, Claudius set about expanding the Roman Empire on a number of fronts, the most northerly being Britain. Attracted by the prospect of British mines and Celtic slaves, he sent four legions to undertake the conquest of the island. Once the campaign was going well, he turned up in the late summer of AD43 to take the credit. His stay, probably commencing at Richborough, lasted just 16 days. Claudius had actually started life in a neighbouring province, Gaul, making him the first Emperor born outside of Italy. His various physical afflictions had long kept him out of the public eye, but recommended him to the cynical Praetorian Guard. As Emperor, he proved an able administrator and briefly restored stability to Rome. Ancient historians regarded him as bloodthirsty and temperamental, but he now looks an oasis of sanity compared with Caligula and Nero, the two monsters who book-ended his reign.
Caratacus (ca 15-54AD)
When Claudius’s army arrived in Britain in AD43, Caratacus was chieftain of the all-conquering Catuvellauni. Ironically, his military prowess prompted the fateful invasion when a defeated opponent, Verica of the Atrebates, fled to Gaul and appealed to the Empire for help. It was all the excuse Claudius needed. When news of the Roman invasion reached his stronghold at Colchester, Caratacus brought an army to Kent with his brother Togodumnus to mount a defence. The pair were twice defeated, first on the Medway and then on the Thames. The Romans took Colchester and turned it into their first colony, Camulodunum – notoriously the scene of the first massacre perpetrated by Boadicea and the Iceni 17 years later. Caratacus was eventually captured and sent to Rome, where he successfully pleaded with the Senate for his life; he never went home. He is now identified with the legendary Welsh hero Caradoc, and was commemorated in a witty boy-scout song, ‘The Court of King Caratacus’.
Emperor Vespasian (9-79)
Arriving in Kent as leader of one of the four invading Roman legions in AD43, Vespasian had little reputation to fall back on: from a non-patrician background, he’d pursued a chequered career as a bureaucrat. Yet he distinguished himself in subjugating the south of Britannia as far west as Cornwall, and was rewarded with a consulship. After serving as governor of Africa, he was sent to quell the Jewish Revolt in 66. Three years later, Nero’s assassination precipitated the tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors. Vespasian could never have guessed that he’d be the fourth. He skilfully restored order, and with his sons Titus and Domitian established the 27-year Flavian dynasty. He famously imposed a tax on urine collection, for which reason Italians still call a urinal a ‘vespasiano’; and more significantly he sent Agricola to subdue the Scots. Renowned for his gentle wit, he quipped on his deathbed, “Damn. I think I’m turning into a god!”
Pertinax was a decent man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Of humble origins, he performed well in the Parthian War, later becoming governor of a succession of Roman provinces including Britannia. He arrived at Richborough in AD 185, and may have dwelt at Lullingstone Villa, where a bust possibly representing him was found. His time in Britannia was unhappy, the troops being restive, but easy compared with what followed. After returning to Rome, he found the Pretorian Guard at his doorstep on New Year’s Day 193, and assumed they had been sent by Commodus to kill him. In fact, they were proclaiming him emperor. He immediately took measures to restrain these Praetorians’ abuse of their power, which simply outraged them. Three months later, they came to confront him. Instead of fleeing, Pertinax – whose name meant ‘stubborn’ – stayed to reason with them. They murdered him, and sold the emperor’s title to the highest bidder.
Emperor Septimius Severus
Like Vespasian, Severus came to power after the murder of a tyrant followed by two short-lived pretenders. Unlike him, Severus had to vanquish two other generals to secure absolute power. He was actually of Carthaginian extraction, born in modern-day Libya. His background was equestrian, though he did enjoy some aristocratic connections. As Emperor, he fought a running battle with the disapproving Senate. He also bravely disbanded the over-mighty Praetorian Guard. Fortunately, the populace loved him for restoring the dignity of his office. His calling, however, was military. After campaigns to expand Rome’s frontiers in the Middle East and North Africa, he ordered the construction of London’s walls with stone from Maidstone before heading north to subdue the Scots. He fell sick in mid-campaign, and died at York. Disastrously, the three Severans who succeeded him – Caracalla, Elagobalus, and Alexander Severus – proved respectively bad, mad, and sad. They ushered in a half-century of crisis that all but destroyed the Empire.
King Offa of Mercia (d796)
Offa was the most outstanding Anglo-Saxon king before Alfred. Whether he stood out for the right reasons is another matter. He was the classic warlord, ever on the lookout for opportunities to expand his dominions. When King Aethelberht II of Kent died in 762, leaving behind an uncertain succession, Offa took advantage by sending in an invading army. What exactly happened next, the records are too patchy to tell. We know that he fought a battle against the Kentishmen at Otford in 776, though the outcome is unknown; but it’s clear that Kent had become a client state of Mercia at some point. He threw down a further challenge to Canterbury by setting up a short-lived archbishopric at Lichfield. In truth, like many a conquistador, he left behind little of any use. His most enduring legacy was the Dyke that still bears his name, built to put a stop to Welsh raids into England.
King Alfred the Great of England
It is a pity that Alfred is mostly remembered as the man who burnt the cakes. If any king deserves the title ‘The Great’, it is him. He was just 16 when the fearsome Great Heathen Army landed from Scandinavia, and 24 when he was crowned king of Wessex. It was only by remote chance that he ever reigned, three elder brothers having died naturally before him. Though not physically powerful, he’d a towering intellect and a kind disposition that endeared him to all. He also had iron determination. After the Viking horde swept across England, Alfred was reduced to just fifty knights holed up on the Isle of Athelney. Undaunted, he built a new army locally that sensationally smashed the Danes at Edington in 878. Guthrum was forced to sign an epoch-making peace treaty that enabled Alfred to unite the English nation under one king. He came to Kent in 892, successfully repelling a massive Viking invasion fleet.
King Sweyn Forkbeard (960-1014)
Sweyn (or Svend in his native Danish) was England’s most colourfully named monarch. He ruled Denmark for nearly 30 years, took over most of Norway, and briefly became King of England. Son of the equally colourful Harold Bluetooth – who’d united parts of Scandinavia in the same way that Ericsson Mobile’s technology would later combine devices – he was a pagan who unceremoniously dethroned his Christian father. From 1002 he mounted a series of raids on England, ostensibly in retaliation for the so-called St Brice’s Day massacre when the English had turned on Danish settlers, but more likely in search of booty. He acquired a fortune in Danegeld, and in 1013 mounted a full-scale invasion, starting in Sandwich. His army then swept anti-clockwise around the whole nation. He declared himself king of England on Christmas Day, but died five weeks later in Lincolnshire. He had however fatally damaged the Anglo-Saxon monarchy by opening the door to his hard-nosed son, Cnut.
King Cnut the Great (ca 990-1035)
Cnut (or Canute) was the only English king bar Alfred to be called ‘Great’. After his father’s death, he was driven from England by the returning Saxon king, notoriously pausing in Kent to mutilate his Saxon hostages. He returned to Sandwich in 1016 with a mighty army that conquered all England. He then set about re-modelling the nation, merging it with his native Denmark before adding Norway and part of Sweden to his empire. Though cruel and immoral, he seriously sucked up to the Church, even making a pilgrimage to Rome, which earned a good press from the clerics who wrote history. The anecdote for which he is best remembered, when he instructed the waves to turn back, was actually meant to demonstrate his piety by revealing the limits of his earthly power; virtue signalling is nothing new. Like Offa, Cnut left behind nothing worth the bloodshed. The earthy Saxons doubtless had much pithier epithets for him than ‘Great’.
King Richard I of England (1157-99)
Generations of English boys grew up thinking Richard the Lionheart a national hero. The belief stemmed entirely from his prowess as a warrior: the Crusader King who earned his spurs as the worthiest opponent ever faced by Saladin, but who was incarcerated for years by the Holy Roman Emperor on his journey home. Beyond bellicosity, however, he had nothing to offer England. The fact that his true cognomen was ‘Coeur de Lion’ says it all. He was thoroughly rooted in the Norman elite who still tyrannised England, and his heart lay in France. His mother Eleanor of Aquitaine took him there at 13, and he didn’t return before landing at Sandwich in 1194. On top of participating in repeated revolts against his own father, he spent his life seeking salvation by persistently breaking the Sixth Commandment, including the massacre of 2,700 prisoners at Acre. His only good legacy was his Three Lions crest, which now adorns the England football shirt.
King Alexander II of Scotland (1198-1249)
The red-haired son of Scotland’s King William the Lion, Alexander was sent to London as a youth in the interests of good relations with England, and was knighted by King John in 1213. Ironically, he would be back three years later as King of Scotland at the head of an enemy army. Having joined the First Barons’ War on the rebels’ side, he marched all the way to Dover to join up with Prince Louis’s French invasion fleet. It came to nothing, because John died, the Pope supported the accession of the young King Henry III, and both Louis and Alexander were obliged to go home. The Scottish king prudently resumed good relations with the English Crown, later marrying Henry’s daughter Joan of England. In 1237 he went down in history as the Scottish king who signed the Treaty of York, fixing the border between Scotland and England on pretty much the lines that pertain today.
King John II the Good of France (1319-64)
Whoever thought of the epithet ‘Jean le Bon’ had a way with irony. The son of Philippe le Fortuné, he was the somewhat weedy individual whose reign started with plague, rebellion and war but deteriorated. At Poitiers in 1356, his army was so much the bigger that the English were desperate to make peace; yet Jean fluffed the negotiations, and was routed. Taken prisoner, he was exiled in London, where he lived a flâneur’s life. After four years, his son paid a ransom of 3,000,000 crowns by the Treaty of Brétigny. Jean took his time to get home, stopping for a feast at Eltham Palace, an overnight at Dartford, visits to Ospringe’s Maison Dieu and the Becket shrine at Canterbury, and dinner at Dover. When his other son defaulted on the terms of the Treaty, Jean voluntarily returned to captivity while his people starved. The English must have thought, “With enemies like Jean, who needs friends?”
Edward the Black Prince (1330-76)
To England, Edward of Woodstock was the heroic Prince of Wales who twice made a mockery of overwhelming French superiority: at Crecy in 1346, and again at Poitiers ten years later. To France, on the other hand, he was a brigand who unchivalrously despoiled and looted the French interior, and mercilessly massacred hordes of prisoners. The King of France, John the Good, didn’t seem too bothered, accepting Edward’s invitation to dinner at Dover on his way home from exile in 1360. Nicknamed the Black Prince after the colour of his armour, rather than his reputation for ruthlessness, Edward would have made a good successor to King Edward III in the hard-man mould of Edward I; but he was enfeebled by dysentery, and felled by it at 45. Unluckily for England, his son Edward had also died young, so the throne passed to the boy’s awful brother, Richard II. The Black Prince now lies serenely in Canterbury Cathedral.
Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos (1350-1425)
A thousand years after the Romans departed, another Roman Emperor visited Kent. We’d have called him a Greek, Manuel Palaeologos being Emperor of Byzantium, a relic of the old Eastern Empire; but his people still called themselves Romani. King Henry IV accommodated him lavishly at Eltham Palace, with even a joust thrown in. The Emperor had come touring Europe to drum up support for the defence of Constantinople against the Turks. He pleaded that Byzantium, Christianity’s bulwark against the Caliphate, had fallen on hard times since the Fourth Crusaders stripped it bare. Even with the unprecedented backing of the Vatican, normally at odds with the apostate Orthodox Church, he got little help. Manuel’s son John would be killed at Constantinople 52 years later, defending the city in vain with a ragbag of Greeks and mercenaries against Mehmet II’s horde. Having secured a foothold in Europe, the Ottomans would be at the gates of Vienna within 80 years.
Emperor Sigismond of Luxembourg (1368-1437)
Sigismond of Luxembourg looks from a distance like a jobbing king. Originally from Nuremberg, he was the son of a Holy Roman Emperor, Charles IV, from the powerful Luxembourg dynasty. By the time he visited Canterbury in 1416, he himself was King of Hungary, of Croatia, and of Germany. He came to Kent in pursuit of an alliance with England, having seen his current allies, the mighty French, humbled at Agincourt. He and Henry V signed the Treaty of Canterbury that paved the way to ending the Great Schism between the Popes of Rome and of Avignon. After achieving his aim, he lost interest in England, but reverted to his hobby of CV enhancement by adding the kingdoms of Bohemia and Italy. Eventually, in 1433, he matched his father in becoming Emperor. The fact that he actually troubled to cross the English Channel, however, is evidence of England’s growing stature after centuries as a Norman backwater.
King Henry V (1386-1422)
The Duke of Monmouth, son of Henry Tudor, was essentially Black Prince – Volume II. Both were named after their warlike father, proved argumentative eldest sons, became brilliant generals, made light of enemy numerical supremacy, and won momentous victories. Both also treated their captives with monstrous inhumanity. The major difference was that Henry’s father died young, so that he actually succeeded to the throne. In 1416, he struck a landmark alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor at Canterbury. Not only that, but he made the French king’s daughter his wife, becoming heir to the French throne. Had he lived just two months longer, England and France would have been united under one monarch; the mind boggles. Instead, his life resumed the course of the Black Prince’s. He too died of dysentery, and left a fool to rule in his stead. Harry did come to England’s aid again in 1944, when Laurence Olivier’s ‘Henry V’ proved the best morale-booster of WW2.
Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)
Despite his Latinate name, Erasmus was probably born in Rotterdam. The illegitimate son of a Catholic priest, he was himself ordained in 1492. He studied at Paris before being invited to Cambridge. There he became Professor of Divinity at Queen’s College, whose distinctly humanist leanings matched his own. In 1499, he famously visited Eltham Palace, where he met Henry VII’s three children. Young Prince Henry ordered him to write them a poem, which he did; but it was the last time he would kowtow to the author of the English Reformation. Intellectually, he was a free spirit. His views became manifest as the Protestant revolution swept over North Europe. Erasmus critiqued the Catholic Church – his first work ‘In Praise of Folly’ being a satire – but also refused to adapt to the Lutheran orthodoxy. In an age of partisanship, this ‘middle way’ was courageous, though likely to please few. He is now generally rated among the most enlightened of theologians.
Sir Thomas More (1478-1535)
It’s unsurprising that Erasmus’s best friend in England was Thomas More. Both were learned, humanistic, and Catholic; but More went further. Born into a wealthy London family, he served as a household page to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who lived at Knole House. After Oxford, he studied law. He actually accompanied Erasmus on that famous visit to Eltham Palace, and later would get to know Prince Henry all too well. An MP at 26, he was knighted in 1521 for services to the King, succeeding Wolsey as Lord Chancellor eight years later. It was an untimely appointment, with Henry’s divorce from Catherine on the cards. Sir Thomas was a devout Catholic, who wore a hair-shirt and might have become a monk. Out of principle and obstinacy, he refused to endorse the King’s ‘great matter’, literally to the death. The martyr was canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1935, ironically after his satire ‘Utopia’ had made him a Bolshevik hero.
Emperor Charles V (1500-58)
It’s disappointing that the son of ‘Philip the Handsome’ and ‘Joanna the Mad’ was not ‘Charles the Insanely Good-Looking’. Charles V, a self-styled Charlemagne, was head of the Hapsburg clan when the world was falling at its feet. In short order he found himself Lord of the Netherlands, where he was born, followed by King of Spain, Archduke of Austria, King of Italy, King of Germany, and Holy Roman Emperor; not to mention overlord of the Americas. Anxious to stave off an Anglo-French alliance, he visited Kent in 1520, meeting Wolsey at Dover and Henry VIII at Canterbury. Two years later, after Henry’s ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’ jaunt proved a waste of money, he returned to Dover, showing off Aztec treasures looted by Cortes. The anti-French pact he struck came to naught when Henry divorced Charlie’s aunt, Catherine of Aragon. The Emperor, grown disillusioned with his project to unify Europe, ultimately abdicated all his titles.
King Philip II of Spain (1527-98)
After Charles V split his empire, Philip II took charge of the Hispanic division. This man took his work very seriously. His ideological goal was to crush Protestantism, to which end he waged war even on his own Dutch Calvinist subjects. In 1554 he wed the new Catholic Queen of England, Mary I, who introduced him to Greenwich. The marriage was a purely political arrangement: he made himself co-regent in law, although ‘King Philip of England’ is seldom listed in British history books. After Mary’s false pregnancy and early death, he devoted himself to overthrowing her Protestant successor, Queen Elizabeth I. His plans to replace her with Mary Queen of Scots having been foiled by the latter’s execution, he plotted a more direct course: invasion. Already infuriated by having his beard singed at Cadiz, he saw his project ruined in 1588 by the wreck of the Armada sent to transport the Duke of Parma’s huge army to Kent.
Sir Walter Raleigh (ca 1553-1618)
Raleigh, a Devonian, is remembered 400 years later only for a succession of gallant failures. He first came to attention when he helped suppress Desmond’s rebellions in Ireland, growing rich on the proceeds. After becoming Elizabeth I’s favourite, he supposedly put his expensive cloak over a puddle for her at Deptford. In 1584, he organised the first of three failed missions to found the first American colony. He next blotted his copybook by romancing a lady-in-waiting, which got him gaoled. To redeem himself upon his release, he set out to find El Dorado, but failed in that too. Even when he sought to popularise smoking, it only caused his manservant to pour water over his head. For his part in a supposed plot, James I sent him for 12 years to the Tower, where he wrote part of his ‘History of the World’. He went exploring again in 1616 but, after illegally ransacking a Spanish outpost, he was beheaded.
King Christian IV of Denmark (1577-1648)
Christian is famous for reigning for 59-years, longer than any other Danish monarch. He visited England once, in 1606. His sister Anne had married King James VI of Scotland, who in 1603 also became James I of England. The unprepossessing brother-in-law was suddenly worth a visit; so Kristian sailed to Gravesend. The two must have had plenty to talk about, James having recently survived the Gunpowder Plot orchestrated by disaffected Catholics, while the hard-drinking Dane was a Lutheran faced with the Counter-Reformation in Europe. Two decades later, Christian would get his country embroiled in the Thirty Years War, pointlessly invading Germany and prompting a bigger Catholic army to tear through Jutland. The farce permanently cost Denmark its status as top-dog in the Baltic. It was typical. He played up to the people, even renaming Oslo after himself; but, like many an autocrat, he left it in worse shape than he’d found it. He died a bitter man.
Pocahontas (ca 1596-1617)
The Disneyfication of Pocahontas did nobody any favours, except Walt Disney Pictures. The 1995 blockbuster movie made her a princess, with the looks of Beyonce and opinions of Jane Fonda, who enlightened John Smith, fell in love, and saved his life. The reality was entirely different. She was one of the Powhatan chief’s many children, with no special status. She was a child when she encountered the mercenary Smith, whose accounts of her were fanciful. After Smith went home, she became a pawn in negotiations between natives and settlers, her marriage to John Rolfe sealing an eight-year peace. At 19, she was brought to London to meet the Queen, Anne of Denmark, in an effort to raise funding for the Virginian colony. Never more than a curiosity, she died suddenly on the Thames, and was buried in Gravesend. The biographical description of her as “ambassador, stateswoman, peacemaker, visionary” would have angered her people, and embarrassed her.
Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641)
Anthonio van Dyck was born in Antwerp – then in the Spanish Netherlands, now in Belgium – but ended up an English resident, and indeed a knight. From a wealthy merchant family, he was a precociously talented painter, joining Rubens’ studio in his teens. After a visit to England in 1621, he left to perfect his technique in Italy before returning to Flanders and working as a court painter. The accession of Charles I of England was timely, the King and his wife being keen on patronising grand portraiture that glorified the aristocracy. In 1632, he moved to London, being immediately adopted into court circles and earning good money for his considerable output, which generally flattered the sitter. In addition to a house at Blackfriars, he was rewarded with a suite of rooms at Eltham Palace, which he used as his Kentish retreat. As if to show his appreciation, Charles had van Dyck buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.
King Charles I (1600-49)
Charles Stuart’s reign started promisingly. Three months after his accession, he spent a fortnight in Kent, travelling to Dover to meet his French bride Henrietta Maria and bring her back via Canterbury and Cobham Manor. Cheering Protestant crowds didn’t know that he’d already betrayed them, having signed a secret agreement with her father to relax constraints on English Catholics, and to lend ships for controlling French Huguenots. It wasn’t just his father’s empathy that Charles lacked. Despite his obvious incompetence in both domestic and foreign affairs, he continued to rule high-handedly. Being divinely appointed, he reasoned, he should run his land according to his own conscience. When he first abolished the Short Parliament, and later botched an effort to arrest five MPs in the Long Parliament, popular loyalty deserted him. He ended up at war with the Parliaments of both England and his native Scotland. When, convicted of treason, he was beheaded at Whitehall, the crowd only groaned.
Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-69)
Considering all that had gone before in English history, Charles I’s choice of bride must be adjudged typically ill-advised. First, Henriette Marie was the daughter of a Bourbon and a Medici, and neither family was ever Anglophile. Second, she had a devout Catholic’s hostility to Protestant ceremony, for which reason she courted unpopularity by refusing to be crowned. Third, she was an obstreperous 15-year-old when they married; the two even got into an argument as he was collecting her from Dover. She disliked being called Queen Mary, signing herself ‘Henriette R’ even though Charles named Maryland after her. She liked little about England, except maybe the fashionable new spa near Tunbridge, where she went to recover after childbirth. Her extravagant spending and overtly anti-Protestant sympathies steadily cemented public antipathy, which turned to hatred as she urged Charles towards Civil War. After voluntary exile, she returned briefly during the Restoration. She died in Paris of an overdose.
King Charles II (1630-85)
Charles Stuart the Younger famously stayed overnight at what is now called Restoration House in Rochester on his way back from exile. After 11 dismal years of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, Londoners hailed his proclamation as monarch the next day with the customary optimism that things can only get better. In truth, they only got worse. The Restoration was a riotous time, at least for Charles and his cronies. After making a worthless marriage, he spent his debauched existence fathering a succession of bastards by his various mistresses, whom he was happy to flaunt before his wife. After initially taking pains not to make the same political mistakes as his father, he grew increasingly tyrannical with age. When Parliament made moves to prevent his Catholic brother’s succession, he reverted to Tudor barbarity in dealing with the perpetrators. Charles survived the Rye House Plot in 1683, but died of kidney failure two years later. He reportedly converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.
Samuel Pepys (1633-1703)
Although John Evelyn’s diary covered a much longer period and is a more useful historical resource, Pepys’s is better known today. The simple reason is that it’s a far racier read. It covered only the 1660s, but Pepys cannot have guessed what an extraordinary decade it would be – the Restoration, 2nd Dutch War, Great Plague, Great Fire of London – all of which he experienced at first hand. Though a Londoner, he had many connections with Deptford, Greenwich and Chatham as a senior Royal Navy administrator. A more prurient reason for reading Pepys’s diary, however, is its candid account of his sexual encounters, many the consequence of exploiting his official positions, that became known once the code he wrote it in was broken. Anyone wondering why England progressed in a generation from Merry Monarch to Glorious Revolution can discern from Pepys the joyful cant and hypocrisy at the heart of the Restoration.
King James II (1633-1701)
The Exclusion Bill was Parliament’s attempt to prevent the succession of Charles II’s resolutely Catholic brother James. The two royals turned savagely on its supporters, and the so-called Whigs’ worst fears were realised when James Stuart became king. Immediately two revolts arose, including one by his nephew the Duke of Monmouth; both were put down. James, having learned nothing from his father, adopted the strategy of systematically inserting Catholics – who represented only 2% of the population – into key positions of influence, including the judiciary. It stirred a massive populist backlash. When a Catholic heir was born, and James then prosecuted seven Anglican bishops, Parliament moved to replace him with his Anglican daughter Mary. To that end, her husband William of Orange was invited in 1688 to invade England. The friendless James fled, but was captured by fishermen at Faversham. Though released, he was beaten the following year at the Battle of the Boyne, and disappeared into exile.
Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705)
If those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, King Charles II must have had an incredibly short memory. His own mother had demonstrated that a C17 Queen of England ought not to speak poor English, deplore Protestantism, dislike English manners, and so be publicly loathed; but that’s what Charles imported when he wed Catarina de Bragança in 1662. It was a political arrangement, meant to strengthen ties with Portugal; and Charles made no bones about his intention to continue womanising relentlessly. Catherine did differ in two essentials from her mother-in-law. Where Queen Henrietta loved to spend money profligately, Queen Catherine preferred to accumulate it; and the former gave England two worthless sons, whilst the latter remained childless, despite numerous resorts to the magical waters of the Tunbridge spa. Catherine became a main target of the scurrilous Popish Plot, but lingered for seven years after the King’s death in the hope of winning a law-suit.
William Penn the Younger (1644-1718)
William Penn was a stereotypical rebel: an elder son living in the shadow of a rich and distinguished father who had high hopes for him. Strict and humourless, he was drawn to religious non-conformism. At 22, he joined the Quakers, and undertook an evangelical tour of Kent in 1672. With his subversive writings, he antagonised the authorities even more than his father, and was repeatedly gaoled. His life changed when he inherited a fortune in debts owed by the Crown. King Charles II cunningly discharged them by gifting Penn 45,000 square miles of America, provided that he took his troublesome Quakers with him. Penn whimsically named his new province Sylvania, and Charles pointedly added the prefix ‘Penn’ in honour of the father. Young Penn preached tolerance for religious and ethnic minorities, a melting-pot, and centralised government, so setting the tone for modern American Democratic discourse. He died penniless back in England, and his sons renounced his beliefs.
Captain Kidd (1655-1701)
Captain William Kidd, a Scot, was an accidental pirate. He’d been doing good business in the Caribbean as a privateer when he was summoned in 1695 to take on a mission for a syndicate led by King William III. After his ship ‘Adventure Galley’ set off from Deptford, he was challenged to lower his flag in deference to a Royal Navy yacht at Greenwich. To emphasise the point, a warning shot was fired. His crew responded by showing the yacht their buttocks. So enraged was the Navy captain that he removed many of them. Kidd was forced to take on replacements in New York, most of whom were outright blackguards. The crew often came close to mutiny, and eventually compelled Kidd to capture a ship illegally off Africa. Back home, he was charged with piracy. The King’s involvement was diplomatically overlooked, and Kidd was hanged at Wapping. He was actually hanged twice; the first time, the rope broke.
Peter the Great (1672-1725)
Peter the Great was that rarity among tsars, one who made a positive difference. When he succeeded his half-brother Feodor III in 1682, Russia was a backwater, regarded more as part of Asia than Europe. After an abortive adventure against the Ottomans in the Black Sea, Peter understood that he needed to emulate Dutch and English naval power. Having befriended William III, he came to Kent to study English seamanship. He stayed for three months at Sayes Court in Deptford, also visiting Greenwich and Woolwich. His unruly entourage did so much damage – using paintings for target practice, and racing wheelbarrows around the gardens – that the Treasury had to pay the regular tenant damages. Peter reaped the benefit when Russia smashed Sweden in the Great Northern War, permanently changing the Nordic balance of power. His lasting monument is the city he founded, St Petersburg: not only Russia’s gateway to the Baltic, but also a shining symbol of modernity.
Canaletto is not so named because he enjoyed painting the canals of his native Venice, but because his real name, by coincidence, was Giovanni Canal. He was not only a master of Venetian waterscapes, but of city squares too; and he worked with precision at such a rate that he created a unique pictorial record of C18 Venice. At the time, the British consul was Joseph Smith, who took Canaletto under his wing to their mutual benefit. Canaletto came to England from 1746 to 1755, continuing his work with panoramas of London and elsewhere. He also strayed down the Thames, where he painted magnificent views of Greenwich Hospital. Aside from his playful ‘caprices’, Canaletto recorded what he saw faithfully, and both early and late in his career preferred to paint in situ rather than at his studio. His particular talent was for deviating subtly from photographic realism, for which reason he is recognised as a forerunner of Impressionism.
John Wesley (1703-91)
John Wesley from Lincolnshire earned his place in history as an evangelist of Methodism. Now the dust had settled on the great schism between Catholicism and Protestantism, the opportunity arose for a C18 ‘Revival’ movement, supposed to reinvigorate the Anglican Church with “Christian perfection”. The differences between rival positions such as Wesley’s and Calvin’s look to outsiders so subtle as to be abstruse. The onus therefore was on preachers like Wesley to proselytise by strength of character and force of rhetoric. In this, Wesley was remarkably effective. Barred at first from teaching in churches, he took to streets and houses. One of his favourite platforms was the house in Rolvenden Layne – now Wesley House – where he was arrested in 1760. On account of their sheer fervour, fellow Methodists became disproportionately influential in British political issues, including the slave trade and prison reform. Methodism was disseminated with such vigour around the British Empire that is still has around 80 million adherents.
Dick Turpin (1705-39)
Today’s public image of Dick Turpin is as far from reality as can be imagined. He was born in Essex, and started life as a butcher. A gang of deer thieves used him as a fence, but he decided he could make a better living by joining them. This ‘Gregory Gang’ became a notorious band of robbers. They ravaged the countryside, their favourite tactic being raids on remote households where they would torture householders into handing over their life savings; murder and rape were later added to their charge sheet. Their activities were mostly north of the Thames, but also extended to Gravesend and Charlton in Kent. After the gang was brought to justice, the pock-marked Turpin turned to highway robbery. In 1737, he murdered a gamekeeper, and was later hanged at York for horse theft. He owes his reputation as a gentleman robber to William Ainsworth’s 1834 novel ‘Rookwood’, which curiously chose to depict him as a “heroic” figure.
Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)
Benjamin Franklin – polymath, Founding Father, all-round marvel – exemplifies the principle that history written by victors is seldom good history. The son of English Quakers, he illicitly quit his brother’s business in Boston to work in Philadelphia on newspapers that made money from advertising slaves. He fulminated against tyranny while himself being a slave-owner. Much of his journalism was moralistic invention. He took a common-law wife who was already married, but separately had a bastard son who so deplored his father’s beliefs that he quit America. Franklin also whiled away many years in England. Whilst genially debating colonial affairs with Pitt the Younger at Hayes Place, he fomented revolution through his mouthpiece Thomas Paine. While in Kent, he heard about Gray’s electricity experiments, later laying claim to the theory with his lightning stunt. All these points, incidentally, have been made in American books. Had the rebels lost the war, Franklin would have been hanged as a traitor and forgotten.
Capability Brown (1715-83)
Lancelot Brown from Northumberland got his nickname from his habit of telling prospective clients that their property offered “capability” for improvement. Although he dabbled in architecture, his forte was garden design, in which he came to excel. In fact, he was such a dab hand at it that he earned the best part of a million pounds a year in today’s money. The secret of his success was the landscape form of garden design popularised by his tutor, William Kent, that replaced C17 formality. Brown’s designs were typified by lawns running right up to buildings, lakes fed by hidden streams, and clumps of trees scattered about. The romantics of the next century came to hate his formulaic style; but Brown had left his mark on 170 properties around the country. Many of them were very famous, and five were in Kent: Chilham Castle, Ingress Abbey, Leeds Abbey, North Cray Place, and Valence near Westerham.
Field Marshall von Blücher (1742-1819)
Ask any German who won the Battle of Waterloo and you’ll get one answer: Blücher. By their account, Wellington was hanging on by his fingernails when the Prussians arrived like the US cavalry to win the day. However one regards it, his arrival was most welcome, if a little tardy. Gebhard von Blücher was born in Rostock, and ironically was taken prisoner by the Prussian Army in 1760 while fighting for Sweden. He became the outstanding Prussian general, taking on Napoleon more times than any other and matching him for belligerence. In 1814, after decisively defeating the French army at Leipzig, Blücher was invited to Britain to celebrate Napoleon’s abdication along with several other allied war-leaders. After landing at Dover, they were given a sumptuous reception, which included visiting the Woolwich Arsenal. Unfortunately, the festivities were premature. Within months, Napoleon would escape and form a new army that was to test Blücher’s determination one last time.
George III (1738-1820)
Since he had what it takes to rule Great Britain for nearly 60 years – then a record – it’s a pity that George III is only remembered now for two things: losing his American colonies, and losing his marbles. There’s no denying that Mad King George had a serious problem: he suffered from an illness, possibly porphyry, that increasingly debilitated him. Yet, in his time, the nation underwent the Industrial Revolution, defeated France in the Seven Years’ War, and overcame the mortal threat of Napoleon. His most conspicuous visit to Kent entailed an occasion in 1799 when Lord Romney invited the King and Pitt the Younger to his estate at Mote Park in Maidstone. The host laid on a full military parade of his 5,228 volunteers, the occasion being commemorated with a pavilion that still stands. By 1810, however, George’s mind was so far gone that his son had to rule as Prince Regent throughout his last decade.
Horace Walpole (1717-97)
Horatio Walpole, the 4th Earl of Orford, was the only son of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. Not surprisingly, after following his father to Cambridge, he became a Whig MP for nearly three decades, representing three different constituencies. Yet it was as an author that he made his name. He was a prolific writer of letters, which have been published in forty volumes, containing much of political and social interest. In his forties, he wrote ‘The Castle of Otranto’, a medieval thriller. It was in fact the first Gothic novel, and would inspire the likes of EA Poe and Bram Stoker. Walpole was fascinated by medievalism, to the extent that he’d had an extraordinary mock-Gothic castle, Strawberry Hill House, built near Twickenham. Among his friends, the lifelong bachelor Walpole counted Edward Mann, owner of the altogether more traditional Linton Park, south of Maidstone; Walpole was a keen visitor.
Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was Tony Blair without the principles. He started as a churchman and, as a bishop, joined the États Généraux, where he expediently pontificated against the Church. He fled for England when Robespierre took over, but was obliged to return in 1794 when fellow refugees turned against him. He ingratiated himself with Napoleon, who saw him as a weapon in international negotiations, even though he secretly worked against Napoleon’s interests. The interests that concerned him most were his own, especially living in splendour at Valençay and siring dozens of illegitimate children. His greatest achievement was brilliantly saving France from dismemberment at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-5, which made his reputation as the world’s craftiest diplomat. Afterwards he was sidelined during the reign of Charles X, but returned in 1830 as Ambassador to Great Britain. He relished being greeted at Dover by tricolour-waving crowds and a cannonade, 36 years after returning to revolutionary France under a cloud.
General von Bülow (1755-1816)
Although Blücher is synonymous with the Prussian Army at Waterloo, the contribution of Friedrich Wilhelm, Freiherr von Bülow, cannot be underrated. He was a career soldier who worked his way up through the ranks with aplomb. Strangely, he first came to the attention of Frederick the Great through his musical ability, which won’t have hindered his assiduous pursuit of a military career. Von Bülow distinguished himself as a general late in the Napoleonic Wars, when he excelled in the defence of Berlin, and then in the crucial defeat of the French at Leipzig. He did not always get on with Blücher, there inevitably being rivalry between these two great contemporaneous Prussian generals; but he served the Field Marshall well in the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. He came to Kent for the victory celebrations that June, before adding further to his personal glory at Waterloo, where his brigade played a crucial role in finishing off the Grande Armée.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91)
Having been born into a wealthy family at Salzburg, Austria, Mozart developed a precocious musical ability that became unmistakable when he wrote his first symphony at 8. As his older sister Nannerl was also a talented pianist, their composer father Leopold took them on a European tour so that the children could perform for high society. From April 1764 they spent more than 15 months in England, including a few days in Kent when Mozart performed in Canterbury. They stayed at Bourne House as guests of Sir Horatio Mann, and possibly also Egerton House and Higham Park. Young Mozart went on to become arguably the greatest composer in history, responsible for 600 works including 22 operas and dozens of symphonies. Plagued by money troubles, however, he was hit by depression and then illness. He died suddenly at 35, and was buried in an unmarked grave. We can only imagine what musical wonders he might have produced in his maturity.
William Blake (1757-1827)
William Blake was one of the giants of the Romantic era, excelling not only in painting but also poetry. He was quite possibly mad; certainly his contemporaries thought so. He was at first a painter, and his work so highly original that it inevitably suggested a diseased mind, though today we might see in it a forerunner of Surrealism a hundred years before its time. His first great poetic work, ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’, illustrated by himself, dwells on the corrupting influence of society on human simplicity. The young Blake took a positive view of both the French and American revolutions, something he came to regret in later life. It is ironic that his most famous work ‘Jerusalem’ is now a great patriotic anthem; it was in fact the product of his deep religious faith. Late in life, Blake came to Shoreham near Sevenoaks to visit the Brotherhood of Ancients, a group of young artists who idolised him.
Thomas Telford (1757-1834)
Thomas Telford was a titan of the golden era of Scottish civil engineering. He was born at Eskdale, close to the English border, and lived in poverty after the early death of his father, a shepherd. He became a stonemason, but made his reputation with a broad variety of engineering tasks that he undertook in Shropshire. Eventually he proved himself so versatile that his friend Robert Southey, the future poet laureate, called him the ‘Colossus of Roads’. In 1830 he came to Kent to build the Whitstable Harbour station at the terminus of the new Canterbury and Whitstable railway line, a project that attracted a galaxy of engineering stars including himself, George and Robert Stevenson, and even IK Brunel. Such was Telford’s mastery of civil engineering that he became the first president of its Institution, remaining so for 14 years. When in 1968 a new town was built in Shropshire, it was naturally named after him.
Horatio Nelson (1758-1805)
Although Admiral Nelson was born in Norfolk, Kentish people always treated him as one of their own. Chatham was still central to Britain’s naval might, so Nelson was a regular visitor; and his most famous ship, HMS Victory, was built there. Despite his obvious seamanship, Nelson took a beating in a land assault at Tenerife in 1797, but showed his character by corresponding chivalrously with the defending general afterwards. He subsequently proved himself master of the sea, winning one major victory after another. His tactical genius was matched by his ability to get the most out of his men by keeping them fully in the picture, contrary to the custom of the day. His adulterous relationship with Lady Hamilton and ill-treatment of his wife, though shameful, were publicly tolerated because of his sheer popularity. After losing first an eye and then an arm in battle, he famously lost his life at Trafalgar at the moment of his greatest triumph.
William Wilberforce (1759-1833)
Wilberforce was born in Yorkshire, the son of a wealthy merchant. After enjoying a sybaritic lifestyle, he was elected MP for Hull. In 1785, after a European tour, he underwent a Damascene conversion, becoming an evangelical Christian. A year later, he was approached by a group of abolitionists asking him to take up leadership of their cause. Despite being deeply conservative, he agreed, and maintained the struggle for nearly five decades. He was aided by his close friend Pitt the Younger, to whom he expressed his ambition to end slavery by political means at Holwood House near Bromley in 1787. He incurred the wrath of William Cobbett – the radical who believed that charity begins at home – for championing the rights of foreigners whilst doing nothing for the British working class. Nevertheless, in 1807, the Slave Trade Act was passed. Wilberforce died three days after the Slavery Abolition Act finally killed off slavery in the British Empire.
King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia (1770-1840)
Friedrich Wilhelm III, König von Preußen may sound a grand personage, but he was in fact far too diffident ever to be a ruler. This was surprising, given that his grandfather was Frederick the Great, Germany’s finest ever monarch; but, there again, his father had been a pleasure-seeker and just the wrong man to have in charge when the French Revolution started. Luckily, the indecisive King’s wife was Queen Luise, who was not only beautiful but also so smart that Napoleon called her Prussia’s best minister. She died suddenly in 1810, but by then had galvanised a group of able commanders who would ultimately turn the tables on the French. The King came to Kent in 1814 with his best general, Blücher, to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat, thus sharing the glory of the true hero. Friedrich Wilhelm would rule for another quarter century, and his son Wilhelm would become the first Kaiser of the united Germany.
William Wordsworth (1770-1850)
Wordsworth is now popularly synonymous with the poem ‘Daffodils’, the epitome of the pastoral dimension of the Romantic movement he co-founded. He was born into poverty in the Lake District, and raised a devout Christian. He did however undergo a spell of youthful rebellion. In 1790, he travelled to France via Dover, about which he wrote a few poems. He had an illegitimate child by a French woman, and enthusiastically endorsed the French Revolution, only to be profoundly disillusioned when a callous tyranny was replaced by a bloody one. Back in England, he met Samuel Coleridge, with whom he published the groundbreaking ‘Lyrical Ballads’ in 1798. This was an attempt to return poetry to the language of the people, and underscored the supposed innocence of mankind before exposure to the corrupting influence of society. At 30, he settled at Grasmere, married, and wrote his best poetry. In later life, he succeeded fellow ‘Lake Poet’ Robert Southey as Poet Laureate.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
Coleridge’s life was blighted by two facts: he suffered terribly from depression, and the laudanum he took for it profoundly changed both his outlook and the way people responded to him. He initially supported the French Revolution, and while at Cambridge made abortive plans with Robert Southey to found a commune called ‘Pantisocracy’ in Pennsylvania. Later he also befriended William Wordsworth, and the three would become known as the ‘Lake Poets’. Coleridge contributed few of the poems to ‘Lyrical Ballads’, the pioneering collection he co-wrote with Wordsworth, but did compose one of the greatest: ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. With the fragmentary ‘Kubla Khan’, it proved his exceptional talent. He moved to Keswick in 1800 to be near Wordsworth; but his increasingly erratic behaviour drove others away, even his wife, and his health deteriorated. He sought relief at Ramsgate, staying there ten times. He died in Highgate after being tended at a physician’s home for 18 years.
King Louis-Philippe I of France (1773-1850)
As the progressive Duke of Chartres, Louis-Philippe d’Orléans fought with distinction for France in the Revolutionary Wars, but took warning when the King was executed. He exiled himself overseas for 21 years until the Bourbon restoration in 1814. After the 1830 Revolution to depose Charles X, however, he was himself crowned. He ruled in a wholly conservative fashion, giving money-makers their head and forging a friendship with Britain. Later in his reign, however, the economy deteriorated, and the ‘Citizen King’ was in turn ejected by the Revolution of 1848; his replacement was the terrible Napoleon III, which goes to show that you should be careful what you wish for. Louis Philippe avoided the mistake made by Louis XVI in leaving Paris conspicuously. Instead he and his wife took a humble cab, describing themselves as the Smiths. They sailed to Dover with their family and, after travelling through Kent, settled in Surrey. By all accounts, they were popular guests.
Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar, Prince of Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein, was an antimatter version of Adolf Hitler: a German-born Chancellor of the Austrian Empire and an ultra-conservative who repudiated both nationalism and socialism. A diplomat’s son, he made his name by arranging the marriage of Austria’s Marie Louise to Napoleon after his divorce from Joséphine. Ironically, four years later, Metternich would be among the allied leaders arriving at Dover to celebrate the Emperor’s abdication. After serving as Foreign Minister for 12 years, he additionally became Chancellor in 1821, and then retained both posts for 27 years. His philosophy was simple: after the traumatic upheavals of the Revolutionary period, Austria required stability. He therefore resisted all such social change as had occurred in Britain. Consequently, political unrest grew until he was ejected in the 1848 Revolution, and fled to England. He still divides opinion: the man who contained Russian expansionism, but sowed the seeds of the Austrian Empire’s collapse.
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Austen was well into her thirties when she had her first novel published. After an initial success with ‘Sense and Sensibility’ in 1811, she followed up with her chef d’oeuvre, ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Her subject matter was the manners of the landed gentry, which she brought to life with masterly precision, and mocked with subtle wit that was never spiteful. She knew this world well, being sprung from the wealthy Austen clan from Kent. Although born in Hampshire, she had lasting connections with Kent, her brother Edward frequently inviting her to Goodnestone and then Godmersham; the latter probably inspired ‘Mansfield Park’. Following those initial successes, two further books were published in quick succession; but, in no time, she sickened dramatically, and was soon glad to die. Though two more novels were published posthumously, the world was left wondering what other masterpieces she might have created in her maturity.
Charles Lamb (1775-1834)
Charles Lamb had an unusual distinction: he was a very fine essayist. In fact, he was more popular at it than his expert friend William Hazlitt, because he entertained rather than lectured. His popular touch was evident from his best known work, ‘Tales from Shakespeare’ (1807), which he co-wrote with his sister Mary; she covered the comedies, he the tragedies. Sadly, the partnership did not last. Both were mentally ill, and during a psychotic episode she took umbrage at her mother’s scolding and stabbed her through the heart. His greatest work was a solo effort called ‘Essays of Elia’, the first volume of which came out in 1823. Lamb’s social circle was a constellation of Romantics that included all three ‘Lake Poets’, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey. Lamb too was drawn to that magnet for poets, Margate, which he first visited in 1801 and described as the best place he’d ever been for a holiday.
JMW Turner (1775-1851)
Whereas England has a strong claim to the greatest literary tradition in the world, the numbers of classical composers and painters who bear comparison with their European counterparts can be counted on the fingers of one of ET’s hands, and still leave enough for him to phone home. One outstanding exception is Joseph Mallord William Turner. This London-born artist was so talented that he was painting in the Impressionist style decades before Monet was born. He was famously fond of Margate, where the Contemporary gallery is named after him, although he painted all over Kent. An obsessively private eccentric, he never married, but had two illegitimate daughters by Sarah Danby, the aunt of his loyal housekeeper of 40 years, Hannah Danby. Turner, ever eccentric, thoroughly neglected his health and appearance for the sake of his painting, and his lifetime oeuvre of over 550 oils and 2,000 watercolours transformed the genre of landscape painting.
Tsar Alexander I of Russia (1777-1825)
Alexander I’s reign did not start propitiously. He consented to a plot by nobles to force his father’s abdication, only to learn later that it had all gone badly wrong and Paul I had been murdered. He therefore found himself Tsar at the age of 23. It was not a good time, with Napoleon looming large in Europe. Alexander’s subsequent handling of the Napoleonic Wars was scarcely coherent. He opposed France, but after two catastrophic defeats formed an alliance with Napoleon that was always doomed to fail. It was however on his patch that Napoleon’s grand design finally faltered. After Borodino in 1812, the French army was decimated by the long march home with the Russians in pursuit. Alexander was naturally invited to the victory celebrations that brought him through Kent to London, when he was reunited with his fellow reactionary Metternich. Having been relatively liberal, he grew increasingly authoritarian, and was succeeded by his even tougher brother Nicholas.
Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet (1778-1829)
Although he was originally set to be a surgeon, Davy luckily took up chemistry instead. His first major discovery was that nitrous oxide could be used as an anaesthetic; for good reason he named it ‘laughing gas’. It got him a job at the Royal Institution as a lecturer. There he realised that electricity could be used to break down chemical compounds into their constituent parts, and so discovered several important elements: potassium, sodium, calcium, strontium, barium, magnesium, boron. Yet another ingenious South-Westerner with an interest in mines, he developed the safety lamp bearing his name, which became indispensable to miners. His one vice was an addiction to fame. He was knighted, became the first-ever Baronet in science, and presided over the Royal Society. He regularly came to Tonbridge to meet his friend and fellow scientist John Children, including for one landmark conference in 1813 that involved experimenting with the world’s largest galvanic battery.
Elizabeth Fry (1780-1845)
Elizabeth Gurney sprang from the great Quaker tradition of wealthy entrepreneurs. Both her parents were from banking families – the Gurneys and the Barclays – and she married Joseph Fry, a cousin of the Quaker chocolate-makers. She acquired a zeal for reforming Britain’s prison system after being horrified by a visit to Newgate prison in 1813. Particularly struck by the condition of the women and children she encountered, she devoted herself to improving prison conditions both in Britain and abroad. In addition, she started up charities and homeless shelters. The Home Secretary, Robert Peel, was encouraged to get the Gaols Act passed in 1823; it did little use, however, because it was not properly enforced. However, Queen Victoria expressed her support, and in 1845 the Mayor of London paved the way for the first Elizabeth Fry refuge, in Hackney, for women newly out of jail. By that time, Fry had been living in Ramsgate, and died there of a stroke.
George Stephenson (1781-1848)
When he arrived in Whitstable in 1825 to supervise the building of his new railway line to Canterbury, George Stephenson had come a long way. He was born in Northumberland in humble circumstances, but became a model of self-improvement. While working at a coal mine, he paid to attend night school to learn the three R’s, so that he could go into engineering. He designed the first of many steam locomotives in 1814, and moved onto building entire railways. In 1829, he collaborated with his son Robert on the invention of the famous Stephenson’s Rocket. In between, he invented a miners’ safety lamp, which he demonstrated a month before Sir Humphrey Davy announced his own at the Royal Society. Stephenson’s prior claim was dismissed, largely because of his provincial accent, and he was even accused of stealing the idea. Stephenson Senior ensured that his son Robert had lessons in received pronunciation, but never forgave the bigoted London elite.
Lord Byron (1788-1824)
The last ideological war in Britain took place 200 years ago. While one body of men sought to improve the human lot through science and technology, another turned to revolutionary idealism married to escapism and ‘free love’. The arch exponent of the latter, now known as the Romantics, was Lord Byron. His upbringing was itself romantic: after spending his first 10 years growing up in poverty in Aberdeen, he inherited a baronetcy. His years at Cambridge were dissolute, and after his first poems were mocked went on a two-year European tour, familiarising himself with the ports of Dover and Sheerness. Around 1812, he completed ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, which made him an instant celebrity, and opened the door to scandalous fornicating in London. In disgrace, he departed England for good in 1816. After publishing ‘Don Juan’ in 1823, he left Italy to fight for the Greek rebels against Turkey. He died of a fever at Missolonghi.
Michael Faraday (1791-1867)
When you learn that Albert Einstein kept his picture on his wall, that Lord Rutherford described him as one of the greatest scientific discoverers of all time, and that Sir Humphrey Davy called him his own greatest discovery, you will know that Faraday was no ordinary scientist. He was a pioneering chemist who made a number of discoveries, including benzene; yet his forte was the field of electromagnetism, in which his discoveries paved the way for practical applications of electricity. It was he, for example, who selected Dungeness to be the first electrically powered lighthouse. He made many of his discoveries actually at the Royal Institution in London, where he innovated the Christmas lectures for children that continue today. Although Faraday was not himself a mathematician, James Clerk Maxwell formalised his discoveries and paid tribute to the mathematical calibre of his mind. Faraday is commemorated in the standard name for the unit of capacitance, the farad.
John Keats (1795-1821)
Like his friends the fellow Romantic poets Byron and Shelley, Keats died young, but without first enjoying the customary roistering. In fact, Keats appears a more dependable individual all round. A Londoner, he was training to be a doctor when he suffered bouts of depression, and decided to change course. A key moment in his poetic development was a visit to Margate in summer 1816, when he also began his career as a great letter-writer. Leigh Hunt introduced him soon afterwards to Byron and Shelley, and he re-invented himself as a poet. There were only two women in his life, and both were the subject more of his love than sexual appetite. Before he could marry the second, Fanny Brawne, he was sent via Gravesend to Rome to recover from tuberculosis. Instead, he succumbed five months later. His six-year career had already yielded such well-loved poems as ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, and ‘To Autumn’.
Mary Shelley (1797-1851)
Mary Godwin’s Bohemian background was long on radical politics but short on morals and money. Meeting the aristocratic roué Percy Bysshe Shelley at 16 didn’t help. Already married, he took her to Europe and got her pregnant, though they eventually wed after his wife’s suicide. On a trip to Switzerland in 1816, they arranged a contest with Lord Byron and John Polidori to devise the best ghost story. Godwin imagined ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’, and with Shelley’s help turned it into a novel. Frankenstein’s monster certainly fired the imagination of Romantics troubled by science and industry. Whether it would have sold had readers not assumed that Shelley wrote it himself is debatable. Years after Shelley drowned, Mary visited Sandgate to help her recover from smallpox, looking (she said) like a monster. She is now granted legendary status by feminist academics, although Germaine Greer‘s scathing assessment is that ‘Frankenstein’ has more loose ends than a grass skirt.
Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75)
Many of us have a mental picture of Andersen as the sweet young Danish cobbler depicted by Danny Kaye in the 1952 biopic, crafting wonderful stories for the delight of children everywhere. It’s not a picture Charles Dickens would have recognised. The two met at a reception in London in 1847, when the Dane oozed admiration for the age’s “greatest writer”. A decade later, he asked to stay for a fortnight at Gads Hill, to which Dickens politely consented. He soon wished he hadn’t. Andersen ended up staying five weeks, and exasperated the whole family with his bizarre behaviour. Eventually Dickens had to ask him to leave, and dropped their acquaintance as fast as possible. Some critics have suggested that Andersen inspired the excruciating Uriah Heep in ‘David Copperfield’, which was written shortly after that first meeting. It’s just as well that he is remembered better for ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘The Princess and the Pea’, and ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59)
When the BBC ran its ‘Greatest Briton’ poll in 2002, it surprised many that second place went to Portsmouth-born IK Brunel, whom many viewers had never heard of. It is possible that organised voting helped secure the result, not unconnected with the university that bears his name; after all, several British engineers with a comparable claim did not feature at all. Yet Brunel’s lifetime achievement certainly qualified him to be in the running. He was a rare mix of technological brilliance and hard-nosed pragmatism. It is telling that his three most extraordinary achievements – the Clifton Suspension Bridge, the SS Great Britain, and the Great Western Railway – occurred in three different spheres. All made a significant difference to the quality of life of human beings, testifying to the supreme public value of expertly applied technical ingenuity. Brunel was so conscientious that he even travelled to Kent in 1835 to examine the Stephensons’ innovative Canterbury & Whitstable Railway.
Frédéric Chopin (1810-49)
Chopin’s obviously French name may cause confusion when people learn that he was Polish. The explanation is simple: his father was a French emigrant. Chopin left Poland for France in 1830, making his name as a pianist in the salons and becoming a society favourite. Aged 26, he made the acquaintance of French writer Aurore Dupin, alias George Sand, who became his lover for nearly a decade. Having mastered his craft, he focused on the talent he had already developed by the age of 15: composing. Chopin is practically synonymous with piano works. His oeuvre includes over 200 compositions, including mazurkas, études, preludes, nocturnes, waltzes and polonaises, as well as two concertos and a funeral march. Still not 40, he died in Paris of tuberculosis. In 2010, the Polish ship ‘Dar Mlodziezy’ brought an orchestra to Dover Town Hall to play a commemorative concert during her voyage retracing Chopin’s European tour of 1848.
Karl Marx (1818-83)
Marx may have been the most divisive man in history. He was certainly a man of contrasts. Though from a wealthy Jewish family, he had no money. After settling in Highgate when exiled from Germany, he plotted the destruction of the British state. His ‘Communist Manifesto’ was a stirring call to arms against tyranny, but ‘Das Kapital’ was rooted in Feuerbach’s antiquated thinking, and revealed the journalistic nature of its composition. Marx does seem however to have had his heart in the right place. His big idea was that the controlling socialist state established in the wake of revolution would inevitably wither away, introducing an epoch of exploitation-free liberty. He didn’t foresee that C20 revolutionists would invariably opt to forestall the last stage. In any case, the crotchety Marx was plagued by boils on his legs. It’s nice to picture him on Margate beach, soothing them in the surf while musing on surplus labour.
Queen Victoria (1819-1901)
The reign of Queen Victoria was so long, and her domain so wide, that even Americans call the late C19 the Victorian period. Yet, though she was not mad like her equally long-lived grandfather, her reign followed an opposite trajectory. When she assumed the throne at 18, Great Britain led the world. The energetic young Victoria’s zenith was the Great Exhibition of 1851, a world showcase that owed much to the enthusiasm of her loving husband Prince Albert. As late as 1856, Britain was capable, with France, of foiling Russian expansionism in its own backyard. Albert‘s death in 1861 changed everything. As Germany overhauled Britain’s industrial dominance, and the government pursued a policy of competing for territory in Africa, Victoria retreated into reclusive veneration of her dead spouse, occasionally taking holidays in Thanet and visiting Prince Alfred at Eastwell Manor. Though she again became a national treasure after her Golden Jubilee, she is most associated now with unfashionable moralism.
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