Saturday 20 February 2016

Two Families in the 1640s - by Ann Swinfen

I have written three novels about two families, set in the seventeenth century. All have their roots in true events. Like most people, I suspect, I’m heartily thankful I did not live in that tempestuous period, yet it is endlessly fascinating. Social and religious pressures had been building up over the preceding hundred years or so, and in the seventeenth century – in England as elsewhere – they exploded. Ordinary men and women were better informed, even more literate, than before. Developments in printing and the foundation of many grammar schools had contributed to educating a population which was prepared to question the traditional religious establishment and the social hierarchy. The dictatorial stance of the early Stuart monarchs, especially Charles I, was the final spark which lit this particular powder keg.

Charles I

It is little wonder that the times gave rise to the revolutionary ideas of Levellers and Diggers, to confrontation between an elected Parliament and an anointed king, to clashes between Puritans and traditionalists. Opportunist land-grabbers fought with rural communities. Soldiers mutinied. Portents were observed. And innocent people – often old and poor – were sentenced to death for witchcraft.

The first of my novels set in this period, Flood, arose from my reading about how unscrupulous speculators seized the communally-held lands of East Anglia and undertook illegal drainage schemes with often disastrous results. The local people fought back, and amongst their leaders were women, many of whom were injured or imprisoned, some of whom died.

To compound the horrors of the situation, this was also the time of ‘licensed’ iconoclasts who smashed up parish churches, and of the monstrous career of Matthew Hopkins, Witchfinder General, whose fanatical search for victims ranged over the same area. 
Matthew Hopkins

I chose as my protagonist in Flood Mercy Bennington, the daughter of a yeoman farmer, who becomes one of the women leaders of the fenlanders, fighting for her family and village, trying to save their lands and livelihood. The second novel in the Fenland series takes the story further; Mercy continues the struggle in the country while her brother Tom travels to the Inns of Court in London, in search of the fenlanders’ charter granting their lands.

So how did I come across the account of this struggle in the first place? It was during my research into events in England in the mid seventeenth century for quite a different book. As part of the general research, it never became an element in that book but remained filed away in my memory, to emerge again later as the story of Flood.

And what was the other book? This Rough Ocean.

I suppose I’m like most writers: some ideas come swiftly and are written at once, others stay with you for a long time, quietly maturing, like a fine wine.

We need to backtrack many years here. My father-in-law had done some research into the Swinfen family of Swinfen in Staffordshire, partly spurred on by another descendent who worked for Burke’s Peerage. It emerged that the family was very well documented. A Norman knight, shortly after the Conquest, had married the heiress to the Swinfen estates and taken the name Swinfen in place of his own (de Auste). As landed armigerous gentry, they were well covered in the historical record and early genealogies. Like most families of their class, they carried out their duties as substantial landowners over the centuries – not aristocracy but holding an important position in their own shire.

Also like other gentry families, they began to rise under the Tudors and came to real prominence in the seventeenth century. An interesting link with my own Christoval Alvarez series of novels is John Swinfen (c.1560-1632), grandfather of one of the protagonists of This Rough Ocean. When Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, was executed for treason in 1601, his widow, Frances Walsingham, daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham (Christoval’s employer), was deprived of her lands and her son of his inheritance. John Swinfen helped her to recover them from James I. He also christened one of his sons Deveroxe just after Essex’s execution, which must have taken some courage.

Earl of Essex

However, it was this John’s grandson, John Swinfen or Swynfen (1613-1694) who is the most interesting. He attended Cambridge and Grey’s Inn, then became a Member of Parliament at a young age. He was therefore at the centre of the most dramatic events of the seventeenth century – born while Shakespeare was still alive, he lived through the reigns of James I, Charles I, the Protectorate, Charles II, James II and into that of William and Mary, and also through the Plague and Fire of London. Caught up in the struggles between Parliament and the king, he was imprisoned twice – once by Cromwell for opposing the killing of the king, once by James II on a trumped-up accusation of being involved in Monmouth’s rebellion. Ah, the dangers of being a Moderate! Both extremes hate you! He lived long enough to be one of the founders of the Whig (Liberal) Party.

Oliver Cromwell

James II

I found this entire career fascinating, and my husband plans to write the definitive biography, but I wanted to capture some of this rich life in a novel. Clearly the whole life was far too large a subject, so I decided to concentrate on the period immediately following Pride’s Purge. John and his Moderate colleagues had persuaded Parliament to vote to treat with the king on the basis of an agreement whereby most of the powers of government would be handed over from the king to Parliament. The Moderates rejoiced. An end to the Civil War at last, on terms favourable to Parliament.

Pride's Purge
The next morning, all those MPs who had supported the treaty were driven away from Parliament by armed soldiers of Cromwell’s army, commanded by Colonel Pride. The most important, including John, were imprisoned. The MPs not excluded were believed to be favourable to Cromwell and his supporters, but many soon followed their consciences and withdrew, leaving the mockery of the ‘Rump Parliament’.

My novel, This Rough Ocean, tells the story of the imprisoned John and of his wife Anne, who makes a dangerous winter journey home to Staffordshire with her young children. Once there she finds the estate and its people on the brink of collapse into ruin and starvation. She alone must take on her husband’s role, running the large estate and averting disaster. The two stories are intertwined, as husband and wife each fight for survival.

I have always been intrigued by the lives of ordinary people in the past. We hear much about great rulers and men of power, but dig a little deeper and there is a great deal to be discovered about everyone else, the poor, the quiet farmers, the craftsmen, the minor players in the large events. In Flood, Betrayal and This Rough Ocean I’ve sought to tell the stories of those turbulent years of the seventeenth century, based on two families – a yeoman family and a gentry family – ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events.

Ann Swinfen


Sue Bursztynski said...

Goodness, your husband has some fascinating ancestors! And they're all there in the histories. Most folk can't say that. :-) Sounds like a great subject for a novel. I hope it works out well.

Ann Swinfen said...

I've already written the novel, Sue - This Rough Ocean - and I think it's one of my best. The title is taken from one of John Swynfen's letters, referring to the political situation just before he was imprisoned. Eventually I expect David will get around to writing the full biography, but he has a couple of other projects in hand at the moment.

Another interesting ancestor was John's grandson, Samuel Swinfen. He was a second son, so didn't expect to inherit the estate (though he did in the end). He took a medical degree at Oxford, then set up in practice in Lichfield, taking lodgings with the local bookseller. When the latter's son was born, Samuel delivered him and the parents named the baby after him - Samuel Johnson! Later Samuel Swynfen and his elder brother Richard secured young Johnson a place at their old college in Oxford. Intriguing, yes?

Sue Bursztynski said...

Definitely intriguingly! :-)