Davies, Christian (DNB00)

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DAVIES, CHRISTIAN, alias Mother Ross (1667–1739), female soldier, was born in Dublin in 1667. Her father was a brewer and maltster named Cavenaugh, who rented a large farm at Leixlip and raised a troop of horse which went by his name in support of James II. He was present at the battles of the Boyne and Aughrim, and shortly afterwards died of fever contracted during the campaign. At the age of seventeen Christian was seduced by her cousin, Thomas Howell (who became a clergyman, and twenty-five years afterwards committed suicide on being confronted by his victim, according to the story which the latter relates with not a little satisfaction), and in consequence was sent to live with an aunt who kept an inn in Dublin. After four years the aunt died, leaving all her property to Christian, who continued to carry on the business and married Richard Welsh, a waiter in her employment. Four years later Welsh mysteriously disappeared, and twelve months later wrote that he had been forced to join the army in Flanders. Christian set out in search of her husband, and, entrusting her business and children to the care of friends, enlisted in Captain Tichborne's company of foot under the name of Christopher Welsh. In a skirmish before the battle of Landen Christian received her first wound, and in the following summer (1694) she was taken prisoner by the French, but exchanged. At her own request she was now allowed to join the 2nd dragoons (Scots greys) under Lord John Hay, with which she remained till the disbanding of the army after the peace of Ryswick. She then returned to Dublin, but preserved her incognito. On the renewal of the war in 1701 she went back to Holland and re-enlisted with Lord John Hay. She fought at Nimwegen, Venloo, Bonn, and in most of the engagements of the campaign till at the battle of Donauwerth she received a ball in the hip which necessitated a temporary retirement into hospital. The ball was never extracted, but Christian was again under arms in time to share in the spoil after Blenheim. While forming one of a guard to some prisoners taken in that battle she again saw her husband, after a separation of thirteen years. She lost no time in revealing her identity to him, but so enamoured was she of camp life that she extracted a promise from Welsh that he would pass himself off as her brother. Her secret, however, was discovered after the battle of Ramillies, when her skull was fractured by a shell, and on an operation being performed her sex was discovered by the surgeons. Dismissal from the service naturally followed, but Christian still continued to live in camp, resuming her woman's dress and accompanying her husband as his acknowledged wife. Three years later Richard Welsh was killed at Malplaquet. Christian herself found his body, and her lamentations at the discovery were so extravagant as to excite the open commiseration of a captain Ross, whence, it is said, she gained the sobriquet of Mother Ross, by which she was known for the rest of her life. Although her grief was such that she was unable to touch food for a week, she married Hugh Jones, a grenadier, in less than three months. In the following year (1710) Jones received his death wound at the siege of St. Venant. In 1712 Christian finally parted with camp life and returned to England, when, by the intervention of the Duke of Argyll, with whom she had served in the field, she was presented to Queen Anne, who awarded her a pension of a shilling a day for life. On going to Dublin to visit her friends Christian found that she was unable to make good her claim to the property she had left behind so many years before, and consoled herself for the loss by a marriage with a soldier named Davies. The remaining twenty-five years of her life were spent in obscurity, poverty, and sickness. Davies, by means of his wife's influence, was admitted into the Pensioners' College at Chelsea, and while watching at his bedside during an illness Christian contracted a feverish cold, to which she succumbed in four days on 7 July 1739. She had, however, for many years suffered from a complicated variety of disorders, which included rheumatism, scurvy, and dropsy. At her own request her body was interred among the pensioners in Chelsea burying-ground, and three grand volleys were fired over her grave.

The foregoing account (with the exception of the part relating to Christian Davies's death) is taken from the ‘Life and Adventures of Mrs. Christian Davies’ (1740; reprinted 1741), a book the authorship of which has, on no reasonable grounds, been sometimes attributed to Defoe. It is written throughout in autobiographical form, and on the title-page the contents are stated to have been ‘taken from her own mouth.’ As far as the personal history of Christian Davies is concerned this statement might very well be true; for this portion of the book is uniformly disfigured by the revolting details of many unseemly and brutal acts, related in a tone of self-glorification which is suggestive of nothing so much as of an unsexed woman. But in the book considered as a whole, Christian Davies plays nothing but a very secondary part. It is really a careful narrative of Marlborough's campaigns. It includes much that could not be derived from the heroine, and the dates of her early life are inconsistent with each other. Contemporary evidence is also against the genuineness of the autobiography. Boyer (Political State of Great Britain, lviii. 90) has an entry under date 7 July 1739: ‘Died at Chelsea, Mrs. Christiana Davies, who for several years served as a dragoon undiscovered in the Royal Inniskillen Regiment, but receiving a wound in King William's wars at Aughrim in Ireland, was discovered.’ The paragraph goes on to state that she then married and accompanied her husband into Flanders, but as a wife and not as a brother in arms. This account leaves Christian Davies's glory as a female soldier unimpaired, and, outside of the ‘Life and Adventures,’ there is no reason for doubting its correctness. Henry Wilson, James Caulfield, and other biographers of eccentric persons have unreservedly accepted the autobiographical narrative, but their accounts of Christian Davies are one and all based solely on that work. The sketch of Christian Davies's life given in Cannon's ‘Records of the British Army’ is also derived from the same source.

[Authorities as stated above; the British Heroine, or an Abridgment of the Life and Adventures of Mrs. Christian Davies, commonly called Mother Ross, by J. Wilson, formerly surgeon in the army, London, 1742, is, as the title intimates, simply a slightly abridged version of the anonymous Life and Adventures, written throughout in the third person instead of the first.]

A. V.