The price of a slice of the truth

Nearly 350 years ago William Prynne, a lawyer from Lincoln’s Inn, found himself in a dank and dirty corner of the Tower of London.
It was a place where soldiers and civil servants refused to work ‘for fear of fouling their fingers, spoyling their cloathes, endangering their eyesight and healths by the cankerous dust and evil scent.’
Prynne was King Charles II’s new keeper of the National Archives.
And he was no stranger to the Tower. He had been jailed for life, had his cheeks branded with the letters SL – for seditious libel – and his ears chopped off, for a pamphlet attacking actresses and, by implication, Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I.
A report of  the trial of William Prynne Esq, in the Star Chamber, for writing and publishing 'A Scourge for Stage-Players,' can be found in the Archives. Subsequent keepers have been less harshly treated.
Prynne wrote: ‘In raking up this dung heap I found many rare antient precious pearls and golden records &c.’
It is a sentiment echoed every day in the modern National Archives building at Kew, where researchers request 600,000 document files a year and millions of documents are viewed online.
These are just some of the gems from my researches, many of them published for the first time, but none of them worth losing an ear for.

© These pages and their content are copyright of Peter Day 2012.



Raphael Beugnon

Sensitive idealist who became a daring all-action Resistance hero

Raphael Beugnon was an unlikely war hero – the despair of the macho British military officers training him to be a Resistance leader.
Yet somehow the soft, sensitive Parisian antique restorer with a streak of petulance became an all action fighter behind the lines who played his part in making D-Day a success. His exploits were immortalised in a 1946 Hollywood movie.
The making of Monsieur Beugnon is revealed in his Special Operations Executive personnel file at the National Archives. The SOE had been ordered by Winston Churchill to ‘set Europe ablaze’ during the Second World War.
Hard-bitten officers did not detect much of a spark in the 23-old-old art lover when he arrived at the bleak, windswept Traigh House training school on the west coast of Scotland in November 1943.
Acting Lieutenant Oliver regarded Beugnon as a dreamy idealist with ‘advanced ideas on the equality of all men’ who had never been used to army life or roughing it. He normally spent his holidays on the French Riviera and took no part in sports, except swimming. His 34 inch chest was matched by his waist measurement and considerably smaller than his 40 inch hips.
Lt Oliver’s opinion hardly improved during the six weeks of basic training that included the art of silent killing, stripping and assembling a machine gun in the dark, explosives and sabotage.
‘He is not fond of much mental or physical action. He is the modern type of city dweller whose mind is pre-occupied with women, dancing, music etc. He is sensitive and easily hurt if treated in an offhand or brusque manner by instructors or fellow students. His outlook is anything for the quiet life.
‘He is considered as being somewhat “soft” by the more virile members of the party … it is doubtful whether he would be capable of a great deal of courage,’ Lt Oliver reported.

Nevertheless he completed parachute and radio training, although he was considered petulant and ‘prone to bouts of childish temper and sullen looks.’ Beugnon was given the rank of lieutenant and handed over to the American OSS – forerunners of the CIA – who dropped him behind enemy lines in April 1944 as part of a three man team codenamed the Beggar Circuit.
They were a remarkable success. In the run up to D-Day they recruited more than 90 agents around Creil, Senlis and Beauvois districts north-west of Paris. Lt Beugnon organized sabotage attacks that brought German railway traffic in the area to a standstill and destroyed communications cables.
As troops moved inland from the Normandy beaches the Resistance team discovered more than 50 German tanks lurking in wait in woodlands and called in air strikes to destroy them. They paved the way for the liberation of Paris. Beugnon was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the American Distinguished Service Cross.
His citation declared: ‘He displayed much ingenuity and daring, as when, on one occasion, he recovered an unexploded aerial bomb, transported it to a bridge, and used the explosive for partially demolishing that target. Beugnon's intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States.’
After the war he was flown to Hollywood to coach movie star Alan Ladd in the role of Resistance leader for the film O.S.S and decided to stay on to work as a set designer, changing his name to Raphael Bretton. He won an Oscar for his work on Hello Dolly, starring Walter Matthau, Barbra Streisand and Louis Armstrong, and was nominated for The Towering Inferno, The Posiedon Adventure and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.   



Surrey News Service

Specialising in archive research for newspapers, magazines, authors and family historians.

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