Yarmouth’s Rebecca Nurse

Rebecca Nurse was the oldest child of William and Joanna Blessing Towne from Great Yarmouth and one of three sisters who, in time, would be accused of witchcraft at the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Out of these three sisters Rebecca would be the second of them to be hanged.

Rebecca Nurse (St Nicholas)
St Nicholas Parish Church,Great Yarmouth, Norfolk  Photo:’Moldovia’ on Wikimedia Commons

Her father, William Towne was baptised on 18 Mar 1598/99 in St. Nicholas Parish Church, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England and his parents were said to be John TOWNE and Elizabeth CLARKE – although, others say that his parents were Richard TOWNE and Ann DENTON. Her mother, Joanna Blessing was born in 1594 in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, England but there again, others have said that she was born in 1595 in Somerleyton, Suffolk, England to John BLYSSYNGE and Joan PREASTE .

Whatever the true antecedents of these two, William Towne married Joanna BLESSING on 25 Apr 1620 in St. Nicholas Church, Great Yarmouth England.  He and his wife remained at Yarmouth long enough to have six children before emigrating to America aboard the ‘Rose of Yarmouth’ with 32 other parishioners; this was sometime around 1640. Among Rebecca’s siblings were Mary Easty (or Eastey, to be arrested 21 April 1692 and hanged on 22 September 1692) and Sarah Cloyce (or Cloyse) to be arrested on 4 April 1692 but the case was dismissed January 1693). The Towne family finally settled in America around 1640 to live on a farm in Salem where two more children were born to William and Joanna Blessing.

Four years later, Rebecca met nineteen year old Francis Nurse who was a “tray maker” by trade but more than likely also made many other wooden household items. Due to the rarity of such household goods, artisans of that medium would have been highly regarded. Rebecca married Francis Nurse on 24 August 1644, after which they went on to live for the next 30 years in the more thickly settled part of Salem, “near Skerry’s” not far from where the bridge crosses to Beverley. During this time they had four sons and four daughters, all but one of them married by the fateful year of 1692. As for Rebecca, she had “acquired a reputation for exemplary piety that was virtually unchallenged in the community” and became a long standing member of the Salem church; but she was also known for occasionally losing her temper. In 1672, Francis served as Salem’s Constable and was regularly asked to act as unofficial judge to help settle disputes in the village.

Rebecca Nurse (Homestead)2
Rebecca Nurse’s House, built 1636

Rebecca and the Salem Witch Trials

The public accusations of witchcraft in Salem Village began on February 29, 1692. The first accusations were levelled against three women who were not considered very respectable: the Indian slave Tituba, a homeless mother Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne who had a somewhat scandalous history.Then on March 12, Martha Corey was accused, and on March 19, Rebecca Nurse found herself accused, despite both being church members and respected community members.

A warrant was issued on March 23 by John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin for the arrest of Rebecca Nurse. In the warrant were complaints of attacks on Ann Putnam Sr., Ann Putnam Jr., Abigail Williams and others. Rebecca Nurse was arrested and examined the next day. She was accused by Mary Walcott, Mercy Lewis and Elizabeth Hubbard as well as by Ann Putnam Sr., who “cried out” during the proceedings to accuse Nurse of trying to get her to “tempt God and dye.” When she held her head to one side, those claiming afflictions moved their heads to the side as well “set in that posture.” Rebecca Nurse was then indicted for witchcraft. “I am innocent as the child unborn, but surely what sin hath God found out in me unrepentant of, that he should lay such an affliction on me in my old age,” she said.

That Sunday was Easter Sunday, which was no particular special Sunday in the Puritan calendar, but with Rebecca Nurse in prison, as were Tituba, Sarah Osborne, Sarah Good and Martha Corey, the Reverend Parris preached on witchcraft. He emphasised that the devil could not take the form of anyone innocent. During the sermon, Sarah Cloyce, Rebecca’s sister, left the meetinghouse and slammed the door.

Rebecca Nurse (Towne Sisters)
Caption: “The Towne Sisters”
Plaster statue depicting Rebecca Towne Nurse, Mary Towne Esty, and Sarah Towne Cloyse, wearing shackles. The statue is located in the Salem Wax Museum of Witches and Seafarers, Salem. Artist: Yiannis Stefinarkis, ca. 1970.

The sequence of events thereafter was that on April 3, Rebecca’s younger sister, Sarah Cloyce, came to Rebecca’s defence…..but was then accused and arrested on April 8. Then on April 21, another of her sisters, Mary Easty, was arrested after defending Rebecca’s innocence. John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin then ordered the Boston jail to take custody of Rebecca Nurse and others for acts of witchcraft committed on Ann Putnam Jr., Abigail Williams, Elizabeth Hubbard – and others.

In a deposition, written by Thomas Putnam and signed on May 31, he detailed accusations of torment of his wife, Ann Putnam by the spectres of Rebecca Nurse and Martha. Another deposition detailed accusations of afflictions inflicted by Rebecca Nurse’s spectre.

A Mary Warren testified on June 1, that when she was in prison, George Burroughs, Rebecca Nurse, Elizabeth Proctor, and several others said they were going to a feast at the Parris house, and that when she refused to eat some bread and wine with them, they “dreadfully afflicted her” — and that Rebecca Nurse “appeared in the roome” during the taking of the deposition and afflicted Mary, Deliverance and Abigail Hobbs, and that Philip English appeared and injured Mary’s hand with a pin.

On June 2, at 10 in the morning, the Court of Oyer and Terminer convened in its first session. Rebecca Nurse, Bridget Bishop, Elizabeth Proctor, Alice Parker, Susannah Martin and Sarah Good were forced to undergo a physical examination of their bodies by a doctor with a number of women present. A “preternatural excrescence of flesh” was reported on the first three. Nine women signed the document attesting to the examination. A second exam that day at 4 in the afternoon stated that several of the physical abnormalities they saw in the morning had changed; they attested that on Rebecca Nurse, the “excrescence …… appears only as a dry skin without sense” at this second examination. Again, nine women’s marks are on the document. A grand jury indicted Rebecca Nurse for witchcraft on June 3.

On July 3, the Salem church excommunicated Rebecca Nurse.

Rebecca Nurse (Brought in Chains)
Caption: “The sheriff brought the witch up the broad aisle, her chains clanking as she stepped.”
This drawing illustrates a scene in John Musick’s book The Witch of Salem in which Rebecca Nurse is brought in chains to the meeting house where the Rev. Nicholas Noyes pronounces her excommunication before the congregation.
Source: The Witch of Salem or Credulity Run Mad. By John R. Musick. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1893: 275. Artist: F. A. Carter. Source: Photograph by Benjamin C. Ray, 2001

Rebecca’s trial started on June 30 1692. Banned from having a lawyer, she represented herself and 39 villagers appeared on her behalf as character witnesses; her accusers broke into fits as they spoke about their claims and the so-called “spectral evidence” was deemed to be relevant. Regardless of this, Rebecca was found not guilty and there was an immediate outcry – the girls fell into prolonged fits and spasms, the public bayed for blood and the judges asked the jury to reconsider. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the verdict was changed and Nurse was sentenced to death on July 19 1692. However, another twist came into play; in light of urgent pleas from Rebecca’s family and abundant evidence of her good character, Sir William Phips, the Governor of Massachusetts granted Nurse a reprieve – then he withdrew it despite Rebecca filing a petition protesting the verdict, pointing out she was “something hard of hearing, and full of grief.”! On July 12, William Stoughton signed the death warrant for Rebecca Nurse, Sarah Good, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth How and Sarah Wilds and they were all hanged on July 19, followed by her sister who was tried and hanged on September 22 1692. Sarah Good cursed the presiding clergyman, Nicholas Noyes, from the gallows, saying “if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink.” – Years later, Noyes died unexpectedly, haemorrhaging from the mouth!

Rebecca Nurse (Trial, Museum)
Caption: “Trial of Rebecca Nurse”
Diorama depicting the trial of Rebecca Nurse, shown seated in the dock at the right, the magistrates in the center, and the “afflicted” girls at the left.
Source: 35mm slide © Salem Witch Museum, 1999.

By October, with 20 people executed and 150 more men, women and children accused, the hysteria began to die down and the tide of public opinion turned against the trials. Sarah was released and later given nine gold sovereigns in compensation for her imprisonment and her sisters’ deaths.

Francis Nurse was to die on 22 November 1695, after the witch trials had been ended (in 1693) but before Rev. Parris finally left Salem Village and before the 1711 reversal of attainder bill that also gave some compensation to Rebecca Nurse’s heirs. In 1697, 12 members of the jury made a public apology, admitting they had been “sadly deluded and mistaken”. On August 25, 1706, Ann Putnam Jr., in formally joining the Salem Village church, publicly apologized “for the accusing of several persons of a grievous crime, whereby their lives were taken away from them, whom, now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons…” She named Rebecca Nurse specifically and publicly confessed her contrition for her part in the trials. Her excuse – That Satan made her do it! In 1712, Salem church reversed its excommunication of Rebecca Nurse and Giles Corey.

Rebecca Nurse (illustration-by-Howard-Pyle-1907)
“The Lord knows that I haven’t hurt them” illustration of Rebecca Nurse by Howard Pyle, published in “Dulcibel: A tale of old Salem” by Henry Peterson, circa 1907
Inscription: “Oh Lord, help me! It is false. I am clear. For my life now lies in your hands….”

Arthur Miller’s Play “The Crucible”:

Rebecca Nurse (the-crucible)
“The Crucible” Thurston Hopkins / Getty Images

Rebecca Nurse is a central character in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and in a Crucible Character Study of Rebecca Nurse Wade Bradford stated:

“If there is one character in “The Crucible” that everyone can love and sympathise with, it is Rebecca Nurse. She could be anyone’s grandmother, the woman you would never speak foul of or intend to hurt in any way. And yet, in Arthur Miller‘s tragic play, sweet Rebecca Nurse is one of the last victims of the Salem Witch Trials.

Nurse’s unfortunate end coincides with the curtain that closes this play, even though we never see it happen. The scene in which she and John Proctor head to the gallows is heartbreaking. It is the punctuation mark on Miller’s commentary on ‘witch hunts’ whether they be in 1690s Salem or the 1960s round up of alleged communists in America which prompted his writing this play.

Rebecca Nurse puts a face to the accusations and it is one that you cannot ignore. Can you imagine your grandmother being called out as a witch or a communist? If John Proctor is the tragic hero, Rebecca Nurse is the tragic victim of “The Crucible.” She is the saintly character of the play. Whereas John Proctor has many flaws, Rebecca seems angelic. She is a nurturing soul, as seen when she tries to comfort the sick and the fearful in Act One. She is a grandmother who exhibits compassion throughout the play.

  • Wife of Francis Nurse.
  • A sensible and pious older woman held in the highest regard in Salem.
  • Self-confident and compassionate and as the last act demonstrates, the humblest of all the characters.

When convicted of witchcraft, a humble Rebecca Nurse refuses to bear false witness against herself and others. She would rather hang than lie. She comforts John Proctor as they are both led to the gallows. “Let you fear nothing! Another judgment waits us all!”

Nurse also utters one of the more subtle and realistic lines of the play. As the prisoners are led to the gallows, Rebecca stumbles. This provides a dramatically tender moment when John Proctor catches her and helps her to her feet. She is a bit embarrassed and says, “I’ve had no breakfast.” This line is so unlike any of the turbulent speeches of the male characters, or the vehement replies of the younger female characters.

Rebecca Nurse has much she could complain about. Anyone else in her situation would be consumed with fear, sorrow, confusion, and rage against the evils of society. Yet, Rebecca Nurse merely blames her faltering on a lack of breakfast. Even at the brink of execution, she exhibits not a trace of bitterness, but only the sincerest humility. Of all the characters from “The Crucible,” Rebecca Nurse is the most benevolent. Her death increases the tragedy of the play.

Rebecca Nurse (Memorial)
Description: Rebecca Nurse Memorial, erected 1885. Located in the Rebecca Nurse Homestead cemetery, Danvers, Massachusetts. The inscription on the monument reads: Rebecca Nurse, Yarmouth, England 1621. Salem, Mass., 1692. “O Christian Martyr/who for Truth could die/When all about thee/owned the hideous lie!/The world redeemed/from Superstition’s sway/Is breathing freer for thy sake today.” From the poem “Christian Martyr,” by John Greenleaf Whittier.
Source: Photograph by Benjamin C.. Ray, 2001
Rebecca Nurse (Family Assoc.)
Description: Nurse Family Association, dedication of the Rebecca Nurse Memorial, erected July, 1885. The tall granite memorial is located in the cemetery of Rebecca Nurse Homestead, Danvers, Massachusetts
Source: Photograph, courtesy of the Danvers Archive Collection.

THE END

Sources:
https://blog.prepscholar.com/the-crucible-rebecca-nurse-analysis
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_Nurse
https://www.thoughtco.com/elizabeth-proctor-about-3529972
http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/people/nursepics.html
http://historyofmassachusetts.org/the-trial-of-rebecca-nurse/
https://www.anamericanfamilyhistory.com/Towne%20Family/TowneRebeccaNurse.html
https://www.history.com/topics/colonial-america/salem-witch-trials
https://minerdescent.com/2010/05/18/william-towne/
http://familypedia.wikia.com/wiki/Francis_Nurse_(1618-1695)

 

Norfolk’s Scarlett Pimpernel – Perhaps?

St Peter’s Church in Ketteringham, Norfolk contains a number of memorials, but perhaps the most curious of them all is the one which is the most westerly of a group of memorials. It is a 1907 memorial to Charlotte Atkyns, who died in Paris in 1836 and is buried in an unmarked grave.  Charlotte Atkyns, nee Walpole, once found herself caught up in the events of the French Revolution and her memorial inscription further recalls that she was the friend of Marie Antoinette. It was said the she made several brave attempts to rescue Marie Antoinette from prison; and after that Queen’s death strove to rescue the Dauphin of France. She bankrupted the family fortunes in this quest, mortgaging the Ketteringham Hall Estate and claiming to have spent an extraordinary eighty thousand pounds, about fifteen million in today’s money.

On her death, she requested that her body be returned to Ketteringham and a marble slab be placed on the chancel walls. Her relatives of the time, left destitute by her apparent eccentric enthusiasms, understandably failed to carry out either request. With the passage of time, it might also be thought that Charlotte’s Francophile adventures, together with the French name of Boileaus, might indicate a connection between the two families; on this point there remains today in St Peters an ‘Atkyns/Boileaus’ pew in situ. The Boileaus were an old Huguenot family who came to Norfolk by way of Dublin and already owned Tacolneston Hall. They were the ones who bought the bankrupt Ketteringham Hall Estate after Charlotte’s death.

Charlotte Atkyns, née Walpole, was considered by some to be an 18th-century Norfolk eccentric; that is being Norfolk by marriage and residency, not by birth. This, of course, did not stop her from suggesting that she was related to the well-known Walpole family of Norfolk, descendants of Sir Robert Walpole, our first prime minister – she was not!

Pimpernel (Charlotte)
Lady Charlotte Atkyns, nee Walpole.

Charlotte was born in County Westmeath & Roscommon in Ireland around 1758, her father was a William Walpole of Athlone. She became an actress and made her debut in Dublin in January 1776, continuing to perform at various other theatres in the city throughout the remainder of that year. Charlotte made her London stage debut as Leonora in The Padlock by Isaac Bickerstaff at the Crow Street Theatre in London before her Drury Lane debut in October 1777. There she had some modest success before then appearing at the Theatre Royal, Bristol in which she displayed, it seems, a versatility as a singer as well as an actress. The theatre management announced her in such terms via the local newspapers:

Pimpernel (Charlotte on stage)
“She is a good Singer, an excellent Actress, and it is a matter of dispute with the young Londoners in which character she appears to most advantage, male or female.” [i.e. in “breeches” parts, as in the image above]

In 1778 – 79, and after spending a summer in Bath, Charlotte returned to Drury Lane where “as pretty as an angel” she added dancing to her repertoire of skills. However, after that season she completely gave up the stage – for marriage. The story goes that she captured the attention of Sir Edward Atkyns, of Ketteringham Hall, Norfolk and the grandson of a Lord Chief Justice. Edward and Charlotte married on the 18 June 1779 at St James, Piccadilly, London and were to have two sons, Edward and Wright Edward. Unfortunately, Charlotte Atkyns, nee Walpole, was never to be accepted by a Norfolk society which considered her to be ‘a common actress’. This situation was compounded by the fact that her husband was beginning to suffer under heavy debts. The couple’s future time abroad was to be put down to financial difficulties, at least by those who doubted her husband’s wisdom in marrying Charlotte. No sooner had Edward and Charlotte moved to France in November 1784, to get away from their ‘insufferable situation’, when Lady Jerningham wrote in a letter from Lille:

“A great many people have taken refuge here, to fly from their creditors in England; among the rest a Norwich family and a Mrs Atkins of Ketteringham. She was a player, a friend of Miss Younger. You may remember to have heard of her, and he was always a great simpleton or else he would not have married her.”

Others were more complimentary. A note preserved in the Folger Library and dated 1790, reads:

“Mrs Atkins, late Miss Walpole of Drury Lane Theatre, is perhaps the most…….female Equestrian. This Lady, whose residence is at Lille in Flanders, frequently rides for an airing….. to Calais, which is 74 miles and returns the following Day with the greatest ease.”

Charlotte personality and facial features were never in doubt, but despite being described as “pretty, witty, impressionable, and good,” she was thought of as an eccentric. This, however, did not stop the wedded couple from being welcomed in France where they made friendships with influential people at the French court. Among these friends was Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, better known as the Duchess of Polignac – she was a close friend to Marie Antoinette. Apparently, from the moment that the Duchess of Polignac introduced Charlotte to Marie Antoinette, Charlotte was enchanted and thereafter was, reputedly, an intense admirer of the Queen. According to one source:

“Atkyns shared first in the Queen’s amusements, then in her griefs, for she was still at Versailles when the Dauphin Louis Joseph died, and [she was still there] when 1789 began the cycle of years so terrible for French Royalty.”

When the French Revolution broke out, in 1789, Charlotte and her husband moved from Versailles to Lille, a city in northern France. Her relationship with the royal family was claimed to have been somewhat close because after the Atkyns began residing in Lille, Charlotte was to become known locally “as a pensioner on the Royal Treasury.” Then, in 1791, the Atkyns began to flit between France and Ketteringham and Charlotte extended her contacts with French émigrés. It was at this time when she was reputed to have been recruited as a spy and agent by her lover, the Royalist Louis de Frotté, a position that she purportedly fulfilled until 1794.

Pimpernel (Louis_de_Frotte)
Louis de Frotté. Courtesy of Wikipedia. He was to be court marshalled and executed by firing squad in February 1800

Once Louis XVI was guillotined in January of 1793, it was enough to make any Royalist lose hope of saving the Queen. However, the King’s death is said to have emboldened Charlotte. Apparently, it was then that she came up with an idea to save the Queen because, “Why should she not go in person to Paris and try her chance?” she would claim. Charlotte believed that the same level of surveillance applied to the King would not be applied to Marie Antoinette and this prompted her to think that she might be able to gain access to the Queen at the Temple. She had a plan!

Pimpernel (Royal Family in Prison)
The Royal Family Of France In The Prison Of The Temple. Edward Matthew Ward

There were several drawbacks to whatever plan that Charlotte’s concocted. Firstly, she was a foreigner and barely spoke French. There was also little support from her close friend Jean-Gabriel Peltier. Peltier had been a blazing revolutionary who suddenly did an about face and became an intense Royalist. He founded a newspaper with the title of “The Acts of the Apostles”, then violently attacked everyone who disagreed with his ideas.

Pimpernel (Peltier)
Jean-Gabriel Peltier. Public Domain.

The day after the insurrection of 10 August, Peltier left France and sought refuge in England where he, supposedly, developed a friendship with Charlotte and would do everything in his power to dissuade her from becoming involved in any plot to save Marie Antoinette. Thus, he wrote to her in the following tone, stating:

“You will hardly have arrived before innumerable embarrassments will crop up; if you leave your hotel three times in the day, or if you see the same person thrice, you will become a suspect.”

But, Charlotte was persistent, and her persistence eventually convinced Peltier about her plot to save the Queen, because even “he admitted that the moment was relatively favourable.” However, events were moving quickly in Paris. Before Charlotte could implement her plan, she too began to doubt it’s feasibility, particularly after word reached her that another plot to free Marie Antoinette had recently failed. This resulted in Peltier trying again to dissuade Charlotte from making any attempt to save the Queen:

“If you wish to be useful to that family, you can only be so by directing operations from here (instead of going there to get guillotined), and by making those sacrifices which you have already resolved to make.”

Charlotte, it seems, was not put off by any of Peltier’s words. Instead, it was claimed that she reached Marie Antoinette anyway. For her story to match other facts, it appears that her meeting with Marie Antoinette would have had to occur after Marie Antoinette had been moved from the Temple to “the Conciergerie; that is to say, after August 2, 1793.” Moreover, this meeting occurred because apparently Charlotte “won over a municipal official, who consented to open the doors of the Conciergerie for her, on the condition that no word should be exchanged between her and the Royal prisoner … [and to] wear the uniform of a National Guard.”

Pimpernel (Marie Antoinette)2
Marie Antoinette.

Charlotte, supposedly, agreed to these conditions and on the proposed day of her meeting, she appeared carrying a bouquet, which she offered to the Marie Antoinette. However, because of the stress of the event, Charlotte accidentally dropped a note that was to be presented with the bouquet to Marie Antoinette. As the municipal guard rushed forward to pick it up, Charlotte bent down, grabbed, it and swallowed it. Unsurprisingly, she was immediately ordered out. However, despite this failure, she did not give up. Through friends and persistence, she was able to obtain another meeting. This one was said to be a private interview with Marie Antoinette, and it was reported that Charlotte “had to pay a thousand louis for that single hour.” This time she planned to change clothes with Marie Antoinette so that the Queen would leave the Conciergerie undetected while Charlotte remained behind. If she thought her plan would ever work, she misjudged an obstinate Marie Antoinette:

“[Marie Antoinette] would not, under any pretext, sacrifice the life of another, and to abandon her imprisoned children was equally impossible to her. But what emotion she must have felt at the sight of such a love … She could but thank her friend with tearful eyes and commend her son, the Dauphin, to that friend’s tender solicitude.”

All this, and much else, was done at the expense of her large fortune which enabled her to bribe officials, pay messengers to travel between London and Paris and charter a ship to hover near the coast for months waiting to transport possible fugitives. Charlotte, apparently, would take no rest until she had expended all her energy and her wealth trying to free Marie Antoinette and those close to her. This quest of hers, however, failed and her ‘friend’ the Queen was executed by the guillotine at 12.15pm on 16th October in 1793, famously apologising to the executioner for stepping on his foot while climbing the scaffold. After Charlotte’s husband, Edward, died in 1794 she may again have gone to France to attempt further rescues of the remaining family, but if there were any attempts they were unsuccessful. But, she continued to promote the émigré cause and mortgaged Ketteringham in 1799 to raise funds for this purpose.

Hers remain a wonderful and somewhat dramatic story – given her past background as an actress, – but unfortunately it is one with more than a few holes in it. Many people, in fact, have claimed that Charlotte’s story, about attempting to rescue Marie Antoinette, was false and that the story came from a “cracked old woman who dreamed that she had been the friend of Marie Antoinette.” Ultimately, it seems, that all the source material for Charlotte’s ‘adventures’ come from Charlotte herself. Backing up all this are indications that Charlotte wasn’t even in Paris in 1793 as she claimed. Also, there is no independent evidence of her ever having been at Versailles, or even meeting Marie Antoinette; the only reference to their friendship appear in letters, apparently from eminent people but which Charlotte actually wrote to herself. As it was, papers from Frotté show that he believed her story and there was also, supposedly, a mysterious Countess McNamara, who had spoken of Charlotte’s plot; but, both Frotté and McNamara had, apparently, obtained their information from Charlotte herself! Since then, one 20th century investigation of her story also came to the conclusion that the book written by Frédéric Barbey about Charlotte’s plot relied on faulty evidence:

“There is no other evidence of her [Atkyns] ever having been at Versailles, or ever having seen the Queen, except a few allusions to their friendship in some letter addressed to Mrs. Atkyns, of which M. Barbey has found a large collection in the office of an unnamed Paris lawyer ….., assuming their existence and authenticity. His quotations from these letters suggest that Mrs. Atkyns was in the habit of writing letters from eminent persons to herself.”

As for being the “daughter of Robert Walpole” – as her 1907 memorial in Ketteringham’s church of St Peters has it – it seems to be an assumption by subsequent generations that Charlotte was related to the man who became Britain’s first Prime Minister. It is an assumption without any basis in fact; not only did Walpole never have a daughter called Charlotte, he died 13 years before Charlotte was born. His son was also named Robert, but he had no daughter either. All one can say is that the ‘real’ Charlotte and her husband certainly spent time in France from November 1784, shortly before the Revolution, but they were more concerned with getting out of financial difficulties than political intrigue.

After the restoration of the French monarchy in 1814 Charlotte petitioned unsuccessfully for reimbursement of more than £30,000 which she claimed to have expended in the Bourbon cause.

Pimpernel (Letter)1
19th September 1822, to Sir Charles Stuart (‘Your Excellency’). Atkyns states that, with October fast approaching, she wishes her correspondent to ‘press my claim upon the King of France’, continuing ‘I am persuaded that your Excellency’s protection will prevail and that His Majesty will at last decide to do me justice’ and further adding ‘I live in a state of continual agitation as not anything but paying my mortgages can prevent my estate being sold, trusting to the interest that I am persuaded your Excellency feels in my favour, I beg leave to apologise for my eternal intrusion, the nineteenth of this month is arrived, and nothing yet decided’.
Charles Stuart (1779-1845) was a British Diplomat, Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Portugal and Brazil 1810-14, British Ambassador to France 1815-24, 1828-30 and British Ambassador to Russia 1841-44.

Charlotte’s petitioning took place around 1823 and it was in that year when she gave Ketteringham Hall to her sister-in-law, Mary Atkyns, in return for an annuity, such were Charlotte’s reduced circumstances. Then, about 1830, Charlotte moved permanently to Paris, where she died on 2 February 1836 with her loyal German maid by her side. Charlotte was buried somewhere in Paris in an unmarked grave, knowing that her fortune had all but gone having remortgaged Ketteringham and spent the modern-day equivalent of £15 million during her, supposing, reign as a female Scarlet Pimpernel. Charlotte Atkyns Will was proved in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, 26 July 1838.

The marble plaque inside St Peter’s at Ketteringham reads:

“In memory of Charlotte, daughter of Robert Walpole and wife of Edward Atkyns esq of Ketteringham. She was born 18 and died at Paris 1836 where she lies in an unknown grave. This tablet was erected in 1907 by a few who sympathised with her wish to rest in this church. She was the friend of Marie Antoinette and made several brave attempts to rescue her from prison and after that Queen’s death, strove to save the Dauphin of France.”

Pimpernel (Memorial)
Charlotte Atkyns 1907 memorial in St Peter’s Church, Ketteringham.

FOOTNOTE: During the French Revolution, various tales circulated about Charlotte and her activities. Some claimed she acted as a spy for counter-revolutionaries; others that her heart was set on freeing Marie Antoinette from imprisonment and spiriting her and her son out of the country to safety. Unfortunately, the sources for most of these tales date from long after the Charlotte’s death and are heavily laced with romanticism. All that matters now is for readers to note that Lady Charlotte Walpole Atkyns did gain something of a reputation for being an enthusiastic supporter of causes close to her heart; all be it in an eccentric and ‘fanciful’ manner. She did so in comfort and until she had spent most, if not all, of her husband’s money!

THE END

The Brunton’s of Norwich: Soap to Stage!

The head of this Norwich branch of the Brunton family was John Brunton who was born in 1741 and died in 1822. His birth was within the confines of this city, one of the largest by population in the country. John arrived the son of a prominent soap-maker in the City who saw to it that John was educated at the local grammar school, followed by an apprenticeship with a local wholesale grocer. Once John had completed his seven-year apprenticeship, he married a Miss Friend, the daughter of a Norwich mercer. Shortly after his marriage, John Brunton moved his family to London where he set up as a tea-dealer and grocer in Drury Lane.

img_3037
18th Century Theatre Prompter

In London, John Brunton made friends with a Mr. J. Younger, who was at the time the prompter at the Covent Garden Theatre. This friendship helped nurture and encourage Brunton’s interested in acting. It was in April 1774 when Brunton was given the part of Cyrus in a benefit performance for Mr. Younger before he played the part of Hamlet in a similar benefit performance of the play for a Mr. Kniveton. Bitten now by the acting bug, Brunton gave up his tea and grocery shop and became a full time actor. He soon became considered as a talented actor of Shakespearean roles and as such returned to live in Norwich from where he travelled around a number of provincial theatres to perform. In time, John Brunton gave up acting and took the position as manager of the theatre in Bath for about three years before becoming manager of the theatre in Brighton where the Prince of Wales became his patron. Brunton eventually returned to Norwich to become the manager of the city’s theatre, acting from time to time when needed.

John Brunton and his wife were blessed with fourteen children but he did not, initially, intend that any of them should enter the acting profession. At the time when the family lived in Bath, Brunton’s wife had taken on the responsibility of educating their children with John also spending many hours reading stories to them. He also taught his eldest daughter Anne, (1769 – 1808) to read Shakespeare aloud as part of her preparation for becoming a governess. It was whilst doing this that he identified her talent for acting and arranged for her to go on stage at the tender age of fifteen years.

img_3031
Anne Brunton (1769 – 1808) Actress

Anne Brunton made her debut in Bath, in February 1785. After seeing her performances in Bath that summer, Thomas Harris, manager of the Covent Garden theatre in London, engaged her to help his theatre compete with the Drury Lane theatre. Anne’s manager was her father, who also helped her perfect her acting skills. Then in August of 1791, Miss Anne Brunton, married the prominent playwright and poet, Robert Merry.

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Robert Merry, (1755–1798)    Playwright & Poet

As Mrs. Merry, she was eventually pressured to retire from the stage by her husband’s family but soon afterwards, Robert Merry found that he had used up most of his substantial inheritance and considered it necessary for the couple to move to Paris; that is until the outbreak of the French Revolution when they were forced to return to London. Thereafter, the Merry’s began to live a very unsettled existence and, after three years, rumours began to circulate that Anne Merry would be returning to the stage in a private theatre in Scarborough. Nothing, in fact, came of this and a few months later there were reports that Anne Brunton Merry would soon appear at Covent Garden as the leading lady in a play written by her husband ; that too came to nothing!

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Thomas Wignell (1753 – 1803) Actor & Theatre Manager

By the spring of 1796, Thomas Wignell, the manager of the Chestnut Street Theatre of Philadelphia, was in London seeking talent for his new theatre. Between Merry’s liberal political leanings, his dwindling financial resources and his family’s objections regarding his wife’s work in the theatre, the Merry’s could see no secure position for themselves in London. Anne Merry, therefore, accepted Wignell’s offer to perform at the Chestnut Street Theatre and she and her husband sailed for America.

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Chestnut Street Theatre, Philadelphia, USA

Anne Brunton Merry was a great success on the American stage and, in addition to Philadelphia, She played in all of the large cities in the United States. Then in 1798, Robert Merry died, and in January 1803, Anne married Thomas Wignell, only for him to die the following month due to an infection. As Mrs. Wignell, Anne performed in Baltimore in the April before going into seclusion to await the birth of her daughter, Elizabeth, that autumn. The following year, Anne Wignell returned to the stage performing in a number of Shakespearean roles.

By now, the actor, William Warren had taken over management of the Chestnut Street Theatre and, in August of 1806, Anne Wignell married him. She continued to act until May of 1808, when she again left the state to await the birth of a child. The Warrens then retired to a house in Alexandria, Virginia where Anne experienced a violent illness which left her delusional and reciting some of her favourite speeches from characters she had played over the years. On 24 June 1806, she gave birth to a stillborn son, and though she initially seemed to be recovering from her ordeal, she died on 28 June 1806.

John Brunton’s son, also named John (1775 – 1849), was intended for the law by his father, though he had had a few small acting roles, while a child, at his father’s theatre. Despite his parent’s hopes, the young man was bitten by the same acting bug as had bitten his father years previously. At the age of eighteen and unbeknown to his family, John Junior joined a theatre company in Lincoln. After experiencing some success, young John returned home to his family, who were then living in Norwich. Though his father was disappointed that his son had chosen not to follow the law, he Well understood his son’s love of the stage and hired him as an actor and assistant manager.

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John Brunton Jr. (1775 – 1849)                Brunton in the role of Zadi, from a scene in ‘The Anaconda, the Terrific Serpent of Ceylon’ based on a tale by G. M. Lewis. Published December 4, 1822. Brunton portrays Zadi, “a Cingalese restored to freedom”.

John Brunton Junior. was to become a very successful actor in the Norwich theatre which was managed by his father, and in 1800, young John travelled to London where he made his debut in the same Covent Garden theatre as did his father more than twenty-five years before.

John Jr. played a number of Shakespearean roles over the course of the next five years, but he did not achieve the success of some of the other leading actors in London of that period. In 1804, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became the manager of the West London Theatre, though he did still perform character parts from time to time, when needed. Over the course of his career, John Brunton, Jr. would go on to manage theatres at Brighton, Birmingham, Plymouth, Lynn and Norwich.

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Covent Garden Theatre, 18th century.

Another daughter of John Brunton, Senior was Elizabeth (c. 1772 – 1799); she would be introduced to the London stage by her successful older sister, Anne, before she departed for America. This Eliza, as she was known in the family, made her stage debut at the Covent Garden theatre in a benefit for her older sister, Anne, in 1788. It was Anne who personally introduced Eliza to the audience that night with an elegant and poetical address which was well-received by those in attendance. That first night, Eliza had such a case of stage fright that she could barely speak her lines. However, the audience showed her sympathy and encouragement by which she was able to collect herself and get through her first performance with increasing confidence. Eliza went on to develop her acting skills further and continued to act for several years, but she never achieved the success of Anne, her eldest sister or Louisa, her youngest. She eventually married a Mr. Colombine.

John Brunton, Senior’s youngest daughter, Louisa (c. 1780 – 1860), was considered a great beauty and a very talented actress, who made her debut in October of 1803, at the Covent Garden theatre, as leading lady to the famous actor John Kemble. Critics wrote of her beauty and her gifted performance, predicting a glowing future for her. Louisa Brunton played a variety of roles, from contemporary plays to Shakespeare over the next four years. She also had many gentlemen admirers. However, it was well-known that she came from a respectable and professional theatrical family. There was never any suggestion in society or in the newspapers that she was anything less that a very proper young lady. Certainly, she was never considered to be a courtesan or a loose woman as were some actresses.

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Louisa Brunton (1780 – 1860)

Sometime in 1805, Major-General William Craven, 1st Earl of Craven (28 September 1770 – 30 July 1825), became one of Louisa’s most ardent admirers. Lord Craven had been the first patron of the notorious courtesan, Harriette Wilson, when Harriette was only fifteen. However, it does not appear he ever made any attempt to offer Louisa Brunton the carte blanche he had offered Harriette Wilson. Rather, he asked for Louisa’s hand and, on 12 December 1807, the couple was married in Lord Craven’s London townhouse in Berkeley Square. Though Louisa may have expected to have been welcomed into aristocratic society, such was not the case. Though she was not a loose woman, Louisa had been born into the middle class, and there were many high-sticklers among the beau monde who shunned her. Nevertheless, she and her husband did maintain a circle of friends whose company they enjoyed.

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Major-General William Craven, 1st Earl of Craven (28 September 1770 – 30 July 1825)

After her marriage, Louisa gave up the stage and devoted much of her time to her family. She and Lord Craven took up their primary residence at the earl’s estate of Hamstead Marshall Park in Berkshire, where the earl had recently built a fine mansion. The earl never lost his wandering eye, and he is known to have had relationships with other women during their marriage. It seems his countess turned a blind eye to these extra-curricular activities in order to maintain peace in the marriage. Louisa took up garden design, a pursuit she would enjoy at Hamstead Marshall Park for most of her life. The Earl and Countess of Craven had four children, three boys, including the next earl, and a daughter.

In 1811, when her father, John Brunton, retired as the manager of the Norwich theatre, he and his wife, Louisa’s mother, moved to Berkshire to be near Louisa. When her husband died in July of 1825, Louisa remained at Hamstead Marshall, while her eldest son, the new earl, took up residence at Ashdown House, also situated in Berkshire. Louisa, Dowager Countess of Craven lived a quiet and retired life at Hamstead Marshall, her fame on the stage all but forgotten when she died there on 27 August 1860.

It transpired that Louisa was not the last of the Bruntons to take to the stage. Two of her older brother John’s daughters, the third generation of the Brunton family, both became actresses. In March of 1815, Elizabeth Brunton (1799 – 1860), made her debut at the theatre in Lynn, which was managed by her father. Elizabeth’s first role was that of Desdemona in Othello, opposite Charles Kemble, of the famous acting family. Though she did well enough, her father concluded that ‘Bess’ was more suited to comedy and it was in these roles that Miss Elizabeth Brunton was to perform at theatres in Birmingham, Worcester, Shrewsbury and Leicester over the next two years.

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Elizabeth Brunton (1799 – 1860)

In 1817, Thomas Harris, the manager of London’s Covent Garden theatre, engaged Elizabeth Brunton, just as he had engaged her Aunt Anne many years before. It was in the September of that year when Miss Elizabeth Brunton made her London debut at Covent Garden as Letitia Hardy in the comedy, Belle’s Stratagem. She also was to perform in a number of other plays at Covent Garden that year; all of the to mixed reviews. The following year, Elizabeth Brunton appeared on stage in Edinburgh and at Drury Lane, but was back at Covent Garden for the 1818 – 1819 season taking a couple of years off from acting to spend some time in the country.

Shortly after her return to the stage, Elizabeth performed in Norwich, her ancestral home city; that was in 1820. On one particular evening of her tour, the performace did not run as it should due to a riot, a report of which found its way on to the pages of the 16th March edition of The Times:

“…. a theatrical riot took place at the Norwich Theatre. On the Monday Miss Brunton had appeared in the character of Rosalind without incident. On the Tuesday, she appeared as Maria Dorillon in Elizabeth Inchbald’s controversial play “Wives as they Were, and Maids as they Are”, which had been attacked as subversive for its portrayal of women. Notwithstanding the excellence of her performance, the house was very thinly attended. As if this was not enough for poor Miss Brunton on her final performance:…….much confusion arose in consequence of part of the audience calling for ‘God Save The King’, which was sung, while others vociferated ‘God Save The Queen’. At length, two regular battles took place……[but] at the commencement of the farce, on Miss Brunton’s appearance, loud applause superseded the tones displeasure.

But as the battle raged among the audience, Miss Brunton was led off the stage. The manager tried to reason with the audience but he and the remaining actors were driven from the stage, which was occupied by some of the rioters while ‘the respectable part of the audience immediately left the house'”.

In 1822, Elizabeth Brunton resumed her career on the London stage, at the West Theatre, where her father was manager. Unfortunately, the season did not go well, and Bess once again retired to the country. It was whilst she was there that she became reacquainted with Frederick Henry Yates, an actor with whom she had performed at Drury Lane. In November of 1823, the couple were married in Bath. Mrs. Yates, still billed as Miss Brunton, appeared in a number of plays in Bath that season. The following season, she played at Cheltenham and Drury Lane, often with her husband. The couple played several theatres, sometimes together, and sometimes separately, over the course of the next decade. About 1835, Frederick Yates became the manager of the Adelphi Theatre in London. When he retired from the Adelphi in 1842, Mr. and Mrs. Yates traveled to Ireland, with their son, to perform in Dublin. Sadly, Mr. Yates became ill during rehearsals and the family decided to return to England. Frederick Yates died not long after his return, in June of 1842.

In 1843, Mrs. Yates took over as co-manager of the Adelphi theatre for about a year, but found her health was not up to it. She came back to the stage as an actress at the Lyceum for the 1848 – 1849 season. However, her health continued to deteriorate and she was forced to retire permanently from the stage by 1850. After a long illness, Mrs. Elizabeth Yates died on 30 August 1860, just three days after the passing of her Aunt Louisa. Though both Mr. and Mrs. Yates had enjoyed long theatrical careers, they had always discouraged their son, Edmond Yates, from seeking a career in the theatre; instead, he became a novelist and playwright and never performed on stage.

Whilst today the Norwich branch of the Brunton family is largely unknown, that was not the case from the late eighteenth century and well into the middle of the nineteenth when they were very well-known throughout the theatrical world of Britain.

THE END