Christian, William (DNB00)
|←Christian, Thomas||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 10
CHRISTIAN, WILLIAM (1608–1663), receiver-general of the Isle of Man (famous in Manx history under the name of Illiam Dhône, 'Brown-haired William'), was born on 14 April 1608. He was the third son of Ewan Christian, one of the deemsters or judges of the Isle of Man and deputy-governor of Peel Castle. In 1643 his father made over to him the estate of Ronaldsway. The circumstances of this transaction throw some light on Christian’s subsequent conduct. The landed property in the Isle of Man was anciently held by the feudal ‘tenure of the straw,’ which was nominally a tenancy at will under the lord of the island, but was by custom practically equivalent to a freehold. This tenure James, seventh earl of Derby and tenth lord of Man was as we learn from his own memoirs, anxious to abolish, and to substitute for it a system of leases for three lives. The innovation met with great opposition from the landholders, and the year resorted in several instances to high-handed measures. Ewan Christian had recently purchased the Ronaldsway property from his sister’s trustees, but there was some uncertainty with regard to the title, and the earl threatened to give; his support to a rival claimant. By way of compromise, Ewan agreed to make over the estate to his third son, the two elder sons having apparently refused to accept it on the proposed terms. Christian’s compliance in this matter gained for him the favour of the earl, who in 1648 appointed him to the lucrative post of receiver-general.
In 1651 the earl went to England with a body of Manx volunteers to join the royalist army. He shared in the defeat of Charles II at Worcester, was taken prisoner, and afterwards beheaded. Before leaving the island, he committed his wife (the celebrated Charlotte de la Tremoille) to the care of Christian, and also gave him the command of the insular troops. The exact nature of the part played by Christian in the subsequent transactions is extremely difficult to ascertain. The countess, on hearing that her husband was a prisoner made overtures to the parliament for the surrender of the island: in the hope of saving the earl’s life. These proposals were drawn up by Sir Philip Musgrave whom Lady Derby had appointed governor, and were despatched by special messenger to England. The same night which the messenger sailed there was an insurrection, headed by Christian, and participated in, according to Burton, Musgrave's biographer, by the greater part of the native population of the island. The insurgents seized all the smaller forts, but were unable to obtain possession of the two strong places of Peel astle and Castle Rushen, in the latter of which the countess was then residing. According to Burton, they plundered the earl's property and subjected to violent treatment all the English who fell into their hands. Burton's uncorroborated testimony regarding the conduct of the islanders is open to strong suspicion; but there is no doubt that the forts were seized, and that Christian was the leader of the movement. The governor sent to question Christian respecting the motives of the rising. He replied that it was to procure redress of certain grievances which the islanders had suffered from the earl, and added that the countess had sold the country into the hands of the parliament. The grievances referred to were no doubt connected with the earl's attempt to introduce a new system of land tenure. By the desire of the countess, the governor consented to a parley with Christian, and the result was an aggreement with which both parties professed themselves satisfied. The next day the parliamentary fleet was seen approaching, and it was resolved to defend the island until satisfactory conditions could be obtained. According to Burton, Christian volunteered to the governor to take an oath of fidelity to the countess, but Musgrave 'did use him kindly, and refused his oath.' On the same day, however, he heard that Christian had sent out a boat to the English commander to assure him that no opposition would be offered to the landing, and that he had for the same purpose caused a white flag to be hung out from the fort of Douglas.
Whether this accusation be true has been much disputed, and the insular writers, who regard 'Illiam Dhone' as a martyr of popular rights, have frequently asserted that it is without foundation. The 'Mercurius Politicus' of November 1651, however, contains a letter from a person on board the fleet, stating that a Manxman named Hugh Moore, Hugh Moore, 'employed by Mr. Receiver Christian and others the chief of the island, had come on board to assure us that we should have no opposition in landing, but might securely come under any of their forts, which, he said, they had already taken possession of for us'—Peel and Caste Rushen being the only exceptions. This stattmient clearly proves that Christian had intrigued with the parliament against the countess. We have, moreover, evidence that the part he took was satisfactory to Cromwell's government, as the journals of the House of Commons for December 1651 contain a resolution confirming a proposal of the council of state to the effect that the receiver and his brother the deemster, 'two of the ablest and honestest gentlemen in the island,' should be called before the council to give information respecting the laws observed in the Isle of Man. He continued to hold the office of receiver, and was afterwards governor in 1656. Having this independent proof that Christian had made himself acceptable to the ruling powers, we may reasonably give credit to the evidence sworn at his trial by the Hugh Moore previously mentioned, who testified that before employing him as already related the receiver showed him a formal document signed by Major Fox, as the representative of the parliament, and empowering him to effect a rising of the islanders in favour of the republican cause.
The governor lost no time in sending a messenger to inform the countess of the treachery of Christian, who was then with her at Castle Rushen. On 27 Oct. the English troops, under Colonel Duckenfield, came ashore and surrounded the castle, and two days later a letter from the commander, calling upon her to surrender, was delivered to her by Christian. The letter contained the words 'the late Earl of Derby.' This was the first intimation the countess had had of her husband's death, and the sad news naturally caused great excitement. At first the defenders of the castle seem to have had thoughts of defying the enemy ; but eventually a letter was despatched to Colonel Ducken field, proposing terms of surrender, which, as the writer in the 'Mercurius' very justly observes, 'could not be much satisfactory' to them to whom they were sent, unless we had been at her mercy as she was at ours.' No answer was returned to this letter, but on 31 Oct. the countess learned that she could not rely on the fidelity of her garrison (who had probably come under Christian's influence), and determined to offer more acceptable conditions. At a meeting between representatives of both sides it was agreed that Castle Rushen and Peel Castle should be surrendered by 3 Nov., the property of the countess being at the absolute disposal of the parliament, but that she herself and all her household should have permission to go whither they chose, and that all the inmates of the castle should be set at liberty, with full control over their personal possessions. The countess was allowed 100l. in plate for the expenses of her removal from the island. It is affirmed by Burton that Lady Derby, notwithstanding a verbal promise by Duckenfield that she should be allowed to remain for some time in the castle, was removed at once, and lodged first in 'a mean alehouse' and afterwards in the house of Christian. Burton lays great stress on the cruelty of compelling the countess to accept the bread of one whom she knew to be her own worst enemy. This circumstance is not mentioned by any other writer, and from what we know of the character of Charlotte de la Tremoille it certainly seems strange what she should have submitted to such a humiliation if she really shared Sir Philip Musgrave’s opinion respecting the character of her host. The statement of some later writers, that Christian ke t the countess imprisoned for several months, is demonstrably untrue.
Christian continued to be receiver-general under Lord Fairfax, to whom the lordship of the island had been granted after the execution of the Earl of Derby, and in 1666 he was appointed governor. In 1658 he was super-seded by James Chaloner [q. v.] (a connection of Fairfax’s), who discovered that Christian had been guilty of extensive misappropriation of the revenues of the sequestrated bishopric. Chaloner ordered the arrest of Christian, but he escaped to England, whereu n the governor arrested John Christian, the deemster, for having assisted the flight of his brother.
After Christian’s escape from the Isle of Man we hear nothing more of him until 1660, the year of Charles II’s restoration. He then ventured to emerge from his concealment, and, as he says in his dying speech, ‘went to London, with many others, to have a sight of his gracious king.' While in London he was arrested upon an action of 20,000l. (no doubt the moneys which he had embezzled as receiver), and imprisoned in the Fleet, where he remained nearly a year, being unable to obtain bail. On regaining his liberty he ventured to rejoin his family in the Isle of Man, having been advised that the king’s Act of Indemnity secured him against all legal consequences.
Christian’s acts of treason, however, had not been committed against the English crown, but against his immediate feudal sovereigns of the house of Derby; and the new Earl of Derby was eager for revenge, and determined to exercise his hereditary power. On 12 Sept. 1662 he issued ‘to all his officers both civil and military in the Isle of Man’ a mandate ordering them to proceed immediately against Christian ‘for all his illegal actions at or before the year l65l.’ Christian was at once arrested, and the reparation of the evidence was promptly taken in hand. We have a series of dispositions taken at Castletown on 3 Oct., and another at Peel on the following day, and witnesses continued to be examined down to the end of November.
On 13 Nov. the governor, Henry Newell, asked the opinion of the twenty-four members of the House of Keys on the question whether the case of Christian fell within the scope of an act of the insular legislature passed in 1422, which rovided that any person who rose in rebellion against the representatives of the lord of the island should be deemed guilty of high treason, and should, at the pleasure of the house, either be sentenced by the deemsters without trial, or should take his trial before a jury. The house decided that the case fell within the statute, but that the prisoner should be allowed a jury. In accordance with what was then the law of the island, the evidence was in the first place submitted to a coroner's jury of six persons. The jurymen were all of very humble rank, and it was afterwards confirmed that most of them were dependents of the Earl of Derby, and too ignorant of English to understand the pleagiings submitted to them. Eventually the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of guilty; but if we accept the testimony of Christian’s dying speech, it appears that they only came to this decision when ‘prompted and threatened,’ after having twice found that the object of the rising in which Christian had been concerned was no treason against the house of Derby, but merely ‘to present grievances’ to the countess. At the gaol delivery at Castle Rushen on 26 Nov. the prisoner was commanded to appear to take his trial, and a guard of soldiers was sent to bring him into court; but he denied the legality of the tribunal, and refused to comply with the summons. The record of the gaol delivery contains a minute of the fact, and the remark that there was conseguently ‘noe occasion to impannel a jury.’ he governor requested the deemsters and the House of Keys to inform him what the laws of the island provided should be done in the case of a prisoner refusing to plead. The reply was that the life and property of the recusant were at the absolute disposal of the lord of the island. The document, however, was not signed by all the members of the house, and, in order to secure a unanimous acquiescence, the Earl of Derby commanded that seven of the Keys who had been concerned in the rising of 1651 should be dismissed, and their places filled by persons of his own selection. The question was on 29 Dec. again submitted to the house as thus reconstituted, who unanimously confirmed the former decision. On the same day the governor issued an order to the deemsters to pronounce sentence, intimating that, on the petition of the prisoner’s wife, the penalty of hanging, drawing, and quartering was to be commuted for death by shooting. The sentence was carried into effect at Hango Hill on 2 Jan. 1662-3. The parish register of Malew (the vicar of which place, Parr, had been accused of complicity in the rising of 1651, and appeared as a witness on the trial) contains a notice of the execution, stating that Christian ‘died most penitently and most courageously, made a good end, prayed earnestly, made an excellent speech, an the next day was buried in the chancel of Malew.’ A broadside printed in 1776 purports to contain a copy of Christian’s dying speech. Whether authentic or not, it is eloquent and dignified in style, and the statements which it contains are not inconsistent with any known facts. It represents Christian as indignantly denying that he had ever intentionally done anything to the prejudice of the Derby family, and as declaring that ‘he had a ways been a faithful son of the church of England, and had never been against monarchy.’
During Christian’s imprisonment at Castle Rushen he had addressed a petition to the king in council, praying to be heard before the council. The petition did not reach its destination until 9 Jan., a week after Christian had been put to death. It was, however, not known in England that the sentence had already been executed, and, the attorney-general having reported in favour of granting the prayer, the Earl of Derby was commanded to produce the prisoner. The earl endeavoured to defend his conduct on the ground that the English Act-of Indemnity did not extend to the Isle of Man. The king, however, was greatly incensed by the assumption of sovereign rights on the part of a subject., and on the petition of Christian’s two sons. George and Ewan, the Earl of Derby, the deemsters, the governor, and three members of ‘the pretended court of justice’ were brought before the king in council. After hearing witnesses and counsel on both sides, the council decided that the execution of Christian and the confiscation of his property were violations ot' the Act of Inemnity. The deemsters were ordered to be detained in the king's bench until proceedings could be taken against them. Eventually they were condemned in 666l. l3s. 4d. (1,000 marks) damages to George Christian, and on humbly acknowledging their fault, paying l00l. at once, and promising to pay the rest before the next midsuminer, were allowed to return to the Isle of Man. The governor, Nowell, and the other persons responsible for the sentence were discharged on giving security to appear when called upon (Nowell being allowed to resume his official functions), and the estate of Ronaldsway was restored to George Christian. His son, William, was in 1706 again disposseased by a decree of the Earl of Derby, but was reinstated by an order in council in 1716. The costs of the appeal had, however, reduced him to poverty, and the estate was sold in 1720.
The memory of Christian has been kept alive in the Isle of Man by the ballad entitled ‘Baase Illiam Dhone' (‘The Death of Brown-haired William'), which dwells on the retribution that befell the families of those who were responsible for his execution. The original nucleus of the ballad seems to have been composed shortly after Christian’s death, but in its present form it contains allusions to events which took place much later. There are two English translations, both of which are printed in vol. xvi. of the ‘Publications of the Manx Society.’ One of these is by the Rev. John Crellin, vicar of Kirk Michael in 1774, and the other by George Borrow [q. v.] To English readers Christian’s name is best known from Scott's ‘Peveril of the Peak.’ The Edward Christian who plays an important part in the novel, is—as was explained by Scott in his introduction to the later editions-purely an imaginary personage.
Two portraits of Christian still exist. One of these is in the possession of Mr. H. Curwen of Workington Hall; the other belongs to Dr. Nelson of Douglas, and represents ‘a young man of slight figure, dark complexion, close-cut hair, and a melancholy expression, clothed in a close-fitting dark green jerkin.’
Christian had eight sons and one daughter. The seventh son, Thomas, who is believed to have succeeded to his father’s estate in Lancashire, is the only member of the family of whom descendants are now known to exist.
[Manx Soc. Publ. x. 108, 109, xvi. and xxvi.; Burton's Life of Musgrave, pp. 23-5; Train's History of the Isle of Man, pp. 205-13; Cumming's The Isle of Man, pp. 70-3; information supplied by Mr. A. W. Moore, and documents in his possession]