Magazine article History Today

My Head Start with History: Historical Novelist Katie Grant Delves into Her Family History for Inspiration

Magazine article History Today

My Head Start with History: Historical Novelist Katie Grant Delves into Her Family History for Inspiration

Article excerpt

On a little table in the drawing room of my parents' home just outside Burnley in Lancashire is a small, very ancient leather fame. In this frame is enclosed a lock of hair and the legend reads 'my cousin Franck Towneley's haire, who suffered for his prince August 10th, 1746'. The cousin was Colonel Francis Towneley, born in 1708, the fifth son of Charles Towneley of Towneley, an old Catholic recusant family 'of more than usual peversity' according to Lord Burghley, Lord Treasurer to Elizabeth I. Francis, or Uncle Frank as we always called him, whose brother John had been a tutor of Bonnie Prince Charlie's at the French court of Louis XV, was my most romantic ancestor and it was his life, but, more particularly, his death, that taught me from an early age that history was not only exotic and thrilling but also full of gruesome details useful for frightening visitors my six siblings and I particularly disliked.

Uncle Frank, who founded the ill-fated Manchester Regiment in the Jacobite cause, was the most effective. Executed on Kennington Common, the last man in Britain to be hanged, drawn and quartered, his disembodied head was dipped in pitch and stuck up on Temple Bar for a couple of decades until eventually rescued and brought back to Towneley in a haycart. Understandably proud of their hero, my family put the head in a casket and hid it behind the panelling in the domestic chapel where it remained until central heating arrived to disturb it.

Then it was given a new home: a basket with a napkin as dustcover since the Towneleys now had a fancy to pass Uncle Frank round after dinner with the port. Perhaps this proved unpopular with guests but at any rate, in the end, Uncle Frank was popped into a hatbox and sent back to London for storage at Drummonds Bank. Not until after the end of the Second World War did he reemerge, when the hatbox was despatched again to Lancashire, this time through the post, so that Uncle Frank's head could finally be buried in St Peter's Church. And that should have been the end of that. However when, in 1978, a stone was to be erected to commemorate this 'gay and volatile' martyr or traitor, according to your disposition, my mother asked if the tomb could be opened to make sure the poor man was nicely settled in. Imagine the surprise of all the witnesses when the slab was lifted to reveal not one head, but two. One was certainly Uncle Frank's, with some of his features and hair still preserved by the pitch, but the other? Who knows? Well, I know, because I have solved this mystery in my next novel, How the Hangman Lost his Heart, to be published by Puffin in 2006.

I am immensely fortunate that my family provides an almost limitless supply of similarly odd tales. We emerged through the usual pre-Conquest mishmash of names and marriages and, by 1379, Richard de Towneley was Sheriff of Lancashire with his son John trusted enough to be sent on a special mission to Calais by Richard II. In fact, John failed in his duty, so Leslie Chapples, author of the quirky Noblesse Oblige--A Towneley Chronicle of Historical Fact, Marriage Links and Notable Family Associations (1987) tells us, and 'incurred his sovereign's displeasure', something Richard's grandson tried to remedy when he fought at Agincourt. It was Sir John Towneley, whose ghost, so the rumour goes, groans away on what became known as 'Boggart's Bridge', who witnessed the Reformation execution of the Abbot of Whalley and received the beautiful Whalley vestments for safekeeping. You can see the chasuble, one dalmatic and a maniple, part of the only set of English High Mass vestments that survive complete, at Towneley Hall today, and next to them, every All Souls Day, we latter day members of the family gather together to offer up Mass for our dead relations. We pray not only for all those Richards and Johns and, of course, for Uncle Frank, but also for quantities of Charleses, one of whom died fighting in Prince Rupert's Royalist army at Marston Moor and whose widow was most courteously treated by Oliver Cromwell, and another, the famous collector, whose Roman marbles, purchased by the British Museum by special Act of Parliament in 1805, were one of the sights of London in the late eighteenth century. …

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