Magazine: History Today, August, 1993
THE HONOUR OF GENERAL MONCK
Mark Stoyle uncovers the juvenile delinquency - albeit in pursuit of family fortunes - of the man who saved the Stuart monarchy and brought back Charles II.
The great figures of the past tend to be remembered as they were at the height of their glory. When Prince Rupert's name is mentioned, for example, it is the dashing young cavalry commander of the 1640s, not the seaman and amateur scientist of the post-Restoration period, who immediately springs to mind. And if this is true of polymaths like Rupert, it is even more true of those whose names are associated with a single event. To speak of George Monck is at once to conjure up images of the chaotic final days of the (Commonwealth; of the 'roasting of the Rump' amidst a hundred celebratory bonfires, and Charles II landing at Dover to reclaim his father's throne.
Monck's pivotal role in the restoration of the Stuart monarchy is well known. One of Cromwell's most trusted lieutenants, he commanded the English army in Scotland from 1654 onwards. Following the Protector's death, however, Monck became increasingly unhappy about the course of political events. Encouraged by Royalist agents lie eventually decided to take matters into his own hands and in January 1660 he led his army south. On February 3rd, Monck entered London. Eighteen days later, to the accompaniment of wild popular rejoicing, he restored the secluded members, and demanded that the Rump Parliament be dismissed and a new assembly called. This action not only cleared the way for the Stuarts' return, it also established Monck's own historical reputation, inextricably linking his name with the restoration of the monarchy. As a result, our image of Monck is frozen in time. We see him always as he was in 1660, as 'General' Monck, the old, impassive soldier, as the man whom Pepys thought so 'heavy' and 'dull'.
To replace this picture with one of Monck as a delinquent teenager, a fugitive on the run from justice, an inexorable avenger in the mould of Charles Bronson in 'Death Wish', takes a considerable stretch of the imagination. Yet recent discoveries have proved that George Monck's early life was every bit as eventful as this description suggests. By the age of sixteen, he was already wanted for murder, a murder which he had committed in defence of his family's good name. The story behind the killing is a fascinating one, not only because it casts much light upon Monck's own character and development, but also because it helps to illuminate the early modern concept of 'honour', a topic which has been the subject of Much recent interest.
As scholars are becoming increasingly aware, upper-class Tudor and Stuart society was pervaded by the notion of honour. To be deprived of one's good reputation was to be shorn of one's self-respect, and melius virtute mori, quam per dedecus vivere ('It is better to die with honour, than to live with shame'.) was a sentiment with which most contemporaries would have whole heartedly agreed. Yet even in an age where honour was so universally prized, few can have valued this commodity as highly as did the young George Monck.
George was born in 1608 into a family of Devon gentry, whose lineage was good, but whose means were perilously small. Lacking the great wealth of their social equals, the Moncks laid a particular emphasis on the more intangible marks of gentility; their ancestry, their tradition of service to the crown and their deep-seated local roots. Sir Thomas Monck, George's father, was fiercely proud of his family's position in county society, and laid great stress on the local respect and honour which the Moncks enjoyed. Indeed according to Sir Thomas it was the Moncks' reputation as a good 'county family' which first brought him together with his future wife.
In 1600, Sir Thomas later alleged, he was approached by Sir George Smyth, an Exeter merchant. Smyth, a self-made man, was 'very desirous to match his children into houses of ancient descent and of good reputation in the county'. Accordingly, he offered Monck the hand of his daughter Elizabeth, making 'a pretence at first that he would give a very great portion ... with her'. Yet once Sir Thomas had fallen for Elizabeth, Smyth reduced the size of her dowry. He also imposed a series of strict financial conditions upon Sir Thomas, ensuring that he would receive 'little or no present benefit' from his marriage. Despite these ominous portents, Monck - dazzled by Smyth's promises of future financial assistance - was eager for the match to go ahead.
In 1601 Sir Thomas and Elizabeth were married. Children soon followed, stretching Monck's inadequate finances still further, and in 1603 he asked his father-in-law for a loan. Sir George refused to oblige, but Monck, who had connections at court, persuaded James I to write to Smyth in his favour. The king's intervention was startlingly successful. Henceforth, Smyth used Sir Thomas 'with extraordinary love and respect'. In addition, he agreed to bring up George Monck (Sir Thomas' second son) in his own home. Nor was this the limit of Smyth's generosity. If we are to believe Sir Thomas, Smyth treated the future general 'in tender and careful manner as his own child, often saying that he would at his decease leave unto ... [him a] good estate'.
Smyth apparently went so far as to tell Sir Thomas not to make any provision for George:
but to leave him wholly to [his] ... care and provision... often calling... George Monck the Lord of Middlecott, which was a manor... of his [ie. Smyth's] of good value, thereby showing his... purpose that he would dispose of the [same] unto the said George Monck.
Sir Thomas later claimed that, some years before his death, Smyth drew up a will in which he kept his promise to leave Middlecott to young George.
Unfortunately for the Moncks, this happy situation did not suit Smyth's other relatives. According to Sir Thomas, Smyth's own son, Sir Nicholas, 'did much grudge and repine' at his father's affection to the Moncks and tried to get them excluded from the will. When these attempts failed, Sir Nicholas resorted to conspiracy and fraud. In 1619 Sir George Smyth fell ill, 'languishing without hope of life'. Soon afterwards, a group of the old man's servants - prompted, of course, by Sir Nicholas - forced their ailing master to sign a 'writing purporting [to be] his will ... wherein ... [Monck] and his children ... [were] omitted and wholly left out'. Monck alleged that the conspirators then destroyed Sir George's original will, subsequently passing off the forgery as the real thing. In a bitter petition of complaint, filed in Star Chamber towards the end of 1619, Sir Thomas begged the king to right these manifold wrongs.
Needless to say, Monck's allegations were angrily denied by Sir Nicholas, who challenged almost every detail of the story related above. Sir Nicholas claimed that it was the Moncks themselves, not his father, who had first sought an alliance between the two families. He portrayed the Moncks as impoverished gold-diggers and made contemptuous reference to the value of their estates which were not, he observed, worth over 1600 a year. He grudgingly acknowledged that his father had 'kept' George Monck, but stressed that he had maintained another of his grandsons too. Smyth mocked the suggestion that his father had been fond of Sir Thomas. On the contrary, he said, his father had warned him 'that he should be careful how he had to do with ... [him] saying that he was a dangerous man'. Most important of all, Smyth denied that his father had ever drawn up a will which made any sort of provision for George Monck.
Amidst the welter of claims and counter claims, it is hard to be sure who was telling the truth. But Sir Thomas cannot have invented the whole story: George Smyth clearly had shown particular favour to the young George Monck. Even so, Sir Thomas appears to have lost the case, and in 1620 he made further bitter allegations against Sir Nicholas. Monck claimed that Smyth was threatening him and had...
solicited and procured others to whom ... [I am] indebted to implead, sue, and prosecute suite against ... [me] affirming and giving out ... that ... [he] will not leave to stir and prosecute suits ... until he hath left ... [me] not worth a groat.
In words which exude a genuine sense of panic, Monck complained that Smyth had promised various people 'great and extraordinary rewards to arrest ... [me] in base and disgraceful manner'. Henceforth, fears of such a humiliation were continually to hang over Sir Thomas.
In 1622, Nicholas Smyth died. But his sons were no more receptive to Monck's demands than their father had been. All the evidence suggests that the old feud continued and that Sir Thomas sank deeper and deeper into the financial mire. He was soon being hounded by swarms of creditors - and worse was to come. In 1625, Charles I visited Devon to inspect the royal fleet. Naturally enough, the local gentry were anxious to appear before the king at this time and Sir Thomas was no exception. His financial circumstances, however, made him wary of appearing in public. Accordingly, he sent his son George to the county undersheriff 'with a good present and this message, that he did not know what judgements or statutes might be against him ... but desired that, without any prosecution, he might have the liberty to wait upon his Prince'. The official accepted the gift and agreed to Sir Thomas's request. Yet notwithstanding this tacit agreement, the under-sheriff later broke his word 'and in a most treacherous manner seized the person of Sir Thomas Monck, upon an execution [of a writ], in the face of the whole county convened to receive his Majesty'. As a result Sir Thomas was publicly shamed.
There can be little doubt that the Smyths were responsible for Monck's discomfiture. They had been plotting to get Sir Thomas arrested for debt since as early as 1621, with the specific aim of humiliating him before county society. And there is other evidence too, to suggest that Monck's arrest had been procured by his enemies. One source observes that the under-sheriff had found it 'in his interest' to apprehend Sir Thomas. This comment, together with the fact that the Smyths are known to have offered 'great and extraordinary ... rewards' to anyone who would arrest Sir Thomas, make it hard to avoid the conclusion that the official had been bribed.
Sir Thomas' arrest - and his subsequent incarceration in the county gaol - represented an almost unbearable humiliation for the Moncks. Their reputation, both at court and in country, was besmirched; their influence with the sovereign clearly gone. Penniless, humiliated and stripped of the aura of royal favour which had hitherto surrounded them, the Moncks were left exposed to the ridicule of their enemies. With honour in tatters, the family longed to hit back. But how?
To continue the legal battle was clearly impossible. Yet self-esteem might be recovered through other means, for if the king's justice could not help the Moncks, 'Wild justice' could. According to the unwritten conventions of the day, Sir Thomas' arrest was a suitable case for private vengeance. It fulfilled the criteria on two grounds. Firstly, the initial injury - the arrest itself - had been inflicted in a treacherous, dishonourable manner. Secondly, that injury was not punishable by law - partly because Sir Thomas' initial proferring of a bribe had been, in itself, illegal, and partly because he was too financially drained to countenance any further legal action. By the code of honour, then, the Moncks had a moral right to seek private vengeance on the undersheriff. More than this, honour demanded that the insult be wiped out - and it was George Monck who was to assume the role of 'revenger'.
According to Monck's earliest biographers, George - still only sixteen at this time - went to Exeter, sought out the under-sheriff and gave him a 'due chastisement' for his treachery. The story has often been dismissed as romantic fabrication. Yet newly discovered depositions, made before the Exeter sessions court in 1626-27, reveal that George Monck did indeed carry out a serious assault upon the under-sheriff; one which left his victim in peril of death.
The depositions show that, on September 30th, 1626, Monck, his elder brother Thomas and a certain John Pollard were drinking together at the Bear Inn, in South Street, Exeter. Having drunk a quart of wine, they paid for their entertainment and got up to leave. But as they came down the stairs, they saw the innkeeper in conversation with one Nicholas Battyn. The depositions make it clear that it was Battyn who had -arrested Sir Thomas Monck a year before. Thus for the first time, we arc able to establish the identity of the 'treacherous' under-sheriff referred to by Monck's earliest biographers.
Nicholas Battyn was a minor gentleman who lived at Stoke Canon near Exeter. In 1619, he was described as 'a troublesome man' and during the same year it was deposed that he stood 'outlawed after judgement at sundry men's suits'. Poor people were frightened of him - and not without reason. In 1616, Battyn had been prosecuted by an aggrieved attorney, who indignantly complained he had had 'a very fowle battery offered him by... [Battyn] whereby he hath lost diverse of his teeth'.
Battyn was a dangerous man, then. Yet this did not prevent George and Thomas Monck from tackling him. Having spotted Battyn at the entrance of the Bear, the Moncks and Pollard followed him into the kitchen. Here, they found Battyn standing at a table. Immediately, George strode forward and...
strooke him with his cudgell upon the head whereby his head stooped towards the table, and foorthwith the said George ... gave him two blowes more, then they all three fell on him with their cudgells and gave him neere twentie blowes more.
That the Moncks cudgelled Battyn is significant, for it again displays a concern for honour. Whilst a gentleman might duel with a social equal, he would scorn to do so with a knave. By attacking Battyn with cudgels the Moncks displayed their contempt for his claims to be a gentleman, and thus re-asserted their own family's status.
Having soundly cudgelled their victim, Thomas Monck and Pollard drew their swords, the former offering 'to runne at ... Battyn with his sworde ... Battyn's back being towards him'. Seeing this, Anna Barons, the innkeeper's redoubtable wife, 'tooke ... Thomas Monck in her armes' and held him back. She then asked the attackers 'what they were, who aunsweared they were Sir Thomas Monck's sonnes, and that Battyn had abused their father, and they would be revenged on him'.
During the confusion which followed Mrs Barons' intervention, her husband managed to usher Battyn out of the room. George immediately pursued him. Thomas and Pollard attempted to do the same, but Mrs Barons shut the kitchen door and firmly refused to let them out. Despite their threats to 'kill her if she would not lett them goe forth', Mrs Barons stoutly held her ground and at last the two men were forced to make an undignified escape through the window.
Whilst Thomas and Pollard remained trapped in the kitchen, George had again caught up with his fleeing quarry. As Battyn ran out of the inn and into an adjoining courtyard, George hit him three times more, breaking his cudgel with the force of the blows. At this point, an ostler tried to intervene, but George beat him off. As Monck fought with the servant, the dazed and bloodied Battyn somehow managed to stagger into South Street, where a witness saw him 'standinge att the dore, and holding att a post and looking into the entrie' of the Bear. Seconds later Battyn began to flee down the street, closely pursued by Monck - who had by now drawn a sword. Stupefied by his injuries, Battyn quickly fell 'and ... George Monck still followinge him with his sword drawne, thrust at the said Battyn with his sword, (he lying on the ground) insoemuch that his sworde turned almost double'. Having exacted his revenge, Monck left Battyn where he lay and immediately tried to escape. Running back up South Street, he made his way to the cathedral and from there got into a nearby garden. The chase was up, however, and George was soon apprehended.
The bloody affray outlined in the Exeter depositions is very different to the 'chastisement' described by Monck's biographers. It is a measure of the seriousness with which the affair was viewed at the time that, in the immediate aftermath of the assault, all three of Battyn's assailants were arrested by the city authorities. Later that same day, Thomas Monck and Pollard were granted bail, but George remained in custody - presumably because it was feared that the under-sheriff would die. On October 2nd, however, a surgeon appeared before the court to testify that, in his opinion, Battyn's wounds were not mortal. He deposed that he had overseen the treatment of the sword wound, and that 'yesterday he did see it opened and dreste, after which ... Battyn rode foorth of the towne'. The surgeon's information appeared to let George off the hook and on October 5th, the young man was granted bail. Presumably he left the city soon afterwards.
What happened next is unclear. But we may suspect that, despite the surgeon's optimistic diagnosis, Battyn eventually succumbed to his wounds. In January 1627 a fresh series of depositions was taken by the city authorities and four more witnesses came forward. Significantly all four referred to 'murder' or 'killing' in their accounts of the attack, whereas the witnesses of three months before had only mentioned wounding. Suspicions that Battyn had died in the interim are reinforced by the fact that recognisances of January 1627 refer to the Moncks as 'arrestat per suspition murdri'. We should note, too, the revealing aside in Dr Gumble's biography of Monck, where it is stated that, in attacking the under-sheriff, George had never intended 'bloud or murther'.
These pieces of evidence make it easy to understand why, in early 1627, George Monck decided to embark on military adventures abroad. Had he been found responsible for Battyn's death, he Could well have faced the gallows. This being the case, George can have felt little hesitation about leaving for the wars, and by July 1627 he wits already hundreds of miles away, serving with the English forces before La Rochelle.
To suggest that George became a soldier through fear of punishment alone, however, would almost certainly be unfair. Foreign warfare had long been seen as an opportunity for younger sons to improve their otherwise gloomy financial prospects. And what was surely of even greater importance to Monck was the fact that the soldier's calling was regarded as an immensely honorable one. In the treatise on strategy and tactics which he himself wrote during the 1640s, Monck went out of his way to stress this very point, noting that the profession of a souldier is that of all others which ... conferreth most honour upon a man who therein acquiteth himself well'. We can hardly doubt that the words of the man explain the actions of the boy. By going to the wars, George had taken the course of action which offered him the best chance of winning honour. And by winning honour, he would finally erase the shame which had been inflicted upon his family by Sir Thomas' arrest.
A careful reading of Monck's treatise makes the supreme importance which he attached to honour very clear. 'Honour' and 'reputation' are mentioned on no fewer than thirty occasions in this comparatively short work - and are always praised in the most extravagant terms. 'A souldier', avers Monck 'ought to fear nothing but God and dishonour', going on to add that even 'the most generous spirits ... will never endure this, to be robbed of [their] honour'. If this work is taken as Monck's personal manifesto - and it is certainly the closest thing that we are likely to get to one - then the image which it presents is that of a man who valued honour above all else.
The new discoveries outlined above do much to explain why George Monck should have been so concerned about his honour. More than this, they help to explain his entire adult character. One does not have to be a psychologist to Suggest that Monck's sudden fall from 'golden boy' to poverty-stricken second son - and this on the very threshold of his adolescence - can hardly have been conducive to happiness or emotional balance. The years 1619-25 were miserable ones indeed for George as he saw his 'Great Expectations' shattered and his family scorned. To make matters worse, these indignities had been heaped on the Moncks not through misfortune but through the malice of their enemies. It would be strange indeed if George had not grown up with a chip on his shoulder and it was surely during this period that he first took o the characteristics which later earned him the soubriquet of 'Black Monck'; taciturnity, moroseness and gloom.
Yet this particular nickname has an additional significance, one which has not been recognised before. In the minds of contemporaries, blackness' and the condition of the revenger were inextricably linked. In the classic study of 'Wild justice', Cyril Tourneur's Revenger's Tragedie (1607), Vindice, the revenger-incarnate, is described as being 'of a black condition'. Nor is this the only parallel between the fictional Vindice and the real-life George Monck. Like Monck, Vindice was of gentle birth, but, he claimed, poor, 'full of want and discontent', his fortunes decayed through 'going to law'. Like Monck, Vindice collaborated with his brother to punish those who had shamed his family. And like Monck, Vindice ascribed an immense, almost obsessional value to honour.
We cannot know whether Monck himself ever read the Revenger's Tragedie, of course. Yet whether he did so or not, it seems fair to suggest that, during his troubled adolescence, he assumed all the characteristics of the classic 'revenger'. And whilst youthful impetuousness and belligerence were later abandoned, Monck retained the revenger's demeanour black, melancholic, and forbidding throughout the rest of his life, serving as a constant reminder that 'the honour of General Monck' was not a matter to be lightly scorned.
FOR FURTHER READING:
M. Ashley, General Monck, (Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1977); J.D. Griffith Davies, Honest George Monck, (London, 1936): O.L. Dick (ed), Aubrey's Brief Lives, (Penguin Classics, 1987); (Aubrey's brief biographical piece, includes the previously unnoted assertion that 'in his youth [Monck] happened to slay a man'; a claim which is now fully vindicated); G. Salgado (ed), Three Jacobean Tragedies, (Penguin Books, 1984) is the best edition of Cyril Tourneur's Revenger's Tragedie.
PHOTO: Pillar of the establishment: The traditional view of George Monck (1608-70) - restorer of the monarchy in 1660.
PHOTOS (2): Master of all I survey? A traditional view of a Stuart gentleman following country pursuits on his estate - a world where honour was the more prized when the financial means to sustain it were precarious, as was the case with the Moncks, with their modest family seat, Potheridge House, Devon (below).
PHOTOS (3): Casual violence for love, drink, honour or money - was very much a feature of 17th-century society, high and low, as these contemporary ballad illustrations underline.
(Top) a gaol scene - the humiliation of Monck's father, Sir Thomas, as a common prisoner, was the spur to George's revenge; (centre) a highway brawl with knives; Monck's attack on Battyn similarly employed a 'common' implement - the cudgel; (bottom) a hanging - the fate which Monck himself avoided by service in the war and the drawn-out fatality of Battyn.
PHOTO: Scene of judgement: Exeter Guildhall's 17th-century courtroom where Battyn's case was investigated (ironically Monck's portrait now graces the hall).
PHOTO: Scene of the crime: a contemporary plan of Exeter showing the Bear Inn (arrowed).
PHOTO: Died in his bed: the 1670 state funeral of Monck - his catafalque surrounded by all the trappings and high honours of a 'verray parfait knyght'.
By Mark Stoyle
Mark Stoyle is a part time Lecturer in Early Modern History at St Anne's, Oxford and at the University of Southampton.
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