Sir William Davenant and the origins of Humpty Dumpty.
August 31, 2016
William Davenant is not much remembered today, but in the Seventeenth Century he was a literary collosus. The syphylitic - self-proclaimed - son of Shakespeare, whose career spanned from before the Civil War, through the Republic, and on into the Restoration of the Monarchy. He became Poet Laureate in the 1630s after the death of Ben Jonson (He was succeeded in that role by John Dryden) and was popular with the Royal court, as well as being intimately involved with The Phoenix theatre, and the Stuart impressarios Christopher Beeston and his son William.
Davenant fled to France in 1641 after alleged involvement in the Army Plot, but returned in 1643 to become the Marquis of Newcastle's General of Ordnance. In this role, he was responsible for shipping weapons from factories in the Netherlands and France to the King's armies. In the Summer of 1643, it seemed that the King would be victorious: Bristol had fallen, and only Gloucester remained as a last Roundhead bastion in the west.
Gloucester had backed Parliament in its struggle with the King, with a strongly Puritan population, and having suffered more than most from the Ship Money tax in the 1630s. The towns Governor - Edward Massy - saw to it that the town walls were repaired and reinforced, although he did not hold out much hope of survival. In August 1643, The King arrived and besieged Goucester with the Royal Army - Prince Rupert et al - and it is here that history meets nursery rhyme.
In the 1950s, historian David Daub suggested that Humpty Dumpty referred to a great siege engine that the Royalists hoped would span the moat. However, the defenders widened the moat and the engine fell into it. The idea became the basis of a popular children’s musical called All the King's Men in the 1960s.
A better candidate for Humpty at the siege of Gloucester, is a gun transported by William Davenant, who arrived a few days after the King with a giant mortar - vaguely egg shaped - and described as 'the biggest in England' in contemporary sources. It was for delivering this gun that Davenant earned his - much desired - knighthood. The gun was set up opposite the castle at Gawdy Green - now Brunswick Square - in Gloucester. Sadly for Davenant: 'their biggest Morter-piece brake at the first discharging of it...' on August 11th 1643. The city was relieved a month later in a key turning point in the war.
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. Four-score Men and Four-score more,
Could not make Humpty Dumpty where he was before.
(Arnold's version of Humpty Dumpty from 1797 - the earliest known version)
The Last Roundhead Series is available on Amazonfrom Sharpe Books.
- A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, (1988). http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/glos/vol4/pp245-247.
- John Aubrey, Sir William Davenant in Brief Lives, 1669-1696; ed. Clark (1898).http://spenserians.cath.vt.edu/BiographyRecord.php?action=GET&bioid=33268
- John Dorney, A Briefe and exact relation of the most materiall and remarkeable passages that hapned in the late well-formed (and as valiently defended) seige laid before the city of Glocester (1643). From Early English Books Online.http://eebo.chadwyck.com
- Gloucestershire Live website: http://www.gloucestershirelive.co.uk/castle-gloucester-prison-s-basketball-court/story-28313010-detail/story.html
-J.R.S. Whiting, Gloucester Besieged 1640-1660, Gloucester and Cheltenham Historical Society (1975).