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TWO NOVELS TOUCHING ON BURFORD

Stephen Cooper, Chairman, Burford & District Society



I read two novels recently which relate to Burford to a greater or lesser extent. The first, by Robert Harris is entitled 'Act of Oblivion', the second by Nigel Hastilow, who spoke in Burford a few weeks ago, is 'The Man Who Invented the News', subtitled 'The Memoirs of Marchamont Nedham' [pronounced Needham).

Harris's book concerns the fate of the Regicides - those men who signed the death warrant of Charles I in 1649, and were hunted down, arrested and brutally executed after Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660. We follow the lives of two of them who managed to escape to New England, took refuge in the wilderness despite repeated and expensive attempts to bring them to justice and... well, I will not reveal what happened in the end.  This is a tale well told, full of suspense and, wherever one's initial sympathies might in theory lie, we must hope that the fugitives will get away and find peace, whilst we also understand (or at least I did) why the pursuers felt so strongly that the 'king-killers' must not be allowed to go unpunished.

The surprise is that in a novel so wide in scope, we find three references to Burford or Burford men. The first concerns 'Speaker' William Lenthall, and his refusal to assist Charles I in arresting those Five MPs in 1642, the second concerns Cromwell's dismissal of the Rump Parliament by Cromwell in 1653. The third is about the execution of the leading Levellers outside Burford Church in 1649.

Lenthall was of course an M.P. and lord of the manor of Burford, who lived at The Priory. By contrast, Hastilow's novel is about a man born in obscurity in Burford who became the first journalist in England but (if Hastilow is right) continued to visit many people there, including Lenthall and Peter Heylyn (author and polemicist) and William Glynne (Lord Chief Justice during the Commonwealth of 1649-1660).

Both books are entertaining and interesting from an historical point of view. In particular, they demonstrate that History is about people; and people are complicated. To my mind, this explains why these two famous sons of Burford, William Lenthall and Marchamont Nedham were both accused of being turncoats, and indeed of being multiple turncoats, in that each served Parliament, Cromwell and the King, though not necessarily in that order. These changes of fortune can be understood when we realise that, ultimately, we owe allegiance to individuals, not to ideas. This also explains why Lenthall wanted the words 'I am a worm' ['Vermis Sum' in Latin] inscribed on his grave. He felt guilty, especially as a lawyer and a person of influence, because he came to think that he had betrayed Charles I, by failing to argue vigorously against the King's trial and execution.

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