Sunday, March 23, 2008

'Comus' in the West Country, 1642

These are fairly full excerpts from the little pamphlet, A blazing starre seen in the west at Totneis in Devonshire, on the foureteenth of this instant November, 1642. VVherin is manifested how master Ralph Ashley, a deboyst cavalier, attemted to ravish a young virgin, the daughter of Mr. Adam Fisher, inhabiting neare the said towne. Also how at that instant, a fearefull comet appeared, to the terrour and amazment of all the country thereabouts. Likewise declaring how he persisting in his damnable attemt, was struck with a flaming-sword, which issued from the comet, so that he dyed a fearefull example to al his fellow cavaliers.

Our Alice Egerton is a ‘young Virgine, Daughter to Master Adam Fisher’. Young Mistress Fisher lived a mile outside Totnes, and on Monday 14th November 1642 she went into the town, ‘where being busied, partly about her occasions, and partly in visiting some Friends and Kinsfolkes, she was belated’.

But she was determined to head home, rather than be out without her Father’s leave, and ‘the times being so dangerous, and so many Cavaliers abroad’. The relatives try to dissuade her, saying the ‘deboyst Cavaliers’ make it dangerous enough trying to travel by day, still worse at night. But she says ‘God was above the Devill, and that she feared not, but that God which she trusted in, could, and would defend her from all her Enemies.

So we enter on her scene of nocturnal trial: ‘before she could get the halfe of the way to her fathers house it grew very darke, so that she could scarce discerne her hand, thus she went on, sometimes listening whether she could heare any Body … on a sudden she heard the noyse of a Horse galloping towards her, at which she beganne to be afraid. But at last she plucked up a good heart…’

She has met Ralph Ashley, ‘a Gentleman which knew her well, and she knew him…’ Notice that the narrative shuffles a little here: the villain will be firmly cast as a Cavalier in our author’s polemic. He is actually a local gentleman, and not one of the Ralph Hopton’s cavalier soldiery in the West Country, but his status makes him a near enough match for propaganda purposes. They are in the dark, so he cannot recognize her outright, and has to call to mind rather than see her youthful prettiness: ‘he asked her whether she was going so late, she told him home to her fathers, he demanded who that was, she told him Master Adam Fisher, with that he called to mind her beauty, and the Devill strait furnished him with a device to obtain his wicked purpose.’

As in Comus, the wicked tempter at first pretends friendship and assistance: ‘Sweet heart quoth he I know thy father well, and for his sake I will see thee safe at thy fathers House, for the times are dangerous, and but a little before there are soldiers which I have cause to suspect, will do the some outrage.’

All is set for the central scene of the drama, and for heaven’s intervention: trusting him at first, she gets up behind him on the horse, but he then goes off the way, claiming it is to avoid the soldiers. Feigning an excuse, he then dismounts, and lays hands on her:

‘and began to woo her to grant his desire, but she denying him with unlimited resolution, he went about to ravish her, taking a grievous oath that no power in heaven or earth could save her from his lust, with that the poore virgin, with pittious shrikes and cries spake these words O lord God of Hosts, tis in thy power to deliver me, help Lord or I perish, in the meane time he continued cursing and swearing that her prayers were in vaine, for there was no power could redeeme her, these words were no sooner uttered, but immediately a fearefull Commet burst out in the ayre, so that it was as light as at high noone, this sudden apparition struck him and all the inhabitants into a great feare, and the poore virgin was intranced, the wretch casting his eye about and seeing her lye upon the ground as if he had meant to dare damnation tooke a great oath swearing God damme-him, alive or dead he would injoy her.

And as he was going about to lay hands of (sic) her intranced Body, A streame of fire strucke from the Comet, in the perfect shape and exact resemblance of a flaming Sword, so that he fell downe staggering, severall poore shepherds which were in the field, foulding their flockes, these being amazed, seeing the flame of the Comet strike at the Earth, as they conceived, made to the place as neere as they could, where they heard a man blaspheming, and belching forth many damnable imprecations, and coming to the place, demanded how he came so wounded, he voluntarily related his intention, and what had happened to him by the perverseness of that Round-headed-whore, so he died raving and blaspheming to the terrour and amazement of the beholders.

The men presently tooke up the Maid supposing she had been dead, and carried her home to her fathers House, where they were entertained though with great sorrow for their daughters supposed death, the maid having continued intranced thus almost all that night, at length she began to draw her breath, and when she came to her selfe, the very first words that she spake were these, Lord thou art Just in thy Judgments and mercifull in the midst of they justice, wherefore beseech thee let not this sinne be imputed to his Charge, in the day of Judgment.’

Our author has no doubt what happened, and what it means: ‘Reader heare is a president for all those that are customary blasphemers, and live after the lusts of their flesh, especially all those Cavaliers which esteem murder & rapine the chiefe Principalls of their religion.

But what did happen? “Let not this sin be imputed to his Charge”, says our heroine when she decides the time is right to come out of her trance. I think it is quite likely that there was a ‘comet’. The night of November 14th is right for the Leonids, and the dark night offered perfect viewing conditions. There was a bright light in the sky, and a descending fireball. In that moment of consternation, Mistress Fisher manages to strike Master Ashley with something sharp. He had maybe taken off his sword ready for untrussing himself (as they used to say). She wounds him mortally (dying, he blames her), and is overcome, or resumes her faint. Her religious schooling provides her with the full alternate narrative, for it was a kind of sword from heaven, after all. By the time she emerged from her trance at home, a thrilling confrontation between a blasphemer and herself as virtuous and God-fearing maid was ready for consumption, and found a ready audience.

I do not mean to be cynical about this: he was about to rape her. It is just about conceivable that he was the one human casualty of a meteor strike ever recorded, but it is likelier that he died another way.

Devon was not royalist. Ending the 1642 campaigning season, the battle of Turnham Green had been fought west of London on the day before Mistress Fisher fought off Master Ashley. Ralph Hopton’s men in the West Country would not have known it, but the King’s best chance to end the war with a speedy victory had just gone.

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