For Pen and Sword Books I am producing a new annotated edition of The Comic History of England (originally published in 1846). I thought I’d give readers a taste of what this fine book has to offer.
In George W.M. Reynolds’s best-selling novel The Mysteries of London (1844–48), a butler, a lawyer, and a parson are congregated in a public house. The three of them strike up a conversation with a bookseller, for the parson reveals that he has written a new romance—a tale in which vice is punished and virtue is rewarded!
The bookseller tells the parson not to bother taking his book to a publisher:
“Ah!” said the bookseller, after a pause; “nothing now succeeds unless it’s in the comic line. We have comic Latin grammars, and comic Greek grammars; indeed, I don’t know but what English grammar, too, is a comedy altogether. All our tragedies are made into comedies by the way they are performed; and no work sells without comic illustrations to it. I have brought out several new comic works, which have been very successful. For instance, The Comic Wealth of Nations; The Comic Parliamentary Speeches; The Comic Report of the Poor-Law Commissioners, with an Appendix containing the Comic Dietary Scale; and the Comic Distresses of the Industrious Population. I even propose to bring out a Comic Whole Duty of Man. All these books sell well: they do admirably for the nurseries of the children of the aristocracy. In fact they are as good as manuals and text-books.”
These remarks in Reynolds’s book were a nod to Gilbert Abbot á Beckett’s corpus of ‘comic’ history books which included The Comic History of England, as well as The Comic History of Rome and The Comic Blackstone, the last of which was a satirical law textbook which lampooned William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England (originally published in four volumes in 1765).
People from the nineteenth century appear to us, in surviving portraits and photographs, often as stern and pompous people. Yet they liked to laugh. The novels they read made them laugh. Several magazines were printed with the intention of making their readers laugh—among these were Fun, Judy, The Man in the Moon, and last but certainly by no means least: the famous Punch. As Gilbert Abbot á Beckett’s Comic History of England shows us, they also laughed at their history.
Born in 1811 to a middle-class family in Wiltshire, young Beckett was educated at Westminster School and was destined for the legal profession. Although he was called to the bar he decided to pursue the career of a writer. He became a regular contributor to the The Times and also wrote ‘adaptations’ of Dickens’s novels. From Beckett’s pen flowed such classics as Oliver Twiss the Workhouse Boy (1839)—a blatant copy of Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1838)—and the Posthumous Papers of the Wonderful Discovery Club (1838), which was a thinly-veiled copy of Dickens’s Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837). He also turned his attention to theatre writing and wrote several humorous plays before writing The Comic History of England.
Beckett’s Comic History of England was originally published in serial instalments in Punch in the latter half of 1846, and ended early in 1847. Founded in 1841 by social investigator Henry Mayhew and Ebenezer Landells, the magazine featured humorous short stories, jokes, and funny illustrations. Some of the Victorian era’s best writers made their mark in Punch, among these were the poet Thomas Hood and the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.
In its early years Punch could, at times, be quite radical; many of its illustrations drew attention to social ills such as poverty, pollution, and the wrongs of the factory system. The magazine was therefore a suitable outlet for Beckett to contribute to for, in addition to his efforts as an author, Beckett was also a philanthropist and contributed to several government reports on social issues.
Politicians were also considered fair game for Punch writers and illustrators; a little later in the century William Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli or ‘Dizzy’, as the magazine affectionately called the latter, were routinely mocked. Not even the royal family was sacred—Queen Victoria was one ‘star’ of the magazine who regularly appeared as a cartoon in its columns. Although Punch faced some financial difficulties when it first started the magazine soon became a household name. As the historian Richard Altick notes:
To judge from the number of references to it in the private letters and memoirs of the 1840s … Punch had become a household word within a year or two of its founding, beginning in the middle class and soon reaching the pinnacle of society, royalty itself.
Although she was regularly portrayed in Punch’s columns Queen Victoria herself must have been amused indeed, and had no issue reading the magazine (perhaps she even secretly let out an unconstitutional chuckle when a politician she disliked was lampooned).
When the serial run of Beckett’s Comic History ended a one volume edition was quickly published and it was continually republished throughout the nineteenth century, and most editions retained John Leech’s fantastic illustrations.
Although at a basic level Beckett wanted to show that the writing of history could be funny while being factual—Beckett included footnotes indicating where his information came from—he also made a wider point. While a lot of early Victorian history writing was unashamedly patriotic and cast the actions of its historic rulers in a wonderful light, Beckett showed these historical statesmen up for what they really were: thugs and brutes who were often embroiled in scandals. Most of the ‘great men’ from English history were rarely worthy of admiration.
Beckett died in 1856 and his Comic History has been forgotten by modern audiences. I hope you enjoy the short snippet given below of the Peasants’ Revolt: a truly horrible history!
Stephen Basdeo (editor)
The Comic History of Wat Tyler’s Rebellion
Gilbert Abbot á Beckett
This excerpt is taken from the John Dicks 6d “People’s Edition” published in 1885
If little and good were always identical, Richard the Second would have been a very good king, for he was a little boy of eleven years of age when the crane of circumstances hoisted him on to the throne of his grandfather. Young Richard was the only surviving son of Edward the Black Prince, and out of compliment to the juvenile monarch, his coronation in Westminster Abbey was made as gaudy as possible. No expense was spared in dresses and decorations; but the ceremony not being over till it was high time all children should be in bed and asleep, the boy king was completely exhausted before the spectacle was half over. Stimulants were administered to keep the child up; but when the heavy crown was placed on his brow, the diadem completely overbalanced a head already oscillating from side to side with excessive drowsiness. His attendants tumbled him into a litter, and hurried him into a private room, where, by dint of the most scarifying restoratives held to his nose, he so far recovered as to be enabled to create four earls and nine knights, partake of a tremendous supper, dance at a ball, and listen to a little minstrelsy.[i] It was at the coronation of Richard the Second that we first find mention in history of a champion rushing into Westminster Hall, throwing his gauntlet on the ground, and offering to fight any number—one down and another come on—who may dispute the title of the sovereign. The gallantry of the challenge is not very considerable, for it is a well-understood thing beforehand that the police will keep all suspicious characters out of the Hall, and the only difficulty required is in backing out of the Hall on horseback; as, if a claimant to the throne should actually appear, the champion would no doubt back cleverly out of his challenge. Even this trifling merit must, however, be assigned to the horse, who is generally a highly-trained palfrey from the neighbouring amphitheatre, and is let out, trappings and all included, to the Champion of England for the performance in which his services are required.
Though Richard was not too young for the position of king, it was not to be supposed that a boy of his age could be of any use whatever, and twelve permanent councillors were therefore appointed, to do the work of government. It was expected that the Duke of Lancaster, alias John of Gaunt, would have been appointed regent, but not one of the king’s uncles was named, and John, looking gaunter than ever,[ii] withdrew in stately dudgeon to his Castle of Kenilworth.
The truce with France having expired, without renewal, some attacks were made on the English coast, and advantage was taken of the circumstance to ask the Parliament for a liberal supply. Every appeal to the patriotism of the people was in those days nothing more than an attack upon their pockets; and it is not improbable that, by an understanding among the various kings of Europe, one of them should be threatened with attack if he required a pretext for obtaining a subsidy from his subjects.
Notwithstanding the money taken from the public purse for the national defence, the work was so utterly neglected by the Government, that John Philpot, a shipowner and merchant of London, equipped a small fleet of his own, with which he captured several of the enemy’s vessels. The authorities feeling the act to be a reflection on their own shameful dereliction of duty, censured Philpot for his interference; but the worthy alderman, by replying—”Why did you leave it to me to do, when you ought to have done it yourselves?” effectually silenced all remonstrance.
Young Richard, or those who acted for him, continued to make ducks and drakes of the money of the English, which was being constantly wasted in wanton warfare. The setting up of a duke here, or the taking down of a king there, though the English felt no interest whatever in either the duke or the king, became a pretext for levying a tax on the people. In order that none should escape, so much per head was imposed on every one from the highest to the lowest. The tax varied with the rank of the person; and while a duke or archbishop was assessed at six ‘thirteen four (£6 13s. 4d.) a lawyer was mockingly mulcted of six and eightpence. Such was the unpopularity of the poll-tax, that a regular pollish revolution speedily broke out, which was fomented by the exactions of some mercenary speculators to whom the tax had been farmed out by the Government. Commissioners were sent into the disturbed districts to enforce payment, and one Thomas de Bampton, who sat at Brentwood in Essex, with two serjeants-at-arms, was glad to take to his legs, to escape the violence of the populace, who sent him flying all the way to London, where he rushed with his two attendants into the Common Pleas, and asked for justice. Sir Robert Belknape, the chief, was sitting at Nisi Prius, when Bampton begged permission to move the court as far as Essex. The judge followed by clerks, jurors, and ushers, consenting to the motion, went off to Brentwood, where they had no sooner arrived, than poor Belknape was seized by the nape of the neck and forced to flee, while the clerks and jurors were much more cruelly dealt with.
Leaders were all that the people wanted, when a notorious priest who got the name of Jack Straw—from his being a man of that material—put himself at the head of the discontents. The throwing up a straw will often tell which way the wind blows, and the elevation of Jack certainly indicated an approaching hurricane. During the excitement, one of the tax-gatherers called upon one Walter the Tyler, of of Dartford, in Kent, to demand fourpence, due as Miss Walter’s Poll-tax. Mrs. Walter, with the vanity of her sex, wishing to make herself out younger than she really was, declared that the girl was not of the age liable by law to the imposition. The collector made a very rude remark on that very tender point, the age of the elder lady, when she screamed out to her husband, who was tiling a house in the neighbourhood, to come and “punish the impertinent puppy.” Walter, who had still his trowel in his hand, replied by crying out “Wait till I get at you;” and the tax-gatherer insolently calling out “What’s that what you say, Wat?” so irritated Walter, that he at once emptied a hod of mortar on to the head of the collector. The functionary was, of course, dreadfully mortar-fied at this incident, but the trowelling he got with the trowel completely finished him. Everybody applauded what Wat had done, and he was soon appointed captain of the rebels. They released from prison a Methodist parson named John Ball, or Bawl, whom they called their chaplain. A nucleus having been formed, the mob increased with the rapidity of a snowball, picking up the scum of the earth at every turn, until it arrived at an alarming magnitude. The Tyler first visited Canterbury, where he played some practical jokes upon the monks, and then came to Blackheath, where, finding the young king’s mother—the widow of the Black Prince—he gave the old lady a kiss, and in this operation nearly every rebel followed his leader. Such were the liberties taken by the mob in their zeal on behalf of liberty, which they often affect to pursue by means of the vilest tyranny, cruelty, cowardice, and oppression. The insurgents made for London, when Walworth, the mayor, endeavoured to oppose their entrance; but his efforts were vain, and several parts of the city were burnt and plundered. The Temple was destroyed by fire, and the lawyers running about in their black gowns amid the flames suggested a very obvious comparison. Newgate and the Fleet prisons were broken into, when all the scamps from both places at once assumed the character of patriots, and joined the cause of the people.
It is astonishing how easily a scamp who is unfit for any honest occupation can at once become a friend of the masses. The prisons might at any time contribute a fresh supply, when the stock of lovers of liberty on hand may seem to be diminishing. Rapine and murder were pursued with impunity for some time, the Government leaving matters to take their chance; until a formal demand having been made by the mob for the heads of the Chancellor and Treasurer, it was thought high time to effect a compromise. A proclamation was issued announcing the king’s intention to be at Mile End by a certain hour, and the people were politely requested to meet him there. On his reaching the spot where he intended to talk things over with his subjects, he found sixty thousand of them assembled; and as they all began talking at once, a little confusion arose until the appointment of a regular spokesman. At length the demands of sixty thousand tongues were reduced to four heads, and to these the king agreed very graciously. The dispute might have ended mildly at Mile End, but for the violent proceedings of those who kept away from the meeting. These got into the Tower directly Richard’s back was turned, and the least of their offences was the rudeness they manifested towards the widow of the Black Prince, who had either dropt in to tea with the Archbishop and Chancellor or was permanently residing there. This lady had got the name of the Fair Maid of Kent, a title that had many local variations, according to the part of the county in which she was spoken of. Sometimes they called her the Dartford Daisy, sometimes the Canterbury Belle, sometimes the Greenwich Geranium, sometimes the Woolwich Wallflower, and occasionally, even the Herne Bay Hollyoak.
The rioters finding her in the Tower, treated the Fair Maid of Kent with excessive rudeness, comparing her lips to Kentish cherries, and making them the subject of the well-known game which is played by what is termed bobbing at the fruit specified. She was, in fact, nearly smothered in the Tower with the kisses of the malcontents. Her ladies were, of course, dreadfully shocked, and their screams of “Mi!” at the treatment of their mistress were truly terrible. When remonstrated with on the liberty they were taking, they declared liberty to be the sacred object they were bent on furthering. The Fair Maid of Kent was at length dragged away by her attendants, who concealed her in a house called the royal wardrobe, or perhaps put her into a clothes-cupboard, to keep her out of the way of the rioters.
The Mile End charter had been very nicely written out by order of the king, but Wat Tyler and his followers refused to have anything to do with it. Richard tried another charter with more concessions, but this had no effect; and at length he drew up a third, which went still further than the two first, for the king, or those who advised him, cared not how much was promised to answer a temporary purpose, as there was never any difficulty in breaking a pledge that might be found inconvenient. Whether or no Wat suspected the worthlessness of charters, which might be sworn to one day and treated as waste paper the next, he refused to be satisfied with either of the documents offered to his approval. Finding written communications utterly useless, Richard rode into town, with the intention of seeing what could be done by means of a personal interview.
On reaching Smithfield he met Wat Tyler, and drew up opposite the gate of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, which was in those days an abbey. The incident which then happened has been variously described by different pens, but unless we had at our command some of the Smithfield pens that happened to be present at the time, we could not vouch for the accuracy of any particular statement. Some say that Tyler came up in a bullying attitude, and flourished a dagger; others allege that he seized the king’s bridle, as if he would take out of the royal hands the reins of power; a few hint that Wat was intoxicated, either with brief authority or something equally short; but all agree that he received his quietus at the hands of one of his majesty’s attendants.
The merit or responsibility of the death of Wat Tyler has usually been assigned to Walworth, Lord Mayor of London, who is said to have killed the rebel with his mace; but it is doubtful whether the civic potentate would be carrying his mace about with him during a morning’s ride.[iii] The fall of the Tyler had a most depressing influence on his followers, and Richard, riding up to them, offered his services as their leader. “Tyler was a traitor,” cried the king: “I will be your captain and your guide,” when several of the mob consented to transfer themselves, like so many tools, from the hands of Wat to those of Richard. Some of the rioters sneaked quietly away, while those that remained were paralysed; for it was always the characteristic of an English mob, to go on very valiantly as long as they had it all their own way, but to turn tail and flee on the very first symptom of earnest resistance.
Richard, finding himself once more powerful, instead of tempering justice with mercy, threw in a strong seasoning of the most highly -spiced cruelty, and commenced a series of executions, in which there were nearly fifteen hundred victims to royal vindictiveness. As might have been expected from the state of royal honour at the time, he at once revoked all the charters to which he had agreed—an act which proved that Tyler took a very fair view of the worth of the concessions he had rejected. Jack Straw, one of the rioters, after being tauntingly told by the authorities that he, Straw, deserved to be thrashed, was among the sufferers by the law; and an act was passed by which “riots and rumours and other such things” were turned into high treason. Considering that rumour has an incalculable number of tongues, which are not unfrequently all going at once, there must have been plenty to do under the act by which all rumours were converted into high treason.
[i] We get these facts from Walsingham, who gives an elaborate account of the coronation. Walsingham says, they waltzed till all was blue, which means, until the coerulean dawn began to make its appearance.
[ii] John of Gaunt was not so called from his gaunt stature, as some suppose, but from Ghent, or Gand (then called Gaunt) where the gent, was born.
[iii] Others say that the mace in the hands of Walworth was not the official mace, but a mace belonging to a billiard marker in the mob. It is pretty certain that, wherever the mace may have come from, the insolence of Tyler furnished the cue.
Reference List for the Introduction
Altick, Richard, Punch: The Lively Youth of a British Institution, 1841–1851 (Ohio State University Press, 1997)
Basdeo, Stephen, The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018)
Boorstin, Daniel J., The Mysterious Science of the Law: An Essay on Blackstone’s Commentaries (University of Chicago Press, 1996)
Gray, Donald J., ‘The Uses of Victorian Laughter’, Victorian Studies, 10: 2 (1966), 145–76.
Korte, Barbara and Doris Lechner, eds. History and Humour: British and American Perspectives (Verlag: Transcript, 2013)
Mitchell, Rosemary, Picturing the Past: English History in Text and Image, 1830–1870 (Oxford University Press, 2000)
Reynolds, George W.M. The Mysteries of London, 4 vols (London: G. Vickers, 1844–48)
Ross, A. The Language of Humour (London and New York: Routledge, 1998).