One of the main characters in The Lady’s Slipper which has just been re-released, is Richard Wheeler.
Like all my favourite characters he is determined, strong and capable, but unlike most other heroes when the novel opens he has just become a “seeker after Truth” or a Quaker. Today we tend to view the Quakers as quite conservative, but in the 1650’s when the movement began they were seen as dangerous, radical, even insane. Through the latter half of the 17th century and beyond they were persecuted for their beliefs which were seen as challenging the stranglehold supremacy of the church. Even when they fled to what was then called the New World, the persecution continued.

Richard Wheeler was brought up as the wealthy son of a landowner, but his life changed when he followed Cromwell and his parliamentary troops in the War against the King. Richard saw this as a battle for the common man and democracy, so that ordinary people could have more control over their land and property. During The Civil War the English nation tore at its own throat and the battle of brother against brother claimed thousands of lives.
cromwell-at-siege-of-basing-house
Richard fought for Cromwell against his own ruling class, but the horrific bloodshed he witnessed made him vow never to take up arms again, and led him to join the fledgling Quaker movement which had made a pledge for peace. Quaker meetings are a “sitting in silence” – but the restless man-of-action Richard finds the silent reflection both refreshing and difficult.

Above is a painting of Basing House, which  was attacked by Parliamentary troops on three occasions. The final assault came in August 1645 when 800 men took up position around the walls. Between forty and a hundred people were killed. Parliamentary troops were given leave to pillage the house and a fire finally destroyed the building. Richard Wheeeler remembers his part in the atrocities of war and wrestles with his conscience, particularly as he finds he is attracted by Alice, his artist neighbour. Not only does she have radically different religious and political views from his own, but also she is a married woman.

Becoming a Quaker – giving up his fine things to live a simpler life – leaving behind his luxurious lifestyle and fine clothes, is not nearly as easy as Richard anticipates, but harder still for an active man is the idea of “turning the other cheek” when threatened or challenged. The seventeenth century was a violent and bloodthirsty period, a period in which hangings and burnings were commonplace entertainment, and Richard is trained as a swordsman in an era where to be manly is to be able to handle oneself well in a fight. So what happens when Richard becomes locked in a bitter battle against his former childhood friend, and worse, when the life of the woman he loves is in danger? Will Richard fight to defend her, or will he stick to his Quaker vow of non-violence?

My research for Richard Wheeler took me to fields where the Civil War was fought, to the Armouries Museum at Leeds, and to libraries where I looked at Quaker journals and George Fox’s diary. Richard Wheeler’s House was based on Townend in Troutbeck, Cumbria which was built in 1645. See the picture below. Weirdly enough, after I was almost finished with the book, and thinking of writing a follow-up, I found a real Quaker called Richard Wheeler in the 17th century archive at my local library. Moments like that are spooky, and bring the past alarmingly alive in the present.

townend-4

Inside Townend, Cumbria

This post first appeared at Historical Tapestry, why not visit them to see what’s new .

Pictures from wikicommons, unless linked.

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