St Mary’s Church in Beverley, East Yorkshire, would probably be more well-known were it not for the famous and imposing Gothic Minster that also graces the town. Even when compared to that grand building – which houses the shrine of St John of Beverley – St Mary’s Church is still impressive: it is one of the largest parish churches in Britain, a Grade I listed building, and has been in existence since the 12th Century, although the main fabric of the church dates from later than that. It is a truly beautiful example of medieval Gothic architecture. It was while exploring the church’s beautiful exterior, taking in the many carvings and details in the stonework, that I came across an intriguing memorial.
High on the wall of the church is an oval plaque, illustrated with an image of crossed swords, its paint peeling but its text still legible. The tale it tells is an unusual one, a dramatic moment in the history of this pretty town in East Yorkshire.
Here two young Danish Souldiers lye.
The one in quarrell chanc’d to die;
The others Head, by their own Law,
With Sword was sever’d at one Blow
December the 23d
The plaque commemorates a tragedy that took place in Beverley at the end of 1689 – two young Danish soldiers quarrelled, and one of them was killed in the altercation. In keeping with Danish law, the man who had killed his comrade was executed by beheading in the town on 23rd December 1689. Who knows what they were quarrelling over? Perhaps it was money, or a lover, or an insult. Perhaps they had had too much to drink, and came to blows. The reason for their fight has been lost to history but thanks to the plaque erected at St Mary’s, where the two men were buried, the tragedy has been remembered in Beverley.
An 1890 account of the incident states the names of the men as they appear on the parish register – Daniel Straker, Danish trooper, who was buried on 16th December 1689, and Johannes Frederick Bellow, also a Danish trooper, buried on 23rd December. An 1892 history of Beverley comments that the the memorial is “an object of curiosity to visitors, and is periodically re-painted.”
This 1892 account also included an eyewitness account of the execution of Johannes Bellow, which was recounted to a reporter in 1830 by the granddaughter of a woman, Mary Hopwood, who had been present at the execution as a young girl, and had passed on the story of it to her daughter and granddaughter.
A scaffold was erected on the Cornhill (the middle of the large open space where the gas standard now is). Two cartloads of gravel were strewn below the scaffold to absorb the blood which fell. Lines of cavalry were drawn up all round the scaffold, and a great crowd filled the market place, strangers as well as townsmen. The bells of the churches tolled, but with that exception all was silent, till a dull sounding stroke severed the head from the culprit’s body, when a fierce and simultaneous shriek from the females present broke the air.
The first question one undoubtedly asks when looking at this memorial is why were Danish soldiers present in Beverley in 1689 at all? The previous year, 1688, had been one of upheaval in England. King James II had converted to Catholicism some years before becoming King, and this did not sit well with Protestant clergy and politicians. The birth of a son to James by his Catholic wife Mary of Modena in June 1688 displaced James’ Protestant daughter Mary (born to his first wife Anne Hyde) in the line of succession. James’ policies of religious tolerance and close ties with France caused alarm, and leading members of Parliament invited the Dutch Prince William of Orange, a nephew of James II who was married to James’ daughter Mary, to invade England. When James fled England in December 1688 it was decreed that by doing so he had abdicated the throne, ushering in the joint monarchy of William and Mary, as well as seeing the issuing of the English Bill of Rights of 1689.
In the early years of William and Mary’s reign, there was resistance from the supporters of James II, who came to be known as Jacobites. In order to put down Jacobite resistance in Ireland, King William employed several thousand Danish mercenaries who arrived on England’s east coast and travelled from there – some of them, at least, passing through Beverley – to Ireland, where they would eventually take part in famous battles such as the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and the decisive Battle of Aughrim in 1691. The conflict had a tremendous impact on Irish history, with the Protestant Orange Orders still commemorating the Battle of the Boyne to this day.
What might life have been like for these Danish mercenaries, fighting wars for a foreign king far from home? Remarkably, the writing of a man who fought in Ireland with William’s forces has survived and been studied by academics at the University of Copenhagen. Andreas Claudianus, a Norweigan who was a member of the Danish forces employed by William to fight the Jacobites in Ireland, returned to Denmark after the wars in Ireland and studied for a time at the University of Copenhagen. He was unable to complete his studies for financial reasons, but wrote an account of his time in Ireland – The Irish Mars, or a History of the War in Ireland for Two Years from Notes Recorded by a Fellow Soldier – which has become a valuable resource for any historian studying William’s wars in Ireland. Claudianus’ eyewitness account of the aftermath of the Battle of Aughrim makes for grim reading: “The blood from the dead so covered the ground that one could hardly take a step without slipping. This grisly scene of slaughter remained untouched and unchanged for several days, the horror of which cannot be imagined except by those who saw it.” (quoted in Eyewitness to Irish History, pp126-7)
Clearly, the fight between the two Danish soldiers, its tragic outcome and the execution of the other man caused quite a stir in Beverley. Not only was a memorial erected to remember the incident and the two men who lost their lives, but the story also lingers in the form of ghost stories. The Green Dragon, a historic pub not far from St Mary’s, is said to be haunted by the ghost of Johannes Frederick Bellow, the executed soldier. These two young men never made it to the war they were supposed to be fighting in, but their tragic disagreement afforded them unexpected immortality in a little town far from their Danish homes.
References and further reading
Beverley, St Mary’s Church – Britain Express http://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=4583
17th Century War Story to be Translated – University Post (University of Copenhagen), 1oth November 2012 http://universitypost.dk/article/17th-century-war-story-be-translated
William Andrews – Curiosities of the Church: Studies of Curious Customs, Services and Records, 1890
Bulmer’s History and Directory of East Yorkshire, 1892 (accessed online at University of Leicester Special Collections Online)
Peter Beresford Ellis – Eyewitness to Irish History, Wiley, 2007 (accessed online via Google Books)