Once we had done our usual job on the Chinnor home – new kitchen and bathrooms, new floor coverings, new lighting and decorated top to bottom – I needed something to keep me occupied. Fortunately for Jane, I found the Open University.
Jane had got a mature degree, Sarah and Matt had both earned a degree, so I was the only one in the family without one, I decided to remedy that. Never even paused to think about a science subject and opted for a BA in History. The course required you to do six modules and many students do one a year for six years, I felt that sounded too long-winded (and did I have that long?) so instead did two each year to complete the BA in three years.
The shock was that at each year end there was a written exam. See above how tough it had been writing to Jane from KL in 1996. Back then it had been thirty years since I had written a letter, now this was the first written exam I was to face in almost fifty years. I bought several books to practice in terms of both the act of writing and the timings for essays.
In the first year, one of the modules was a general Arts course that included music and poetry, neither of which featured high on my agenda, but they turned out to be two of the most memorable elements. On music I had to write an essay on The Specials Ghost Town – I had an edge over many of my fellow students, because I had actually lived through those early 1980s, the demos against unemployment, the city riots. On poetry we had an essay to compare Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist and Ted Hughes Bullfrog, which I also thoroughly enjoyed.
Praying to the Dentons
In my third year I experienced one of my strangest OU events. The tutor I had for the Roman Empire module, was a great tutor. In regular communications between us he asked if I was related to Alexander Denton of Hillesden. I had just successfully and fortuitously plotted my family tree back to the year 935 (see below), and so I was able to confirm that I was related to two Sir Alexanders, who lived 1542-1576 and 1596-1645 – both at Hillesden.
Above picture shows alabaster painted effigies of Sir Alexander Denton and first wife, Anne Willison, in Hereford Cathedral. Anne died in childbirth at age eighteen, and the child in the foreground is their imaginary depiction of their daughter Jane Denton (1566-1566).
Apparently, the later Sir Alexander financed the seventeenth-century rebuilding of the Master’s House at the Royal Latin School of Buckingham, after it was damaged by fire. The school is one of the oldest in England. My tutor had attended that school and had been in Denton House, and apparently each morning his house was required to pray to the Denton family – my family! He suggested therefore, that marking my assignments would have some rather unusual nuances for him.
This second Sir Alexander had been the MP for Wendover and later served three terms for Buckingham. He had also been a JP and the High Sherriff of Buckingham. His royal sympathies saw him appointed Captain of Buckinghamshire’s troop of horse by the Duke of Buckingham. Another relative, Dr William Denton FRCP (1601-1691) was the physician to Charles I from 1636 and travelled with the king during the campaign against Scotland in 1639. Although Alexander was elected as Buckingham’s MP to the Long Parliament of 1644, his being a royalist-at-arms saw him excluded in January 1644. The same month, parliamentarians attacked Hillesden House and were initially rebuffed. I had only recently visited Hillesden All Saints Church to see a host of Denton family memorabilia there.
In February 1644 Colonel William Smith and a garrison of 260 men were based at Hillesden to support the king, based at nearby Oxford. The house was occupied by many of the Denton family. In March 1644 some two thousand men led by Oliver Cromwell and Samuel Luke laid siege to the Hillesden Hall. The overwhelming odds inevitably enabled them to take and sack the house. Colonel Smith and Alexander Denton were captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. The current door on the Hillesden church is said to have been salvaged from the sacked Hillesden Hall and still bears musket holes. Strange that I had never warmed to Oliver Cromwell in earlier history lessons – now I knew why!
The family’s ‘fall’ did not end there. In May the Parliamentarians seized Abingdon and destroyed its famous cross. The Royalists mounted three major assaults to try to retake Abingdon and on 22 August 1644 Alexander’s second son John (1623-1644) was slain, having ‘received thirty wounds’. Sir Alexander died in the Tower the following year on 1 January 1645 and was buried four days later at the war-damaged parish church of Hillesden. The Denton family fortunes appear to have plummeted thereafter, so it was interesting to learn that they were memorialised at my tutor’s school.
One outcome of studying the Roman Empire was that when I saw the Telegraph was running a trip to Rome and Venice, with tours led by Professor Mary Beard, I avidly watch her TV shows and have read most of her books. There was a little reluctance because after a few days in Rome, the trip was a Cunard cruise around Italy and were undecided about that form of trip. Fortunately, it was only a short cruise aboard the MS Queen Victoria, so we thought we could use it to see if it might change our minds on the desirability of cruises. It called in at Valetta in Malta, Kotor in Montenegro and Zadar in Croatia and then we would be shown Venice by an architectural historian.
The notion was good, but the organisers (Iglu Cruises) turned out to be a disaster with lots of hanging around, in part because the Telegraph had attracted over eighty takers for the trip. This necessitated us being placed in two groups and waiting around while the other group saw each site. Their planning was dire, when we got to the Pantheon we found it closed, and the road where they planned to park for the Forum was closed.
Fortunately for Iglu, Mary Beard was a brilliant guide who extolled the virtues of the externals of the Pantheon, took us around the Forum, the Vatican Museum, the Colosseum, Trajan’s Pillar and other sites and imbued them with her irreverent insights.
Iglu was not allowed through the cordon sanitaire established around the Queen Victoria at Venice and so their organisation of a city tour and airport transfer became a complete joke too. On our return the Telegraph took one look at all the complaints and ordered Iglu to reimburse us all substantially.
ASIDE: On our only other visit to Venice, many years earlier, we were in St Mark’s square when the most tremendous lightning storm hit. We travelled back, soaked through, in a Water Taxi, but were treated to the most phenomenal experience. The city was pitch black and then lightning strikes would illuminate the buildings as if it was noon. It was so spectacular that we feared we would never recreate that feeling for the city ever again, and had not gone back. This second visit was messy courtesy of Iglu, very over-crowded and so our instinct not to go back had clearly been a good one.
In seeking my family history, I had been very fortunate. Some of this I described in ‘Soulsby-searching’ and ‘Praying to the Dentons’ above. I had not even known where my middle name had come from and this was only just over a century earlier. So, I set out expecting to run out of agricultural labourer antecedents in the early nineteenth-century.
I was rather disappointed to find that most of my eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antecedents were not only lowly agricultural labourers, but Scousers too. There is nothing wrong with the occupation, but where were the cattle rustlers and vagabonds to make the journey interesting? There is nothing wrong with coming from the Liverpool area, but if I was to prepare a list of where I would have liked to have descended from it would not be there, largely because of the accent (they probably think the same about a Bristol accent).
But I managed to get back to my GGF11 Sir Thomas Denton (1504-1558) and my GGF12 Thomas Denton of Fyfield (1465-1560!). They provided a much more entertaining group of antecedents. James Denton LLD (1474-1533) almoner and chancellor to Henry VIII’s daughter Bloody Mary. Dr William Denton FRCP physician to Charles I who went with him on his 1639 campaign against Scotland. There was a whole raft of Denton MPs for Banbury, Berkshire, Buckingham, Buckinghamshire, Oxford, Wallingford, Wendover.
In amongst this august group I found a John Denton (1561-1617) who had started out working as a page in the household of the Bishop of Carlisle, at Rose Castle. He trained as a lawyer and was a crown agent for Cumbria. He was given the task of discovering ‘concealed lands’ for the crown, and given ready access to the Episcopalian records. From 1600-1601 he worked in the Tower of London where the nation’s records of the time were kept.
John’s 1603 manuscript Accompt of the most considerable Estates and Families in the county of Cumberland detailed the gentry of Cumberland from the Conquest until the latter part of the reign of Elizabeth I. It provided me with my family tree back to the year 935. There I finally found I did have cattle rustlers in my lineage – along the Picts’ Wall.
So, I now know that either side of 1000 lived my 25th great-grandfather Sims of Yetherham (the younger) (970-1050). He married Ada of Northumberland and had a son Beuth, for whom the ruins of Bewcastle (Beuth’s castle) are attributed. So my ancestors in the year 1000 were what became known as Anglo-Scottish reivers, raiders operating on either side of the border, using the remnants of Hadrian’s Wall to create forts for themselves and hold on to what they accumulated. Provocatively Beuth had a son called Mac-Beuth, but after much research I proved to myself that this could not have been Macbeth – that was disappointing because the Shakespeare plauy had been one of my O-level set-books.
I had OU essays to prepare on the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and learned from John’s Accompt… document that Sir Richard de Denton (1282-1363), my 21st Great Uncle, had been involved. In 1337 Sir Richard accompanied the 1st Earl of Northampton, William de Bohun to Flanders and set off the Battle of Sluys (aka Battle of l’Ecluse) on 24 June 1340 – a naval encounter that virtually wiped out King Philip VI of France’s fleet. This was one of the opening salvos of the Hundred Years War, a Denton appears to have started it! If you are interested in this then my document, the Denton Family Bible, gives much more information on the family history I uncovered.