A Difficult Country – The Napiers in Scotland
by Priscilla Napier. First published in 1972 by Michael Joseph Ltd 57 Bedford Square, London WC1
ISBN: 7181 1052 8
This book has been long out of print and I have tried unsuccessfully to contact Priscilla's executors hoping to gain permission to use the extract below. I now hope that if they discover my 'crime', they will see it as a compliment to her work and recognise its value to Napier family history. The narrative appears to be based upon extensive research - she gives a long bibliography and some of the material below seems to reflect papers I have seen myself at the Dorset records office in Dorchester. 'A Difficult Country' traces the origins of the Napier family in medieval and Stuart Scotland but the chapter reproduced below covers the activities of Napier descendants in Southern England from the late 15th century. The Napier story continues in 'The Sword Dance' which is the story of the family during the years 1745 - 1826 - the life span of Lady Sarah Lennox. DAN
The Napiers in the South had emigrated, according to the more flippant amongst their descendants, because their nervous systems were no longer able to stand the strain of life around the Border or along the Highland line. Recovering in the unruffled scenery of the south-west, they built themselves charming stone houses in Dorset and Somerset, most of which, growing bored or restless, they subsequently gambled away. (Not the least now, do young men, no longer called upon to gamble their lives in war, tend to chance them away on roads or gamble away their livelihoods; and it is time someone thought up a cheerfuller and more constructive substitute for war.) Like most roving Scots in the south, the Napiers seemed to have no difficulty in making good. No longer obliged to cry Ready, Aye Ready, and follow James V of Scotland over the Border with a plump of spears, they bought themselves a small but sufficient fishing fleet, and ‘supplying the several adjacent abbies with fish,’ amassed a comfortable competence just before they were dissolved. This done, and their first flush of house-building over, they seemed to lose impetus; joined by further cousins from the north and living in their beautiful little stone manor houses at Swyre, looking down over the yellow cliffs of West Bay, at Punknowle, Baglake, Minterne Magna, Middlemarsh, Melbury Osmond, and Long Critchel in Dorset, and at Tintinhull in Somerset, a property that had belonged to the executed Sir Thomas Wyatt. The west country lapped the Napiers in its immemorial mild calm; lucky enough to settle in a place where, apart from a brush or two in the Civil War, and Monmouth’s rebellion (in which they took no part), nothing very disagreeable occurred until the bombing of Yeovil by the Luftwaffe in 1943.
They did not sit quite still, Sir Richard Napier, son of Sandy and first cousin to logarithms John, settled in Bedfordshire and stuck to science, astrology, and being unlike other people – ‘He did practise physick; but gave most to the poor that he got by it,’ according to John Aubry. ‘A person of great abstinence, innocence and pietie, his knees,’ Aubrey added, ‘were horny with frequent praying,’ and he claimed to be in constant communication with archangel Raphael, whose observations he somehow failed to record. ‘He died praying upon his knees, being a very great age.’ Rather more humdrum was his nephew, another Richard, a fellow of All Souls and one of the founder members of the Royal Society; where he enjoyed the company of King Charles II, Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton. ‘A great pretender to virtue and astrology, made a great noise in the world, yet did little or nothing towards the public,’ Anthony á Wood reported disparagingly; and Richard Napier seems to have left no records, though he and his uncle Richard kept writing to each other on serious seventeenth-century subjects like ‘Whether man hath libertem arbitrium – that is, freedom of will; and how far it extendeth.’ What sound like a slightly priggish fourth son of his (but maybe it’s just his way of speaking) was sent to Padua University, writing home to his parents in September 1659 to tell them that ‘the future desire of my heart shall be, to please you, to serve my country, and to improve myself in every kind of literature. That it may please Almighty God to have you and my dearest lady mother long and forever in his safekeeping prays, from the bottom of his heart, Filius Tuus Obedientissimus, Robertus Napierus.’ But perhaps he relaxed as the term went on.
He too made good. There is a tablet to him at Padua University – To the young and distinguished Roberto Napiero, an Englishman by birth, and of a noble family, who, while he had the government of the University of Padua [an annual appointment] in order that he might put an utter end to the furious strifes which were raging, did not only hold those everlasting reins of Justice, but held them with a tight and steady hand. The Archi-Lyceum of Artists have placed these Arms: 1662
Another Robert Napier, the first Richard’s more orthodox brother, was a successful Turkey merchant and a High Sheriff of Bedfordshire and bought Luton Hoo in 1600, was a member for Bedfordshire 1611 and for Corfe Castle in Dorset in 1625. When he appeared at court to receive a baronetcy from King Charles I there were mutterings from jealous English courtiers; for who, after all were these Napiers? This was a remark liable to enrage James. In Scots eyes the English aristocracy were a Norman rabble most of whom had exterminated each other in the Wars of the Roses, whilst the Scots in general had been living on their land since about 500 AD and very adequately defending it from Angle, Dane and Norman. English patronizing he would not have. Who were the Napiers? ‘By my saul,’ King James crossly replied, for so did he pronounce his immortal member, ‘By my saul they are all gentlemen these many hundred years.’
Settling first at Swyre, Puncknowle and Bexington, James Napier (son of Sir Alexander Napier of Merchiston by a sister of Robert Stewart, Earl of Athol) had Edward Napier of Hollywell, Nicholas Napier of Tintinhull, and James of Baglake. At Puncknowle people kept digging up Roman coins, it was the kind of knoll the Romans liked living on, and in Domesday Book it had been held by a settler with the persuasively Norman name of Hugh Fitz-Grip. It was not a totally cosy situation; in 1440 Bexington village had been sacked and burnt by the French, and all its inhabitants reft away to France from whence they had to buy themselves back. But beautiful it certainly was. Edward left a son William, only seven years old, but this did not prevent him being seized of the manor of Swyre, of 17 messuages, 6 cottages, and 640 acres annual value £71 8s 3d, held of the queen in chief part of a knight’s fee; and advowson of the Church held of the queen by free soccage. Casting aside soccage and all, he left these dreaming vales as soon as he was able and set off abroad. ‘Here lyeth William Napier,’ his stone announced fifty-eight years later, ‘who after xv years travel in forayne lands married Anne Shelton, the daughter of William Shelton of Ongar Park, esquire, by whom he had VI sonnes, and now his sole being with God his bodie here resteth in Jesu Christ.’ His younger brother Robert went west and became Queen Elizabeth’s Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, returning to Dorset to settle at Middlemarsh.
George, John, Andrew, Robert, Edward, William, sons of William; and Launcelot, James, Thomas, Robert, Edward, sons of Nicholas: Dorset, never a thickly populated county, seems in the seventeenth century entirely saturated by Napiers. Robert Napier, son of William Napier of Swyre, in an English reply to the quiverful of logarithms John, was the father of William, Andrew, Robert, Edward, Shelton, Edmund, John, Arundel, Anne and Catherine. Dorset, like some majestic sea swelling hugely between green troughs where delectable villages lay hidden from Atlantic winds, cradled in every second vale a crop of little Napiers, harboured in due course a harvest of grown-up ones. Sadly the letters of grief drone on, in the marbles of the grey stone churches: ‘Alice, wife of Launcelot Napier, 1597 … Magdalen, wife of Sir Robert Napier, 1635 … Sir Nathaniel Napier, of much esteem and honor in this county … Sir Gerard Napier Knt and Bt who was Deputy Lieutenant to King Charles yr 1st and never deserted him, and loyall to King Charles II and esteemed by him for his Loyalty and good service to ye Crowne, May 14th 1672 …here reposeth ye most virtuose, most obliging and charitably good Lady Blanche Napier … carried to joy ease and happiness unspeakable there to live in the blest habitation of angels to all eternity’ (in 1695); ‘ … the Rev, Nathaniel Napier, rector of Sutton Walrond 36 years, born of an illustrious family but paid the common debt to nature, 1722, En mortalitas exemplar! … James Lennox Napier, 1736, knight of the shire for Meath in Ireland … John Tregonwell Napier, rector of Chettle …’ Sir George, Sir Charles, Mistress Anne Napier of Melbury Osmund … One could hardly walk down a village street in Dorset without falling over a Napier baronet or a Napier parson, yet by the mid-nineteenth century all were gone.
At Swyre one of the Napiers had the Lennox Legend engraved in stone on his memorial, placing it as near as possible to the altar, as if it had been the Lord’s Prayer or the Ten Commandments. At Puncknowle a note of Scots melancholy seems to creep into the memorial to Sir Robert Napier; perhaps of nostalgia, of enclosement in this downy Dorset valley, this easy country so far from the windy bluffs of Edinburgh. ‘Man is a dream of a shadow,’ his son Sir Charles Napier recorded, startling the other parishioners by having this dictum of Pindar’s inscribed in the original Greek, and adding in Latin, ‘We do not speak great things but live them,’ he continued in English,’ Reader whereas thou hast done all thou canst thou art but an unprofitable servant Therefore this marble affords no Roome for fulsome flattery or vaine praise.’ The sculptor, a Scot called Hamilton, threw in a stone skull or two to ram home the point, but no one was ever so unworldly as to omit the Lennox arms carved with a great flourish above. The house the Napiers built at Puncknowle was so beautiful that it was recently sold, plus three hundred not very sumptuous acres, for around a quarter of a million (1972).
Sir Robert Napier, returning from Ireland and knighted by Queen Elizabeth some time before 1593, restored Middlemarsh, derelict since 1536. In the parish of Mintern Parva, it was ‘a little manor and hamlet with a large old stone building’ which had been the retiring place of the Abbots of Cerne Abbey, The seventeenth century was one that liked to spell things out loud and clear; and on the chimney piece in a large upper room Sir Robert inscribed, ‘Faith and Hope in Christ and Charity to our neighbour are inseparable.’ The house was presently burnt down, but the Dorset Almshouses which he and his cousin John Napier built and endowed in Dorchester, ‘ten poor men to have their habitation and maintenance therein,’ are still there and known as Napper’s Mite. To this end he bestowed ‘the manor of Little Puddle alias Little Piddle … that it should not be alienated or sold, but held in the heirs of his name and blood forever continued to the uses aforesaid, and to perform …all things else which should be thought agreeable with his purpose, tending only the glory and honour of God and to the relief of the poor.’ In 1667 Sir Gerard Napier ‘devised all his manor of Stert in the parish of Babcary in Somerset’ to pay for reading divine service to the old men, and for new clothes for them every two years, with ‘any excess to be shared among them.’ James Napier’s charity was the leper hospital at Goderthorn by Bridport, but Mistress Anne Napier preferred children; six little Dorchester ones ‘out of poor families’ to be educated at Trinity School and supplied with blue dresses from the rent of her lands in the parish of Melbury Osmond.
It is a far cry from the rigours and ardours of Montrose’s campaigns, in which their cousins were now battling, but at least one Napier managed to find himself a satisfying lost cause, even in peaceful Dorset. He became a Roman Catholic, than which no cause was more thoroughly lost in seventeenth-century England, with Foxe’s Book of martyrs a best-seller to be found in every house, and treasured alongside the Bible. Even in death he declined to mingle, except with his own family, ‘In the name of God Amen, I John Napier of West Baglake in the Countie of Dorsett and parish of Longbriddy Esquire … for matter of burial of my poore Carcasse, the times are such as whether Anabaptist, Brownist, and such heretikes will give it Christian Buriall no man knoes: But if it please my sonn Henry Napier to burye me by my wife Elizabeth in Puncknowle Church they shall doe a deede I much desire them to doe for me For that there lyeth my wife and twoe children maids both who dyed Infants … But if my Carkes will not be permitted I charge my sonn Henry to doe his best endevours to bury my body in the very Alley as he goeth from his house to the Dyall in his garden at Baglake and that he Wall my grave Round and lay a flat stone on me And this is all the Pompe of burial I crave.’ But like so many wills this one did not come off, and they planted him at Swyre amongst a lot of second cousins, which is not at all the same thing. (For three hundred years the people of Litton Cheney believed that John Napier’s body was in the very Alley – alas, poor papist.) His charming house at Baglake was swiftly confiscated by the authorities to compound for his recusancy fines.
For even in quiet Dorset the volcano erupted; and Civil War took its toll, less ruinous to all then it had been in the north, but often sharply squeezing even to the most prosperous. Such was Nathaniel Napier of Middlemarsh, son of Sir Robert of Magdalen his wife, and knighted by James I at Newmarket for no discernable reason (but perhaps a useful sum had been passed, or the king was in a relaxed mood for hunting), High Sherriff in 1621 and member for Dorset in 1626; who built Critchel House on a manor which had belonged to a family – surely Saxon – called Cifrewast, and put up a memorial to the last of the Cifrewasts in the church. His forth son, James, lighted out for Ireland and founded a family there: his eldest, Sir Gerard, was M.P. for Wareham and Melcombe Regis and made baronet in 1641. The Crichel Napiers were famous in the family for being more intelligent about money than anyone else; they always seemed to have it, and Gerard bought Baglake, his cousin Henry’s house near Litton Cheney by paying part of his recusancy fines.
By 1641 the fires of the Civil War were beginning to smoulder, and Royalist Robert Napier had his farms at Puncknowle and Bexington, value £300 per annum, sequestered by the Commonwealth authorities, and poor Henry Napier, late of Baglake and already crippled by recusancy fines, also fell by the way. Even canny Sir Gerard plumped for the king and had his lands sequestered, ‘being a colonel in arms’; though he managed to compound for them for nearly £3,000. He spent another £10,000 bolstering the cause of Charles I, and was disabled from being the member for Melcombe and declared a delinquent. To Charles II in exile Sir Gerard sent 500 badly needed gold pieces, but he sent them by a Sir Gilbert Taylor and somehow they never arrived. However it is the thought that counts; and in 1665 a restored King Charles and Queen Catherine came to stay with him at Critchel. His second son Sir Nathaniel, carried away by the gaiety and relief of the Restoration, re-furbished Middlemarsh and ‘much beautified and adorned the house and gardens’ at Critchel, and fathered William, Gerard, Robert, Lennox, Nathaniel, Margaret, Blanche, Catherine and Elizabeth. Possibly finding home a little noisy, he became a great traveller, but returned to become member for Dorchester, representing part of that borough all through the reigns of William and Mary, and of Anne, and be made a baronet. Known to contemporaries as ‘a gay ingenious gentleman, well-versed in several languages, and with a good understanding of architecture and painting’, Sir Nathaniel and his fifth son Nathaniel were both members for Dorchester at the same time in 1700 and 1701, which must have been confusing for the Speaker, and , come to that, for the other members of the house.
In 1700 Middlemarsh, too, burnt down; the Napiers seemed destined never to hang on to their property. Nothing now is left but a piece of the old house built into a farm; and during the sway of Sir William Napier, 4th bart, Crichel also was burnt down. Sir William rebuilt it ‘in great splendour’ and be it added, with superb taste; and commemorated what he felt was the miraculous saving of his own life and the lives of his family by a large annual gift to the poor of the parish. His father Nat had succeeded his namesake and fellow M.P., and marrying Catherine, daughter of William, Lord Alington, begat also Sir Gerard Napier, who was trustee for the Frampton family and famous for being the only person in Dorset who got out of the South Sea Bubble in time, whereby both these families are still living in their same houses. Gerard married Bridget Phelips of Montecute and had Sir Gerard, 6th and final bart, painted by Gainsborough and dying childless at twenty-sex, leaving his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Sir John Oglander of Nunwell, to live out forty-nine years of widowhood at Bath. [note: apparently she didn’t! – reference a marriage settlement 27/9/1779 between James Webb of Bath and Elizabeth Napier of Bath ‘widow of Sir George Napier of More Critchel’ DAN]
Full stop; but Diana Napier, daughter of Sir Nathaniel, 3rd bart, had married Humphrey Sturt, son of a rich lord mayor of London; and she had also become heiress of the Alingtons, Critchel was given a new lease of life. Their son Henry’s renewals at Critchel caused the Reverent John Hutchings to raise a disapproving eyebrow: ‘so immensely enlarged that it has the appearance of the mansion of a prince more than that of a country gentleman,’ he pointed out severely in his Survey of Dorset. The Napiers of Critchel were now Sturts (and would presently be Martens). Diana Napier’s youngest grand-daughter, eccentrically christened Eliza-Bizarre, and deb of about the year 1790, was known as ‘the lovely Bizzy Sturt’.
How many unexplained and perhaps sad lives do these old records contain; and how did handsome Gerard’s childless widow get on in her forty-nine years at Bath – first as a young Lady Napier, gay and garrulous maybe and swinging her panniered skirts; then middle-aged Lady Napier inclined to good works and gossip; and then as old Lady Napier, loved only by a rather bossy and crotchety maid and tolerated by an overfed dog? She at least had independence and wealth, the power to go where she wished: far more dismal may have been the lot of the daughters at home, parent-bound as any Chine and staring wistfully at the sad rain falling, from windows at Tintinhull, at Merchiston, at Luton Hoo, at Fintry or Culcreugh, as the years slowly rolled by. Henrietta, d. unmarried 1667; Anna, 1695, Agnes, 1709, Mary, 1765, Marcia Charlotte, 1850 – looking after parents, aunts, old servants; the unsung and unhonoured saints of many a lonely village or chilly manor house. But maybe half of them were as jolly as minnows; apple-cheeked and happy with spring and summer and nephews and nieces and decorating the house and the church for the joyful festivals of family or religion. Close and valued members of a family, perhaps they lived and died happier than in full emancipation, with a bed-sitter in Earls Court and a bottle of sleeping pills ever to hand.
In Scotland life sounds appreciably grimmer; an atmosphere of stern severity prevailing. Anything in the nature of a shotgun marriage would find itself recorded in the parish register: ‘the whilk day Robert, lawfully procreated betwixt William Napier of Culcreugh and Lady Bessie Houston, his spouse’ was christened in 1695 in the parish of Fintry (where Isabelle of Lennox had first built a church in the thirteenth century); ‘This day ane male child called John, lawfully procreated betwixt Alexander Napier of Culreuch and Mrs Margaret Lennox his spouse was baptised before these witnesses, Sir John Houston of that ilk, Knight, John Lennox of Woodhead, and Archibald Napier of Boquhable’ in 1686 in the same church. Product of this sternly moral environment, which Robert Burns was shortly to mock, was Robert John Napier of Culcreuch born 1765, commanding at the siege of Mangalore in the East Indies and among the innumerable Napier colonels reported on in this epoch by the historian Mark Napier; and Alexander Napier of Blackstone, colonel of the Black Watch, to whom Sir John Moore wrote for a sketch and approved when he took a Highland soldier as supporter on his coat of arms: ‘Under an officer who understands them, they will conquer or die on the spot … but it is the principles of integrity and moral correctness that I admire most in Highland soldiers, and this … makes their courage sure, and not that kind of flash in the pan which would scale a bastion today and tomorrow be alarmed at the fire of a picket. You Highland officers may sleep sound at night, and rise in the morning with the assurance that your men, your professional character and honour, are safe.’ And perhaps Colonel Alexander Napier did sleep sound and rise with assurance, for all his Spartan upbringing; though this is all we know about him: he was killed at Curunna.
Dorset is paradisal; and long may it so remain. In earlier centuries it all belonged to the Church, and a kind of dreaming other-worldliness still haunts its countryside. On the flinty fields of those remote uplands where Thomas Hardy saw poor Tess hoeing turnips all the day, there is still no tumult but of lapwing and of lark: the woods are deep and quiet as when Bathsheba slept in them to salve her broken heart. There is an untouched quality in that huge marmoreal sea of downland whose waves are still clothed only in windswept tree of turf. Paradisal; but not affording very much to bite on, for the active or the young. (Sergeant Troy, it will be remembered, felt obliged to light out.) By 1850 all the Napiers had moved on to the Americas or the Antipodes, or succumbed to the quiet of it; younger, or natural, children fading imperceptibly into landscape like so many Red Indians. Natural children, probably, or when Sir Gerard Napier died in 1765 and Sir George about the same time, some busybody would have disorganized their lives by raking them out, and pointing out to them that they were baronets, once if not twice over. Silently, over the centuries, they faded into the deep rural simplicity of Hardy’s Dorset, verderers of those still woods; until in the twentieth century the only parishioner of Mintern Parva was a quiet old man called Stephen Napier, whose son, Herbert, was Captain Gerald Digby’s keeper, much liked by all and addressed affectionately by Napiers as Cousin Herbert when they went to shoot at Lewcombe. Such lush and sheltered vales are not likely springboards to ambition; (though against this it must be admitted that the Churchills were cradled in Minterne Magna). In this gentler soil, would the passions and energies of Scotland transmute themselves to something slightly other, though not less valuable, or would they not survive at all?
In Somerset, just across the border, the Napiers continued, James Napier of Puncknowle had married a sister of John Russell of Berwick St John, that alert young man who paved the way to the stupendous Bedford fortune by being the only person in Dorset who could speak Spanish when some vital infanta was blown ashore at Weymouth. Perhaps this strongly possessive Russell strain had a sobering effect on their second son, Nicholas Napier of Tintinhull, for in this small village of Somerset the Napiers stayed put, doing nothing much for six generations except cherish their land and build three charming houses out of the local stone; one of them, called the Mansion, now belonging to the National Trust, so beautiful in its style and proportions that in the 1930’s an exact reproduction of it was built in America. Here Nicholas Napier’s descendants, five successive generations of Thomas Napiers lived, steeped in rural calm and spelling their name wrong – Napper, perhaps in irritation at the English habit of pronouncing the correct version N’pier. The third Thomas Napier, married Lydia à Court, launched into public life in 1635 so far as to join Sir Robert Phelps of Montacute in his refusal to pay Ship Money; riding from Tintinhull – a Saxon name roughly meaning Hill of Discussion – to Illchester, where he ‘gave scandalous words to the Sheriff’, After this fuss they beat the assessment down by sixpence, but after another year on the hill of discussion they thought better of it and paid up when it came to the crunch. The song and dance over Ship Money was considerable: previously only dwellers in sea-port towns had paid for the Navy, rather as though only occupiers of ground-floor flats should pay for the police, and Charles I’s attempt to tax everybody for ships practically sparked off the Civil War. Somerset was a poor place to make a stand anyway, as it is extremely close to sea on both sides; but it was one of those times when people all over the country suddenly feel that their ancient liberties are being eroded by unsympathetic bureaucrats.
Thomas Napier of Tintinhull Mansion Esquire, son of ditto, son of ditto, son of ditto – what were they like? Swinging their full-skirted coats they turn unknown faces away from us, and trudge the green landscape in their well-filled waistcoats; shooting the sitting bird with cumbersome fowling pieces; or, with very long leathers and heavy stirrups, splosh their horses through the muddy fields of Somerset in pursuit of the elusive deer or fox that threatens corn or fold. English gentlemen in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries lived in rooms furnished at most with one picture, one looking glass, one table and three or four stiff chairs, all of them fine; used superb silver; ate too much invariably and generally drank excessively as well; rode horses of flawless beauty, married plain wives, and were accompanied everywhere by hideous but obviously cherished mongrel dogs. Their children tended to live off-stage, brought up for the greater part of the day by large households of illiterate but cheerful servants who were always being told not to laugh so loud; a jolly backstairs life in which they were kindly teased by grooms and shouted at by gardeners, comforted by flocks of print-clad Betsys, schooled by the parson, indulged by Mamma, and permitted, as soon as they could tote a weapon, to join their father’s following of besotted mongrel dogs. They had few toys, no jaunts, and no games but what they invented for themselves. What they did not lack, in hall or cottage, were a great many people who took an interest in them. Cold and discomfort were appalling, floors were bare, and still only the robust grew up. Roads were mud or dust and exeats rare; very few inlanders, rich or poor, had ever seen the sea. Yet diarists and visitors alike unite to comment on the cheerful faces of the English countryside in these centuries before the Industrial Revolution, like some sinister whirlpool, sucked them off to groan and fester in its unspeakable slums. And in the pictures that come down to us people do not look harassed, nervous, or bored, and the children, however doomed, to all appearances are loaded with spontaneous joy.
Were the Napiers of Tintinhull like Fielding’s Squire Western? Did they share the pride and disregard of other human beings which were soon to cause so many of their counterparts on the other side of the Channel to get themselves chopped? They seem less aloof, less callous and inhuman; in 1880 Jane Austin’s Mr Knightley was properly kept in order by his gardener, William Larkins. It was not till later, in the nineteenth century, that Charles Napier complained of the appalling habit that had crept in with the nouveaux riches of talking to the les fortunate as if from a higher plane. Life was strictly hierarchical, rich were no less rich and poor were no less poor, but in the country at least a kind of practical common sense in living together obscured the boring distinctions of class. People died of damp and disease in their poor cottages, but not of loneliness, and not by suicide. The air they breathed was healthy, and the food they ate, though sparse enough, was fresh and good.
Did the Thomas Napiers love their wives and children, cherish their tenants, read books, travel, enjoy music? Had they any ideas, beyond stout patriotism, outside their own valley? Were they immune to the grace and beauty of the house their forbears had built and did it excite in them only the fondness of a well-used habitat, a vague undiscriminating pride of possession? Nothing remains but a child’s name scratched with a diamond on a window-pane; nothing but a legend of final profligacy, and some extremely plain tombs.
Here, if they had enough work to distract them from gambling, they might still be; large and beetle-browed, and never going to London so long as it was humanly possible not to. But when Queen Anne’s wars were over, and on the many days when it was impossible to shoot or hunt, they had begun to spend the long dark winter afternoons and evenings losing money to their neighbours. Dinner was a four, and then what? It’s a long time till bedtime, even if dinner lasts a couple of hours. It was an age when all England see-sawed in a wild ocean of gambling. Anyone master of five shillings endeavoured instantly to convert it into ten, whether they had anything further to fall back upon or not.
When the bonny blade carouses,
Pockets full, and spirits high –
What are acres, what are houses?
Only dirt, or wet, or dry.
Wrote Samuel Johnson; and it was in Somerset. With the fifth Thomas the land went, the silver, the furniture, eventually the houses. There was even a story that the last of the Thomas Napiers lost a daughter to Phelips of Montacute, who lived a mile or so away. Certain it is that the last Thomas Napier used to bet with Phelips on which of two raindrops would first reach the bottom of the window. But the tale that the Napiers lost Tintinhull Mansion, arguably the most beautiful small manor house in England, on the fall of a raindrop is not true. The trustees of nine-year-old John Napier sold it in 1789.
In the 1750s the Mansion was still there; but younger sons had to live. From this nadir, this dead-end preoccupation with midnight card tables and streaming window pains, Andrew, youngest grandson of the late Thomas Napier, was sharply rescued by the necessity of earning something with which to buy his horses if not his bread. He became a smuggler on a large and successful scale; an activity which he concealed by selling cow-hides under the unexceptional façade of a hide-merchant in Cheapside. The love of a good woman seemed called for; and as so often, it was to hand. By some curious alchemy, there are always enough good women with a small but useful income to go round the handsome scamps. Smuggling Andrew Napier married a local Somerset heiress called Letitia Berkeley, with whom he acquired the manor of Pylle, near Shepton Mallet, where he went to live. Miss Berkeley, nice, prim, and on the bossy side, was descended from Robert Fitzhardinge to whom Queen Matilda gave Berkeley Castle for his help in her war against Stephen in the twelfth century: she was thus sprung from lady Godiva, but nothing in her expression can have encouraged any pleasantries on this subject. Painted as a widow, dour and elegant in deep black and a muslin ruffled cap, she sits sombrely beside an urn with ‘Andrew Napier 1770’ engraved upon it. There is something overwhelmingly respectable about the ex-Miss Berkeley, in trim authentic widowhood, with every frill more beautifully goffered than the last: did she feel safer with scampish Andrew Napier safely inside that urn? It was probably she who persuaded her husband to consult the family records and brush up his spelling, to put down roots again and bring up his children and abstain from midnight adventures with barrels of brandy in coastal lanes, to re-adapt to the role of respectable country squire.
But his portrait, wearing a coat of apricot velvet, long-faced, beak-nosed, arched eye-browed, with jowls rather heavier after a century or so amongst the lush pastures of Somerset than his Scots contemporaries, reveal a gleam of unmistakable mockery in the eye – the solid imperturbable scamp never quite tamed or chastened by the good woman, the camp prepared to play along but thinking it all pretty funny. Scotland in the eighteenth century had still its stray upheavals, was still recovering from its political and religious earthquakes: England had already recovered and was looking around for further mischief, for a further release of energy. It worked this off by acquiring an empire in the most unplanned manner in which this has ever been done; hopping from Canada to India to Australia and back more in a burst of sprits and a desire to out-gun the French than from any deep soulful mission to perpetuate a way of life. Like Andrew Napier, d. 1770, England at this epoch, though now respectably married to Scotland, had a certain unrepentant gleam in its eye.
Mark Napier, the Scottish historian, grandson of the sixth Lord Napier, when tracing the ramifications of his family, noted in his measured early nineteenth-century terms that ‘the branch of Tintinhull, older than the Critchel branch, is represented to this day in lineal male descent by a Napier, and I believe is the only branch of all the English cadences of which this can be said.’ The present incumbent, a Colonel Napier (Andrew’s elder brother), had he noted with evident satisfaction, been wounded twenty-seven times and was wholly disabled in two limbs. He paid the subscription and could be said to have joined the club.
Edward Berkley Napier, son of Andrew’s timely match, also married an heiress, another Letitia, daughter of Henry Martin [note: this appears to be an error – her name was ‘Sarah’ (1763-1798) and her father is recorded as ‘Harry’ on the MI in East Pennard church – DAN], who left them owners of the manor and lands of Pennard, and of East Pennard House, a solid Georgian mansion looking westward across the vale of Avalon. Here, rooted like comfortable oaks in this smiling country that seems forever bathed in autumnal light and glinting with the steel of Arthur’s knights, the Napier parents dearly hoped that the Napiers would solidly remain. But things rarely work out according to the dreams of parents, which is just as well, or the world would long ago have become perfectly static. Sons do not stay quiet on rich acres, in snug little businesses, or with safe hereditary manual skills, they go to Australia or Arkanas, open boutiques in the Seychelles or restaurants in the Andes, or book flights for the planets. Sometimes, aware that life is short, they live it up while the going is good, especially in times of piping peace. Gerard Berkley Napier, son of Edward and godson of a Critchel cousin and inheriting this comfortable Pennard set-up when he was quite young, made no attempt to settle, and died at the age of twenty-nine from a hunting fall, though not before he had had five children by his wife, Mary Paul. This tragic crash provoked a sharp reaction in at least one of his family. The third and youngest of these orphaned boys was Gerard John, a square chinned little boy with clear grey eyes set deep under arched brows. His father, during his brief life, had spent money like water; as far as the estate was concerned, his demise came just in time. Gerard John, born 1821 and outliving Queen Victoria by a few months, was the instigator of a changed pattern of life; as was indeed his monarch. He kept extremely careful and meticulous accounts, never overspent, and became an admiral and the father of two more [note: Edward Berkley Napier (1817-1902) became the squire of East Pennard – not Admiral G J Berkeley Napier – DAN]. The younger of these, Trev Napier, born in 1867 and serving at Jutland, was known in the Navy, on account of his remarkable height, as Long Napier [note: he was the father of Trevylyan Michael Napier, Priscilla's husband who lost his life on active service in 1940].
The disruptive forces of civilization have failed to break up the tribal; patterns of the Scots, or to unlock the chains of clan; there remains a mysterious capacity to exercise remote control over their distant cousins which is enjoyed by no other race. Separation seems unable even to affect their features, though it must have been coincidence that Gerard John, with arched brows, beak nose, and powerful jowl looked so exactly like his contemporary Lord Napier in Scotland (William John, Captain R.N., well known at the newly founded United Services Club in London for determinedly eating what he liked, whether it agreed with him or not, because he was not going to yield to a mutiny on board his craft). A common ancestry in the murk morning of recorded British history, a mutual survival from the remote Macbeth world, through five hundred years of life lived à l’outrance amongst weeping hills and the interminable winter nights of home, form a bond which time and place seem powerless to break. By 1800 the relationship between the Napiers in Scotland and the Napiers in Somerset was sufficiently remote, but even a century later they were writing to each other as Dear Kinsman and experiencing that singular cohesion; and it was in the meteoric wake of four young Merchiston Napiers, Charles, George, and William, and their first cousin, another Charles Napier, that Gerard John left the lulling fields of Avalon and went to sea in H.M.S. Racer in the spring of 1833.
He was by now as stoutly English as the next man. But the difficult country still had its pull, was still exemplar of the proposition that a tough row to hoe makes life more exhilarating; that a short life, full and merry, may be better value than a long haul of frustration and safety – was still Scotland the Brave. She was exemplar, too, of the truth that people in general, with patience and a deeply held faith whose central tenet is love, with a few human beings in every generation prepared to stick their necks out in common interest, will in time stop dropping each other down oubliettes and start inventing cures for fever; that the longest and darkest nights may sparkle with life and discovery, as well as with passion and imagination; and the black spells of the witches’ cauldron be broken by the vigour of an indefatigable hope.