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Author Biography: Paul Kléber Monod is professor of history at Middlebury College and author of The Power of Kings: Monarchy and Religion in Europe, 1589-1715, published by Yale University Press.
And I want to be in Rye at twilight and lean myself by the wall of the ancient town-myself, like ancient wall and dust and sky, and the purple dusk, grown old, grown old in heart. -Malcolm Lowry to Conrad Aiken, 13 March 1929
This is the story of a violent murder that happened in 1743 in a town on the south coast of England. No mystery surrounds the identity of the killer, but his motives have never been clear. He may have been insane, he may have been possessed by devils, or he may have been seeking revenge against the leading men of the town. Whatever the explanation for his crime, he was tried very irregularly, by a judge who was brother-in-law to the murdered man and was allegedly the intended victim. After his execution, the murderer's body was put on display in a gibbet, where it was left to rot. His skull is still in the gibbet, now kept in a small upstairs room in the town hall, where it can be seen by visitors. He is one of the last British criminals of the eighteenth century who is still being punished.
This is also the story of the town where the murder happened:Rye, in East Sussex. The killing and the subsequent trial connect to broader issues in the history of the Sussex port, issues that affected other small towns in early modern England. We can see the events of 1743 as emblematic of the social and political relationships that existed in many parts of the kingdom. The isolation of Rye does not trivialize the case, because the map of early modern England was dotted with scores of little urban backwaters of which we know very little, from Lyme Regis to Cromer, Stamford to Morpeth, Kendal to Leominster. The murder may lead us to question just how detached they were from national trends. Were they stuck in a grim and impoverished past, or were they moving, along with the larger cities, into an eighteenth-century British version of social modernity, marked by the commercial values and consumer culture of the "middling sort"?
The Rye murder cannot provide a single full answer, but it can direct us towards possible answers. It is a story of personal violence and judicial vengeance. As such, it gives us access to the tensions and animosities that existed among people who jostled up against one another in the restricted space of a small urban community. It casts a harsh light on the transition from the narrowly focused community norms of the Reformation period to the more expansive ideals of a commercial society. The older values of English towns and villages stressed "good neighbourliness," which has been defined as "a mutual recognition of reciprocal obligations of a practical kind." In other words, there was a general consensus about how neighbours should behave towards one another. Good neighbourliness supposedly thrived in tight-knit, inward-looking communities like seventeenth-century Rye, where personal security depended on the support and assistance of other people. This kind of community support was notably lacking in the 1743 murder trial. We should not assume, of course, that neighbourly values were always benign. Anyone's behaviour could be closely monitored, and deviance was strictly punished, so as to promote secular and religious harmony.
By contrast, the urban values of the eighteenth century tended to emphasize what was called "civility" by some and "politeness" by others. Civility began as a courtly code of good manners, practiced by aristocrats who did not want to be associated with the "rude" or "barbarous" behaviour of the lower classes. It also separated the English, and others who claimed a connection with the culture of classical Rome, from "savages" like the Irish and North American Indians. Eventually, it became "a sign of a gentleman's membership of 'civil society,"' and was adopted by people of the middling sort-merchants, shopkeepers, tradesmen, and their families-who did not wish to be identified with the plebeian multitude. In this broader, less exclusive form it was often dubbed politeness. It rested more on the internal regulation of one's actions than on the outward approval of the community. While it was not anti-religious, politeness tended to emphasize worldly models of proper behaviour rather than the rewards and punishments of the afterlife. Because of its connections with city life and commerce, politeness has been associated with a "consumer revolution" and an "urban renaissance" in eighteenth-century England. If Rye and other small towns gloried in a polite modernity, however, we will have to explain how this was compatible with poverty, oligarchical control, and the horrors of the public scaffold or the gibbet.
This study poses some broad questions, but it has a narrow focus, and it can be called a "microhistory." Microhistories centre on a particular narrative or story, usually derived from the records of legal proceedings. The purpose of microhistory is to penetrate to an individual level of experience, so as to show how historical circumstances were felt or perceived. Microhistories therefore tend to integrate background or context into the retelling of the story. However, the legal case that is retold in this chapter does not easily lend itself to such an approach, because there is no complete first-hand narrative. If we want to understand what happened, we have to fill the gaps in the legal record by using a range of additional sources. They are sometimes confusing and often provide less information than we would like to know. Yet perhaps the tentative, fragmentary kind of history that is offered here reflects the complexity and ambiguity of human experience more closely than would a single coherent narrative, presented with the assumption that text and context, narrative and background, can be joined together in a harmonious whole. In the end, reconstructing the crime and its setting in bits and pieces, without finality or certainty, may give a truer picture of the judge, James Lamb, the victim, Allen Grebell, and John Breads, the man who brutally murdered him. It may also allow a truer picture of the contrasting textures of life in a small English town.
A Tale Sufficiently Recorded
The best way to enter Rye today is as a passenger in the little train that heaves and rattles between Hastings and Ashford. Catch the train at Hastings and you will have a glimpse of what Rye definitely is not: a sprawling, bustling Victorian seaside resort, "very gray and sober and English," in the carefully chosen words of Henry James. Beyond the narrow limits of the old town at its eastern end, Hastings is a place without pretence or mystery. For Henry James, it offered "a kind of résumé of middle-class English civilisation." Today that résumé, from the seafront parade and sweeping terraces to the cafes and jellied eel stands, may be discoloured with age and frayed at the edges, but the town still prides itself on the mixture of posh facades and low pleasures that marked the culture of leisure among the Victorian middle classes.
None of this exists at Rye. It is smaller, and stranger, and redolent not of middle-class values, but of the older culture of the middling sort, an early modern culture that elsewhere passed away with the rise of mass society. Approaching the town, you seem to leave behind the noisy legacy of the nineteenth century. The train lurches through woodlands and meadows on the eastern edge of the Weald, the isolated hill country that was famed in earlier times for iron foundries fuelled by its plentiful timber. The train finally breaks into a more open landscape, moving towards the two green bumps on the landscape that are topped by tiny Winchelsea and its bigger neighbour, Rye. Beyond them, out of sight but already in the consciousness of the expectant visitor, stretches the flat, tranquil expanse of Romney Marsh. The Marsh has largely been reclaimed from the sea, and is now dotted with farms and scattered villages. Yet it is still self-enclosed enough, still peculiar enough, to merit its old reputation as "the sixth continent."
At the junction of three great solitudes-the Weald, the Marsh, and the sea-Winchelsea and Rye defend their own terrain and their own separateness. "Little hilltop communities sensibly even yet," Henry James mused about them at the end of the nineteenth century. By then, their maritime commerce was almost dead, and it was hard to imagine that the two towns had once been thriving ports. Yet as James pointed out, "with the memory of their tight walls and stiff gates not wholly extinct, Rye and Winchelsea hold fast to the faint identity which remains their least fragile support, their estates as 'Ancient Towns.'" He meant that both were members of the exclusive medieval mercantile confederation known as the Cinque Ports, which included most of the chief harbours along the Channel coasts of East Sussex and Kent. The Charters and Customals of the Ports appointed a warden over them all, but gave each of them the right to govern itself through an assembly of freemen. Every year, the freemen elected a mayor, who chose up to twelve jurats to assist him. The mayor and jurats made ordinances for the Port; they held their own court of sessions, in which civil and criminal causes could be tried; and they sent representatives to joint meetings of the Ports, known as Brotherhoods and Guestlings. In exchange for these privileges, the Portsmen had been expected to provide fully manned ships for the king's navy, although Rye was able to avoid this onerous duty by the mid-sixteenth century. Even today, the Cinque Ports have preserved their warden, some of their ceremonies, and a strong sense of their own uniqueness. At Rye, the "faint identity" of a Cinque Port is physically enshrined in cobbled streets, black-stained warehouses, clapboard cottages, and half-timbered alehouses. The town forms what James called a "compact little pyramid ... crowned with its big but stunted church." Yet it is not simply a charming open-air museum. All of its architectural remains are vital selling-points in the tourist trade. The place is full of shops and hostelries and small businesses that cater to the "trippers." Some locals resent putting on this commercial face. The resident poet Patric Dickinson expressed contempt for the visitors, who "lurch on the cobbles / Gawping and peering"; but he knew as well as anyone that these "morons ... / Asking for Woolworths" (which, incidentally, is still open for business) have provided the life-blood for what would otherwise be an anaemic economy. Dickinson admitted the contribution of "the first tourist to settle, / Also the greatest," the American novelist and "almost-Ryer," Henry James. In 1897, James took a long lease on Lamb House, an eighteenth-century brick building that stands near the top of the hill. He revelled in the history of his house, "George the Second having passed a couple of nights there and so stamped it for ever.... Likewise the Mayors of Rye have usually lived there! Or the persons usually living there have usually become mayors!" For James, everything about Lamb House and Rye was "old-world" and safe and familiar-not unlike a nostalgic fantasy of the English ports from which the original European settlers of New England came. The precise details of his antiquarian daydream did not matter much to James, and he probably would not have been dismayed to learn that it was George I, not George II, who spent four nights in Lamb House in January 1726. In any case, he was quite right that all but one of the house's previous owners had at some time been mayors of Rye.
Although he eventually bought Lamb House and lived there until 1913, there is no evidence that Henry James was ever interested in the historical horror story connected with it: the brutal murder of Allen Grebell in 1743. His friend Ford Madox Ford turned up his nose at the local popularity of the tale, sniffing that "Rye was prouder of its murderer than of its two literary lights, [John] Fletcher and Henry James." The latter luminary never wrote about the murder in his letters nor mentioned it in his journals. It inspired no incidents or characters in his fiction. It was not, after all, a Jamesian type of story-it was too vulgar and unsubtle. Its seemingly banal motives had no resonance for the upper-middle-class psychology that was his favourite domain. Perhaps the Rye murder story also violated the feelings of safety and introspection that James tried to cultivate at Lamb House.
Surprisingly, none of Rye's many resident writers gave fictional attention to the Grebell murder-not even E. F. Benson, who succeeded Henry James as occupant of Lamb House. A lower-brow writer than James, Benson was the creator of genteel comedies, some of them set in a fictionalized Rye, and of scores of short, popular "spook stories" that appeared in the 1920s and 1930s. He penned one ghostly tale that takes place in a town near Romney Marsh, recognizable as Rye. Its main protagonist is called "James Lamp." The name is only one letter removed from that of the builder of Lamb House, James Lamb, who was brother-in-law to the murdered Allen Grebell. Benson's Lamp, however, is a servant who has shot his wife and is finally brought to justice by her ghost. As will be seen, Benson did take an interest in retelling the Grebell murder, but he passed his effort off as history, and so became responsible for perpetuating the literary fictions that have plagued later reconstructions.
Joan Aiken's 1991 novel The Haunting of Lamb House, a psychological "spook story" in the tradition of Henry James, is set in the same time period as the murdercase. Allen Grebell figures in the book (erroneously, albeit engagingly) as a much-travelled misanthrope with an Indian servant. In fact, there is no evidence that he ever left England. As for his murder, it "has been sufficiently recorded elsewhere," the narrator tells us, "so I will only allude to it briefly." Evidently, the story has become such a cliché that no self-respecting novelist would wish to rehash it today.
Who was responsible for "sufficiently recording" the tale? Anybody who visits Rye can give an answer. The murder is described in every town guidebook, from the venerable Adams' Historical Guide to Rye Royal, first published in 1934, to the glossy Rye Colour Guide. Its details also appeared in H. Montgomery Hyde's The Story of Lamb House, Rye: The Home of Henry James, which was the National Trust's guide to the house for almost thirty years after its publication in 1966. The killing was revisited in 1975 in Kenneth Clark's Murder by Mistake, a pamphlet based partly on archival sources and issued by the Rye Museum. In 1997, the story was retold in pictures by John Ryan, the famous author and illustrator of children's books. There have been many more retellings in various ephemeral forms over the past decades, including a relatively accurate stage version of the trial. Visitors today may hear the traditional story from the voiceover that accompanies the beautiful town model, or see it alluded to on the town's webpage. In short, the Rye murder is part of the experience of the place, for tourists as well as locals. Its grim memory has been attached to Lamb House, to the churchyard, to Grebell's monument within the church, and to the town hall, where the skull of the murderer Breads (or at least the top part of it) can be viewed in the gibbet-cage in which it has been kept for more than two and a half centuries. The murder has become part of the strangeness and uniqueness of Rye. It has become a powerful draw for tourists, who quickly learn about it and are usually intrigued by it. It has done a lot of financial good for the inhabitants of Rye; but it belongs to the trippers more than to the residents, and it has often been just a little embarrassing to those who value the beauty and quietude of the place.
Excerpted from The Murder of Mr. Grebell by Paul Kléber Monod Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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