Voltaire, The Saucy Wenches of Greenwich Park and the Unfortunate Admiral Byng

The more I dig around into the past, the more I realise that nothing stands alone – everything bounces off everything else. Things are going on at the same time as other, seemingly unrelated, things, fun mingles with tragedy, national events mingle with personal moments; celebrities mingle with those whose names are lost forever.

So, in trying to investigate what made the French philosopher and satirist Voltaire come to Greenwich in May 1726, I found myself trudging old ground with new boots.

Voltaire, in exile from France while his candid writing continued to smart among certain influential parties, managed to arrive at what must have been a truly surreal moment. He stepped off the boat on a cloudless Greenwich day, a gentle west wind playing at his periwig, and immediately found himself surrounded by hundreds of fabulously-dressed, sparkling, beautiful people. The young maidens, in particular, entranced him with their elegant cotton gowns, running pell-mell across the grass, and dazzling young men on horseback. All along the the Thames merchant vessels were bedecked with bunting, and a gilded barge twinkled with the sound of musicians and laughter. Everyone made him welcome, finding him a good place to view the races and getting him to join in.

“I fancied that I was transported to the Olympian games, but the beauty of the Thames, the crowds of vessels, and the vast size of the city of London soon made me blush for having dared to liken Elis to England.”

What is this Arcadian Elysium he’s describing with such rapture? Greenwich Fair, of course. Sadly he was relieved of his moment of bliss later when he met some ladies of the court, “who were stiff and cold and took tea and made a great noise with their fans”who put him right – telling him that the nymphs he had enjoyed so much earlier were mere serving girls in their Sunday best and the youths just apprentices on hired horses. The real hoi-poloy wouldn’t be seen dead at such a bun-fight.

It’s likely that Voltaire’s account of his first day in England is about as true as Candide - but that doesn’t necessarily make it un-real. The poor sod wouldn’t have been able to speak a word of English, and he didn’t have any money either (he later admitted “I was without a penny, sick to death of a violent ’flu, a stranger, alone, helpless, in the midst of a city wherein I was known to nobody.”) He was writing to a pal back home – for his friend’s amusement – but what he was doing here was what he always did – tell a funny story to illustrate a finer point. His point being the coldness of the people of the court – whether or not he actually experienced much warmth at the fair itself doesn’t really matter.

It’s his contempt of the courts and the people who ran it that is at the heart of this passionate man, and it’s his other connection with Greenwich that touches me more. England had been at loggerheads with France for donkeys years – and much of the time that amounted to all-out war. Remember Admiral Byng? The unfortunate seaman who thought he’d try to repair his ship before facing the French again and got executed for his pains? Well Voltaire was really very affected by Byng’s case. So affected, in fact, that he thought he’d try to help out.

He wrote several impassioned letters to various people, including passing on the good opinions of his great friend, the Duc du Richelieu to relevant English authorities.

In retrospect, this may not have been the best possible thing to do. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Voltaire that both himself and the good duke were, by pure accident of birth, ahem, French. Byng’s stars already occupied the wrong place in the heavens, and though it’s unlikely that Voltaire’s well-meant intervention actually did for him – he was a gonner anyway, I doubt it helped much.

In February 1757, Voltaire wrote to Richelieu of Byng “The court martial found him a brave man and a true. But, notwithstanding, by one of those contradictions which are common in all such cases, he was condemned to death on the strength of an ancient law–I know not what.”

And poor old Voltaire had to admit that their own efforts probably hadn’t helped much:

“The faction which attacked him now accuses him of treachery in trying to turn your letter to account-as if it were that of a man he had bribed to speak for him. So reasons malice: but the clamour of the dogs will not prevent honest people from regarding your letter as that of a just and generous conqueror, prompted only by the magnanimity of his heart.”

Despite the Gallic duo’s best efforts, Byng was executed a month later, on his own ship, after being held in Greenwich Hospital as a prisoner. The above wasn’t quite Voltaire’s last word on the matter. He mentions it obliquely again in his 1757 masterpiece Candide, where the Byng-character is also executed.

“Dans ce pays ci, c’est bon, de temps en temps, de tuer un amiral pour encourager les autres.”

In this country, it’s good from time to time, to kill an admiral to encourage the others…”

Bet he wished he’d never left Greenwich Fair…


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