BOBBY SHAFTO Part 2 of 2

Ten years passed during which time the ditty continued to spread. From County Durham, it spread into the neighboring counties. It was passed on by word of mouth by both rich and poor. It quickly reached neighboring county Yorkshire where the mythically wealthy Anne Duncombe lived. Along with many others, she sang it in her youth. By the time that she reached marriageable age she still harbored a secret desire for this bonnie man with romantic silver buckles. The song continued its popularity slowly spreading across the land. It even made its way across The Irish Sea to as far away as Hollybrook, in County Wicklow Ireland[vi]

Thus, it was that when Bobby Shafto returned to England, he found a land replete with women hankering for him. Each hoped that Bobby Shafto’s “silver buckles” meant he was rich and the promise ‘He’ll come back and marry me,” applied to them. He enjoyed his popularity and outlaid the small sum that he had managed to accumulate during his travels to set himself as the desirable bachelor he had become. For the following three years, he moved from place to place wooing women and enjoying his eligible status even though he began to find that once his true net worth became known most of his targeted women’s families told him to move on. Anne Duncombe’s family were different as the size of their fortune immunized them from financial concerns. Bobby liked Anne’s youthful innocence and told her that he was in love. They became engaged.

During Bobby’s absence, Bridget’s parents died leaving her an independent heiress. She felt happy in this state as she was now mistress of her own destiny. She kept up her vigil for Bobby’s return and continued to sing her song. Every day she rode to the glade where she, and Bobby had always met. Here she dismounted to sit and wait. When she heard rumors of Bobby’s return, she increased her vigil. Her doctors advised her to stop lingering in this damp dell. They told her that it was probably the cause of her consumption and most certainly aggravating it. She refused to move to a warmer dry climate to treat her ailment for she knew in her heart that her Bobby would return as he had promised and wanted to be there to meet him. When she heard that Bobby had been seen in Yorkshire wooing Anne Duncombe, her resolve faltered, and she arranged for a trip to London to seek treatment.

Meanwhile, Anne’s youth and fortune reminded Bobby of Bridget. The closer they came to their wedding date the more his old memories of Bridget intensified. He decided that the only thing that he could do was to see Bridget. He traveled north to County Durham, and on the day after his arrival at Whitworth Hall rode out to their meeting place. She was not there so he continued on to Brancepeth Castle. On hearing that she learned of his engagement and had left for London, he followed her with urgency. It was the speed which he now knew he ought to have used on the day of his return to England.

It was here that Bobby Shafto and Bridget Belasyse reconnected. She lay decoratively on a couch and gasped when she saw him. His years in India had aged him, giving him, mature good looks and he still wore his silver buckles. He was in for a greater shock for he hadn’t been prepared to find her pale and thin. They sat together talking until one of her coughing spells exhausted her that her nurse suggested that she ought to return to bed. Bobby swept her up in his arms and carried her to her chamber. When she was in his arms, he was amazed how light she had become. Now his feelings for her intensified, and he knew that he had always loved her.

“Let’s get married.” He suggested.

“Yes.” she responded, “But you have to know that I am dying.”

“But you are not going die.” He shook his head “We’ll help you get the best treatment.” He smiled weakly as he gently stroked her icy cold hand.

“If we did get married …….’ Bridget paused, “if we did, and I died, you’d get everything.” She attempted a smile, “It’d be my gift to you, and I’d much prefer it going to you than to my cousin.” She sank back on her pillows and closed her eyes.

Bobby turned to the nurse, his eyes asked, “What now?”

“She needs to rest.” said the nurse, “Come back tomorrow.”

Bobby stood and lent over to kiss her damp forehead “My only love.” He murmured. “I’ll be back, I’ve learned my lesson I promise; I’ll be back.”

The next day, April 6th 1774, Bobby returned. He was greeted by a front door sporting a black wreath. Bridget had died during the night. The cousin had already materialized and taken over the household. He met Bobby at the door and told him that he was not welcome.

Bobby mourned for a couple of days and then pulled himself together and returned to Anne. On April 18th 1774, two weeks after Bridget’s death Bobby Shafto and Anne Duncombe were married. Their union, by all accounts a happy one, was blessed with children and greatly improved the Shafto holdings for decades to come. They played Bridget’s song at the wedding. Bobby let Anne believe that it was in her honor.

Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,
With silver buckles on his knee;
He’ll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto.

 

[vi] Some believe that the Bobby Shafto song relates to a Bobby Shafto who lived in Hollybrook, in County Wicklow Ireland and died in 1737.

BOBBY SHAFTO Part 1 of 2

Recently I heard about a question on a game show which went: “Who wore silver buckles on his knees?” The answer, which I was proud to know, was: “Bobby Shafto.” The question made me think about the Bobby Shafto ditty which goes as follows:

Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,
With silver buckles on his knee;
He’ll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto!

The still popular song dates from the early 1700s and is now played as a nursery rhyme. It has several conflicting explanations. I delved into these and offer this story as my interpretation of what might have happened. I give it in two installments.

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Bridget Belasyse[i] lived in Brancepeth Castle[ii]. She sat gazing out of her window while her maid combed and braided her long blond hair. It was a crisp north of England morning. Birds sang, and light mists tinged with pink hung over the verdant surrounding fields. Her window faced east toward Durham City. city with its ancient castle and cathedral hidden from view in the valley of the River Wear valley. To her left was the village of Brancepeth and if she turned right and strained, she could see Whitworth Hall across the rolling countryside.

Bridget knew that the castle had been purchased by her warring grandfather and often wished that she had been born a man so that she could partake in this kind of gallantry and adventure. The closest that she had come to war was in 1745 when she was ten, and the English army led by The Duke of Cumberland raged through the countryside on their way north to Scotland to annihilate ‘The Jacobite Rising’ led by the romantic figure of Bonnie Prince Charlie[iii]. What took Bridget’s imagination was not the ruthless defeat of the rebellion but the romantic story of Flora MacDonald, a Scottish highland lass, who had aided the Bonnie Prince to escape abroad. Bridget knew that in the same situation, she would have done likewise.

It was now spring of 1760, and Bridget had just turned twenty-five, rather too old to still be unmarried, but she was headstrong and insisted that she wouldn’t marry “just anyone’’. She pointed out that her idol of feminine achievement, Flora MacDonald, hadn’t married until she was twenty-eight. She said that there was still plenty of time. Those who knew her agreed that, with her fortune and astonishing good looks, there probably was, plenty of time.

Her hair finished. She donned a bonnet and called for her velvet cloak. She went outside and walked with a resolute stride to St. Brandon’s church. Her ostensive mission was to welcome Thomas Goodfellow Shafto, the new rector. When she entered the church, its cool presence reminded her of her belief in God. She hastily curtsied and took a pew to kneel and pray. Beside the altar she could see two men conversing. Their voices echoed but strain as she did, she could not make out their words. She deduced that the one wearing a cassock must be the new rector and the other? The other, tall blond with a relaxed easy stance – surely that was Bobby, his brother. She knew that Whitfield Hall which she saw from her window was their family home, but she had never met the brothers. They had been raised in London where their father had served as politician and Member of Parliament[iv]. When Bridget began to feel uncomfortable in her strained eaves-dropping stance, she slipped out of the church unannounced. The two at the altar heard her retreating footsteps and smiled as they watched the church door close behind her.

“I hear that’s a feisty one” remarked Thomas.

‘One of the Belasyse from the castle?”

“The Belasyse, – If I’m not mistaken that was Bridget. She is monied – no other children – Her parents are elderly, she will get the entire estate when her parents die!”

“Worth a visit?”

“Yes indeed!”

The following morning Thomas and Bobby paid a visit. For some reason, Bridget blushed when her butler announced their presence. She wasn’t sure whether it was something about their voices in the church, or the easy self-assured way that Bobby had stood in the church which had intrigued her and now made her blush. She was still pink when the two entered her drawing room. She served small cakes and tea, acquired, she explained, through her father’s trading with the East India Company. They exchanged pleasantries. She mentioned that she liked to ride. Bobby was quick to follow up on her comment with an offer to accompany her. For the first time in her life, Bridget was attracted to a man. She heartedly accepted. The attraction appeared to be mutual. The young couple quickly fell into a routine of riding together every morning. They adopted a wooded dell, half way between Brancepeth and Whitworth Hall, as their meeting place. The place was damp and beautiful. That spring the ground was carpeted with blue bells. Their brilliant color spread in wonderous beauty under the trees giving the place an ethereal smell of damp earth and blossom.

Both Bridget’s and Bobby’s parents disapproved of their bludgeoning romance. Bridget’s because they wanted Bridget to marry a titled man of good means, and Bobby’s because they wanted Bobby to parley his good looks and charm into a relationship with an heiress to a fortune larger than Bridget’s. Both sets of parents agreed that a separation was required, but by the time they took action Bridget and Bobby had exchanged troths. Bridget gave Bobby a pair of silver britches or knee buckles and Bobby had sworn eternal love and marriage. Bridget’s mother called on the Shaftos at Whitworth Hall and requested that Bobby leave her daughter alone. She offered introductions to enable him to go to sea and ‘shape up’ as she put it, by engaging in meaningful work.

Bobby was attracted to the idea of getting rich quickly and agreed to join the East India Company and to ship out to India. He and Bridget met under their meeting place trees and exchanged a long farewell during which they repeated their vows of constancy and eternal love. They knew that they faced a long separation for the voyage to India alone, around the Cape, took about a year.

In order to thwart her parent’s attempts to pair her off with other suitors Bridget created a comforting song. She took an older north of England tune (circa 1690) and set her own words to it. Every morning, rain or shine, she opened her window and gazed east while she sang her catchy ditty.

Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,
With silver buckles on his knee;
He’ll come back and marry me,
Bonny Bobby Shafto!

During the day her parents and servants often heard her singing to the ramparts of the castle. She sang to the woods and dells around Brancepeth until everyone knew her refrain. Soon the servant girls took up the song. Some sang of upcoming nuptials, others of temporary separations. The song gained in popularity as it gradually passed from village to village. No-one changed the essence of the first verse for perhaps they liked the ring of Bonnie Bobby Shafto or maybe preferred anonymity for their loved ones. Some added verses to suit their particular circumstances.

There was this verse dedicated to a tall lover:

Bobby Shafto’s tall and slim,
He’s always dressed so neat and trim,
The ladies they all kick at him,
Bonny Bobby Shafto.

Others with shorter beaus added this verse:

Bobby Shafto’s fat and fair,
Combing down his yellow hair;
He’s my love for evermore,

Bonny Bobby Shafto.

To be continued.

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End notes associated with this part.

[i] Belasyse, pronounced ‘bel- asis’.

[ii] Brancepeth Castle, originally constructed in Norman times, was purchased on April 7th 1701 by Sir Henry Belasyse, Bridget’s grandfather. He used funds accumulated during his military career.

[iii] In 1745 Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of James II of England, landed in Scotland to lead a catholic claim to the throne known as the Jacobite Rising. The rebellion was defeated by William Duke of Cumberland. Bonnie Prince Charlie, as the ‘pretender’ was affectionately called by his followers, escaped with assistance of a local highland lass, Flora McDonald.

[iv] John Shafto Member of Parliament 1729-1742.

[v] Some believe that the Bobby Shafto song relates to a Bobby Shafto who lived in Hollybrook, in County Wicklow Ireland and died in 1737