Today (March 31) in London History – Shakespeare & Square Bullets

For today’s Today in London History podcast a tale about a City of London church, Shakespeare, square bullets and recent UK history.


Today in London. The bell ringers at St Vedast Foster Lane practice on Monday night. There’s a teaching session from 6 to 7. That’s followed by an opening ringing. 

Ok, Today in London History.

Guarantee you won’t have heard of this one.

Or heard of the Londoner who’s the perp.

His name is James Puckle. We catch our first glimpse of James Puckle on January 22, 1688. It’s James’ wedding day. His bride is one Mary Francis.

They get married at St Vedast, Foster Lane. 

They’re getting married there, that’s what tipped the balance for me. 

That’s what got James Puckle invited to this podcast.

Permit me to explain.

I’m painting a portrait of London. It’ll never be finished. I’m adding to it all the time. It’s my life’s work. It gets ever richer, has ever more depths to peer into and wonder at.

Now depending on which route I plump for St Vedast Foster Lane has a juicy cameo role on my Shakespeare’s & Dickens’ Old City walk. It’s a magical old church. There are twenty things about it to point out. And to love. Now there are 21. I’ll never see St Vedast Foster Lane again without thinking, “So this is the church where James Puckle, the guy who invented the machine gun, got married.” Knowing that delights me. It’s another brushstroke for that part of my portrait of London. I like everything about it, not the least of which is it’s completely whacky.

Get to that in a minute.

But first, family life for James Puckle. Mary Francis bore him at least eight children. She died sometime between 1702 and 1714. Now you see Mary Francis, now you don’t. Just tantalising, fleeting glimpses, that’s what we have to make do with. That 12-year hiatus. She maybe died as early as 1702. Or as late as 1714. If it was toward the earlier date, well, she bore him at least eight children in about 13 years. More or less permanently preggers. And then there’s the business of the will. On February 21, 1715 James Puckle got married a second time. A widow named Elizabeth Fownes. Four months later James Puckle draws up his will. He leaves one shilling each to each of his and Mary Francis’s four surviving children. Their ages at the time were 13 to 25. The rest of his estate James Puckle left to his second wife, Elizabeth. It’s murky, that will. Something going on in there that was ugly. Of course we note in passing – it would have been anything but in passing to James Puckle and their mother Mary Francis – anyway, we note in passing that four of their eight children didn’t make it out of childhood. But that telling, chilling detail in the will – my goodness –  leaving the surviving kids just a shilling each. How hurtful, how insulting, how cruel was that. Worse than leaving them nothing, really. It’s the kind of detail a fine dramatist would latch onto and work back from, build a whole play around. Presumably a tragedy. Or a novelist. One thinks of the first sentence of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike – every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s 13 generations on now, but I for one can’t help but wonder are any of my fellow Londoners descended from that happy, hopeful young couple James Buckle and Mary Francis? Well, happy and hopeful they will have been on their wedding day there at St. Vedast, Foster Lane.

But let’s get to the machine gun.

Here’s the connection with today’s date, March 31st. On March 31st, 1722 the London Journal reported a successful trial of the machine gun. It said one man had “discharged it 63 times in seven minutes.”

Nine rounds per minute – sounds impressive for 1722, bearing in mind that experienced musketeers of that day and age were expected to three rounds per minute. Wasn’t a success, though. Very few of the Puckle guns were manufactured – some say as few as two. And its critics said “Puckles machine is dangerous only to its investors.”

Puckle had taken out a patent on the weapon four years previously. It was portable. It was breech-loading. It could be swivelled and elevated on a collapsible tripod.

But here’s the kicker, it could fire grenades or either round or square bullets according to whether the enemy Christian or Turk.

You heard right. They had square bullets back then. But they were quickly outlawed because of the horrific injuries they wrought. Outlawed for use against fellow Christian. The infidel – Turks – were another matter. Perfectly all right to use square bullets on them.

And that gets us to the raison d’etre of my London portrait. It’s not just for fun – it’s to try to understand the genus Brit, the race of people who live on this island. And surely, the key to everything – including the mentality of the genus Britisher – is that this is an island. Step back, take a big picture look at history. After the Renaissance, it was Portuguese and Spanish sailors who led the great explorations over the far horizons – while the English concentrated upon defending the coastline that had insulated them from the rest of Europe for centuries.

All kinds of important stuff about national character can be discerned in that single brushstroke about square bullets being reserved for Turks. Think about the image that won the Brexit referendum. It was Ukip’s Breaking Point poster, unveiled by Nigel Farrage. It showed thousands of ethnic minority migrants crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border. The clear implication being they were coming here.

Stirred in with ingredients like the slogan Take Back Control – as in Take Back Control of our Borders – and front-page stories headlined, “12 million Turks say they’ll come to the UK” – and you’ve got a toxic, potent brew that speaks, irresistibly, to the primordial instincts that are part and parcel of the islander’s mentality.

And a very similar, equally powerful image from the 1979 election campaign turned up the flame either further. It showed a great long dole queue outside an employment office. Its three-word slogan was Labour Isn’t Working.

The subliminal message was of course “those migrants, those 12 million Turks, are coming for your jobs.” Potent stuff. Perfect fit. 

So, yes, all of that’s there, swirling about when I turn the corner and St Vedast Foster Lane comes into view. All of it in sense concentrated in – or at least evoked by – those two single brushstrokes: Puckle’s machine gun and that square bullet. 

But always in this infinitely rich city, this infinitely rich culture, there’s a counterbalancing view.

Just round the corner from St Vedast was St Martin le Grand. And it’s there that Sir Thomas More confronts anti-alien rioters in London. 

This is in an Elizabethan play called Sir Thomas More. It was written by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle. The one golden moment in the play is that moment when More confronts the rioters. We know that that scene was revised. The manuscript of the revision has survived. It’s in the British Library. We believe that the revision was the work of William Shakespeare. That those lines on that manuscript were set down by William Shakespeare’s hand. Scholars say the handwriting, spellings, stylistic matters all point to Shakespeare being the author. But more than anything else it’s the calibre and power and humanity of the speech that’s got Shakespeare written all over it. The sentiments expressed and the way they’re expressed, it’s Shakespeare at his best, and the English at their best.

And that too is another brushstroke in this part of my portrait of London.

We’re not going to end this podcast with square bullets for aliens, we’re going to end it with a very great Englishman – two very great Englishmen – William Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More – the English at their finest – rebuking people who hate foreigners – making a wonderfully compassionate statement on behalf of refugees, on behalf of our shared humanity. Here’s the speech.

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise

Hath chid down all the majesty of England;

Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,

Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,

Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,

And that you sit as kings in your desires,

Authority quite silent by your brawl,

And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;

What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught

How insolence and strong hand should prevail,

How order should be quelled; and by this pattern

Not one of you should live an aged man,

For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,

With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,

Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes

Would feed on one another…

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