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Bloody history of our street names.

Byline: Carl Chinn

AS THE snow fell on Palm Sunday, March 29, 1461, Lancastrians and Yorkists fought in brutal hand-to-hand combat at Towton in Yorkshire.

It was the longest, biggest and bloodiest battle in the Wars of the Roses and it remains the longest, biggest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil.

Nobody knows the exact number of men who fell that day, but it is reckoned that between 20,000 and 30,000 were hacked, stabbed, bludgeoned, trampled, and suffocated to death, or drowned.

Towton was a disastrous defeat for Henry VI and the Lancastrians.

His forces were vanquished by those of his cousin Edward, Earl of March, the son of Richard Duke of York who had been killed the year before.

Many families mourned because of the folly, conceit and selfishness of royal dukes who were eager to inflict mass suffering over a dynastic row. One such family was the Digbys of Tilton in Leicestershire, which traced its line back to the later 12th century.

Staunchly Lancastrian, four of its sons died at Towton. One of them was Everard Digby. He it was who was the direct ancestor of the Digbys of Coleshill, many of whom are recalled today in street names in Small Heath.

Following the gruesome battle, Edward became king. He spent much of the next ten years suppressing Lancastrian rebellions but in 1471 he won the decisive Battle of Tewkesbury, after which Henry VI was murdered. Henceforth, Edward IV was unopposed. It seemed that families like the Digbys were doomed to lose out to their Yorkist enemies - but another twist of history lay ahead.

Edward was succeeded in 1483 by his brother, Richard III - forever damned through Shakespeare as a villainous hunchback who murdered his young nephews who were the true heirs to the throne.

Two years later, Henry Tudor led the revitalised Lancastrians to an overwhelming victory over the Yorkists at the Battle of Bosworth, at which Richard was killed. That triumphant host included the seven sons of Everard Digby.

The oldest, Sir Everard, became Lord of Tilton and Drystoke. His great, great grandson, Sir Everard, was a leading conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 which sought to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate King James I - who had quashed the hopes of Catholics that he would end their persecution in Protestant England.

Sir Everard was a convert to Roman Catholicism and was in charge of a party of Catholic gentry from Warwickshire which was to capture James's young daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who was at Coombe Abbey, near Coventry.

The failure of the plot led to the death of the conspirators.

Sir Everard was dragged through the streets of London crammed with baying crowds and taken to Westminster where he was hideously executed. Admitting high treason, Sir Everard had pleaded that he should be beheaded. His plea was rejected. He was hung, drawn and quartered.

Remarkably, Sir Everard's son, Kenelm, inherited some of his family's lands and was knighted by James I, the king whom his father had striven to kill.

Then in 1625 he married Venetia Stanley. She was a renowned beauty with a lusty reputation, from Tonge Castle, Shropshire.

In defiance of those who damned her as licentious, Venetia acted blamelessly throughout her marriage and became a devout Catholic.

She heard Mass daily, and helped the poor in London - paying for her charity work through her winnings by gambling at the card table.

As for Sir Kenelm, in 1628 he led a privateering expedition to the Mediterranean where he defeated a force of French and Venetian ships and there was talk that he would become secretary of state.

Unhappily, misfortune struck. On May Day 1633, his beloved wife died suddenly in mysterious circumstances. Sir Kenelm was grief stricken. He returned devotedly to his Catholic faith; he wrote letters about his wife, that were later published as In Praise of Venetia; he kept close to him a deathbed portrait of her; he dressed all in black; he let his hair and beard grow out; and he turned his mind to science and philosophy.

During the English Civil War, Sir Kenelm's Catholicism led to his imprisonment and then exile to France. Strangely, after he returned to England in 1654, he became an associate of Oliver Cromwell, the arch Protestant who had led the Parliamentarians to victory over the Royalists and who now ruled England.

The monarchy was restored under Charles II in 1660 and three years later Sir Kenelm's scientific work led to his appointment on the council of the newly-formed Royal Society. He died in 1665 and was buried next to his lamented wife, Venetia.

Tilton Road, which was called Kelynge Street until 1897, recalls the origins of the Digbys at Tilton in Leicestershire. Sir Kenelm is brought to mind in Kenelm Road, close to which is Digby Park. Venetia is remembered in Venetia Road, opposite the Garrison Lane flats.

More on the Digbys next week.
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Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Date:Mar 20, 2010
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