Rifles in 18th century England

A man shot by a rifle in England in 1796 is an unusual event; so unusual that both the rector and Dr Morley remark upon it.

Most English firearms of the day were smoothbore weapons, muskets and pistol and fowling pieces, the ancestor of the modern shotgun. Rifles did exist in England, but they were rare. Most were jäger (hunting) rifles imported from Germany, expensive luxury items owned by wealthy sportsmen. The famous Baker rifle used by British light infantry was not designed until 1800, four years after these events.

In outward appearance, there is little difference between a rifle and a musket (see for example the rifle pictured on our home page). The difference lies inside the barrel. Whereas the barrel of a musket is smooth, that of a rifle is lined with spiral grooves, or riflings, running from the breech to the muzzle. These grooves cause the bullet to rotate as it is propelled down the barrel, and that rotation continues as the bullet flies to its target. This rotation gives the bullet greater accuracy at longer range.

Why were rifles so rare? First, they were expensive. Cutting rifle grooves in a barrel requires precision instruments and skill, and these did not come cheaply. And – apart from military use – there was little call in Britain for long-range sporting weapons. German hunting placed more emphasis on stalking of large game, such as deer or wild boar, where a rifle would come in handy. The British sportsman, on the other hand, tended to hunt his larger game with dogs, often on horseback, and the kill would be made at close quarters. Wild birds and small game such as rabbits were shot with fowling pieces. There was little demand for rifles.

So who is carrying an expensive jäger rifle around on Romney Marsh – and shooting people with it?

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Reverend Marcus Aurelius Hardcastle

'The finest mind in the Church of England’, is how a contemporary once described Hardcastle, and many people agreed with this description; some eagerly, some reluctantly. From the beginning of his career (and possibly before), Hardcastle divided opinion. Some admired his intellect and wit; some deplored what they saw as his arrogance; others bitterly resented his easy success at achieving office, winning debates, influencing people in high places – and his success with women.

Hardcastle comes from a family of minor but prosperous gentry in Hampshire. His intelligence was noted at an early age, and he was sent off to Cambridge to study theology and prepare for a career in the Church. At Cambridge, he met two people who would influence his later life: Folliott Cornewall, who became Dean of Canterbury, and Arthur Clavertye, a student of law who went on to become a leading barrister at the Inns of Court in London.

Hardcastle was identified as a rising star in the Church of England while still at university. After completing his studies he took up an ecclesiastical post in London. Several promotions followed quickly. He mingled in high society, made friends with the leading literati of the day, and was the toast of the salons. He was even mentioned, in low tones behind closed doors, as a possible future Archbishop of Canterbury.

Power and admiration went to his head. He made too many enemies, and was careless of his friends. Some of his relationships, especially with women, verged on the scandalous. Like another famous clergyman, Henry Bate-Dudley, he fought duels; the fact that he won them did nothing to dispel the growing cloud over his reputation. Suddenly, doors that had once been open to him began to close. His star dimmed.

Six years before the events of that fatal May night in 1796, the end came. Hardcastle was  offered a choice: a chaplaincy in the army or navy, or a post in one of the overseas colonies. Hearing of this, Hardcastle’s old friend Clavertye came to his rescue. Clavertye was patron of the living of St Mary in the Marsh (patrons and livings will be discussed in a future article)  whose rector had recently died, and he offered the post to Hardcastle. The church authorities were furious, but they could not prevent Hardcastle from accepting.

So Hardcastle rusticates in Romney Marsh, with a cellar full of port and a library stuffed with dusty books that he rarely reads. ‘Time and port have dulled my ambitions’, he tells Mrs Chaytor, ‘and the glittering prizes of my youth no longer interest me.’ Apart from the crucial moments in their lives, such as birth, marriage and death, the people of his parish seem to have no little need of him. Indeed, it seems that no one has much need of him at all.

Until, that is, he opens his door one midnight in a roaring wind and finds a young man dying on his doorstep; a young man whose final gasped words are a plea for help. Even as Hardcastle prays for the dead man’s soul, his resolve is fixed. He will work out what those words mean, and he will find the young man’s killer.

The finest mind in the Church of England is back…

Mrs Amelia Chaytor

In any society, at any time, Amelia Chaytor would be an unusual woman. She is, as those around her constantly discover, full of surprises.

There is nothing particularly unusual about her background. She, like the rector, comes from an unremarkable gentry family, well connected but not members of high society. At nineteen, she caught the eye of John Chaytor, a young man who had just joined the British diplomatic service. Chaytor was highly thought of by his superiors, and was marked out for rapid advancement. He fell head over heels in love with Amelia, and after a short courtship she became his wife.

In her memory, at least, theirs was a perfect marriage. They lived lives that were completely intertwined. Each shared their interests with the other. She infected him with her passion for music; he taught her to drive carriages, very fast. They were utterly happy.

Marriage to John took Amelia out of her quiet existence and into a world of excitement, glittering diplomatic receptions and balls and dinners, but also into a world of war and violence. When John was posted to the British embassy in Paris in 1788 on the eve of the French Revolution, Amelia went with him. She saw the beginnings of the revolution at first hand, and watched from the sidelines as the heady excitement and spirit of freedom gradually lapsed into factionalism and bloodshed on the streets of Paris.

More excitement was to follow when the Chaytors moved to Rome. Diplomatic ties between Britain and the Vatican had been cut for a century, but when Britain and France went to war, diplomats on both sides began sounding out the possibility of an alliance against Revolutionary France (which had effectively also declared war on the Catholic church, seizing church property and banishing priests).

The Chaytors accompanied John Coxe Hippisley, Prime Minister Pitt’s envoy to the Vatican. Amelia spent the next year and a half living in the Eternal City. She saw its grand crumbling ruins of imperial glory. She saw too the corruption in high places, the cardinals living in splendour while the poor starved in the streets, and she witnessed the never-ending vendettas between the great families. She saw it all, and was fascinated.

Then, suddenly, everything was shattered. John Chaytor fell ill, and after a short illness, died. Amelia’s world broke apart.

She could no longer bear to be in society. Even the kindness of her dearest friends was too painful to bear. She chose to live on Romney Marsh because it was a place apart from the rest of the world, a place where she could be alone with her grief. Now, apart from a few servants, she lives in a self-imposed solitude. Whatever happens in the world, she tells herself, no longer matters to me. I do not care.

But when on a stormy night in May, 1796, two men are shot dead not far from her home, she finds she does care; very much indeed.

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