Pseudonyms: ‘Thomas Hall’, ‘H A’, ‘W A’.
Prolific author William (usually known as Harrison) Ainsworth, born on 4 February 1805, wrote for The London Magazine and had plays and poetry published in numerous journals including The Edinburgh Magazine and The European Magazine. His first success, however, came with the 1834 Gothic Romance Rookwood (which invokes Canterbury). His literary circle included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, William Makepeace Thackeray, and many more. He was also close friends with Charles Dickens in the 1830s. He died on 3 January 1882.
THE KNIGHT OF MALTA
A Canterbury Tale
Come list to me, and you shall have, without a hem or haw, sirs,
A Canterbury pilgrimage, much better than old Chaucer's.
'Tis of a hoax I once played off upon that city clever,
The memory of which, I hope, will stick to it for ever.
''With my coal-black beard, and purple cloak,
jack-boots, and broad-brimmed castor,
Hey-ho! for the knight of Malta!
To execute my purpose, in the first place, you must know, sirs,
My locks I let hang down my neck—my beard and whiskers grow, sirs;
A purple cloak I next clapped on, a sword lagged to my side, sirs,
And mounted on a charger black, I to the town did ride, sirs.
With my coal-black beard, &c.
The people all flocked forth, amazed to see a man so hairy,
Oh I such a sight had ne'er before been seen in Canterbury!
My flowing robe, my flowing beard, my horse with flowing mane, sirs!
They stared—the days of chivalry, they thought, were come again, sirs!
With my coal-black beard, &c.
Rookwood is a historical novel that rewrites infamous highwaymen and criminal figures in Newgate style. Ainsworth was fond of highwaymen stories as a child, so he uses his favourite figure – Dick Turpin – as a character. Turpin meets another infamous criminal active in England around the years following 1730, the so-called ‘knight of Malta’. Styled after John Nichols Thom, also known as Sir William Courtenay, the character regales Turpin with a song of his exploits in Canterbury. Courtenay is recorded as being very eccentric, dressing in extravagant clothing which Ainsworth represents in the novel:
'a magnificent coal-black beard decorated the chin of this worthy; but this was not all—his costume was in perfect keeping with his beard, and consisted of a very theatrical-looking tunic, upon the breast of which was embroidered, in golden wire, the Maltese cross; while over his shoulders were thrown the folds of an ample cloak of Tyrian hue.'
Courtenay was a wine-merchant, and after unsuccessfully standing for parliament in Canterbury was involved with smuggling. He was then tried and committed to the Kent County Lunatic Asylum. Courtenay was largely believed to be insane even before his incarceration in the asylum, his chief delusion that he would be elected into parliament. Ainsworth captures this in the poem as the knight of Malta sings “For surely I the fittest was, and very proper, very,/To represent the wisdom and the wit of Canterbury.” After his release Courtenay gathered a small band of followers and incited what is known as the Battle of Bossenden Wood (1838) by killing a constable. The battle, otherwise known as ‘The Courtenay Uprising’, took place in a village between Canterbury and Faversham and is largely considered to be one the of the last battles fought on English soil.
Ainsworth, William Harrison. Rookwood. Project Gutenberg, Retrieved April 2020. Project Gutenberg, Retrieved April 2020 from http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/23564
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