I never read Ronald Welch as a child – he was writing a bit too late for me – but his historical adventure stories have a very familiar ring. In Bowman of Crécy and The Hawk I recognized with nostalgia the dashing heroes of my youth, the dastardly villains, the beautiful but distant women, the chivalry and high moral tone.
The history-based tales that gripped me in childhood didn’t teach me a great deal of history. From John Buchan’s Greenmantle (a big favourite) I got the vaguest notion of Germany’s plot during the First World War to set the Middle East ablaze. I loved the antics of Baroness Orczy’s dashing Scarlet Pimpernel but didn’t learn much about the causes of the French Revolution. C. S. Forester’s Captain Hornblower taught me to fear Napoleon, but then Conan Doyle confused the issue with his comic French hussar Brigadier Gerard.
Ronald Welch’s stories are just as exciting. But he was a history teacher, and his stories are consequently more . . . well, historical. They follow the fortunes of a fictional family, the Careys, for over seven centuries from the Crusades to the First World War. Bowman of Crécy is set during the Hundred Years’ War and is the real story of one of Edward III’s campaigns. In The Hawk you learn of political intrigue at the court of Queen Elizabeth I and the rivalry with Spain; and you get to meet Drake, Walsingham and the Virgin Queen herself.
The heroes of these two books are handsome, courageous youths who grow up to become leaders of men. Hugh Fletcher, the aptly named protagonist of Bowman of Crécy, is another Robin Hood. Head of a band of outlaws in the greenwood, he rescues comrades from the castle of a wicked lord and saves the life of a good lord (Sir John Carey) who takes him and his merry men to the wars in France. The climax is a thrilling account of the Battle of Crécy (1346, in case you’ve forgotten), after which the outlaw is knighted on the field of battle by the King.
The hero of The Hawk is Harry Carey, a young naval officer and son of an earl who wins his spurs saving his father’s merchant vessel from seizure in the Spanish port of Santander in 1584. Back in London he proves himself as a swordsman against hired assassins. At sea again on his father’s galleon, he helps capture two ‘prize’ ships carrying cargoes of sugar from Brazil. On his return he is recruited by Walsingham to scupper a Catholic plot to assassinate the Queen and put the captive Mary Stuart on the throne.
Both stories are parables of the male coming-of-age. The greenwood and shipboard represent school, duels proclaim the arrival of manhood. France and Brazil stand for the outside world, battles are career moves, and knighthood or ennoblement await as the supreme accolade for public service. Fathers (or father figures) are either stern, silent and slow to show affection like the Earl of Aubigny, or twinkleeyed and benevolent like Sir John Carey.
The author’s real name was Ronald Felton. He took his nom de plume from the Royal Welch Fusiliers, his wartime regiment, and no doubt like many of his young readers he revelled in fighting and weaponry. He gives us a gripping description of the longbow, that most English of weapons. (Who can forget the blizzard of arrows massacring the French knights at Agincourt in Olivier’s 1944 film Henry V ?) A practised archer could loose 12 arrows in a minute, and the opening volley at Crécy put 20,000 shafts into the air. The longbow was the most rapid-fire of all weapons until the invention of the magazine-loading rifle in the nineteenth century, and the most deadly. When the French knights charged, the longbowmen aimed at their horses’ chests – unsporting, but effective. ‘There was not an army in Christendom that could face such an assault,’ writes Welch.
Here is Hugh Fletcher trying out his new bow:
He felt . . . a sense of expectancy and exhilaration with the enormous power that lay in his grip. The tough Flemish string was nearly at full stretch, tugging back the thick limbs of the bow into a graceful arc . . . The bow was vibrant with pent-up energy and a suppressed sense of violent force . . . yet all of it was controlled by the delicate
touch of the fingers of his right hand.
Gradually he relaxed their grip on the string. With a deep and exultant twang the great bow exploded with a furious blast of power as it unleashed its strength, hurling the thin shaft up into the blue sky. Hugh lowered the bow and sighed with contentment.
In The Hawk we learn how ships’ cannon are cast, tested, transported and fired, how to load a wheel-lock pistol or a snap-hance musket, wield a rapier and dagger. We learn how to bow at court, and how to dress for it. Welch has a gallimaufry of Frenchified fashion terms up his sleeve: cotehardies, demi-vambraces, brigandines, jupons, brassarts, quilted gambesons and demi-jambart chaperons. But no galligaskins, I’m sorry to report.
He has a huge appetite for detail and an almost cinematic imagination which together ensure that the stories rattle believably along. He is able to create moments of high tension: his account of the English army’s struggle to escape a trap by fording the Somme at Blanchetaque before Crécy leaves the reader quite breathless.
These are old-fashioned tales in a tradition which may now look quaint to modern parents. But their children will find them hard to resist – today’s emancipated girls no less than their techno-focused brothers. Here virtue triumphs over vice; goodies overcome baddies (but are modest in victory); plots are busy and packed with action, descriptions are picture-perfect, and the historical detail is laid on like a feast. Reading them, I felt at times like a child again.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 43 © Christian Tyler 2014