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31st May 1838:
Arguments over what counts as the last battle fought on British soil can lead previously friendly historians to ghost each other. But let's pretend, just for today, that everyone agrees it was the Battle of Bossenden Wood, because that allows us to meet a man who called himself Sir William Percy Honeywood Courtenay, Knight of Malta - when he wasn't calling himself Count Moses Rothschild, or the King of the Gypsies, or the King of Jerusalem, or, indeed, the Messiah.
"I fell down from the clouds and no-one knew where I came from," he said shortly before his death, but in fact John Nichols Thom (or Tom) was born in 1799, to a couple who kept an inn at St Columb, Cornwall. After that, various sources offer mildly conflicting details of his young life, but all agree that Thom served time in prison and was committed to a lunatic asylum, while some say he became famous in the Truro area as a cricketer, and was handsome and charismatic.
In 1831, Thom disappeared while on a business trip. His wife and relatives heard nothing of him for more than a year, until word reached them of Sir William Courtenay, Heir to the Earl of Devon, who was living at an inn in Canterbury, and who was the spitting image of their missing John Thom.
Most people seem to have realised that "Sir William" was an impostor, but few seemed to care. He was an entertaining eccentric, who carried a Turkish sword named Excalibur, wore his hair and beard long, and dressed in a red velvet suit and a Tudor bonnet. He made amusing speeches against the local dignitaries, published a radical newspaper, and even stood for parliament a couple of times.
Sir William was officially a lunatic, with the paperwork to prove it, but that doesn't mean he was wrong about everything. His understanding of how a capitalist economy worked was sophisticated, and his anger at a regime openly determined to punish the poor for being poor was real. "For a country to prosper, the working classes can never have too good wages," he wrote, which was pretty much the opposite of the government's view, back then and again today. In particular, like many others at the time, he was outraged by the New Poor Law 1834, one of the most wickedly and intentionally cruel pieces of legislation ever passed by any parliament.
It was after being convicted of perjury (having appeared as a defence witness in a smuggling trial, which resulted in Sir William doing a spell in jail followed by an asylum stay of several years) that he became the Messiah.
Preaching a mixture of religious millenarianism and political revolution, he gained a considerable following of farm labourers and others in the villages around Faversham, Kent. In May 1838, he and his followers began parading around the local countryside - to what precise end is unclear - carrying a flag with a lion on it and a loaf of bread stuck on the end of a pole. (That last bit sounds a bit bonkers, but in fact a loaf held aloft is one of this country's most traditional symbols of protest against poverty and price-gouging, and should perhaps be revived now.)
Whether the villagers thought they were following Sir William, or Christ, or John Thom, they were entirely peaceful and doing no harm to anyone. But this was a time (it sometimes seems every time is a time) when the authorities lived in permanent fear of imminent revolution. The sight of a messiah, or a rabble-rouser, or just an eccentric fantasist, leading a growing band of dozens of discontents behind a loaf of bread caused official panic, and a group of special constables were sent to arrest Sir William.
When they caught up to him he was holed up with his disciples in a farmhouse at the village of Dunkirk. Sir William shot and killed one of the men sent to take him, and that, of course, moved the whole affair into a new category. The army was called in.
On May 31st, a detachment of the 45th Regiment of Foot surrounded the rebels where they had made camp in Bossenden Wood near Hernhill. On Sir William's side there stood about 40 men, all but two of them armed only with sticks. They faced around 100 experienced soldiers. The outcome of the engagement was never in doubt.
Even so, Sir William did managed to kill one officer, Lieutenant Henry Bennett, aged 29, who thus achieved the peculiar immortality of the footnote: he was the first soldier to die in the service of Queen Victoria, and (so far) the last British soldier to die on active service while in Britain.
The battle lasted only minutes, and as well as the lieutenant it left eight rebels dead, their ages ranging from 22-62, along with their leader, Sir William Percy Honeywood Courtenay, Knight of Malta. His body was displayed in a local pub, to disprove his claim to immortality. Friendly fire also killed a man connected with the magistrates.
Sixteen Courtenay followers eventually faced trial for murder. The jury found them guilty, but with a recommendation of mercy so their sentences of death were commuted: three were transported to Australia, while the rest were given one year in prison.
To this day, it's not entirely clear what the Battle of Bossenden Wood was all about. The authorities claimed to be putting down a riot, but there was never any rioting; if it was an attempt at an uprising, it wasn't much of one - a few dozen people peacefully following a loaf of bread around the country lanes. Probably it was just the old story: any slight flicker of hope that arises amongst the downtrodden must be extinguished at any cost before it sets all the fields alight.
Perish the privileged orders by Mark O'Brien (New Clarion Press, 2009)
Restless revolutionaries by Clive Bloom (History Press, 2010)