The Taferals and the Kanes

As with innumerable other references and throwaway lines in REH’s stories, there are hints in the Solomon Kane saga that cry for further examination. His relationship with the Taferal family of Devon is one of them. Old Hildred Taferal, his evil kinsman Sir John, and the innocent Marylin Taferal, trepanned to the depths of Africa, were all of some importance in Solomon Kane’s life. He was fond of Sir (or Lord) Hildred, had evidently been decently treated by the old man in former years, and had been the instrument of the vile Sir John’s demise. All these matters are mentioned in REH’s story, “The Moon of Skulls”, but not treated in detail.

“Taferal” or a variant of it, is a name that recurs in a number of REH yarns, from the sixteenth century to the twentieth. “The Children of the Night”, for instance. One of the men gathered in Conrad’s study is named Taverel. The female pirate Helen Tavrel in “The Isle of Pirate’s Doom” is a Taverel with one letter missing. I suspect there were two main branches of the family, one in Devon, one in Cornwall.

The sixteenth-century Devon Taferals (who with the free-and-easy eccentric spelling of the time variously rendered their surname Taferal, Tafarel and Taffryl) are of most interest here. They were closely associated with the Kanes, the family that produced the grim Puritan adventurer Solomon Kane. The “little Devon town” to which he was native may well have been Salcombe, a fishing village about twenty miles east of Plymouth, which was home to the Hawkins family. Devon was also the home county of Francis Drake, Solomon Kane’s contemporary.

Hildred, John and Marylin are the Taferals most strikingly mentioned. Kane refers in passing to brothers (plural) of Marylin’s, though their number and names are not specified. Solomon Kane knew Marylin when she was a tiny child, and was clearly fond of her, so he must have had an association of some sort with the Taferals.

Hildred is the oldest still living. Kane calls him both “Lord Hildred Taferal” and “old Sir Hildred” in “Moon of Skulls”. In fact, to be “Lord Hildred Taferal” in England, he would have to be the younger son of a duke or marquis. That seems pretty high in the peerage for a person on familiar terms with a commoner – lesser gentry at most – like Solomon Kane. Solomon had even taken Hildred’s baby cousin on his knee! He also knows Hildred well enough to be aware that in his old age he has gout, and blasphemes a lot. It’s more significant still that Hildred, and Marylin’s brothers, trust him with a lone quest to find and restore her.

Besides, Kane also refers to Hildred as “Sir Hildred”, so there is a discrepancy here. I’d resolve it by supposing that Hildred had been a knight in his younger days, and was later created a baron. Then he would be “Hildred, Lord Taferal” not “Lord Hildred Taferal.” This is probably a slight slip of REH’s. As for Kane, he doubtless refers to the old man as both a “sir” and a “lord” to Marylin, in almost the same breath, because he isn’t paying much attention to niceties of title in the hellish city of Negari. He’s in a desperate, urgent situation (when wasn’t he?).

I’d assume that the Taferals were a gentry family, not noble, at the time Hildred was born. They had a manor house near Kingsbridge – a few miles north of “the little Devon town”, probably Salcombe on the coast that bred the Kanes. Salcombe is a fishing port known for the natural beauty of its setting, but as the sixteenth century began it lacked other distinctions. The much larger town of Plymouth, home of the Hawkins and Drake families, lay along the coast twenty miles to the west.

Hildred, and Solomon Kane’s grandfather – I like to think the latter’s name was Reuben – were born in the same year, 1502. Reuben was an ordinary, unlettered fisher lad. He knew boats and the sea, and not much else at first, while Hildred received the usual sort of gentry education, including training in arms. The two had hot blood and a reckless, scapegrace streak in common.

The Protestant faith was fairly new then, and Henry VIII’s break with the Church of Rome caused much horror. The nobles and gentry of Devon turned their religious coats at Henry’s command, while the commoners for the most part stayed Romish. The Kanes were an exception; they became Protestants, and staunch, stubborn ones, though they would not have qualified as “Puritans” in the early 1500s; the word wasn’t even in general use then. English Puritanism, strictly speaking, was founded shortly after Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558.

Both boys were more interested in adventure and hell-raising than in religion. Hildred enjoyed slumming among the smugglers and pirates whose ships often docked at Salcombe, and, to quote The Wind in the Willows, “simply messing about in boats”. Reuben dreamed of blooded horses and swords. The two met while young and took to each other. Hildred taught Reuben the principles of fencing. (His own instructor was an Italian fencer who had fled Milan for reasons he didn’t talk about.) He and Reuben practiced together with sticks before they were ten, and Reuben showed promise. Hildred took the rapiers from the house when they were older and practiced with Reuben with the genuine blades.

(Henry VIII had come to the throne, aged eighteen, when both these boys were seven.)

Reuben Kane’s father might have given his first-born that name because he knew the quotation from Genesis 49: “You are my first-born, my might, the first sign of my strength, excelling in honor, excelling in power.”

He apparently didn’t know how Reuben, according to the Bible, turned out. Reuben was reckless, impatient, undisciplined, and defied his father’s authority by taking one of his father’s concubines, Bilhah, while his father was still alive. He would have inherited her anyhow on his father’s death, Reuben being the first-born, but he wouldn’t wait. His father Jacob (also known as Israel) knew what he’d done but said nothing at the time. On his deathbed, though, he spoke the chilling prophecy to Reuben: “Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel,” which REH quotes at the beginning of “Reuben’s Brethren”. Rudyard Kipling refers to the “curse of Reuben” in his poem “Gentlemen Rankers”. They are men of aristocratic birth who through wildness and lack of self-control, lost their social position as well as their money and descended to the level of common soldiers in the barracks.

Gentlemen rankers out on the spree, Damned from here to eternity, Lord ha’ mercy on such as we …

King Henry, arrogant and prodigiously energetic, married his older brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, and in 1512 joined his father-in-law, Ferdinand of Aragon, in a war against France, supposedly to defend the Pope. It’s ironic, in view of his later complete break with the Catholic Church, that Henry in his early years as king showed almost abject devotion to it, and the pontiff.

By 1515 Thomas Wolsey was the king’s chief minister and close friend. Archbishop of York and a cardinal, he was the second most powerful man in England through the dozen years between 1515 and 1527. During those years Hildred became a soldier, with Reuben as his henchman. They fought abroad as mercenaries in the continental struggle between France and the German Empire during the 1520s. Hildred had political as well as military acumen, and sent cogent reports on the continental scene back to England. Wolsey himself read them with interest.

Hildred, ably seconded by Reuben, distinguished himself as a condottiere in the Italian War of 1521-26. Reuben discovered a gift for the sword more impressive than Hildred’s, and worked hard to develop it, training with various sword-masters in France, Germany and Italy, including a pupil of the great Filippo Vadi. The pair led their mercenary company in the service of Charles III, Duc de Bourbon, and when neither money nor food was forthcoming, they were among those who mutinied and compelled Charles to lead them in the Sack of Rome (May 1527). Although both English, they felt free to serve against the League of Cognac, since the King of England had refused to join it when its other members would not sign the treaty in England, as he had wished.

With the attack on Rome, Henry VIII swiftly signed the treaty of Westminster and joined the league of Cognac, but he was too late to prevent Rome being taken and looted. Hildred and Reuben grabbed their share of the plunder. Their leader, Charles de Bourbon, made conspicuous by his white cloak, was shot and killed during the attack. Benvenuto Cellini boasted that he had fired the fatal shot. Reuben heard him and challenged the hot-headed goldsmith and sculptor to fight. He won the duel, but upon being told what an artist Cellini was, refrained from killing him.

REH’s “sword woman”, Dark Agnes de la Fere, was also at the siege with her rascal comrade Etienne Villiers, on the side of France and the Papal States. If my estimate of their respective ages is correct, she was four years younger than Hildred and Reuben, who were only twenty-five at the Sack of Rome themselves. It’s my belief that they met Agnes and Etienne there, though I can’t prove it. No records show it.

Henry VIII, from 1527 onward, pursued with intense determination what became known as “the king’s great matter” – getting a divorce from Catherine. With ever greater desperation, Cardinal Wolsey tried to achieve it for him. Hildred Taferel and Reuben worked together in France on a mission for Wolsey, trying to establish an Anglo-French military alliance aimed at breaking the Emperor Charles V’s domination of Italy. With that achieved, the Pope could have safely annulled Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon – who was the Emperor’s aunt. Wolsey tried with all his considerable ability to bring it about. Hildred and Reuben’s forlorn mission was merely one of his gambits, but they all failed, and Wolsey in the end – predictably – was dismissed from office by his frustrated monarch.

Hildred and Reuben came home and both married – Reuben, in 1529, a girl named Susannah Fletcher, a bit above him socially, but he had money now, as well as experience and travel under his belt. Hildred married Priscilla Hawkins of Plymouth. They had three children, but unluckily all of them died young. In his old age Hildred was without issue, one reason he loved Marylin dearly. Hildred’s younger brother Matthew had two sons by his wife Edwina – John, and Roland. Unfortunately John, the elder, born in 1536, turned out to be unprincipled and wicked.

Reuben, I think, had brothers who were steady, hard-working lads. He was the wild one. He came home from the wars to find that one of his younger brothers had drowned at sea. Fishermen frequently did. He left a widow and children to be looked after by his kinsmen. Reuben purchased a small ship that plied up and down the coast, and invested the rest of his Italian plunder in merchant voyages out of Plymouth, which started the Kanes on their way up from poor fisher-folk.

Reuben and Susannah had children who flourished – Nathaniel, born in 1530, who became Solomon’s father, and two girls, Violet and Hester. However, Susannah died bearing Hester, in 1535. Reuben was shattered; he had loved her deeply.

(Between 1530 and 1535, incidentally, across the world, Pizarro was conquering the Inca Empire.)

REH’s poem, “Up, John Kane!” may have a cousin of Nathaniel’s for its subject. The John Kane of the title has evidently committed a murder and made a pact with demons to escape the consequences. The pact requires him to become a werewolf and he regrets making it. Much too late.

You swore by the blood-crust that stained your dagger, By the haunted woods where hoofed feet swagger, And under grisly burdens misshapen creatures stagger.

Up, John Kane, and cease your quaking! You have made the pact which has no breaking, And your brothers are eager their thirst to be slaking.

What eventually happened to him would be depressing to know. I doubt he was as lucky as de Montour in “Wolfshead”, to finally be freed of the lupine demon that haunted him. There may even be a link with another REH poem, “Dead Man’s Hate” in which a corpse – that of John Farrel — comes down from a market-place gallows to settle accounts with the man who had wronged him, Adam Brand. Conceivably Brand and Farrel desired the same woman, so Brand lied Farrel’s life away to get a clear field, swearing that Farrel had done the knife-murder which had actually been committed by Kane. Just a thought …

Wolsey had fallen from power by then, and Thomas Cromwell became King Henry’s new chief political hatchet man. Cromwell presided over the ever more provocative law-making that led to a breach with the Papacy, and to Henry’s being raised to supreme head of the Church of England. Henry married Anne Boleyn in 1533 and had her executed in 1536.

Hildred and Reuben served together in Henry VIII’s wars against Scotland. They were at the Battle of Solway Moss in November 1542, a disaster for Scotland. Half the Scottish army was hauled away prisoners to London and held hostage for their relatives’ behavior, until they could be ransomed or swore oaths of loyalty to England, or both. They nearly all broke the oaths as soon as they were free, unless their lands were too close to the English border to risk it. King James V of Scotland, who had been ill already, died on hearing the battle was lost. Mary Queen of Scots was born in the same year.

Another Italian War broke out in 1542. King Henry involved England in it, against France, and sent an army of 40,000 men to Calais. Hildred and Reuben were with it as officers. It had little result politically, but Reuben, eight years a widower by then, met a Picardy girl of Protestant beliefs named Lisette of Chauny. He was forty; she was seventeen. However, considering the harsh intolerance towards Protestants in France, she was safer in England. She married Reuben in 1543. She was to become the mother of two of Solomon Kane’s uncles and three of his aunts. Her youngest children, Peter and Edith, who were twins, were only two years senior to their nephew Solomon.

In 1544, Hildred and Reuben marched with the Earl of Hertford, to enforce a betrothal between the infant Queen of Scots and Henry’s son Edward. He’d finally sired the heir he’d removed so many heads to get. In 1547 he died, and the boy-king Edward succeeded him. Hertford – now the Duke of Somerset, with the title Protector of the Realm – went back to Scotland again to enforce a betrothal between Mary and Edward. This was the jocularly named “Rough Wooing”, and it was a savage business. The English devastated southern Scotland; the Scots played football with their English prisoners’ heads.

Hildred got something out of it, at any rate. He’d already been knighted some years before. Now he was created a baron – Hildred, Lord Taferal. He’d called in favors and purchased broad lands dirt cheap as the monasteries were being dissolved. He was made, and so were his heirs.

The young King Edward VI, a rather extreme Protestant with the earnest ardor of boyhood, died in 1553. His sister Mary, an even more extreme Catholic, came to the throne determined to bring England back to the Papal flock no matter how draconian the measures needed. She also married King Philip of Spain. The results of that were described in the post “Solomon Kane and Tudor Paranoia – Part Two”. They included a poorly conceived revolt led by Sir Thomas Wyatt. It failed abysmally, and at least a hundred rebels were hung, drawn and quartered.

Nathaniel Kane, then twenty-four and newly married, with a pregnant wife (the former Dymphna Yarrow) was drawn into the Devon segment of the revolt. He was lucky not to be one of those executed. He certainly would have been, if Lord Taferal, for the sake of his old comrade Reuben, hadn’t intervened on Nathaniel’s behalf. Seeing what a mess the insurrection was, and how certain to fail, Hildred Taferal came out solidly in support of the Crown, even though he was a Protestant himself — something he didn’t advertise while Mary Tudor occupied the throne. Thus Hildred’s credentials were pretty solid, and he was believed when he swore (perjuring himself crimson) that Nathaniel had been his agent, spying on the rebels. Nathaniel had the sense to say nothing in contradiction of that story, and went home to his wife, who no doubt scolded him furiously between bouts of tears.

Nathaniel was in time to see his first child born. The boy was christened Solomon.