In the endlessly wet, cold, dark days of last January, when hibernation seemed the only possible option, I was given the perfect book to escape into – a children’s book as it happened. Reading it brought back to me the old sofa in an upstairs room where I used to go and curl up as a child and dream myself back into other times and places. I realize now that it was from the children’s authors I read then, rather than anything I learned in the classroom, that I connected with English history. They lit up my imagination. During those endless afternoons I was the lonely Roman soldier on Hadrian’s Wall dreaming of home, the medieval peasant in his hut in the forest, the little girl living near the docks in Tudor London, catching her first glimpse of the great ship Mary Rose.
So last winter I found myself back in the twelfth century, jogging along a scorching red dirt road in the company of Philip d’Aubigny, a young squire raised in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem – the narrow and dangerously exposed strip on the Mediterranean coast then still held by the Christian families who had stayed on in the Holy Land after the First Crusade. Times were perilous. Saladin had managed to unite the Turks and was preparing for a Holy War against Outremer – the land ‘across the sea’ as it was known in the Europeans’ Norman French.
The book that had me so gripped was Knight Crusader, the first in a series of twelve childen’s novels which follow the story of one family from the Crusades to the First World War, written between 1954 and 1972 by a schoolmaster whose pen name was Ronald Welch. It was no surprise to me to learn that Knight Crusader – which follows Philip’s adventures as he is caught up in the struggle against Saladin – had won the Carnegie Medal for the most outstanding children’s book of 1954. My only surprise was to discover that the entire series was now out of print.
I found I wasn’t alone. The Internet was full of Welch fans demanding to know why they couldn’t buy copies of the books for their children and grandchildren at reasonable prices. ‘Some publisher should try again with Welch’s wonderful list’ wrote someone who remembered devouring the books in the ‘cold basement’ of the children’s library in Croydon Town Hall. ‘What’s the hold-up? Why isn’t someone reprinting him?’ queried another who believed it was Knight Crusader that had propelled him into a lifelong love of the Middle Ages (continuing, rather intriguingly, ‘To him I owe my sword scar, the battered armour in the hall cupboard, and the much-notched collection of blades in the bucket in the corner of my study’). A history teacher, a museum curator, a school librarian who had loved the books as a girl, all wrote touchingly about the influence Welch had had on them.
Ronald Welch sounded like an author who was just too good to miss, and so it proved. Before we were even halfway through the annals of the Carey family we were totally hooked, and in the spring we took a deep breath and decided to reissue the whole series and to include their original illustrations. We’re starting now with three titles – Knight Crusader, The Galleon and For the King – and we’ll add another three each year until 2016.
Though the books weren’t written in chronological order, put together they join up the dots of English history in a remarkably vivid way. The Careys of Llanstephan – descendants of young Philip d’Aubigny who we meet in the first volume – are a distinguished Welsh landowning family, so they’re involved in all the significant events of their times. A Carey is at the Battle of Crécy (Bowman of Crécy) and another helps foil a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth (The Hawk). The Battle of Blenheim (Captain of Dragoons), Wolfe’s victory at Quebec (Mohawk Valley), the French Revolution (Escape from France), the Peninsular War (Captain of Foot), the Crimea (Nicholas Carey), the Indian Mutiny (Ensign Carey) and the First World War (Tank Commander) – in each volume a Carey is in the thick of it.
Ronald Welch was a consummate storyteller and the books all have gripping and credible plots, but perhaps the greatest pleasure of them is in the detail. Welch clearly did exhaustive research but he wears it lightly. I now know, among many other things I didn’t know before, how the kind of longbow used at the Battle of Crécy was made and strung, why a Civil War soldier preferred a screw-barrel to a flint-lock pistol, and the precise accoutrements of a Crusader in full fighting gear, with gambeson, hauberk and chausses.
‘I’ll carry the helm for you, my lord,’ Llewellyn said; for no knight put on the ponderous steel helmet that covered his head until the last possible moment.
‘I’ll have the shield now,’ Philip said.
Shields, like hauberks, had changed lately. They were smaller and more triangular in shape, made from well-seasoned wood, and covered with tough leather. A strap was passed over Philip’s shoulder, and then clipped to the inside of the shield. There were grips too, for the left hand, but the shoulder strap gave a man an additional safeguard if his arm grew tired, or if he was in danger of dropping his guard and exposing himself to attack.
And you know just how it feels to be a crusading knight in armour in the scorching Middle East sun, face covered with steel, streams of perspiration running down nose and cheeks beneath the helm, your body ‘one burning mass of heat’.
Running like a thread through each novel is the family’s love for Llanstephan, their estate on the Welsh coast. In Knight Crusader Philip, who has grown up far away in the parched Holy Land, knows of its existence and is entranced to hear, from an English pilgrim, more of this distant country where his own grandfather had lived before setting out on crusade, and to which Philip himself will eventually return to found a new branch of the Carey family.
‘England is a green country, my lord,’ Walter said. ‘Grey mists, soft rain, even in the summer. The trees are everywhere, heavy with leaf, and the valleys are deep and moist. Even the hillsides themselves are green. I wish you could see an English wood as I have, my lord, on a summer’s day, when the wild flowers are in bloom, and you can hear the bees at their work.’
The Galleon, set in 1583, introduces Robert Penderyn, a penniless Carey cousin who, after killing a man in a duel, escapes reprisal by becoming a Lieutenant aboard the Swan, which is about to set sail from Swansea with a cargo for Santander. Though England and Spain are officially at peace, in reality the two countries are engaged in a trade war and the English never know when they may fall foul of the port authorities or the dreaded Inquisition.
In For the King, the story has reached 1642 and Neil Carey, a slight, sensitive, self-effacing young man, is reluctantly setting out to fight on the royalist side in the regiment of stalwart Welshmen that his father has raised. By now the family has abandoned the cold draughty castle to which Philip returned, and built a new Hall at Llanstephan, with formal gardens and comfortable oak-panelled rooms. This is the place home-loving Neil dreams of as he marches through an England riven by civil war.
It’s hard to do justice to the rich historical tapestry Ronald Welch has created in these books, with their vivid evocations of England at various periods – the deep glades of the ancient forest where the outlawed bowman lives who follows Sir John Carey to France in Bowman of Crécy; the dangerous, unsignposted roads that confront travellers at the time of the Civil War. And not just England, but Europe and the battlegrounds of Empire too, right up to the trenches of the Great War. In the last book, Tank Commander, John Carey, mobilized with his regiment the West Glamorgans, witnesses the astonishing introduction of a new and powerful weapon, the tank. It’s a terrifying picture. There’s certainly nothing sentimental or glorifying about Welch’s view of war. I’ve never read more vivid accounts of the fear, chaos and confusion of battle.
The Careys, as you would expect, are a mixed bunch, called on to play many different roles in defence of their country. Charles Carey in Captain of Dragoons, a young army Captain in Marlborough’s campaign against the French, acquits himself brilliantly at the Battle of Blenheim and finds himself acting as a secret agent. William, the protagonist of Ensign Carey, is a less golden character whose death in the Indian Mutiny leaves unanswered questions. In fact there’s a strong and satisfying moral compass to the books. Courage, honesty and generosity are rewarded, and bad lots get their just deserts.
Real historical characters – Richard the Lionheart, Wolfe, Wellington, Raglan – are woven into the stories, though Welch is careful to explain at the end of each book what is fiction and what established historical fact. Saladin emerges as a noble if ruthless figure, and the richly comfortable and civilized way of life in the Middle East is contrasted with the crude manners, dirty, rush-covered floors and smokefilled halls that Philip d’Aubigny is shocked to find in the castles of England and Wales.
So what do we know of the man who created this remarkable series? He was born in 1909 and his real name was Ronald Oliver Felton – Welch he took from the name of his wartime regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. After Cambridge he became a history teacher, served as a Tank Corps officer in the Second World War, became Headmaster of Okehampton Grammar School in Devon in 1947, and published his first book for children in 1951. According to his daughter he never had an agent: he composed all his books in ‘diabolical’ handwriting and just ‘bunged them off to the publisher’. The places he wrote about he recreated from meticulous research, even consulting early travel guides to ascertain the correct times of French coaches. Oxford University Press, who first published his books, considered him so knowledgeable that he was often called on to check the work of other writers for accuracy.
A former pupil remembers him as a big man, over six feet tall, who looked, sounded and dressed like a typical upper-class Englishman – though in fact it was Wales, the land of his fathers which features so strongly in the books, that was his spiritual home. He seems, not surprisingly, to have been an inspired history teacher, but few of his pupils had any idea he was a published writer. Those who did read him, however, have never forgotten him. Read him now, and whatever your age, I think you’ll see why.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 39 © Hazel Wood 2013