A Christmas Mystery

A CHRISTMAS MYSTERY

How many times have you walked past Lloyds Bank on the High Street and paid little, if any, attention to the plaque on the wall - let alone ask who was Richard Head? How come James II stayed with him in December 1688?

Richard Head was the son of a Rainham yeoman family. One can assume the family was ‘well-to-do’  as Francis Merrick, a very wealthy merchant and alderman of Rochester, agreed to Richard marrying his daughter, Elizabeth. On their marriage, around 1640, Elizabeth presented her husband with a fleet of merchant ships!

Probably widowed, Richard made another good marriage around 1655. This time his bride, Elizabeth Willy of Wrotham, brought to the marriage a large portfolio of Rochester properties.

As a man of wealth and property it’s not surprising that he became the MP for Rochester - a position he held for twelve years. There is no record of him making a speech in Parliament during this time. This could have been looked upon favourably by Charles II who was having to get accustomed to being accountable to a Parliament who had ‘invited’ him back to England to take the throne that was last occupied by his father who had been executed.  One can perhaps also assume that Richard was supportive of the monarch - perhaps financially - as after his parliamentary career Charles II rewarded him with a peerage.

The scene is now set for Richard, who became Mayor of Rochester in 1683, to be able to provide accommodation for James II who had come to the throne following the death of his brother, Charles II, who had died with no legitimate children.

In less than three years of James being on the throne the ‘men in grey suits’ disliking Jame’s Catholic inclinations and his desire to claim the ‘divine right of kings’, decided they would prefer James’s daughter Mary and her Protestant husband, William of Orange /William III, to jointly assume the monarchy.  

I’ll leave you to read about the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but in December James realised that he could not resist William’s forces and decided to escape to France. However, James was arrested at Faversham as he was thought to be acting suspiciously - but was recognised as being the King when brought ashore. On William’s instructions James was to be escorted back to London. Having spent five hours travelling from Faversham to Rochester, and with another six hours before reaching London, the party broke their journey at Rochester. Here James spent a night as the guest of Richard Head before continuing to London.

James found his London accommodation unsatisfactory and asked if he could return to Rochester and the house of Richard Head. James returned on or around 14 December. On 23 December a boatman - probably ‘arranged’ by William - called and helped James make his escape to France. James landed at Calais on Christmas Day 1688.

Why James ended up being ‘hosted’ by Richard Head at what is now known as Abdication House, is unknown. Perhaps he was regarded as a safe pair of hands, perhaps because the house was fit for a king or maybe it was an unplanned ‘honour’ for the Mayor when James and his escort needed to take a break on their journey to London.

So this Christmas when you visit the cash-point of Lloyds Bank - pause a moment to reflect on what you could have witnessed had you been there 328 years ago - at a significant time in our history when another step was taken to shape the democracy we have today.