Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Shropshire's Military Heritage by John Shipley

Portrait of an officer of the 53rd Regiment of Foot. (Courtesy of Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

Researching and writing “Shropshire's Military Heritage” has been a marvellous and enlightening experience; it is one heck of a subject. Soldiers from Shropshire have been involved in many historic events that have defined our nation. Particularly men from Shropshire's two main regular regiments of the British Army, the 53rd and the 85th Regiments of Foot. These guys fought alongside Sir Arthur Wellesley, better known later as the Duke of Wellington, one of Great Britain's greatest heroes. Through the perilous terrain of Portugal and Spain as the forces of that evil dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte were pushed from the Iberian Peninsula back to France where they came from, and in doing so, playing an integral part in his downfall.

Although no Shropshire regiments fought at the famous Battle of Waterloo, the 53rd were subsequently assigned the task of guarding the fallen emperor during his exile on the Atlantic island of Saint Helena.

Whilst the 53rd were babysitting Napoleon Bonaparte, the 85th were in America, part of the invasion force that sacked the USA's new capital, Washington, and burnt the half-completed White House.

But of course, Shropshire's military history goes back much further in time than the War of 1812 and the Napoleonic Wars. The history of the county is intrinsically linked with Britain's royalty connections, and of course Shropshire's strategic location on England's border with Wales has frequently resulted in conflict. Many historic Welsh leaders crossed the border to lay siege to Shropshire's numerous border castles. Men such as Prince Llewellyn, Prince Rhys, and probably the most famous of all Owain Glyn Dwr (Owain Glendower), to name just three.

Regimental medal of merit awarded to Major Aeneas M'Intosh, 85th, for his gallantry at the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro and the storming of Badajoz. (Courtesy of Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

Not all conflicts were against the Welsh, Shropshire's rebellious Barons frequently took up arms against unjust and tyrannical kings, in bloody conflicts, such as those against King John, and the Harry Hotspur rebellion that led to the Battle of Shrewsbury on 21st July 1403.

My search for knowledge inevitably took me to Shropshire's Regimental Museum in Shrewsbury Castle, where I was treated magnificently and allowed to take photographs of the exhibits. My sincere thanks go to Museum Curator Christine Bernáth and her team, their help was much appreciated.

Shropshire is one of the UK's most beautiful counties with such diverse scenery, from its numerous ranges of high hills, none quite making the status of being classified a mountain, although some come mighty close, fertile valleys and of course Shropshire has its own Lake District around Ellesmere. Check out my next books for Amberley “50 Gems of Shropshire” publication scheduled for later in 2018, and “Secret Shropshire” which follows that.

Replica unifrom of a soldier of the 53rd during the American Revolutionary War 1755-83. (Courtesy of Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

Moving back to the subject of Shropshire's history and the county's royal connections, we have major historical events, such as the first English Parliament in which commoners were invited to participate, seen as the first steps to democracy. This was at Shrewsbury Abbey and Acton Burnell in 1283 (some claim it was 1285), when King Edward I gathered a parliament together; he needed money for his quest to subjugate the Welsh, and to impeach Prince Daffydd ap Gruffydd, the last independent ruler of Wales. The poor chap suffered the grisly fate of being hanged, drawn and quartered, the first person of noble birth to be executed in this manner. King Richard III also held a “Great Parliament” at Shrewsbury.

Of course pretty much all of Shropshire's castles have connections to some significant historic event, and Ludlow Castle has seen it fair share. The castle came into the control of Yorkist Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, through marriage, before the commencement of the hostilities that later became known as the Wars of the Roses. He was the father of two kings: Edward IV and Richard III (remember the body in the Leicester car park). Edward IVs eldest son was born in Westminster, but his younger son, was born in Shrewsbury at the Dominican Friary, their names were: Edward, Prince of Wales (later and briefly King Edward V), and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York, however history knows these two boys better as the Princes in the Tower. Young Edward was at Ludlow when news of his father's death set off the chain of events that saw his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, accept the throne. Richard III ruled for only two years until he was deposed by the Lancastrian heir, Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, crowned King Henry VII following his victory at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.

Officer's shako plate, 53rd Regiment of Foot, 1844-45. (Courtesy of Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

Ludlow was also where Henry VIIs eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, held court as Lord of the Marches. He also resided in Bewdley at the royal manor of Tickenhill Palace. Prince Arthur Tudor (20 September 1486 - 2 April 1502), subsequently died at Ludlow Castle six months short of his sixteenth birthday. He and his new wife, Catherine of Aragon contracted what was described as “a malign vapour which proceeded from the air” - the sweating sickness, (possibly tuberculosis). Catherine recovered, but her teenage husband didn't. His heart is buried in a silver casket beneath the chancel of St. Laurence Church, Ludlow. The rest of him is buried in Worcester Cathedral. Arthur's tragic death raised King Henry's second son, Henry (later Henry VIII) as heir to the throne. For those of you who like a conspiracy theory there is one surrounding Prince Arthur's death, put forward by Paul Vaughan, as reported in November 2002 in the Worcester News.

There are absolutely piles of questions with no answers, such as:

Was Arthur a sickly youth? If he was, did his father King Henry VII, a man with pretty much no real claim to the English throne, favour Arthur's brother, the handsome, lusty, and long of limb brother Henry as his successor to better continue his extremely tenuous royal Tudor dynasty?

Lock of Napoleon Bonaparte's hair. (Courtesy of Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

Why was Arthur sent back in winter to cold Ludlow where sickness abounded with only one physician? (Wouldn't a royal prince have an entourage of doctors to attend him? And why not keep him in London where the best medical men were?).

Was Arthur allowed to die, or, was he poisoned? And there's more: Why was his body kept at Ludlow for around three weeks after his death?

Why didn't the king order his body to be conveyed to London for a state funeral, possibly in Westminster Abbey?

Why bury Arthur in Worcester Cathedral, part of a remote monastery? Why didn't the king and queen attend their son's funeral? (Only the Earls of Shrewsbury, Kent, and Surrey, plus other lords attended).

Why didn't Arthur lie in state, to attract pilgrims and therefore revenue to the Cathedral, as was the custom? His body appears to have been buried straight away upon arrival at Worcester Cathedral.

Why is Arthur's Chantry not as grandly ornate as experts believe it should be, and why is his body not inside it? (His remains are believed to be buried in front of the High Altar).

I love a good conspiracy, and this is a corker. Of course, it could be a load of something else!

 

Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shrewsbury Castle. (Courtesy of Shropshire Regimental Museum, Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

Here are a couple of other interesting royal connections with Shropshire:

Bessie Blount, or more correctly Elizabeth Blount, became famous as the mistress of King Henry VIII. Bessie as she was known during her lifetime was born at Kinlet, Shropshire, sometime between 1498, and 1502; her parents were Sir John Blount of Knightley and Kinlet, and Catherine, nee Pershall. Little has been previously recorded of Bessie’s early life, but we do know that she was blessed with a rare beauty, but sadly there is no known portrait of her in existence. The Blount’s manor at Kinlet was near young Prince Arthur, Prince of Wales's court at Tickenhill Manor, Bewdley.

Bessie Blount travelled to court in spring 1512, becoming a maid-of-honour to King Henry VIIIs Queen, Catherine of Aragon. Bessie learned Latin and French, and played the virginal (a smaller keyboard instrument of the harpsichord family). She also excelled at dancing and singing. The teenage Bessie was described as an eloquent, graceful, blonde haired beauty, with a flawless complexion, and as an accomplished and most interesting person. A couple of years after arriving at court, Bessie caught Henry VIIIs famous roving eye, becoming his mistress around 1514/1515. Thought to be the first of Henry's mistresses, remaining so for around eight years unlike many of his other flings which usually did not last very long, although she was never afforded the title of Maitresse en Tire. Her union with Henry produced a son on the 15th June 1519, whom they named Henry Fitzroy (Henry, Fitz or son of the Roy or king, using the old Norman method of naming a son). He was the only illegitimate child acknowledged by Henry VIII as his own. Henry Fitzroy had the titles of Duke of Richmond and Somerset, and Earl of Nottingham conferred upon him. Unfortunately for Bessie, Henry moved on to the 'other Boleyn sister’, Mary Boleyn, and subsequently the ill-fated Anne Boleyn. In 1522, Bessie married Gilbert Tailboys, 1st Baron of Kyme.

Floral war memorial, 1914-18, in the grounds of Shrewsbury castle. (Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

Bessie’s husband Gilbert died in 1530, leaving her extremely well off, and although she was pursued by a number of suitors including Leonard Gray, she chose to marry Edward Clinton, 9th Baron Clinton. Bessie died on 1 January 1540.

This next royal connection is rather more bizarre:

Shropshire born, Anthony William Hall (1898–1947), made an audacious claim in 1931 in which he insisted that he was the direct descendant of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, through the royal male line, (although the birth of Hall's ancestor was prior to the marriage between Henry and Anne). This made him the direct descendant of the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII.

Mr Hall, a police inspector in Shropshire, thus attempted to claim the throne of England. He set out details of his claim in an open letter to the then King, George V. William Hall also made many speeches to anyone who would listen, including one in Birmingham, in which he detailed his credentials and how he was the rightful King of England. This audacious man even challenged the King to a duel, with the loser to be beheaded. Hall was arrested numerous times for using "scandalous language," and was arraigned in court, fined and bound over to keep the peace. John Harrison's 1999 novel “Heir Unapparent” used the notion that Anthony Hall was a descendant of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn for its plot.

KSLI memorial tableau, National Memorial Arboretum NMA, Alrewas, Staffordshire. (Courtesy of the NMA, Shropshire's Military Heritage, Amberley Publishing)

Moving on in time, I'd like to mention Shropshire's role in “Operation Sea Lion”, Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany's code name for the planned invasion of Great Britain during the Second World War. In 1945 a soldier discovered a 446 page dossier for an invasion in 1940, scuppered of course by the RAF's victory in the Battle of Britain. Documents dated 1941 indicate Hitler's continued belief in the invasion of our Sceptred Isle. Hitler's headquarters were outlined for Apley Hall near Bridgnorth, and Ludlow was also mentioned, making these two Shropshire towns the centre of Nazi power in the UK. The dossier resurfaced in 2005 and was sold at auction.

I'll end this blog as I began, with a note of what happened to Shropshire's two regular regiments. In 1881, the 53rd and the 85th Regiments of Foot amalgamated to form the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, the KSLI, whose soldiers, together with the Shropshire Yeomanry, served with great distinction through the two World Wars, and the Korean War, as well as in other international conflicts. The KSLI became the 3rd Battalion, the Light Infantry Regiment in 1968, and today as part of the Rifles, the KSLI continues to help keep us safe.

John Shipley's new book Shropshire's Military Heritage is available for purchase now.