TRIAL FOR HIGH TREASON. 1803—4. [ÆT. 46—47]
HIGH visions and patient industry, friendly intercourse with his neighbours, happy enjoy¬ment of nature, were all interrupted for Blake in the autumn of 1803, by an incongruous event in a peaceful and innocent life. One day in August, a drunken soldier,—probably from the barracks at Aldwick or Chichester,—broke into the little slip of garden fronting the painter’s sequestered cottage, and was there as violent and unruly as is the wont of drunken soldiers to be. He refused to go. The red-coat was a great hulking fellow, the artist of short stature, but robust, well knit, with plenty of courage and capable of a supernatural energy, as it were, on occasions. In his exasperation, he laid hold of the intrusive blackguard, and turned him out neck and crop, in a kind of inspired frenzy, which took the ma aback, and fairly frightened him; such volcanic wrath being a novelty in his experience. ‘I do not know how I did it, but I did it,’ said Blake, afterwards; and was himself disposed to attribute his success to that demoniac or spiritual will by stress of which, he believed, a man might achieve anything physical.
In the course of the scuffle, while blows were being exchanged, angry words passed of course; the red-coated bully vapouring that ‘he was the king’s soldier,’ and so forth. ‘Damn the king, and you too,’ said Blake, with pardonable emphasis—a not unnatural reply, perhaps. But the event proved it to be an imprudent outburst, even as late as 1803. The soldier, bent on revenge, out of Blake’s hasty words, made
up a story, and got a comrade to bear him out, that his rough host had been guilty of seditious language. The sequel forcibly reminds us we are here in the times of ‘the good old king,’ not in those of Victoria. The soldier and ‘his mate’ made their charge on oath before a magistrate, and Blake had to stand his trial for high treason at the next Quarter Sessions.
Hayley, full of zeal for the artist, whose extraordinary entanglement ‘pressed not a little on his mind and heart,’ engaged, as defendant’s counsel, his friend, Samuel Rose, another name familiar to the reader of Cowper’s corre¬spondence, as that of the enthusiastic young Scotchman, who, at twenty-two, had introduced himself to the shy recluse, winning a large share of the poet’s regard and favour. Now in his thirtieth year, he had been about eight years at the bar, practising with fair success on the home circuit. Prospects of a brilliant future were only dashed by wavering health,—a constitution unequal to the strain of his profession. On that sunken rock, how many struggling in the same arduous career,—often those of brightest promise, of finest nature,—have been wrecked, almost at the outset; not great and famous, but nameless and unremembered.
A few days before the impending trial, Hayley met with an accident, which very nearly prevented his attending to give evidence in his protégé’s favour. It was of a kind, however, to which he was pretty well accustomed. A per¬severing and fearless rider, he was in the eccentric habit of using an umbrella on horseback, to shade his eyes; the abrupt unfurling of which was commonly followed, naturally enough, by the rider’s being forthwith pitched on his head. He had on this occasion lighted on a flint with more than usual violence; owing his life, indeed, to the opportune shield of a strong, new hat. ‘Living or dying,’ however, he declares to his doctor, ‘he must make a public appear¬ance, within a few days, at the trial of our friend Blake.’ And on the appointed day he did appear in Court, to speak to the character and habits of the accused.
The trial came off at Chichester, 11th January, 1804, at the Quarter Sessions; the Duke of Richmond (the radical, not the corn-law duke) being the presiding magistrate. The sessions were held, in those days, in the Guildhall, which is the shell of a Gothic building, having been formerly the chancel, of early English date, to the old church of the Grey Friars convent. The fragmentary chancel and the Friary grounds are still extant just within what used to be the city walls, at the north-east corner of the cheerful old cathedral town.
Reference obligingly made for me by the present editor, to the file of the Sussex Advertiser, at that date the only Sussex newspaper, discovers a report (16th January, 1804) of this singular trial, one its inditer little thought would ever become curious and interesting. The report is after the curt fashion of local journals in those backward days. ‘William Blake, an engraver at Felpham, was tried on a charge exhibited against him by two soldiers, for having uttered seditious and treasonable expressions, such as “D—n the King, d—n all his subjects, d—n his soldiers, they are all slaves; when Bonaparte comes, it will be cut-¬throat for cut-throat, and the weakest must go the wall; I will help him; &c. &c.’
Mrs. Blake used afterwards to tell how, in the middle of the trial, when the soldier invented something to support his case, her husband called out ‘False!’ with character¬istic vehemence, and in a tone which electrified the whole court, and carried conviction with it. Rose greatly ex¬erted himself for the defence. In his cross-examination of the accuser, he ‘most happily exposed,’ says Hayley, ‘the falsehood and malignity of the charge, and also spoke very eloquently for his client,’ though, in the midst of his speech, seized with illness, and concluding it with difficulty. Blake’s neighbours joined Hayley in giving him the same character of habitual gentleness and peace-ableness; which must have a little astonished the soldier, after his peculiar experiences of those qualities. A good deal of the
two soldiers’ evidence being plainly false, the whole was received with suspicion. It became clear that whatever the words uttered, they were extorted in the irritation of the moment by the soldier’s offensive conduct.
‘After a very long and patient hearing,’ the Sussex Advertiser continues, ‘he was by the jury acquitted; which so gratified the auditory that the court was, in defiance of all decency, thrown into an uproar by their noisy exulta¬tions. The business of the aforegoing Sessions,’ it is added, ‘ owing to the great length of time taken up by the above trials’ (Blake’s and others), ‘was extended to a late hour on the second day, a circumstance that but rarely happens in the western division’ of the county. ‘The Duke of Richmond sat the first day from ten in the morn¬ing till eight at night, without quitting the court, or taking any refreshment.’
Great was Hayley’s satisfaction. ‘It was late in the evening,’ writes he to Johnson, and ‘I was eager to pre¬sent the delivered artist to our very kind and anxious friend, the lady of Lavant, Mrs. Poole.’ The friendly welcome and social evening meal which followed all this frivolous vexation and even peril, the pleasant meeting in the cheerful hospitable house of the venerable lady, we can picture. Her house, in which Blake often was, yet stands, somewhat altered, by the wayside to the right as you enter the hamlet of Mid Lavant, ten minutes’ drive from Chichester; at the back, pleasant grounds slope down to the babbling Lavant brook, with a winding road beside it, across which rise other pleasant wooded slopes, and beyond, the solemn, rounded Downs,—in this part bare of trees; among them, to the right, Goodwood, and that specially conspicuous hill, the Trundle (or St. Roche’s). The ‘peerless villa,’ Hayley used to call it; everything of his, or of his friends, being more or less extraordinary and romantic. The lady herself was a woman respected far and wide, sociable, cheerful, and benevolent. She is still remembered in those parts, though none of her
kin remain there. ‘Ah! good creature!’ exclaimed an infirm old labourer but the other day, on hearing mention of her name; he had worked for her. She died at a ripe age, suddenly, while dining among her friends at the Bishop’s palace, a little more than three years after Blake’s trial.
Poor Rose,—defendant’s counsel,—never rallied from the illness which attacked him on that day. The ‘severe cold’ proved the commencement of a rapid consumption, of which he died at the close of the same year; sorrowful Hayley effervescing into an ‘epitaph in the middle of the night.’
Not ten years before, quiet literary men and shoemakers, theoretic enthusiasts such as Home Tooke the learned and witty, Holcroft, Thelwall, Hardy, members of a correspond¬ing society—society corresponding with ‘ the friends of liberty’ abroad that is—had been vindictively prosecuted by the Crown for (constructive) high treason, and almost convicted. At this very time, men were being hung in Ireland on such trivial charges. Blake’s previous intimacy with Paine, Holcroft, and the rest, was doubtless unknown to an unlettered soldier, and probably at Chichester also. But as a very disadvantageous antecedent, in a political sense, of which counsel for the prosecution might have made good use, it was, in connexion with this vamped-up charge, a curious coincidence. Friend Hayley himself was not a very orthodox man in politics or religion, a Whig at the least, a quondam intimate of Gibbon’s, admirer of Voltaire and Rousseau; holding, in short, views of his own. He was a confirmed absentee, moreover, from church, though an exemplary reader, to his household, of Church-service, and sermon, and family prayer, winding up with devotional hymns of his own composition.
Blake used to declare the Government, or some high person, knowing him to have been of the Paine set, ‘sent the soldier to entrap him’; which we must take the liberty of regarding as a purely visionary notion.