J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, May 09, 2019

“It was proposed to erect a cenotaph to the President’s memory”

The quotable line “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God” comes from a tribute to John Bradshaw, the Member of Parliament who presided over the trial and death sentence of Charles I.

And the search for the origin of that epitaph has led to a statement by Jamaican planter, politician, and historian Bryan Edwards in 1793 that it was, “to my own knowledge, a modern composition.” What knowledge was Edwards referring to?

We find the answer in George Wilson Bridges’s Annals of Jamaica, published in 1828. That book quoted a letter from Edwards then “in the possession of a branch of the ancient and respectable family of the Bradshaws, who possess property at Chipping Sodbury in Gloucestershire.” (And what source is more dependable than the landed gentry of Chipping Sodbury?)
January 13th, 1775.

My dear Sir,

I have great pleasure in obeying your commands in regard to the epitaph I told you of on John Bradshaw.

The circumstances of his burial in Jamaica are said to be these. The President died in England a year before Cromwell. His son, James Bradshaw, seeing from the general spirit which began to prevail, that the restoration of the royal line would probably take place on the Protector’s death, and being well assured on that event that such of the late king’s judges as should be then living could have little hopes of safety, was apprehensive that even the grave would not protect his father’s ashes from insult; and having many friends and relatives among Cromwell’s soldiers who had lately settled in Jamaica, on the conquest of that island from the Spaniards, he embarked thither with his father’s corpse, which the soldiery on his arrival interred with great honour, on a very high hill, near a harbour now called Martha Brae, and placed a cannon on the grave by way of memorial.

James’s apprehensions were well grounded, for the parliament, on the restoration, ordered the bodies of Cromwell, Ireton, and Bradshaw to be dug up, and hung up at Tyburn,—a foolish and impotent mark of vengeance which, however, the remains of Bradshaw, through the pious care of his son, fortunately escaped. Certain it is that the body of Bradshaw could not be found in Westminster Abbey where it was supposed to be buried.

Such is the tradition which prevails in Jamaica: but though I always entertained a great respect for the memory of this distinguished person, as well as from the firmness and ability which he displayed on the king’s trial, as from his uniform conduct and steady virtue in his opposition afterwards to the tyranny of Cromwell, yet I should have treated the tradition as wholly fabulous, had not a gentleman of strict honour and veracity, now living in Jamaica, assured me, that in consequence of it he had caused a search to be made for the cannon said to be placed on the grave, which he actually found on the reputed spot.

The place is now so entirely covered with wood, that he believes no human footstep has trod there for a century past, and it is clear that a great exertion of human strength, which is seldom bestowed (voluntarily at least) in such a climate, on trivial occasions, must necessarily have been employed in placing the cannon where it lies. This gentleman found also, by searching the public records, that the land was afterwards patented in the name of James Bradshaw.

On this concurrent testimony it was proposed to erect a cenotaph to the President’s memory; and the lines which I repeated to you were intended by way of inscription, a copy of which you have herewith. I wish this account may give you satisfaction, being, with great regard, &c. &c.

Bryan Edwards.
That story shows why Edwards was confident in calling the epitaph “a modern composition,” not one from the late seventeenth century when Bradshaw was reportedly reburied on Jamaica. He had been witness to its creation.

Edwards used the passive voice to disguise who actually came up with the idea of a cenotaph and the lines to be put on it (“was proposed,” “were intended”). I suspect he was following eighteenth-century genteel etiquette and not taking credit for himself—while at the same time placing himself so close to the action that anyone could guess he was deeply involved.

I’m not the first to reach that conclusion. In Monumental Inscriptions of the British West Indies from the Earliest Date (1875), J. H. Lawrence-Archer called the lines a “spurious epitaph, written by the historian, Edwards.” But American historians have credited the epitaph to Benjamin Franklin.

TOMORROW: Going deeper into Edwards’s 1775 letter.

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