Berkhamsted Castle | J.R. Crawford: Berkhampsted Castle, an Historical Reverie

Berkhamsted Castle

J.R. Crawford: Berkhampsted Castle, an Historical Reverie

John Robert Crawford was the headmaster of Berkhamsted School from 1850 to 1864 (preceding Edward Bartrum and Charles Henry Greene, father of Graham Greene).

In 1861, he published an elegaic poem, Berkhampsted Castle, an Historical Reverie. It consists of 68 stentimnetal stanzas which consider the decayed, overgrown state of the Castle ruins.

I sit alone on the Castle-mound
And muse in silence on its slow decay.
A tranquil melancholy reigns around,
And o’er my soul asserts its thoughtful sway.

The early stanzas make reference to several historical features of the Castle detailed by Rev. J. W. Cobb, such as the dernegate and the Painted Chamber, and these features initiate the poet’s “Historical Reverie” as his mind drifts back in time. The narrator entertains a romanticised vision of historical figures in procession: woad-covered Saxon warriors and druids, Edward the Confessor, the relics of St Alban, William of Normandy , Saint Thomas Becket, Richard of Cornwall, Edmund of Almain, Edward the Black Prince and Cecily Neville.

New changes speed up on the wings of time,
And Cornwall’s Earl lives here in princely state:
Riches unmatched in this or other clime
His only claim to rank among the great.

In the final stanzas, as the vision fades, the narrator mourns their passing and returns to the Castle ruins of the late 19th century, where young men of the Berkhamsted Bowmen practice their archery. Death, he concludes, looms over us all, but continuity of life through history points to a greater hope of eternal life after death.

In his preface, Crawford outlines his intention that his “sketched” scenes are “published in the hope that those who live near, or casually visit such venerable relics of antiquity, instead of viewing them in idle or vacant curiosity, may entertain sentiments somewhat in accordance with the genius of the place.”  Despite his many references to antiquity, Crawford makes no pretence at historical precision, instead directing the reader to Cobb’s History and Antiquities of Berkhamsted “if any desire a more accurate knowledge of the subject”.

Readers of the original edition of the poem will notice that Crawford insists on making use of the “Long S”, ſ — for example, “muſe in ſilence”. This is an archaic form of the lower case letter “s”, a style of orthography you might expect to see in Shakespeare, but one that had fallen out of use by the early 19th century. Crawford’s inclusion of this old lettering is perhaps a rather historiologically contrived device to lend his writing additional gravitas by making it seem old. In that respect, it is a thoroughly Victorian work, immersed in a highly romanticised vision of Olde England.

The publication also mentions some notable names of Victorian Berkhamsted. There is a poetic dedication to Lieutenant General The Hon. John Finch, C.B., resident at the time of Berkhamsted Place — “Tenant of yon mansion on the hill/Built from the ruins of these Castle walls”. The book is published by a local bookseller and printer on Castle Street, John Greedy. Rev. J.W. Cobb, local historian and Rector of St Peter’s Church, is also mentioned in the preface. And at the end of the book, there is an advertisement for another work by Crawford, a transcription of The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, printed by another Berkhamsted publisher, Longmans.

Today, Crawford, Greedy, Cobb and Longman all lie buried in Rectory Lane Cemetery, the historic Victorian burial ground behind the Rex Cinema in Berkhamsted.  General Finch is not here (he was buried at Packington Hall in Warwickshire), but the grave of his widow Katherine is in Rectory Lane Cemetery.


Further reading

Two Lectures on the History and Antiquities of Berkhamsted
Rev John Wolstenholme Cobb
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