the courage and obstinance of ben franklin's ancestor -- 5/28/19

Today's selection -- from Young Benjamin Franklin by Nick Bunker. One of Benjamin Franklin's British ancestors was Henry Franklin. He left a legacy of courage and rebellion against aristocracy for the family:

"A resilient man, eager to rise in the world, Henry Franklin was something of a local hero, fit to inspire his descendants with an example of courage. Far into the eighteenth century, his story would help to fash­ion the view the Franklins took of themselves as people who refused to be done down by those who claimed to be their superiors.

"Henry Franklin was born in 1573, four miles from Houghton Magna in the parish of Ecton, another hillside village above the River Nene. ... In 1595 -- a year of plague and famine, when the laboring people of England were at their lowest ebb -- he married Agnes Jones. She had a brother called Michael.

"His descendants remembered Henry as a dour, unsociable person, but he made friends with Michael Jones and they became partners in busi­ness. In about 1604, when James I had recently become the king, the two men bought some land at Houghton Magna, fine tillage for grain with a share of the hay from the meadows. And then the trouble started. ...

"In the sixteenth century, most of Houghton Magna ... [was sold] to investors led by ... one [Catholic named] Ferdinando Baude. He set about at once to fence in the fields [which impaired the profits they could obtain]: including the tract of land that Henry Franklin had recently acquired. ...

"Soon Ferdinando Baude met with stiff resistance from the peasantry, who broke down his hedges and con­tinued to plow their land. The villagers were 'every day more obstinate:' he wrote. And among the awkward squad at Houghton Magna, none were more stubborn than Franklin and Jones.

"Mr. Baude hired ruffians who beat up Henry Franklin; and when that tactic did not work, he took him and Michael Jones to court, accus­ing them of fraud in the way they bought their piece of soil. As Mr. Baude saw it, he was on the side of progress, with his plans for what he thought was 'a lawful and reasonable improvement,' while the likes of Jones and Franklin were nothing more than malcontents. 'Covetous and troublesome' -- those were the words Baude used about them: the earliest description we can find of any member of the Franklin family.

Benjamin Franklin by Joseph Duplessis, 1778

"Now Henry was not the surrendering sort and neither were his friends on the farms at Houghton Magna. The villagers found their own attor­ney, a Puritan with a seat in Parliament. ...

"Early in 1606, at what must have seemed to be an ideal moment, Jones and Franklin issued their legal defense against the lawsuit from the endosers. In doing so they tried to occupy the moral high ground of virtue and the common good. In Henry Franklin's eyes, the scheme to fence in the fields was nothing but a plot by powerful men to 'prejudice the common wealth;' throwing the poor off the land, by what he and Jones called 'the decay of tillage, and subversion & decaying of many houses ... and the diminishing of people.'

"Eloquent though they were, Henry and his business partner failed to win their fight for justice. The details are obscure, but one thing we know:

"Jones and Franklin lost their bit of land at Houghton Magna. It appears that for a while Henry lost his liberty as well. In 1743, when Benjamin Franklin was trying to research his ancestry, he received a letter from his father in which Josiah added some more information. According to Josiah, Henry Franklin went to prison 'on suspicion of his being the author of some poetry that touched the character of some great man.' The man he libeled must have been Mr. Baude or one of his cronies."



Nick Bunker


Young Benjamin Franklin


Borzoi Book


Copyright 2018 by Nick Bunker


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