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Tales of propagandist John Taylor
By Mark Davies
BBC Oxford contributor

John Taylor
Waterpoet John Taylor (1578-1653) was a loyal supporter of Charles I

John Taylor, the 17th-century poet and London waterman, spent only a few years of his unconventional life in Oxford, but they were amongst the most notable in the city's history.

When King Charles I moved his court to Oxford in 1642, the staunchly Royalist Taylor followed and remained here for the duration of the Civil War.

It was the perfect opportunity for him.

His knowledge of rivers and boats was applied to the key task of maintaining Oxford's confusing network of streams.

He also used his skill with the pen, in this most literate of cities, to become the principal Royalist propagandist.

Taylor was born in Gloucester in 1578. Soon after leaving school he went to London as an apprentice waterman, a skilled job on one of the busiest tidal waterways in the world.

He served seven times in the Elizabethan navy, returning always to his trade in London, and in 1613 was appointed one of the Royal Watermen.

James I was an understanding employer, it would seem, because Taylor was subsequently allowed time to embark on a series of unusual journeys, on foot and by boat, often for a wager, and mostly recorded in amusing and perceptive rhyme.

Three of his journeys up the Thames have particular local relevance.

In 1625, with plague prevalent in London, Taylor was entrusted by the newly crowned Charles I to take his wife Henrietta to the healthier environs of Oxford by barge. Taylor produced no commentary on Oxford at this time, but forged a particular association with Oriel College.

In 1631, at Charles' request, Taylor was one of the crew sent to assess the state of the River Thames with a view to improving it as a navigable river.

This was the first ever attempt to survey the entire river from source to mouth, and very serious in intent, yet his rhyming account - surely the House of Lords can never have received a report quite like it, before or since! - was prefaced with the following:

"Yet as I sometimes row'd and sometimes steer'd,
I view'd where well, where ill the way appeard;
And here I have describ'd the way we went,
Commixing truth with honest merriment."

When Taylor and his companions reached Oxford, he wrote of the River Cherwell:

"Close under Oxford one of Englands eyes,
Chief of the chiefest Universities.
From Banbury desirous to adde knowledge
To zeale, and to be taught in Magdalen College,
The River Charwell doth to Isis runne,
And beares her company to Abington"

In 1642, Charles removed to Oxford in the opening phases of the Civil War. Taylor loyally followed him in March the next year, moving surreptitiously along the Thames to Abingdon, where he stayed two weeks at the King's Head, which he called "my owne Brother's house".

On arriving in Oxford, Taylor immediately presented himself to Charles as he walked in the gardens of Christ Church, and was charged without delay to keep the rivers clean and uncluttered.

The importance of this was huge in a city with so many interconnected waterways. The cleanliness of the water had obvious implications for public health, and the rivers were essential for the conveyance of ammunition, fuel, supplies, and men.

In Mad Verse, Sad Verse, Glad Verse, and Bad Verse (1644), Taylor summarised his task:

"I was commanded with the Water Baylie
To see the Rivers clensed, both nights and dayly.
Dead Hogges, Dogges, Cats, and well flayd Carryon Horses,
Their noysom Corpes soyld the Waters Courses:"

His solution was to employ Parliamentary prisoners, summed up in the delightful couplet:

"And now and then was punisht a Deliquent,
By which good meanes away the filth and stink went."

While in Oxford, Taylor also produced some writing of a much more political nature, composing some twenty polemical pamphlets, which made him the most popular and prolific pamphleteer on the king's side, and helped enormously to keep up flagging morale.

As pamphlets moved surprisingly easily between Oxford and London, often by boat, his words may also have done much to sustain hostility to Parliament in London.

One of Taylor's compositions with a specific Oxford content is The Noble Cavalier in which he attributes Parliamentary misfortune to divine influence.

In 1642, he wrote that a dragoon stationed in Oxford fired shots at some statues of Christ and Mary, and then knocked off the heads. Soon after the dragoon "fell down from his Horse, to the great endangeringe of a neck-breaking".

At the same time, another Parliamentary dragoon shot a figure of Christ above the gate of All Souls College, and at Merton a similar outrage was attempted by an "impudent Varlet".

However, Taylor concluded, "his powder-bagge being open, a sparke of his match fell into it, which set fire on his Powder, and blew out both his eyes". So there!

One other amusing piece written in Oxford recounts the miracle of mice dying after eating old Parliamentary tracts, yet leaving all the Royalist ones (including some written by one John Taylor!) completely undamaged.

In a later retrospective work, he described his wartime role in Oxford as being a Yeoman of the Guard, using the term 'beefeater' for the first time in print.

After the Civil War, Taylor - a charming man, presumably, as well as a talented one - was permitted to return to London, where he ran a victualling house (as he had briefly too in Oxford). It was not a success, however, and his final years were impoverished ones.

Restless and productive to the last, however, he made two more major journeys, even though he was now in his seventies.

In 1649 he travelled to Cornwall, again staying with relatives in Abingdon en route, and in 1652, the year before his death, he visited Wales (once more via Abingdon). He was buried in London on 5 December 1653.

Mark Davies is a local historian, writer, publisher, walks' guide, and speaker on various aspects of non-University Oxford.

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