Thomas Chatterton was born in Redcliffe, Bristol in 1752. From a very early age he did a bizarre and wonderful thing, at Edward Colston’s School he started writing poetry in the persona of a 15th century monk. This caused a sensation as it was the first recorded incident of anyone writing verse using the persona of a 15th century monk since 1499. The school’s physician was immediately called to examine Chatterton. He placed him under minute observation over a period of ten days to see if he had any curious habits. But all he found was one habit with a psychedelic type hood. However, he did find a note written in Chatterton’s hand informing everyone that he was the gatekeeper of a local monastery. This was further evidenced by the placement nearby of a bunch of keys upon which was written on the fob, ‘Hey, Hey We’re The Monk-Keys’.
The school physician rendered his findings, upon Chatterton taking on the persona of a 15th century monk, to the school’s board of governors and concluded that Chatterton was either:
- Possessed by the spirit of a 15th century monk.
- Possessed by the spirit of a 16th century monk whose watch had stopped.
- Possessed by an urge to audition for the Monty Python team 200 years too early.
- Possessed by an urge to make himself seem much older so he can get a pint at The King’s Head.
The diagnosis that Chatterton was possessed by the spirit of a 15th century monk gained momentum when Chatterton handed his English teacher an illuminated manuscript. The teacher was fortunate to escape with just third degree burns.
The Bristol literate soon got to hear of Chatterton’s exploits and lionized the young cub. This provided him with the confidence to embark on several writing projects each undertaken in the persona of a 15th century monk. There were two bawdy plays:
- Confessions of a Stained Glass Window Cleaner.
- No Sex Please, We’re 15th Century Monks.
There was also a script for a play that was never performed (although centuries later a much altered version appeared in film starring Sandra Bullock) about God’s representative on Earth and his ability to walk on water called ‘Pope Floats’.
Finally, during this productive period, he became the scriptwriter for a double act featuring the head monk at a monastery and a male prostitute who was having to advertise his services for free called ‘The Abbot & Cost-zero Show’.
However, Chatterton became so consumed by the character of his persona that he became embroiled in the ups and downs of that traumatic period of turmoil in the 15th century, the Wars of the Roses. The poetry he wrote regarding this time was so realistic that Bristolians were convinced that the young teenager had really experienced those terrible events of 300 years earlier. Chatterton did nothing to dispel these beliefs as he was on a healthy commission for every jar of his anti-ageing cream sold in the Broadmead branch of Boots.
Chatterton, as the monk, composed this verse when Edward IV was in the ascendancy during the Wars of the Roses, about the King’s opponent, Henry VI’s Queen Margaret of Anjou:
Margaret of Anjou, Margaret of Anjou
Why cause all this mayhem
You silly gert moo
If I hath not but taken this silent vow
I’d shout from the rooftops “You Stupid Cow”
The monk (Chatterton) then turned upon Edward IV when Henry VI and Margaret were the top dogs again, albeit briefly.
Edward the Fourth
Edward the Fourth
Your wife is a commoner from up t’ North
You drowned one brother in a vat of wine
And your surviving brother has a crooked spine
(& he’ll also usurp the throne and kill your son and heir with his brother in the Tower upon your death. I couldn’t rhyme this bit but I thought it was important you should know what sort of bloke he really is)
Despite putting her down in verse Chatterton’s 15th century monk developed an intense, yet ultimately unrequited love for Edward IV’s wife, one of the greatest beauties of the times Elizabeth Wydville. His pained and tormented feelings found an outlet in his poetry, such as:
I love ye still
But I’m stuck in this Monastery
On the outskirts of Pill
The Abbott thinks I’m wasting away
He didn’t even see me at prayers today!
My sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet, Elizaybeth
A delicate beauty a one of such waif
It’s hard to believe you’ll be the Grandmother of Henry the Eighth
Tortured I be
Wracked with pain
I suffer these torments through your lack of attention
And cos the Abbot only gets a basic state pension
As one can derive from these examples, Chatterton was a rare and precocious talent and considered a genius, for which he was later eulogized by Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and all that Lake poet mob.
Unfortunately, the fame and adulation went to the boy poet’s head and he abandoned the monk and started creating in the persona of other artistic types from other periods of history. This proved terribly embarrassing for himself and his family when he wrote to the Customs Office in London enclosing recent pictures of himself and his mother and sister so they could get passports to accompany him on a lucrative tour of North America. The passport office thought he had adopted the persona of an 11th century stonemason and was sending them designs for some gargoyles to adorn Westminster Abbey.
But young Chatterton really overstepped the mark when he took on the persona of a 12th century architect and composed a verse about designing Bristol Cathedral School in 1154, making him well over 600 years old. A warrant was immediately issued for his arrest under The Prevention of Moses Act, 1722. Chatterton swiftly fled to London and continued to make a name for himself there.
Then, suddenly and dramatically, it was all over. At the age of just 17 he was found dead one morning, sprawled on his bed – the basis of a famous painting by Henry Wallis…what Chatterton was doing sprawled over a famous painting has never been explained. He’d taken an overdose.
Initially it was thought that due to his youth he had mistaken the pills for a tube of smarties. Why else would such a talented genius with so much more living to do ( although the majority of it would’ve been in previous centuries judging by his modus operandi) kill himself? The answer was swiftly forthcoming for in his hand was a letter from Bristol City Council demanding payment of 609 years poll tax arrears.