There comes a point when writing historical fiction that causes either dread or delight: that moment when you come across a real-life person that makes you pause, sigh deeply, and say, “I should have thought of that.” That moment for me was when I stumbled across Lancelot Blackbourn…pirate, scoundrel, Archbishop of York.
Just the name alone made him stand out. I can picture a creative writing teacher calling me out for coming up with a moniker like that. But like so many things in this world, there is so much more to him than a name. His early life as a buccaneer was obscure. History placed him in Nevis as a young, freshly ordained deacon of the church. Rumor had him as a ship’s chaplain to a band of buccaneers, or perhaps a pirate himself. The only record we have is the King giving him a large sum of money for “Secret Services.” Why do we assume it was for something nefarious? This was after the Treaty of Madrid when legal privateering had ended, so there would be little legal shade for such activities. And let’s face it, he was nefarious as hell as a bishop. How likely was he to be a paragon of virtue with a pistol in his belt boarding a Spanish ship?
And sketchy he was. Horace Walpole, a contemporary, wrote of him thusly: “The other Preceptor was (Thomas) Hayter, Bishop of Norwich, a sensible, well-bred man, natural son of Blackbourn, the jolly old Archbishop of York, who had all the manners of a man of quality, though he had been a Buccaneer and was a Clergyman; but he retained nothing of his first profession except his seraglio.”
Let’s break this down. The man being described, Bishop Thomas Hayter, was Blackbourn’s bastard son. And a seraglio? That was an old term for a harem. In a move that was big pimpin’ even by today’s standards, Bishop Blackbourn moved the lad and his mistress in with him, over his legal wife’s objections.
But what kind of minister was he to his flock? His advice to the queen about the king’s infidelities says it all: “He had been talking to her…about the new mistress, and was glad to find that her Majesty was so sensible a woman as to like her husband should divert himself.” Let players play, Queenie. There must have been more, since descriptions of him refer to “his reputation for carnality” and “the laxity of his moral precepts.” A modern take on him states his “behaviour was seldom of a standard to be expected of an archbishop. In many respects his behaviour was seldom of a standard to be expected of a pirate.”
He died of old age a wealthy man, perhaps the greatest mark of success for any pirate. The lesson he bestowed to me is not to rein in my characters overly much. History was often made by over-the-top unrealistic eccentrics who strove through life like caricatures made flesh. And the Right Honorable Lancelot Blackbourn, Archbishop of York, was an expert in fleshly delights.