History, legend or myth
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
As the nights draw in, it is the traditional time to be telling stories around the autumnal fires. They may be stories passed down through families of how some major event has touched their community. They may never reach the ears of professional researchers and historians and so remain unproven. Are they then legend, myth or true history ? Here we tell three of Denham‘s legends, unproven but trustworthy in our local history.
Adolf Hitler in Denham ?
Sir Oswald Mosley, “Tom” to his family and friends, was a Conservative Member of Parliament. At least that’s how he started out politically, winning the Harrow constituency for the Tories in 1918, at 21 the youngest MP to take his seat in the House of Commons.
However Sir Oswald fell out with the Conservative government over its Ireland policies. He objected to the aggressive behaviour of the “Black and Tan” military police force in Ireland which he said “disgraced” the name of Britain. He left the Tory party and remained in the House of Commons as an Independent MP.
By 1924 Mosley had drifted to the Labour Party. Accepting that Harrow would not return a Labour MP, he fought the Smethwick constituency for Labour in 1926. He succeeded. Both he and his first wife, Lady Cynthia were committed members of the socialist think-tank Fabian Society in this period.
As a junior member of the Labour government elected in 1929 Mosley produced the Mosley Memorandum, a set of recommendations on economic and social policy later considered to be a “brilliant” work a whole generation ahead of its time but rejected by the Labour leaders of his own time. It was a rejection which led to Mosley’s disaffection from the Labour Party and his formation of his own party to promote his ideas. Mosley and his New Party supporters were photographed at the launch on the lawns of his home at Savay Farm in Denham.
Mosley suffered further disappointment. His party failed to gain Parliamentary seats in the 1931 election. It was from there that Sir Oswald Mosley continued his political journey into fascism. In 1932 Mosley founded the British Union of Fascists with the New Party effectively its party political wing. By 1936 the New Party had been subsumed into the BUF.
Mosley had married Lady Cynthia (“Cimmie”) Curzon in the presence of royalty in 1920. Cimmie, herself a Labour MP, shared her husband’s political views until his drift to fascism began in 1931. Then she disassociated herself. Sadly Cimmie died from peritonitis, aged just 35, in 1933. Her modest gravestone in Denham St. Mary’s Churchyard has the enigmatic inscription, “My Beloved. A little space was allowed her to show at least a historic purpose and to attest a high design”. It is an epitaph which perhaps reveals Sir Oswald’s own self belief in his cause.
The death of Cimmie liberated Mosley from restraint. He had already begun an affair with Diana Mitford, third born of the six aristocratic Mitford sisters, friend of Adolf Hitler and committed fascist. Mosley and Diana Mitford were married on 6 October 1936 in the drawing room of Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Hitler himself was in attendance.
But did Hitler come to Denham ? There is a story told by the village’s late long serving shopkeeper and newsagent that once as a child or young woman she saw Hitler strolling with Mosley along Village Road on the way to The Swan. No date has been put on the sighting and there is no other known direct evidence, but circumstantial evidence suggests that the sighting may not have been a mistake. It is known that Mosley visited Mussolini in1931 and received a good deal of financial support from him over the following three years. Could Mussolini have been instrumental in introducing Mosley to Hitler ? It is clear that by 1936 there was a relationship which enabled Mosley’s marriage to Diana Mitford to be celebrated in Berlin with Hitler as guest of honour - though this of course may have been more because of the closeness of Diana and Unity Mitford to Hitler rather than due to a close friendship between Hitler and Mosley.
Hitler may not have been a stranger to England. His brother Alois was married to an Irish woman born Bridget Dowling and living in Liverpool in 1912. Bridget later claimed that Adolf stayed at their home for several months in 1912 into 1913. The claim is much disputed, Bridget being thought to have made it up to cash in on the family relationship, but it does have some corroboration. It is certainly not beyond the possible that Hitler could have been invited to Savay Farm in the early 1930s. It would not have been a visit which either the host or the visitor would have wanted to make public.
Cromwell’s army camp ?
1645 and civil war has been raging through England for three years. Its roots can be traced back over a century to Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church of Rome and the spread of Protestantism. It was a split which dominated English political life through the reigns of Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth into the start of the 17th century. In 1605 it was the main reason for the attempt of the Catesby gang to assassinate the Protestant King James I and blow up the Parliament - to which we’ll return in November.
James’ son Charles was a real problem. High Anglican and suspected of leanings to Catholicism. Charles married the French Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria, in 1625 heightening the suspicions of the Protestant leadership in Parliament. Consistent with his religious beliefs, Charles also believed that he reigned by Divine Right, charged by God with the right and responsibility to rule over his people. He could not then allow Parliament to challenge or interfere with his decisions.
In 1642 it came to blows, the country divided between Royalists and Parliamentarians and both sides armed. For three years their armies travelled around the country stirring up the populace and engaging with each other on battlefields from Wiltshire to North Yorkshire.
The fortunes of the skirmishing war shifted from side to side, but towards the end of 1644 it had become clear to the Parliamentarians that this thing was not going to end without a dedicated professional army. They set about creating an efficient military force which came to be known as the New Model Army under the command of Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell.
Charles meanwhile was convinced that the military situation was turning his way.
It was against this background that leading representatives the two sides agreed to meet to negotiate a peace treaty. The meetings took place at the Crown and Treaty Inn at Uxbridge from from 29 January to 22 February 1645.
The armies came too, the Royalists camped to the south of the town, the Parliamentarians to the north.
But where to the north ? Legend has it that the Parliament camp was on the field between the Misbourne River and Ashmead Lane once known as Hancock’s Mead. It’s unproven, but artefacts have been found suggesting that the story could be true.
Sanctuary for the young prince
The tragic events of the English Civil Wars were witnessed at very close quarters by a boy, just 12 years old in 1642. He was only eight when fighting had first broken out in his father’s other kingdom of Scotland. He confronted a prospect unimaginable to us today. He was with his father at the battle of Edgehill in 1642 and at the age of 14 in 1645 he was participating in the fighting as titular commander of the royal forces in the west of England.
By the spring of 1646 things were not looking good for his father. It was time for the young Charles Stuart, heir to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland to leave the country or risk the succession. His known route out was via Falmouth in Cornwall, to the Scilly Isles, to Jersey and then to join his exiled mother at the court of his six year old cousin, King Louis XIV in France. Back in England Charles I, now confident that his son was safe, surrendered himself into captivity.
But there is a legend that young Charles was at some time given sanctuary at Denham Court (now the home of the Buckinghamshire Golf Club) as he fled from the King’s enemies. The legend does not identify when this was and there is uncertainty because Charles’ escape in 1646 was not the only time he fled England in fear of capture. On 1 January 1651 the throne of Scotland was restored to his family when young Charles was crowned King at Scone Abbey. With a Scottish army he then invaded England and reached Worcester, but there he was defeated and forced to flee a second time.
After the battle at Worcester, it took Charles six weeks to get to Normandy. His meandering route, on which he had several narrow escapes, is believed to be well established and didn’t take him anywhere near Denham.
So perhaps the legend dates to 1646 rather than the flight of 1651.
There is circumstantial evidence to back up the story. Charles was welcomed back from exile and restored to the thrones of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland in 1660. One of his first acts as the lawful king was to grant a knighthood to the owner of Denham Court who became Sir William Bowyer. Was this a reward for some special service and act of compassion ?
Denham Court became quite dilapidated after 1930. When it was refurbished and turned into a home for young offenders in the 1950s some of the treasures it contained were clearly overlooked. Not until 1987 was it discovered that paintings set into the panelling, though not works of masters, were nonetheless of valuable artistic importance.
Amongst these paintings was a "Portrait of a Man with Dead Birds”. The tradition is that it was commissioned by the second Sir William Bowyer in about 1690 to commemorate his family’s protection of the young prince, later king. This was interestingly at a time when the country was again in turmoil following the forced replacement of Charles II’s brother the Catholic King James II by his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband Prince William of Orange.
The man in the painting appears as a lowly servant, a “scullion” boy but perhaps rather too finely dressed for such a station in life. The dead birds invoke Charles I’s own famous observation when, on entering Parliament in January 1642 to arrest his Parliamentary enemies only to find them gone, he commented “I see the birds have flown.” The look of importance on the boy’s face in the painting suggests that on this occasion it is he who is one of the birds that has flown and he is very much alive.
If any of this is true, the age of the boy in the painting is significant. Prince Charles reached the age of 16 in May 1646. At the time of his flight in 1651 he was already a mature 21. A painting of Charles about 1648 shows him with the characteristic moustache that is absent from the Denham Court painting which looks much more like that of a 16 year old. But surely these are paintings of the same person, two maybe three years apart in age.
Three unproven but substantial tales
So much of history remains the stuff of myth right up to the present day. There have always been reasons of State to keep secrets, but stories and rumours leak out and turn into legends. Some are clearly false, some have only a grain of truth, others are more substantial. Close to London and populated by powerful families amongst our villagers in history, Denham is rich with these tales. Those told here have substance, if still unproven. Perhaps one day something will be found that proves them true beyond a doubt.
Oswald Mosley by Bassano Ltd. 28 October 1922 NPG x18940 © National Portrait Gallery, London - https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw66777/Oswald-Mosley?LinkID=mp05636&search=sas&sText=Oswald+mosley&role=sit&rNo=6
Portrait of Man with Dead Birds, otherwise Portrait of Charles II with Dead Fowl, Rights owner: Buckinghamshire County Museum
Portrait of Charles II as the Prince of Wales - Bolton Museum and Archive Service
By Adriaen Hanneman (Dutch painter, ca.1601-1671) about 1648
VADS - https://www.vads.ac.uk/digital/collection/NIRP/id/28648/rec/1
British History online - https://www.british-history.ac.uk/rushworth-papers/vol5/pp787-843