If you ever need comfort reading before heading to bed, I recommend the diaries of the Reverend James Woodforde.
A Norfolk clergyman in the later 1700s, Woodforde's account of a life of dining, visiting, weather watching and village affairs offers a bucolic, restful portrait of an era, and a way of life, now unimaginably simple and pleasant. Woodforde was a kindly man, which may of course explain his sanguine view of the world. Other clergymen around this period were less relaxed, sadly, and one such, the Rev George Parker, who lived a mere hundred miles away from Woodforde's parish, was a galaxy apart in spirit and outcome.
The unfortunate Parker is the subject of Peter Moore's fascinating piece of criminal social history. A Cumbrian by birth, Parker had been the curate of the village of Oddingley, in Worcestershire, for more than a decade when in 1806 the grievances he had roused in his parishioners led to his murder. He was in his early forties when, on his way to tend to his sheep, he was shot and savagely beaten. His dying body was found by the villagers, and a fruitless chase made to catch the oddly dressed man seen escaping from the scene. The facts that emerged following this brutal act were to establish this as one of the most notorious crimes in English history, a case that appalled contemporaries and enthralled later generations.
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As carefully as if constructing a thriller, Moore sets his stage. We are introduced to the villagers, and given what little information is known about Parker, by all accounts an able, decent but stubborn man. While he was compassionate to the poor, Parker antagonised a coterie of local farmers, from whom he not only insisted on claiming the tithe he was due as part of his salary, but demanded that this be reset in line with inflation, and that he collect it in kind, an almost outrageous act that involved him carting off vegetables and lambs and pigs himself.
Such intransigence and insensitivity led to implacable enmity with these men. However, the matter might have gone no further than ill-feeling had one of them not been a retired army officer, Captain Evans. As Moore writes, "like many others who return from battlefields and are thrown back into society, Evans had a dangerous self-confidence burning inside him." In the months preceding Parker's murder, Evans and his associates were heard to damn the pastor and offer left-handed toasts to him, acts of alarming blasphemy in such pious times. Worse, they called for his murder – "there was no more harm in shooting the parson than in shooting a Dog", Evans was heard to say.
What follows was thus hardly unexpected, but what makes this case so intriguing is the context from which it springs. Moore has an eye for detail, sometimes growing overheated, as when he writes of this long-gone event, "Observing it at a distance of more than two centuries is like peering into a darkened room lit only by dim chinks of light". Yet despite such passages and the odd structural clumsiness, he has adeptly drawn together the threads of a complex story, drawing the large cast of characters so colourfully it feels more like a play than a slice of history.
He also excels in recreating the era in which this murder took place. This murder was not the product of innate viciousness. The men involved might have been bullies, but, with the possible exception of the Captain, they were not natural killers. What happened was the result of intolerable pressures upon individuals already feeling the pinch in a decade of threatened invasion, growing industrialisation, alarming inflation and rising taxes. That, plus the leadership of a man who would not be crossed.
The repercussions of this murder were to rumble on for three more decades, during which another murdered body was exhumed. Since all this preceded the establishment of formal policing or detective work, Moore's story is dogged by procedural incompetence by a slew of amateurs, which was to have far-reaching implications.
Written in the vein of Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions Of Mr Whicher, Moore's story is in many ways more compelling. The period he illuminates is murkier, and its protagonists more complex. On a few occasions there is a great deal of close detail to absorb, but for the most part this is a lively, atmospheric and gripping recreation of a terrible pact and its shocking consequences.
Damn His Blood
Chatto & Windus, £16.99