Monday, 19 March 2018

Caversham Heights Society

THE society opened its 2016/17 season on September 21 with an interesting and rather detailed

THE society opened its 2016/17 season on September 21 with an interesting and rather detailed talk by John Brierley on “The Verney family of Claydon in Buckinghamshire — a story of love, war and madness in the Civil War”.

At least that was the title that was billed for the evening. In fact, it was much more a commentary on the tumultuous period of social and religious upheaval in England in the 17th century with the story of the Verney family loosely set against this background.

The talk was detailed and informative and was based on considerable research. It was also laced with humour and insights into, and comments on, English society at that time.

What was striking was that while historians are aware of the lives of the higher echelons in society — the monarchy, nobility, aristocracy and the top clergy — remarkably little is known about the lives of the common people, the “freeborn Englishmen” and yeomen.

The 17th century was essentially a time of political and religious upheaval, especially between 1640 and 1660, which saw the Civil War, the execution of Charles I (1649) and the Commonwealth Parliament under Oliver Cromwell.

While it was a period of antagonism against the monarchy and nobility, especially the bishops, and there was regicide against Charles I, amazingly the country never descended into the anarchy such as led to the French Revolution.

It could so easily have done so because there was a very clear social hierarchy where five per cent of the population, who had the wealth and power, controlled the 95 per cent and because men clearly dominated society, although Mr Brierley did cite examples of women who showed remarkable courage and determination in difficult circumstances.

Out of a population of about five million, 100,000 were either killed or injured during the Civil War and another one million lived on charity.

The changes that began included the creation of the Royal Society in 1660 and other scientific organisations, the creation of banks and the building of great houses for the landed gentry.

Many of these houses were destroyed in the Fifties and Sixties until the National Trust and English Heritage stepped in to preserve them for the nation.

It was also a time of great diarists such as John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys and following the Plague and Great Fire of London (1664-66) we saw the rise of a merchant class and the beginnings of social mobility and political parties.

We know so much about what was happening because of the Verney family. They were granted Claydon House by King John (1165-1216) and were given even more land by Edward IV (1367-1413).

As a family, they were involved in numerous battles, for example, Sir Edward Verney was the royal standard bearer who lost his life at the battle of Edgehill in 1642, but by and large they were more of an “in-between” family who sought to improve the lot of their tenants and employees rather than seek higher status through the royal court.

We know this because of the findings of Sir Henry Verney who inherited the Claydon estate in 1827 and found more than 100,000 family documents dating back to the 14th century and 30,000 letters that were written during the three years of the Civil War, the equivalent to 60 letters a week.

Among these papers were diaries and details of debates in Parliament, strictly forbidden but a mine of information to future historians as well as social commentaries on the times.

While the talk was at times difficult to follow it was nevertheless a fascinating talk for a historian.

The society meets on alternate Wednesdays at 7pm for 8pm in Caversham Heights Methodist Church hall in Highmoor Road. Visitors and new members are always welcome. For more information, call Carol Cozens on 0118 946 1509 or email rooster10@btinternet. com or call Jill Hodges on 0118 959 5307 or email

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