Kirkstall Abbey, Central To The Brontë Story

On a certain day last month I felt in need of reflection and a recharging of my spirit’s batteries – and so I travelled to somewhere absolutely perfect for it, Kirkstall Abbey on the outskirts of Leeds. It’s an incredibly beautiful building (so warning – this is a picture heavy post, my phone camera was in high demand,) a ruin but a magnificent ruin and on that day I’ve never felt an atmosphere like it in any other building I’ve ever been in. Perhaps that was because I was acutely aware that the day I was there saw a very important event in the Brontë story take place exactly 206 years earlier.

Kirkstall Abbey from the entrance
Kirkstall Abbey from the entrance to the grounds
Prior's house
The Abbot’s lodging

Kirkstall Abbey was the very spot on which Patrick Brontë proposed to Maria Branwell. A series of strange events had brought them to that day in October 1812, and things could have been very different for them. Maria was then in her late 20s and Patrick in his mid 30s, perhaps beyond the first flush of youth but still searching for love – they met in the summer of 1812 and within six months they were married, leading to the family of six children that we all know and love: Maria Brontë, Elizabeth Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, Patrick Branwell Brontë, Emily Jane Brontë, Anne Brontë.

Kirkstall Abbey arches

They could have met others and married earlier. If as a child Patrick had not been spotted reading ‘Paradise Lost’ aloud by County Down vicar Andrew Harshaw he would not have been awarded a place in school, he would not have become a teenage teacher, he would not have been given a scholarship to Cambridge, he would not have served as an assistant curate in Shropshire and would not have met local teacher John Fennell there, he would not have moved to Yorkshire to become a priest in Dewsbury and then Hartshead. By coincidence he would not have found that his Shropshire friends the Fennells had also moved to Yorkshire and opened a school in nearby Woodhouse Grove, near Leeds, and they would not have heard of his arrival and invited him to examine the children in classics there. By another coincidence the Fennel’s niece Maria Branwell had that summer made an arduous journey to Yorkshire from Cornwall to Woodhouse Grove to act as an assistant at the school. They would never have met, never felt their souls connect, never have married and had the Brontë children. So many coincidences, but in life are there really any coincidences?

Kirkstall Abbey window view

Kirkstall face
Pareidolia is seeing faces in things – Kirkstall Abbey is looking at you!

It was these circumstances, this chain that could have had an impediment at any time which would have irrevocably have changed literary history, that led Patrick to take to his knee in the magnificent grounds of Kirkstall Abbey and ask Maria Branwell to be his wife. Although they had known each other less than a handful of months, thankfully she had no hesitation in accepting. They married in December 1812, and a year later Patrick published his collection of poetry ‘The Rural Minstrel‘ within which was a tribute to the place they had cemented their love. His poem ‘Kirkstall Abbey’ is long, but here’s an extract:

“’Hail ruined tower! That like a learned sage,
With lofty brow, looks thoughtful on the night;
The sable ebony, and silver white,
Thy ragged sides from age to age,
With charming art inlays,
When Luna’s lovely rays,
Fall trembling on the night,
And round the smiling landscape, throw,
And on the ruined walls below,
Their mild uncertain light.
How heavenly fair, the arches ivy-crowned,
Look forth on all around!

Kirkstall exterior
Enchant the heart, and charm the sight,
And give the soul serene delight!
Whilst, here and there,
The shapeless openings spread a solemn gloom,
Recall the thoughtful mind, down to the silent tomb,
And bid us for another world prepare.
Who would be solemn, and not sad,
Who would be cheerful, and not glad,
Who would have all his heart’s desire,
And yet feel as his soul on fire,
To gain the realms of his eternal rest,
Who would be happy, yet not truly blest,
Who in the world, would yet forget his worldly care,
With hope fast anchored in the sands above,
And heart attuned by sacred love,
Let him by moonlight pale, to this sweet scene repair.”

Kirkstall Abbey chapel
Kirkstall Abbey chapel, with its ruined tower

It was to the sweet scene of Kirkstall Abbey, perhaps by the softly flowing brook alongside it, that Patrick and Maria repaired, doubly blessed with hearts attuned by sacred love. Doubtless as they grew older the Brontë children were told of the importance of Kirkstall Abbey to the Brontë story, for we know that Charlotte Brontë visited it and indeed sketched it herself.

Kirkstall Abbey by Charlotte Bronte
Kirkstall Abbey, drawn by Charlotte Bronte

So, it is accepted that Kirkstall Abbey marked the spot where Patrick proposed to Maria, but the date is unknown. Or is it? I travelled to Kirkstall Abbey on 23rd October, and I believe this is the date that Patrick and Maria pledged their love to one another in the abbey grounds and agreed to marry. I think the clue to this can be found in Maria Branwell’s letter to Patrick dated 24th October 1812:

Kirkstall Abbey archway

‘Unless my love for you were very great how could I so contentedly give up my home and all my friends?… Yet these have lost their weight… the anticipation of sharing with you all the pleasures and pains, the cares and anxieties of life, of contributing to your comfort and becoming the companion of your pilgrimage, is more delightful to me than any other prospect which this world can possibly present.’

Kirkstall riverbank
Kirkstall Abbey’s riverbank – was this the proposal site?

This, to me, is clearly the letter of a woman writing to her new fiance on the day after they became engaged, and now looking ahead to their married life together. A happy letter, full of love, and indeed I found Kirkstall Abbey today to be a magnificent building full of peace and an atmosphere of love. The Abbey itself doesn’t mark its place in the Brontë story, alas, but in the Kirkstall Abbey shop I found that Emily Brontë was present there after all – another coincidence?

Emily in shop
An Emily Bronte quote, fittingly found in Kirkstall Abbey’s shop

We Will Remember Them: Remembrance Sunday 2018

We are in the middle of a period known as the Brontë 200, marking the 200th anniversaries of the births of Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë, but today is a special day of an altogether different kind – the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. At 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 the armistice came into place and the guns of the western front fell as silent as the men who lay buried beneath it; it was the war to end all wars, they said, but of course they were wrong.

The Brontës grew up in a time of relative peace on the international stage for Britain, although their parents’ generation had grown up when we were embroiled in the Napoleonic wars, so they heard story after story of legendary military leaders like Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and Admiral Horatio Nelson, whose Brontë fiefdom in Sicily had inspired their own surname.

Duke of Wellington
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

The Duke became a particular hero of Charlotte Brontë, and it was with some awe that she later met him, then in his eighties, in London’s Chapel Royal in 1850, describing him as a ‘real grand old man’.

The love of Wellington and military stories is also apparent in the Brontë juvenilia, and helped fuel the ‘scribblomania’ which later led to the Brontë novels we so love.

Ellen Nussey, the great friend of the siblings, gave an interesting description of Patrick Brontë, when she said that: ‘he simply had missed his vocation: he should have been a soldier, and circumstances made him a priest.’

There was another Brontë who found themselves compared to a soldier, as this touching recollection of Emily by Haworth stationer and family friend John Greenwood shows:

“Patrick had such unbounded confidence in his daughter Emily that he resolved to learn her to shoot too. They used to practice with pistols. Let her be ever so busy in her domestic duties, whether in the kitchen baking bread at which she had such a dainty hand, or at her studies, rapt in a world of her own creating – it mattered not; if he called upon her to take a lesson, she would put all down. His tender and affectionate ‘Now, my dear girl, let me see how well you can shoot today’, was irresistible to her filial nature and her most winning and musical voice would be heard to ring through the house in response, ‘Yes, papa’ and away she would run with such a hearty good will taking the board from him, and tripping like a fairy to the bottom of the garden, putting it in its proper position, then returning to her dear revered parent, take the pistol which he had primed and loaded for her… She would take the weapon with as firm a hand, and as steady an eye as any veteran of the camp, and fire. Then she would run to fetch the board for him to see how she had succeeded. And she did get so proficient, that she was rarely far from the mark. His ‘how cleverly you have done, my dear girl’, was all she cared for. ‘Oh!’ He would exclaim, ‘she is a brave and noble girl. She is my right-hand, nay the very apple of my eye!’”

Perhaps it was Emily’s prowess with a pistol, as well as her strong, unbending nature, that earned her the nickname ‘The Major’? There were, however, two military relatives among the extended Brontë-Branwell family and their descendants.

Lieutenant Branwell
Lieutenant Thomas Branwell, tragic navy hero

Lieutenant Thomas Branwell was a cousin of Maria and Elizabeth Branwell, and his closeness to them is shown by the fact that he features with them in a series of miniature portraits painted by James Tonkin of Penzance, alongside pictures of Brontë grandparents Thomas and Anne Branwell, and their youngest aunt Charlotte Branwell. He is pictured in all his navy finery, and looks every inch an early nineteenth century military man. He must have been the pride of the Branwell’s but terrible news came at the end of 1811, as reported by the Navy Chronicle of January 1812:

‘The St. George, Defence, and Cressey, kept the North Sea five days, in a dreadful gale from the W.N.W. west and south; but, at length, had to combat with a terrible tempest from the N.W. until they were lost. The following is a list of the principal officers who were on board the St. George and Defence when those vessels were wrecked – In the St. George Admiral Reynolds, Captain Guion, Lieutenants Napier, Place, Thompson, Brannel, Dance, Tristram, Riches, and Rogers.’

Brannel was of course Thomas Branwell, who died at sea on board HMS George off the coast of Denmark. It was a naval tragedy on a horrendous scale, with 731 of the 738 man crew losing their lives and many hundreds more dying on board the Defence. The place where the bodies washed up at Thorsminde, Denmark is now known as ‘Dead Men’s Dunes’.

When we think of the dead today our minds will turn, understandably to those who perished in World War One, but many lost their lives, like Lieutenant Branwell, during the Napoleonic Wars and earlier conflicts too. It is rumoured that he and his cousin Elizabeth were in love, and that he it was that had bought her the elaborately decorated box which she later left to her nephew Branwell. If so this may explain why Aunt Branwell remained resolutely single for the rest of his life.

Captain A M Branwell
Captain A M Branwell (HU 114269) Unit: 4th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Copyright: © IWM.

Another Branwell served a long career in the military and survived, Captain Arthur Milton Cooper Branwell. He was a veteran of the army who had been recalled at the start of World War 1, and had fought in the Boer War among other conflicts. We may think that a soldier in ‘The Great War’ must be a very distant relative of the Brontës, but in fact he was a very close one. Born in 1862, he was a first cousin once removed of the Brontë sisters – his father Thomas Brontë Branwell was the Brontë cousin who visited Charlotte and Patrick in Haworth in 1851, and his grandmother was Charlotte Branwell, after whom Charlotte Brontë was named.

During World War One he was a Captain in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment’s 4th Brigade. The following picture appeared in The Tatler of 23rd August 1916 when fighting on the Western Front was approaching its fiercest. As the senior officer, the grand looking Captain Branwell is seated at the centre, but as noted by the caption many of the officers around him were by then dead.

Arthur Branwell in World War 1
Arthur Branwell in World War One

Captain Branwell himself escaped the horrors of the trenches however, as the 4th Brigade was the Royal Warwickshire’s Extra Reserve, and in fact it never left England during the duration of the war. He was heavily involved in training new recruits, and was ready and willing to fight in France if called upon, despite being then in his mid fifties; as the Tatler picture shows, Captain Branwell did arrive in France himself during the conflict, where he would have again taken a training role, passing on his wealth of experience on military matters.

Thomas Branwell paid the ultimate price, and Arthur Branwell was willing to do so, because they believed in their country, and they believed in the importance of freedom from tyranny – many millions then and since have followed a similar path, and today, and all days, we should and will remember them.

The Death, Will and Burial of Aunt Branwell

This weekend and on Monday people across the country will be gathering around bonfires – and it is likely that on the 5th November a certain Haworth family did the same: the Brontës. In fact, until the Observation of 5th November 1605 Act was repealed in 1859 all churches had to hold a thanksgiving service, accompanied by bonfire, to celebrate the foiling of Catesby and Fawkes’ plot to blow up parliament, and attendance was compulsory by law. The 1842 celebrations would have been rather more muted for the Brontës, however, as the previous week had seen the death and burial of an integral part of the family: Aunt Elizabeth Branwell.

Elizabeth and Maria Branwell, painted in 1799
Elizabeth and Maria Branwell, painted in 1799

In previous blogs we’ve looked at how Aunt Branwell became a second mother to the Brontës, and how she was especially close to Anne. In short, Elizabeth left behind a life of ease and sunshine in Penzance, Cornwall when in 1821 she travelled over 400 miles to Haworth to nurse her dying sister Maria. After Maria’s death she could have returned to Cornwall but stayed to raise her nephew and five nieces as best she could. It was a huge sacrifice in many ways, and my latest book ‘Aunt Branwell and the Brontë Legacy‘ looks at how without Elizabeth’s emotional and financial support we wouldn’t have any of the Brontë books we love today.

In today’s blog we look at Aunt Branwell’s passing and burial, and what it says about this woman who deserves to be remembered and respected. There is much evidence to say that Aunt Branwell was far from the austere, humourless woman that she is sometimes portrayed as, but we need look no further than the tribute from her nephew Branwell Brontë to show her true character and worth. If Elizabeth really was strict we could have expected her to be at loggerheads with the independent spirited Branwell, but the truth was very different.

On 25th October 1842, Branwell wrote a moving, despairing letter to his friend Francis Grundy:

‘I have had a long attendance at the deathbed of the Rev. William Weightman, one of my dearest friends, and now I am attending at the deathbed of my aunt, who has been for twenty years as my mother. I expect her to die in a few hours… excuse this scrawl, my eyes are too dim with sorrow to see well.’

Branwell remained faithfully by his Aunt’s side day and night, until she passed from this world on 28th October 1842, after which he again wrote to Grundy:

‘I am incoherent, I fear, but I have been waking two nights witnessing such agonising suffering as I would not wish my worst enemy to endure; and I have now lost the guide and director of all the happy days connected with my childhood.’

We need no better tribute than this, the facts are plain to see: Elizabeth Branwell, whatever Elizabeth Gaskell may later write, was loved by her nephew and nieces. She was not only there while they had a happy childhood, she was the person who gave them a happy childhood, against all the odds. Incidentally, of course, this also shows another side of Branwell Brontë’s character often overlooked – he could be loyal and loving.

Bronte family vault
Elizabeth Branwell also lies in Haworth’s Bronte family vault

Aunt Branwell died of a blockage of the bowel, and her dreadful torment must have been reminiscent to her brother in law Patrick of the final illness and death of his beloved wife Maria. It must have been another huge blow to Patrick as he and Elizabeth had been close since her arrival in Haworth, and had become like brother and sister themselves. Patrick’s great admiration for her was revealed in a letter to his friend Reverend Buckworth when he wrote of the aftermath of Maria’s death:

‘Her sister, Miss Branwell, arrived, and afforded great comfort to my mind, which has been the case ever since, by sharing my labours and sorrows, and behaving as an affectionate mother to my children.’

Elizabeth Branwell’s final illness, thankfully, was not as prolonged as her sister’s had been, and it had come on suddenly, as she had enjoyed robust health until that point, but nevertheless she had made preparations for after her death. She had made a will on 20th April 1833, and her legacy gave four of her nieces the liberty and support they needed to become writers. The Branwells were a relatively wealthy family, and the substantial amounts Elizabeth left to Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë allowed them to pay for the publication of ‘Poems by Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell’, and also for the publication of ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Agnes Grey’; without the money from their aunt’s will, there is simply no way they could have afforded these sums, and the Brontë story as we know it today would have remained untold.

I say four nieces, because in her will Elizabeth supported another niece – and one whose story was even more tragic than that of her Haworth cousins.
Elizabeth Branwell had many nieces still in Cornwall, but she chose only one other to support in her will: Eliza Kingston, daughter of Elizabeth and Maria’s elder sister Jane. Jane had emigrated to America with her husband John Kingston, but their marriage was not a happy one. She left America to return to England having to leave three children behind with John, but with her she brought a baby born in Baltimore, Maryland – Eliza. Surely in Jane we can see a prototype of Helen, the tenant of Wildfell Hall?

Early 19th century Baltimore, where Eliza Kingston was born
Early 19th century Baltimore, where Eliza Kingston was born

Elizabeth Branwell supported both Jane and her daughter through their struggles, and realised that her American born niece needed help more than her Cornish brethren – and so it was that Eliza Kingston was left an equal quarter share along with Charlotte, Emily and Anne.

We have a number of letters by Eliza, and they are a fascinating correspondence. They show that she read the novels of her Haworth cousins, and also that Patrick Brontë wrote to her in Penzance until the last year of his life. They also show her terrible, tragic decline. Eliza invested her inheritance in Cornish tin mine shares, and at first they did well, but we read of her descent into unimaginable poverty as her fortune diminished and vanished. In a letter painful to read she writes:

‘I feel very weak at times, if I over-exert myself or do not take sufficient nourishment; I require (if I could have it) animal food every day… I cannot live so low as I used to. I was informed that it was a case of nervous debility which I knew before… there is often a cobweb (or something like it) floating before my left eye… I live in constant dread of the future… I have no prospect of a home or rooms or indeed any money to pay rent… God only knows how it will end… I sometimes feel as if my heart would break.’

It was the last letter Eliza wrote, she could no longer afford stamps; she died in an asylum in 1878 but we hear one further story of her from a distant cousin who knew her:

‘I think my mother asked Miss Kingston about Charlotte Brontë on more than one occasion. They talked about her together, and Miss Kingston spoke a good deal about what Charlotte Brontë had brought out in her works, and how she depicted characters. I have a vivid recollection of wonder that our poor cousin Eliza Jane could say such beautiful things and see so much in books, and yet look so plain and prosper so badly. Is there any record of the book she wrote, or was it only a part? Perhaps she destroyed it. She said no one would publish it.’

Here then we see that Aunt Branwell’s will helped not three, but four nieces have the financial freedom to do what they wished to do more than anything else – write a book. If only we still had Eliza’s it would surely be something special, as her letters are vivid and very reminiscent of her cousin Charlotte’s.

25 Chapel Street at night
25 Chapel Street, Penzance at night – former home of Aunt Branwell

At the start of her will, Elizabeth Branwell left an important and very telling provision – that she wished to be buried: ‘as near as convenient to the remains of my dear sister.’

Thus it was that on the 2nd of November 1842 she was buried in the Brontë family vault at Haworth’s St. Michael’s and All Angels church, alongside her sister Maria and her nieces Maria and Elizabeth. Family meant everything to Elizabeth Branwell, and by family I mean the Brontë family. Yes, the sacrifice Elizabeth made in 1821 and in the 21 years subsequent was immense, but we must remember that she profited hugely from it.

Aunt Branwell was in her mid forties when she came to Haworth; she had money, books to read, fine weather all year round, but she had no prospects of marriage or a family of her own – she had no prospect of love, only a lonely life ahead of her. The stone floors of Haworth parsonage were so cold to her that she always wore pattens indoors, but her heart glowed. She found a family to love and who loved her back, children she could watch grow up and guide through life; it was a blessing she could never have expected to have, and it was worth much more to her than any other treasures.

Aunt Branwell display case
Aunt Branwell display case, Bronte Parsonage Museum, showing her pattens

So, Aunt Branwell’s legacy enriched the Brontës, but the Brontë children enriched Aunt Branwell too; as she stood by the Haworth bonfires with them she would have felt the warmth of love in her blood as well as the warmth of the flames, and what after all is more important than that? The Observation of 5th November 1605 Act is also known as The Thanksgiving Act, and so today let us give thanks to Aunt Elizabeth Branwell – we have so much to thank her for.