Hired to Depress: A Digital Scholarly Edition of William Blake's Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses

Confrontation and acquittal, 1803-1804

Hayley was aware, by May 1803, of Blake's plans to leave Felpham, but the Blakes were still in their cottage when, on 12 August 1803, a private soldier in the 1st regiment of dragoons, John Scolfield, entered the garden. Not knowing that the man was there on the gardener's invitation, Blake told him to leave. Scolfield refused; heated words were exchanged. Finally Blake, short of stature but not of strength, took Scolfield ‘by the Elbows & … pushed him forwards down the road’ (letter to Butts, 16 Aug 1803, Blake, 732). The confrontation, witnessed in its final stages by several villagers and Scolfield's fellow soldier John Cock, ended at The Fox inn, a public house where Scolfield may have been drinking. Three days later Scolfield went before the Chichester justice of the peace, John Quantock, and accused Blake of seditious expressions favouring the French and damning the king of England. Blake refuted the charges vigorously but was ordered to appear at the Michaelmas quarter sessions of the court (Bentley, Records, 124–8). Blake's bond of £200 was paid by the accused, Hayley, and Joseph Seagrave, a local printer who had worked with both men. At its sessions on 4 October in Petworth, the grand jury returned bills indicting Blake for sedition against king and country and assault against Scolfield. Blake pleaded not guilty, but it would hardly have been inconsistent with Blake's anti-monarchical views, so evident in his work of the 1790s, to have damned the king while struggling with one of his soldiers.

Blake was ‘in anguish’, as he states among the inscriptions he cut into a glass rummer in August (Bentley, Records Supplement, 24). And not without cause, for sedition was a grave charge at a time when England was fearful of Napoleonic invasion on the coastline where Blake resided. The encounter with Scolfield and its legal consequences increased Blake's paranoia and influenced his writings and friendships for years. He was initially grateful to Hayley for his support and regretful of earlier misgivings, even asking Butts to ‘burn what I have peevishly written about any friend’ (letter, 16 Aug 1803, Blake, 733). Yet gratitude can become a burden and the benefactor insufferable in the mind of the debtor. Such may have led Blake to believe, contrary to all appearances, that Hayley was implicated in a conspiracy against him, and thus to write a few years later in his notebook that Hayley,

     having failed to
     act upon my wife
     Hired a Villain to bereave my Life.
     (Blake, 506)

The Blakes moved to London in September, staying briefly with James Blake before taking rooms at 17 South Molton Street, Westminster, on the edge of Mayfair. Blake returned to Sussex in October to answer the indictment and again for trial on 11 January 1804 in the Chichester Guildhall. He was represented at trial by Samuel Rose, a London barrister retained and paid by Hayley. Before the duke of Richmond and six other magistrates, Rose opened his defence by acknowledging the seriousness of the charge of sedition, impugning Scolfield's character, and insisting on the defendant's innocence. Rose's speech was cut short by illness, but several witnesses testified on Blake's behalf and he was acquitted of all charges.

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