Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Devon Villains - Mike Holgate

DEVON VILLAINS, ROGUES, RASCALS AND REPROBATES -                                          MIKE HOLGATE

I always thought Exmouth had a rather shady past what with its historic opium consumption and its local, nefarious characters but Torquay in comparison is like Gotham City and it's there where all the real super villains have always congregated. I've only discovered this by reading Devon Villains - Rogues, Rascals And Reprobates by Mike Holgate in which every other story regarding sunny Devon's darker side seems to centre around Torquay. There must be something in the water down there.

Holgate's book is a collection of true-life tales of murderers, smugglers, pirates, traitors, fraudsters, robbers and scandal from across the County of Devon. Regarding Torquay, not only is it the home-town of Dr Stephen Ward (the scapegoat of the Profumo Affair), Agatha Christie (the ace detective writer), Robert Hitchens (the helmsman at the wheel of the Titanic when it sank), and George Whitehead (the first convict to escape from Dartmoor Prison in a car) but also where Oscar Wilde stayed before he was famously accused of being a 'sodomite' and where Bruce Reynolds - the mastermind behind the Great Train Robbery of 1963 - had his hideout. The Penguin, the Riddler, the Joker, and even Two-Face have all apparently been spotted down there also, so I believe.
Much more than these particular tales, however, what I found to be of interest were the stories under the chapter headed 'Traitors'.

Firstly, there's Sir Walter Raleigh who was born in East Budleigh, which is situated just a few miles along the coast from Exmouth. Raleigh's an interesting character particularly when you take into account where he's from, which is basically a small, isolated village in Devon. To this day there's hardly anything in East Budleigh but at the same time it has all you might need as in a good pub, a community hall, a village school, and a tiny community shop - all surrounded by beautiful countryside.
I used to go there quite often and just explore the back lanes heading out to the fields and woods, and I can see why Raleigh loved it so. Apparently he always wanted to move back there and if you think about it, Raleigh could have chosen to live anywhere in the world, really; but East Budleigh for him was the most beautiful place.

Courtier, parliamentarian, businessman, soldier, seaman, coloniser, explorer, scientist, philosopher, historian and poet; Raleigh was one of the most celebrated men (with a Devon accent to boot) of the Elizabethan age before he became embroiled in political intrigue that brought about his execution - betrayed by Lord Lewis Stucley, otherwise known as the Judas of Devonshire.
After winning favour with Queen Elizabeth by naming the State of Virginia in North America after her, Raleigh was bestowed a Knighthood but soon fell foul of her by secretly marrying one of her maids without first seeking the queen's permission. For his impudence Raleigh was locked up in the Tower of London and on his release in a bid to regain favour he set sail on an expedition to South America to find the fabled city of gold known as El Dorado. His mission failed, of course, but only because El Dorado didn't exist. It was a fable.

With the death of Queen Elizabeth his enemies at court plotted against him and let it be known he was against the accession of King James (and apparently he was, according to records discovered just over 20 years or so ago) so once again he was thrown into the Tower of London. Always on a roll, during his captivity in the Tower he spent his spare time writing a little book modestly entitled The History Of The World. When finally released years later, Raleigh once again set out on an expedition to search for gold, this time to Guiana. Once again, however, he returned empty-handed.

It was after this that Lord Lewis Stucley (the Judas of Devonshire, lest we forget) was offered a reward by King Jame's courtiers if he could present some damning evidence against Raleigh that might lead to his execution. He succeeded in this and Raleigh was arrested and sentenced to death.
Facing his executioner on the scaffold, Raleigh declined a blindfold, allegedly stating: "Think you I fear the shadow of the axe, when I fear not the axe itself? Strike, man, strike!" Upon his death, Raleigh's severed head was delivered to his wife and legend has it that for the rest of her days she carried it with her in her handbag. 
And all this from a short bloke (if the supposedly life-size statue of Raleigh in East Budleigh is anything to go by) born in a nondescript little village in Devon.

I must one day write a screenplay of Raleigh's life and submit it to Mel Gibson for filming. Or maybe a Bollywood version could be made if Mel isn't interested? That might be interesting. Either way, I think it's where my fortune might lie.

The second character of interest to me in Mike Holgate's book is the Duke of Monmouth, he of the long, curly locks who led what became known as the Monmouth Rebellion, otherwise called the Pitchfork Rebellion. Duke, as I like to call him, mounted an ill-fated challenge to wrest the crown from James II following the death of King Charles in 1685.
Travelling over from Holland where he'd been living in self-imposed exile, Duke landed at Lyme Regis before crossing into East Devon where he began gathering hundreds of men around him from each town he would enter; swelling his ranks to an estimated 4000 peasants, farmers and artisans.
It must have been a sight to behold, this rag-bag army of malcontents, dissenters and usurpers armed with pitchforks, scythes and muskets; marching through Devon and the West Country on their way to Bristol. The plan being to take Bristol and then head on down to London to take the crown, though unfortunately they never got that far.

Pitched against an army of Militiamen from Exeter and the King's own army from London, Duke's rag-bag army were routed and vanquished at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Survivors of the battle and rebel supporters were then hunted down and brought before the unforgiving Judge Jefferies in trials that became known as the Bloody Assizes, where for simply having the temerity to plead innocence was enough to get men hung, drawn and quartered.
Duke himself was also captured and taken to Tower Hill where legend has it that it took seven horrifying swings of the axe upon his neck before being decapitated. Legend also had it, however, that it wasn't really Duke who was executed but an impersonator used to confuse the enemy in battle and that Duke was actually biding his time to return to the West Country and once again lead the common people to war against the monarchy.

Perhaps Mel (or "my good friend, Mel", as I perhaps should get used to calling him?) Gibson might be interested in a screenplay for this?

Mike Holgate's book is a decent enough introduction to these and other so-called villains, rogues, rascals and reprobates; and if at times it reads like a page on Wikipedia and if at times his featured character's connection to Devon is a bit tenuous then it can be forgiven. The point of what Holgate's written is to gather these tales under one book so that the reader can gain an overall view, and then follow up elsewhere on those found to be of most interest. That's what I did, anyway. 
And the more you dig, the more you discover, and the more you discover, the more you want to know. And the more you know, the more interesting the world becomes.
Or it should do.
John Serpico


  1. I happened to be at a funeral in Surrey recently and the church was on the estate of the Raleigh family - the part that didn't move to Devon - local lore has it that Sir Walter's head is buried there (presumably no longer in the handbag). As for the bloody assizes I gather that the heads of executed peasants were displayed for many years on the Topsham road into Exeter as a warning to others not to disobey the local aristos and royalists - there's probably still many who would value this as a way of controlling the rabble, most of them probably have purple posters in their windows and fields right now....

    1. Right. I didn't know either of those things. I can quite imagine that the heads of executed peasants would been have displayed on the Topsham Road though. And it certainly did the job as in warning others to know their place and not get any wayward ideas about things like revolution, don't you think? I wonder what might happen nowadays if I went village to village and town to town in Devon whipping up dissent? Do you think an army of malcontents, dissenters and usurpers armed with pitchforks, scythes and i-Phones might rise with me?