From the Archives: Anyone for Tennis?

Kenilworth’s role as a royal residence meant that it was often at the centre of events of national and even world importance. A classic example is the story of the insulting gift of a barrel of tennis balls sent to Henry V by the Dauphin, Louis of Viennois during a lull in the Hundred Years War. Henry’s reaction to this insult resulted in the build up to the campaign that culminated in the routing of the French at the Battle of Agincourt.

Shakespeare included the tale in his play Henry V, but did these events really take place just as we are led to believe? Brian Jackson takes up the tale in an article first published in Kenilworth History 2000 / 2001:

Episodes in Kenilworth History No.5 – Anyone for Tennis?

Brian Jackson

King Henry V was fond of Kenilworth. Indeed, after London, Kenilworth – his ‘castellum dilectum de Kenilleworth’ – was the place where he spent a good deal of his time. His manors of Cheylesmore and Plesantmaris were nearby, and as we have seen in the 1996 – 7 edition of ‘Kenilworth History’, to build what we now know as the Pleasaunce he went to a great deal of trouble preparing the ground and draining a noxious marsh.

Henry V
King Henry V, by unknown artist, from the National Portrait Gallery.

It is on record that Henry was in Kenilworth in Lent, 1414. He was much preoccupied with his claim to territories in France and the prospect of marriage with the French princess Katherine. Negotiations were not going well. What followed is a widely told anecdote, most generally known, perhaps, as it appears in Shakespeare’s play, ‘King Henry V’: French Ambassadors arrive and present the King with a mocking gift from the Dauphin, Charles, son of the King of France. The ‘gift’ is blatantly insulting – a barrel full of tennis-balls, together with the message that Henry, well known for his irresponsible youth, might be better employed playing tennis than going to war with grown-ups.

Louis de Guyenne
The Dauphin Louis, Duke of Guyenne (1397 – 1415)

Henry, infuriated, returns the message that the only balls he would send back would be cannon-balls. He declares war forthwith, to begin the famous campaign culminating in the battle of Agincourt in October the following year.

So what was the source of this anecdote, and did it really happen? Shakespeare knew a good dramatic situation when he saw one, but his history is not always entirely reliable. Here he seems to be on well-established ground, taking it straight from the 16th century historical compilation of Raphael Holinshed, who clearly held it as fact, deriving it at several removes from an obscure chronicler known as Otterbourne, who locates it in Kenilworth.

The better known Thomas Elmham, a royal chaplain who was present at the battle of Agincourt, and who died in 1428, tells it as brief plain tale in his chronicle, ‘Liber Metricus’. Elmham firmly puts Henry at Kenilworth on Quadragesima (first Sunday in Lent) 1414, which that year fell on March 12. On the following day negotiations in France came to nothing and Henry’s envoys promptly returned. The tennis balls story follows. Elmham tells us that the Dauphin wrote to Henry extremely mockingly (verba jocosa nimis) and sent him tennis balls from Paris (Parisias pitas misit), which would suit him nicely for the childish games he enjoyed. Henry wrote back promising cannon balls from London that would shatter the roofs of the French and win the match.

But the main authority, John Strecche, a Canon of Kenilworth Priory who became Prior of Brooke, the small Rutland Cell of Kenilworth Priory in 1407 and retired in 1426, tells a much more circumstantial tale. He was something of an anecdotal historian, fond of many a colourful incident, but he was writing about roughly contemporary events, and was on the spot, with an ear cocked for gossip from the Castle.

The Signature of John Strecche
The Signature of John Strecche. canon of the Priory of St Mary, Kenilworth, from 1407 to 1425.

Elmham and Strecche do not appear to have collaborated. The latter’s tale, indeed, contains subtle differences from Elmham’s, and it is worth quoting more fully. He gives some account of the failure of the negotiations with the French over Henry’s proposed marriage (pro matrimonio inter Henricum regem Angelorum et nobilem dominam Katerinam regis francorum filiam) and how they fell short of what the king could honourably accept. He is much more specific about what followed: “These French, blinded by their own arrogance, and careless of the dreadful consequences, vomited forth words of venom (verbis fellis eructantes) to the English envoys.” Then comes the significant difference. The French told the departing English delegation that because Henry was young they WOULD send him tennis balls to play with, and (a nice addition) some soft pillows (pulvinaria mollia) to sleep on to help him grow to manly strength. Interestingly enough, in an early drama, ‘The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth’, which some critics believe to have been a practice run by Shakespeare, these pillows have become a carpet.

When these insults were reported to the king, says Strecche, he was greatly moved: “With words brief, well-chosen, and graceful in form, this is what he said: If God wills, and if I have life and health, within a few short months, I shall play such games with my cannon balls within their streets that the French will curse their mockery, and pay for their wit with tears and lamentations. And if they thought to lie abed with soft pillows, then I, perhaps, before they might have wished it, shall beat on their doors at dawn and rouse them from their dreams.”

Which has a fine patriotic ring, both in the Latin and in translation. This may well be the heart of the matter. In fact, the French ambassadors in Shakespeare’s play did not arrive in England until July, in a late and conciliatory attempt to restart negotiations, certainly without an insulting barrel of tennis  balls, when Henry’s preparations for war were well advanced. It is not unlikely that the whole thing had its origins in a discourteous joke among the French negotiators, was brought back by the English envoys, and grew in the telling, to be seized upon by Strecche and other chroniclers as a piece of ‘true’ anti-French propaganda and an opportunity to display the king’s legendary oratory. Myth? Or fact? Either way the tale is a Kenilworth tale, and a Kenilworth Canon was there when it began.

King Henry V William Shakespeare
The Famous Victories of Henry V Author unknown, poss. early Shakespeare
Chronicles Ralph Holinshed
Liber Metricus Thomas Elmham
Historia Regum Angliae Book V John Strecche
Henry V and the Invasion of France E. P. Jacob, E.U.P. 1947

For more articles like this, a CD containing all back issues of Kenilworth History from 1981 to 2015 can be purchased from the Society for £5. See the link above for more details.

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From the Archives: Kenilworth Windmills

The following article was first published in Kenilworth History 2000 – 2001 by Rob Steward. If you were of the understanding that there was but one windmill in Kenilworth, then this may very well be the article for you.

Kenilworth Windmills

Rob Steward

I have written in the past, in these pages, about water and its power to drive the watermills of Kenilworth; now let me turn to that other natural power, the force of the wind.

Over the centuries there have been a number of windmills in Kenilworth and close by. The earliest reference to a windmill I can find is in a document dated 22nd July 1549 listing property acquired by Andrew Flammock. It is Wyndmyllfeld which lies to the west of Dunn’s Pits farm. A short green lane to the south off Hollis Lane, called ‘Pebble Lane’ in 1756, probably led to the mill. In William Dugdale’s ‘Antiquities of Warwickshire’ there is a panoramic view, dated 1723, seen from Honiley showing Kenilworth Castle on the right, Balsall Common windmill on the extreme left with another windmill on the horizon, which appears to be the one on Wyndmyllfeld, between the two. Coventry is also depicted on the horizon further to the right but left of Kenilworth Castle.

Unfortunately the positions of Coventry and the windmill on Wyndmyllfeld are shown transposed, but the positions of Kenilworth Castle, Balsall Common windmill and Chase Wood are very accurate. There is artistic license, however, regarding the orientation of Kenilworth Castle. None of the Kenilworth windmills is shown; they were built later in the century. As a point of observation, on the above mentioned panoramic view and on contemporary maps, even the later Ordnance Survey map of 1834, all windmills are shown as post mills. This is purely to indicate the position of a windmill. Balsall Common windmill, for instance, is a tower mill built of brick.

In 1787 two post-mills were built in Kenilworth, one on Knowle Hill, MR SP 299727, and the other one on the common, MR SP295731. William Yates’ map of 1793 shows these two mills. They are also indicated on the O.S. map of 1834.

A post-mill, for the uninitiated, consists of a large diameter vertical timber post supported on two horizontal cross timbers, called cross-trees, the ends of which are supported on low brick or stone pillars. Balanced on top of the post is the mill, which can be rotated to face the wind or ‘winded’. The sails are of course at the front, and a tail pole protrudes at the back down to about two or three feet above the ground, so the miller can push it round to face the wind, or ‘wind’ the mill. Very often the cross-tree supports are enclosed in a round-house with a conical shaped roof to make a store place; this is an eighteen century addition to old mills.

The two Kenilworth post-mills both ceased operating shortly after 1834, most probably due to steam power and the coming of the railway in 1844 bringing cheap power to this area. As they were post-mills it was impossible to convert them to steam.

Kenilworth Windmills Map 1793
Extract from Thomas Yates’ map of 1793, redrawn by M. G. Sayer, 1966 (from the cover of Kenilworth History 1998)

Nine years before the two post-mills were constructed, a brick tower-mill was built on Tainters Hill, SP290721. This mill battled on, driven by the wind, grinding corn for the inhabitants of Kenilworth for seventy-six years until it succumbed to the power of steam. Unlike its fellow post-mills, conversion was possible. In 1854 the conversion was implemented.

A black and white sketch of this mill exists. It shows it with ‘common’ or canvas sails, a pitched roof type cap but without any method of turning the cap into the wind. It seems to be purely an artist’s impression, and one from memory. Quite probably it had canvas sails, not the ‘Patent’ sails as the Lincolnshire and Norfolk windmills later had; they were an invention in 1807 of William Cubit, later Sir William. The cap would have had curved rafters; as it is shown, there would have hardly have been enough room for the large brake wheel under it. In Lincolnshire the caps were usually ‘ogee’ shaped, while in Norfolk they were upturned ‘transom’ boat shaped with the wind shaft projecting out of the transom end. Warwickshire windmills were usually similar to the Norfolk type.

Balsall Common tower windmill has this boat type cap, with a transom at the back as well to accommodate a large wheel and chain which enabled the cap to be turned by hand from the ground. The tower-mill on Tainters Hill most likely had a cap of this type, with a wheel and chain. If it had a ‘fantail’, a small six or more bladed fan at right angles to the main sails, the artist would certainly have remembered this feature and shown it on his sketch.

There is the wonderful tale of the early eighteen hundreds when this old tower mill driven by the wind still ground flour for local bread making, of Gerry O’Hea who, as a youth, nearly lost his life showing off his pluck and lack of fear to his friends by catching hold of a passing revolving sail. Unfortunately for Gerry, when releasing his hold he became caught up and revolved with the sail until the miller, hearing his cries for help, stopped the mill and rescued the lad.

In 1883 the Kenilworth Water Company was formed. The old mill, having ceased working, was seen to be an ideal structure on which to fit a water tank. In 1884 the cap was removed, the tower raised from about forty feet to about fifty feet and a 26,000 gallon tank was placed on the top.

The Kenilworth U.D.C., in 1922, purchased the water undertaking. Electric pumps replaced the steam driven ones and in 1925, because of the increased demand for water by the growing population of Kenilworth, the original tank was replaced by a new 500,000 gallon tank. By 1963 the Council’s responsibility for the water supply was passed to the South Warwickshire Water Board. The ‘water tower’ by that time had gone out of use and was sold and turned into a residence in 1973.

In 1935 a half full-size model of the smock-mill at Dyke, Lincolnshire, was built on the site of the old Crackley post-mill on the Common for the late Lord Kenilworth by Messrs. Hunts of Soham, Cambs. The director of operations was the late Mr. Rex Wailes, a pioneer of industrial archaeology and president of the Newcomen Society from 1953 to 1955. This large model remained there until it was demolished in 1964.

Smock Mill Replica on the Common
Drawing by Rob Steward of the half-size model of the smock mill at Dyke, Lincolnshire, which stood on Kenilworth Common between 1935 and 1964

Again for the uninitiated, a ‘smock’ mill is like a tower mill, but instead of the tower being built of brickwork it is made of timber and usually octagonal in plan. The whole was clad with lapped weatherboarding and more often than not painted white, giving the appearance of a miller’s ‘smock’.

Research has failed to find out who the millers of the post mills were between 1778 and 1880. A will, dated 15th June 1793, shows that at that time, the windmill on Tainters Common and a malt-house in New Way (later New Street) belonged to William Parker of Kenilworth, a baker, and was left to his mother Susannah Parker. His mother died 15th April 1796 and the ownership seems to have passed to his brother John Parker, a baker of Birmingham, and his sister Susannah, wife of John Gee. Although one gets the impression that William Parker died in middle age, he was possibly the first owner, building the mill when he was, perhaps, about the age of thirty-five. Three other names appear to be likely candidates for Tainters Hill tower-mill. The first is William Homan who lived in New Street in 1835, the second is Mark Sturley, a corn miller in 1850, who also lived in New Street, the third is James Grant whose address, in 1866, was Gravel Pits, Coventry Road, a miller. Was it Mark Sturley who converted the mill to steam power in 1854, or did James Grant take it over in 1854 and convert it? John Boddington was also a miller living at Mill End in 1841. But he worked at the watermill. He later took over the ‘Engine’ pub from Edward Boddington.

In 1969 the K.H.A.S. had the opportunity to visit the ‘water tower’ and made a very quick survey.

Part of Rouncil Lane was once called Millfield Lane. The name Millfield suggests that there may have been a windmill here at some time. To the north of this part of the lane is a slight knoll, rising about 15 metres (50 feet) above the stream which is four or five fields away further north. It is not the ideal place for a windmill but not out of the question. There was also a ‘Miller’s Field’. But in 1756 there was a John Miller.

Some of our readers may have further information about these old windmills which they may like to tell us so it can be added to our knowledge of the subject.

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