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The Sword-Point Wedding
of Benjamin Child & Frances Kendrick

The early eighteenth century was full of dashing young men looking to make themselves good marriages. Flirting with pretty young girls was their favourite sport, and they would lap up all the attention they could get. Playing the field may have been wondrous fun, but it was also a highly dangerous occupation, for conversing with beautiful paupers could scare away big game. Eventually, of course, if a desirable fortune appeared, one would have to make a decision: marry what you could get or keep looking for something better. It was a game that not all young beaus could master. One Thames Valley man, however, was never faced with such a dilemma. The decision was made for him.

Benjamin Child was the son of an Oxford barrister, who had moved to London to take up his father’s profession. He lived in the so called “Paper Buildings” in the Temple. Although well off, his income by no means matched his expenditure, for Benjamin Child was a young beau about town: a tall, handsome, fashionable, gambling Casanova - he was hopelessly in debt. But what did he care? No money lender was going to get the better of him while there were ladies to enchant. After all, he was a lawyer. While Benjamin captured many a heart, he was never entrapped by any of his paramours. He was a hopeless flirt who would love them and leave them. Still, one day soon he would find himself a nice little widow, or an heiress perhaps, with a five figure estate to keep him in the manner to which he had become accustomed.

Every summer, Benjamin would leave the foul stench of the City, and find employment on the Oxford court circuit. He always had the vague idea at the back of his mind that the upper Thames Valley would be an ideal place to pick up some country heiress or other, but it was not until the summer of 1707 that a heaven sent opportunity arose to find one.

He was staying with his uncle, a wealthy brewer in Abingdon, when the whole household was invited to a “fashionable” wedding in Reading. A Miss Pleydell, a relative of his aunt, was to be married at St.Mary’s Church, and simply everyone would be there. The Pleydells were a notable family in Berkshire: the whole county would turn out for their daughter’s wedding! Benjamin determined to find himself a fortune to wed. His cousin, Tom, would help.

The wedding banquets and balls were to take place in Reading over a period of some five days, so Benjamin was in his element. His aunt was very proud of her handsome young nephew from London, and showed him off to everyone. He, of course, lapped up all the attention, especially when his aunt’s friends had beautiful young daughters in tow. As the parties went on, Benjamin conceived a scheme with his cousin. While he mingled freely with the guests looking for a likely looking meal ticket, Tom was to watch him closely. As Benjamin chatted to the ladies, Tom was to discover who they were and how much they were worth. If he was talking to a pauper, Tom would give a loud cough, and Benjamin would move on. He wasn’t going to be lumbered with anything under £10,000.

There were many beauties in the ballroom, but it was Benjamin who made people’s heads turn. His air of distinction and his metropolitan manner made him the most desired partner in conversation. Quickly he found himself a voluptuous young brunette with whom to converse. She was wearing the most sumptuous dress. “She must be worth thousands,” Benjamin thought to himself. As their banter continued, it became clear that he had picked a real prize, for her beauty was matched only by her wit. Could her purse be as attractive? Tom passed by twice, but gave no cough. Benjamin’s heart was racing. But it was all for nothing..Ahem! came a sound in his ear as Tom passed by a third time.

Tom stood some distance away shaking his head slowly. Benjamin felt such a fool. Why was he wasting his time here? There must be plenty of rich maidens in the room. Using all his skills in tact, Benjamin excused himself from the lady’s company. In his haste though, he could not help but be abrupt, and the poor offended girl was left pouting with disappointment.

On to the next beauty moved the handsome lawyer with not another thought. Twice more he was to be disappointed though. Things would seem to be going so well, and then Tom would appear fresh from his enquiries and give a short sharp cough. At last, however, Benjamin fell into conversation with a bright young thing of about twenty-five who bore the tell-tale signs of widowhood. Tom evidently knew of the lady and was immediately seen nodding his head enthusiastically in the background. Benjamin was charming and attentive and told his wittiest stories. The girl was pretty, though she did not say much, just the odd smirk or smile; but Benjamin knew she was interested. He thought of the penniless little brunette whom he had first encountered. It was a pity that she did not have a full purse like this latest conquest. They had got along rather well. He caught the girl’s eyes across the room. He smiled, but she only looked daggers at him. She knew there was no one to match her in the place, yet all he could do was flirt with other women. She had fallen hopelessly in love with this mortal Apollo.

Meanwhile, people were beginning to leave the ball. Some friends approached Benjamin and his young widow and persuaded her that it was time to leave. Benjamin escorted the lady to her sedan chair, asking most eloquently if he might call upon her soon. The lady eagerly agreed. As her servants carried her away, Tom ran up in great excitement . . . “You’ve made it, Cousin Benjamin. She’s worth fifteen thousand at the very least!”

The next morning, Benjamin arose early for breakfast at his lodgings. He felt invigorated by the chase of the previous night, and immediately began mapping out his plans for the little widow . . and her money! He had not expected to be disturbed, but his host arrived with a letter that had been found upon the doorstep. It was addressed to him.

On opening it, Benjamin found the letter to be a challenge! “What sport!” thought the lawyer. He had never fought a duel before, but he was not inept at fencing, and he could certainly disarm any potential country bully who fancied himself with a sword. But who could the challenger be? He shouted to Tom, but he could shed no light on the matter. He was to meet his adversary at a particular spot in Calcot Woods, just outside Reading. It had to be connected with the wedding festivities of the previous few days. It could only be a rival for the young widow’s attentions!

Benjamin set off immediately with Tom as his second. They had plenty of time before the appointed time, and the innkeeper suggested they walk. It was a lovely day. The note had mentioned a small rise in Calcot Woods where there was a clearing amongst the trees, and the two quickly found the place. Benjamin was right on time for the duel, but though he and Tom waited for quarter of an hour or more, no challenger appeared. Tom was just suggesting that the whole thing was probably a hoax when they heard footsteps approaching.

On looking up, they were not faced by some hot-headed ruffian, however, but by a lady fair dressed in cloak and mask. They had obviously stumbled on a lovers’ rendezvous. They made haste to leave discreetly, but the lady greeted them politely and asked what their business was, being about the Woods so early. “We are merely taking the air, Madam,” Benjamin explained unconvincingly.
“Not men of fashion like you, Sir,” the young lady observed. “I know you of old. You stay up late and do not rise till midday!” Benjamin avoided answering.
“I could ask you the same, Madam. Why do you walk the Woods so early?” he enquired.

“Aren’t you here for a duel?” the lady parried at his attack with a further question. There was a short pause. Benjamin looked confused. Then the lady explained: "I am your challenger! You must fight or . . .” Benjamin howled with laughter. Never had he heard anything so ludicrous. These provincials really were a scream. Just wait till he told his fellows back at the Temple about this. The lady was insulted. She drew a large rapier from beneath her cloak, and brought its point within an inch of the lawyer’s chest. She was obviously deadly serious. “I have fought better men than you,” she declared, “so fight or . . .”
“Or what?” snapped Benjamin, now quite annoyed.
“Or marry me, Sir!”

Benjamin was dumbfounded. For once he just didn’t know what to say. After a while he managed to splutter out a few incoherent phrases: Who was she? She must explain? Surely she’d made a mistake? “You are Benjamin Child are you not?” the lady asked. Benjamin nodded. “Then there has been no mistake.” He looked at Tom, but he was just as confused. 
“Perhaps if you were to remove your mask,” Benjamin began; but his challenger would have none of it.
“Decide!” she shouted with a wave of her sword. Benjamin requested a few minutes to consult with his cousin, and the two removed themselves a few paces.

Tom was strongly of the opinion that Benjamin should marry the girl. He could certainly do worse: the lady had beautiful hair and a perfect figure, she spoke well, her apparel was extremely fine - very expensive, and surely only an heiress would dare to play such a prank. But then Tom wasn’t the one being held at sword-point! Benjamin had not been unflattered by the mornings events, and on the whole, he had to admit, his cousin was right; and he would much rather gamble with his marriage prospects than with his life . . . or hers, whoever she was.

The young lady was delighted when told of Benjamin’s decision. She whisked him off to a nearby coach which was waiting to take them to St. Mary’s Church in Reading. Everything was in place awaiting their arrival. The ceremony was short and to the point and, as far as Benjamin could tell, perfectly genuine. The vicar was the same one he had watched marry Miss Pleydell and her husband but a few days before. He did discover that his bride’s name was Frances, but still she would not reveal her face. Outside the church, Tom was dismissed with the gift of a gold ring. The newly weds entered their coach once more and drove off.

It was but a short journey that they had to take. Benjamin observed it was roughly the same way by which they had entered the town. This time, however, the two entered a huge deer park. The animals were so numerous that they lined the drive all the way up to the house: the most beautiful and massive structure he had ever seen. It was an architect’s dream. Benjamin did not dare hope that this might be his new home. They disembarked at the front entrance, and he was led into the parlour. He had many questions to ask, but here the lawyer’s bride left him, asking him to wait patiently.

So Benjamin did wait. Two hours he waited! Still nobody came. He began to feel hungry and started looking for some food or wine even, but there was none to be had. Suddenly a steward entered the room. “What are you doing here, Sir?” the astonished servant asked. Benjamin tried to explain, but the steward did not find his story convincing. He was very suspicious, and left to investigate, locking the door behind him. Was that laughter Benjamin heard? He began to see just what a mistake he’d made coming here. He’d been such a fool to go along with such a prank. It had obviously all been an elaborate set-up just to humiliate him. He should have left while he still had the chance.

Just then, a well dressed lady entered the room. Could it be his bride? He didn’t think so. “What is your business here, Sir? Are you visiting someone in the house?” the lady asked. The voice was unfamiliar, but perhaps she had disguised it before. Again Benjamin tried to explain his predicament, but the lady did not appear to be listening. “You are a London thief perhaps, come to steal my treasures?” How could anyone think such a thing! Benjamin was insulted and distraught. He sank his head in his hands: his spirit crushed, all his boldness and wit had deserted him. Was this really one big ugly joke? He looked up again at the lady before him. Didn’t he recognise her? He couldn’t remember. Then suddenly it hit him. She was the brunette from yesterday’s wedding feast!

The light had dawned at last. Benjamin was full of questions. “Why did you not show me your face?” he asked.
“Sir,” she replied, “you knew my face already; but from your attitude yesterday, it was apparent that it did not please you.” Benjamin fell to his knees and begged forgiveness. She had indeed pleased him at the ball, but, but . . . what could he say.
“What is to be my fate?” he asked humbly.
“I am Frances Kendrick, mistress of Calcot Park wherein you stand, and you are now its master. So, arise husband and embrace your wife!”

*          *          *

The story does not quite end there. Frances had set her sights on Benjamin from the moment she first set eyes on him. It may have taken some unorthodox actions to bring him round to her way of thinking, but in the end the two were deliriously happy together. Sadly though Frances died very suddenly after only fifteen years of marriage. She was thirty-five. Benjamin’s heart was broken. Not even his two little daughters could bring him to face the World without his wife. Alone and distraught, he rattled around in Calcot. He could no longer bear the memories the place held however, and after only a few years he decided to sell up. When the new owners arrived to take possession though, Benjamin suddenly found himself unable to leave. He locked himself inside the house and would let no-one in. Eventually the new owners had to resort to tearing the lead from the roof in order to, literally, flush him out.

Benjamin did not quite sell all his wife’s estates. He retained the woods in Calcot where the two had met for their abortive dual. Thrown out of Calcot, he created a new park here in the woods, and built himself a fine house with a heart-shaped fountain in the garden dedicated to Frances’ memory. The most poignant feature, however, was the view. The house had a beautiful prospect looking out over their very meeting place. Hence its name: Prospect Park.

Next: Discussion of the Legend
On to: Places associated with the Legend


    © Nash Ford Publishing 2001. All Rights Reserved.