Naseby's Pioneering Archaeologist: Spurred into Action by the False Presumptions of Thomas Carlyle, the Antiquarian Edward FitzGerald Sought to Piece Together the Momentous Events of June 14th, 1645

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This month marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Edward FitzGerald, best known as the translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Less well-known is his groundbreaking survey of Naseby, site of the decisive battle of the English Civil War.

In his book Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches: With Elucidations (1845), the Scottish writer and historian Thomas Carlyle states of Naseby: 'Ample details of this Battle ... are to be found in Sprigge ... who has also copied a strange old Plan of the Battle ... By assiduous attention ... the Narrative can still be, and has lately been, pretty accurately verified.' In this he was much mistaken, but possibly on firmer ground than previous commentators as he had the opportunity of being the beneficiary of the pioneering work of one Edward FitzGerald, the son of the lord of the manor of the small Northamptonshire village that gave its name to one of the most momentous battles in British history.

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Born in Suffolk on March 31st, 1809, FitzGerald was famed for his translations of classical texts and of the Bubdiyat. His father had inherited land at Naseby and in 1823 had erected an obelisk to commemorate the battle on a vacant windmill mound on the road north-east of the village. Twelve years later, FitzGerald began his own study of the battlefield.

'About the middle of September 1842,' he wrote, 'W. M. Thackeray took me to tea with [Thomas] Carlyle whom I had not previously known. He was then busy with Cromwell; had just been, he told us, over the Field of Naseby in company with Dr Arnold of Rugby and had sufficiently identified the Ground of the Battle.' FitzGerald knew him to be mistaken. What they had taken to be the centre of the fight, the obelisk, FitzGerald knew his father had put on the battlefield's highest ground, although the significance of the windmill as a rendezvous for a 17th-century army escaped him. Carlyle did not take kindly to being corrected, remarking that 'he could accept no hearsay Tradition or Theory against the Evidence of his own Eyes.' As FitzGerald was intending to visit Naseby the next day, he informed Carlyle that he intended to look into the matter more closely.

FitzGerald wasted no time in getting down to work. His first report to Carlyle was acknowledged on Saturday, September 24th and refers to the letter of 'yesterday'. The most exciting news was evidently the confirmation of a grave on Cloisterwell of which Carlyle said: 'The opening of that burial-heap blazes strangely in my thoughts: these are the very jawbones that were clenched together in deadly rage, on this very ground, 197 years ago!'

FitzGerald described all this activity in letters to the Quaker poet Bernard Barton, whose daughter, Lucy, he was later to marry. On September 16th he wrote of Carlyle: 'He is full of Cromwell, and, funny enough, went over to Naseby this spring with poor Dr Arnold. They saw nothing, and walked over what was not the field of battle.'

FitzGerald's next letter was written on Monday, September 27th and enclosed water-colour sketches of views in answer to new questions Carlyle had put in his letter of September 24th. Three sketches show the different views as one moves from Naseby village towards Broadmoor. The second drawing shows the view from the location of the Naseby Museum and Early Modern Warfare Study Centre now being proposed and is very much the view one can see today. …