OK, So Who Did Kill Cock Robin?

440px-Death_and_Burial_of_Poor_Cock_Robin_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_17060A few weeks ago, my friend and (sadly ex-)colleague @elleccollins tweeted a picture of the remarkable Victorian editor, controversialist and Shakespeare scholar James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps thumbing his nose at ‘the idiots who ask me to resume literary studies’. He could equally have been communicating with his father-in-law …

An unusual pose for a Victorian ...

An unusual pose for a Victorian …

I mentioned a few weeks ago in the context of ‘my’ robin (offspring’s breast is now turning orange, but he/she still requires to be fed) that the ballad of who killed Cock Robin turned out to be fraught with coincidence, of which the aforementioned tweet is but a part.

I first came across Halliwell (as he was then) quite early in the last stage of my full-time working life, as a famous Victorian Shakespearean scholar, and one of a number of legatees in the nineteenth century who had changed his name in order to inherit a fortune – though in his case the process of obtaining said fortune was more tortuous than just joining his wife’s name to his with the aid of a hyphen.

The village of Buckland (in Gloucestershire, but close to the Worcestershire border) lays claim to be the oldest rectory in England (and it is likely that the building was originally the manor house). From 709, the village was owned by the abbey of St Peter’s, Gloucester, but, post-Dissolution, in 1546 the manor was acquired by Sir Richard Gresham (father of the more famous Sir Thomas, of the Royal Exchange and Gresham College), whose son-in-law was the remarkably acquisitive Sir John Thynne, formerly a humble steward to Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset (brother of Queen Jane Seymour, Lord Protector of the child king Edward VI, executed for treason in 1552), but later the builder of Longleat and ancestor of the Marquesses of Bath.

In the 1790s, the Thynne family sold the manor to Thomas Phillipps, a Manchester textile manufacturer, and son of a Broadway farmer, who returned to his roots as a landowner and magistrate, dying in 1818, and passing on a very large inheritance to his (illegitimate) son, also Thomas (created 1st Baronet, of Middle Hill in the County of Worcester, in 1821).

Middle Hill House in the early nineteenth century.

Middle Hill House in the early nineteenth century.

As so often seems to happen, the hard-working father accumulated the wealth, and the ‘gentleman’ son spent it – not in any overtly dissolute way, but in the acquisition of manuscripts and printed books. He is believed to have accumulated the largest individual collection ever ­– 60,000 manuscripts and 40,000 books – and apparently coined a new word, ‘vello-mania’, to describe his own subspecies of bibliomania.

Sir Thomas Phillipps. c. 1863.

Sir Thomas Phillipps. c. 1863.

He even published his own catalogues, essays and commentaries on a printing press he had set up in Broadway Tower (a folly conceived by Capability Brown and designed by James Wyatt for Lady Coventry, chatelaine of Croome Court, whose husband was one of Brown’s earliest patrons).

Barbara, countess of Coventry, by Angelica Kauffmann (c. 1800).

Barbara, countess of Coventry, by Angelica Kauffmann (c. 1800).

She had wanted to know, apparently, whether the hill (which was the traditional site of celebratory or warning beacons) could be seen from Worcester, about 22 miles away – and the tower can. After Sir Thomas’s time, the tower was let out to walkers and holiday-makers: Morris and Burne-Jones stayed in the 1880s, and it was allegedly one of the quirky piles which inspired Morris to set up the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

Broadway_Tower_2012

Broadway Tower today.

Phillipps became, unsurprisingly and very quickly, deep in debt: it is a sad irony that the usual cure for this – going abroad and living cheaply – was disastrous to a vello-maniac, because of all the European nobility, ruined by the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath, trying to sell off the family heirlooms (including libraries) to the victorious British. Not only that, but his shrewd father, who had been dismayed at his impudence in marrying a delightful woman with no dowry, had left him only a life interest in the estate, which was to pass on his death to his elder daughter, Henrietta – and so, effectively, to the man she married.

It was unfortunate for Sir Thomas that he introduced the viper into his family bosom himself. The 18-year-old undergraduate Halliwell had written to him on a point of bibliography, and provided him with information on Cambridge libraries; Phillipps printed Halliwell’s catalogue of scientific manuscripts. One thing led to another, and the penniless Halliwell was invited to stay at Middle Hill, where he promptly fell in love with the heiress.

James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, c. 1860.

James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, c. 1860.

Phillipps forbade the match, falling out with Halliwell’s father over the dowry (!) and objecting to a Catholic son-in-law, but Henrietta was of age: the couple eloped, lived happily ever after and had four daughters, while Phillipps spent the rest of his life trying to prevent his son-in-law ever having access to his collection. Eventually, he moved to a huge house in Cheltenham – it took two years for all the books to be moved over by carriers’ carts – where he continued to amass works and correspond with like-minded friends though his style was later cramped by falling from a library ladder.

Thirlestaine House, Cheltenham, which became the centre of vello-mania.

Thirlestaine House, Cheltenham, which became the epicentre of the vello-mania.

On his death in 1872, his daughter and her husband inherited the estate (considerable  work for the lawyers was inevitably involved), and hyphenated their name: the books and manuscripts (kept firmly out of the clutches of the now James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps) were sold off over the next eighty years or so (!). But what, you may reasonably ask, has all this to do with the death of Cock Robin?

Amazingly enough, the ancient Buckland rectory contains fifteenth-century stained glass including (it is claimed) a picture of Poor Cock Robin pierced by an arrow.

The central diamond shows a bird with an arrow in its chest.

The central diamond shows a bird with an arrow in its chest. Is the bird on the right the Sparrow?

The white rose and the sun in splendour date the windows to the reign of Edward IV.

The white rose and the sun in splendour date the windows to the reign of Edward IV.

This has been disputed by Anthony Emery, in Volume 3 of his authoritative Greater Medieval Houses of England and Wales, 1300– 1500, where he suggests that all the birds depicted are woodcocks, two of them carrying scrolls saying ‘In nomine Jesu’. However, the outstanding feature of the woodcock is its very long beak, which none of the birds here display.

The woodcock, by Thomas Bewick.

The woodcock, by Thomas Bewick.

It seems fairly certain that the glass was installed by one William Grafton, the rector from 1466 to 1483, as his name is at the bottom and one pane contains his rebus:

The Grafton rebus: a tree grafted on to a barrel (or tun).

The Grafton rebus: a tree grafted on to a barrel (or tun).

Since the woodcock is supposed to be brainless, it seems strange for a presumably fairly learned rector to choose it?

The bird windows, with the arms of St Peter's abbey, Gloucester.

The bird windows, with the arms of St Peter’s abbey, Gloucester. (These images come from the CVMA website.)

You may argue that the Cock Robin link is a fairly tenuous one on which to hang a complicated tale of Victorian bibliographical and familial disputes: so here, finally, is the longest version of the ancient poem (there is an illustrated version here), as published about 1770:

Who killed Cock Robin?/I, said the Sparrow,/with my bow and arrow,/I killed Cock Robin.

Who saw him die?/I, said the Fly,/with my little eye,/I saw him die.

Who caught his blood?/I, said the Fish,/with my little dish,/I caught his blood.

Who’ll make the shroud?/I, said the Beetle,/with my thread and needle,/I’ll make the shroud.

Who’ll dig his grave?/I, said the Owl,/with my little shovel,/I’ll dig his grave.

Who’ll be the parson?/I, said the Rook,/with my little book,/I’ll be the parson.

Who’ll be the clerk?/I, said the Lark,/if it’s not in the dark,/I’ll be the clerk.

Who’ll carry the link?/I, said the Linnet,/I’ll fetch it in a minute,/I’ll carry the link.

Who’ll be chief mourner?/I, said the Dove,/I mourn for my love,/I’ll be chief mourner.

Who’ll carry the coffin?/I, said the Kite,/if it’s not through the night,/I’ll carry the coffin.

Who’ll bear the pall?/We, said the Wren,/both the cock and the hen,/We’ll bear the pall.

Who’ll sing a psalm?/I, said the Thrush,/as she sat on a bush,/I’ll sing a psalm.

Who’ll toll the bell?/I said the Bull/because I can pull,/I’ll toll the bell.

All the birds of the air/fell a-sighing and a-sobbing,/when they heard of the death/of poor Cock Robin.

cock-robin

In some versions, the Sparrow is convicted of the murder and hanged; the ‘bull’ may in fact be a bullfinch rather than the quadruped, and the whole poem may tell us something about period/dialect pronunciation through the rhymes (beetle/needle, thrush/bush, and especially owl/shovel). But there appears to be no doubt that it was Sparrow Wot Done It!

Caroline

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This entry was posted in Art, Bibliography, Biography, History, Literature, Printing and Publishing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to OK, So Who Did Kill Cock Robin?

  1. Pingback: Idiots | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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