Angry Heavens Short Stories Part II:

THE MERRIWEATHERS OF ENGLAND

The Merriweathers of England and later Virginia were Protestants in contrast to the Baileys of Ireland and Charleston, who were staunchly Catholic …  

The Merriweathers of Virginia were professionals—professors, ministers, attorneys, and physicians. The America patriarch was Timothy Meriwether, son of Charles and graduate of Oxford. He arrived in Virginia to teach at Religious Studies at College of William of Mary …

But this was not how the family began in 1625 …

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1625 | Meranwyrthe in County Kent

1 The Merchant 

Meranwyrthe was a tiny community even by seventeenth-century standards. Fifteen miles from the English Channel, its population was about a hundred people depending on births and deaths on any given day. The residents did little more than survive. Better in the summer. Worse in the winter. Spring and fall more like winter than summer. 

During the reign of Charles I, in 1625, in the small village of Meranwyrthe, in County Kent, on a colder-than-usual mid-April day near, but not yet, dawn, Alyce, wife of Wyllm (the) Merchant, gave birth to a boy to be named David Merchant of Meranwyrthe.  Alyce had given birth to four other children, but David would have only one living sibling, Katryne. Life’s auspicious beginnings in Meranwyrthe depended on luck as much as any other event.  Like Katryne, David had been born at the time of year that reasonably assured survival into his second year. A healthy child at seven months had a chance of survival when the storms of winter roared off the North Sea and through the holes in the clapboard walls and threatened to lift the thatch roof of Wyllm’s small cottage. 

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Wyllm (the) Merchant for most of his life had just been Wyllm. His mother and father were both dead by his 8th year, and he had no surname. He lived with an aunt until his 13th year when she moved him out and back to the patch of ground that was his by his birthright. There he constructed a rough cottage on the foundation rocks that his father had laid.  By whatever thread of the tapestry woven by the Spinners at the center of the universe, Wyllm possessed two qualities not in vast supply in County Kent. He was unnaturally smart, and he was driven to be different. 

Self-taught in the structure and function of practical mathematics, Wyllm bought and sold. Anything that could bring a profit was what he was interested in. In the summer, he sold vegetables from his own garden and the gardens of his neighbors. He sold oysters and muscles and fish from the Channel and the estuaries that fed it in the winter. Wyllm (the) Merchant was a surname earned and proudly carried.

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By 1640, Wyllm moved his family from Meranwyrthe to London to grow his soon-to-be-prospering business. Wyllm introduced himself as “Wyllm Merchant from Meranwyrthe in the County Kent” to his potential customers. The name Meranwyrthe, hard to pronounce and even harder to spell, became Meriwether, as did he after a while. Wyllm Merchant became Wyllm Merchant Meriwether, first known ancestor of the Merriweathers of Richmond, Virginia.

Wyllm moved away from trading in whatever he could grow, catch, or procure as soon as he discovered tea and sugar. These specialties were not yet for the masses; however, many nobles paid handsomely for their daily dose of tea from China and sugar from the West Indies.  Wyllm was not content to pay third-hand prices for his primary commodities that, in turn, yielded a steady but less than spectacular profit. In the summer of 1643, Wyllm made his first trip to Amsterdam to purchase his particular commodities first hand. When he returned to London, he expanded his wares to include spices, seasonings, and textiles – all as distinctive as the tea, sugar, and coffee that had been the primary purpose of his first trip to the Continent. Even with the cost of shipping to the docks of London’s East End and delivery to his business, his profits jumped three hundred percent. In two years, his own ships were making the trip, and Meriwether and Son Mercantile, Ltd. was born.

2 Diplomat, MP, Capitalist

David Meriwether, though not of noble or gentlemanly birth, was nonetheless noble of intellect and ambition. With no school in the village of Meranwyrthe, he caught the eye of Father Thomas Redyng. Redyng was the vicar of the small St. Mary’s Anglican Congregation and visited David’s father, where he regularly purchased imported Scotch whiskey. During his early days as a monk in Northumbria, Father Redyng had often heard the Prior talk about the “angels’ share” of whiskey – the whiskey that evaporated during distilling. And Father Redyng figured if the angels got a proportion of the whiskey, God would not begrudge him his daily share as well.

At age 16, David Meriwether entered his father’s import and export business as an apprentice. Quick with mathematics and equally able to decipher the legal intricacies of sales contracts that often eluded his father, who was adept at numbers and value but depended on others’ goodwill when it came to contracts, David grew into a prodigious capitalist by age 20. 

When his son turned 21, Wyllm took him on his first trip to the Continent, where Wyllm traded in export futures primarily in the Netherlands (textiles), France (fabrics and wine), and Spain (olive oil and Andalusian wines). David advised his father when he saw goods priced too low for the demand or when he perceived the cost to be unreasonable given the current glut of goods at market. Buying futures was a risky business—the only kind where profits equaled or exceeded the risks—and David Meriwether was a merchant magician. Within a year, he was traveling on his own.

David built a solid reputation in the Netherlands for his trades in textiles. In late 1650 he used those relationships to convince his father to increase coffee acquisitions by 100 percent as the new growth commodity.  He explained that roasted coffee in Amsterdam was being chewed or brewed for its remarkable property of adding zest to an otherwise day-to-day dull existence. So taken were the Dutch with coffee that it quickly became a commodity on which fortunes could be made or lost in its trade. In at the beginning, David and his father kept demand high and supply low, producing a steadily growing profit for the business.

A year later, David married Penelope Ramsey, the eighteen-year-old daughter of Henry Ramsey, a local merchant and a customer of Meriwether and Son Mercantile. In the early years of their marriage, Penelope gave birth to three healthy children: William – named for David’s father who had taught David his secrets of success; Charles – in honor of King Charles; and Honeysuckle – because, well, she was born as the honeysuckles were in bloom and had the sweetest disposition of the three children. Two other children, unnamed, had died in childbirth and were buried in the small cemetery of St. Mary’s Anglican Congregation in Meranwyrthe.

At age 27, David Meriwether spread his fledgling wings as an entrepreneur and introduced the first coffee house in London in St Michael’s Alley, Cornhill, in 1652. An immediate success, he quickly opened four others with perhaps the most profitable, The Angel, in Oxford. So popular, it became known as the Penny University. A patron, for a penny, could gain entrance and a cup of coffee. The coffee houses, unlike other gathering places in England, had no interest in the class of its clients. David Meriwether’s risky venture became the meeting place where common interests and topics were shared, deals were made, contracts signed over coffee, and politics and the law were de rigueur for topical discussions and the building of new relationships.  David Meriwether observed, participated, and profited far beyond the sale of coffee. 

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English Parliament in the Seventeenth Century, to speak of it in the most favorable terms, had been an ongoing catastrophe. Oliver Cromwell, in 1659, declared to its members, “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

David Meriwether’s entrepreneurial successes seemed naturally to lead him to Parliament at age 36, a position not unfavorable to his business interests and those of his father. The Cavalier Parliament that Meriwether joined as a minority member, not aligned with but not in opposition to King Charles II, needed a new birth of reason. With his knowledge of contacts on the Continent, contract law, and the art the negotiation, David Meriwether exhaled a newborn’s breath.  He provided the mercantile-oriented members precisely what was needed in reason and advice, with a touch of gypsy-like ability to see future possibilities.  Therefore, he quickly rose up the House of Commons ranks as people of much more significance and Royal status sought his advice.

Following a successful naval campaign in the Anglo-Spanish War, King Charles II appointed the Earl of Sandwich as Ambassador to Spain to negotiate the Treaty of Madrid, signed in 1670.   The King appointed David Meriwether, a Member of Parliament and a commoner recognized for his loyalty and expertise in commerce, law, and negotiation, as a member of the ambassador’s entourage. 

David’s mother died the week he sailed for Spain as part of the English Diplomatic Legation. And his father passed away at the end of David’s first year in Madrid.  Thus, fate confronted David with the choice of giving up his budding diplomatic career or returning to manage his business interests that continued to slowly recover from the significant economic downturn caused by the seemingly unending English Civil Wars. Deciding to see his work in Madrid to completion, David solicited the help of his sister Katryne and her husband, Reginald Pyburn, a London solicitor, to manage Meriwether and Son Mercantile and David’s personal business, London Coffee Holdings.

Meriwether performed as he had learned from his father and from hundreds of successful negotiations on the Continent. The Ambassador, the Earl of Sandwich, credited Meriwether’s advice with the treaty’s conditions, which were very favorable to England’s economic future, especially in the Caribbean, with Spain’s ceding of the Island of Jamaica.  

Upon completing his diplomatic service in 1670, with the family companies floundering and disillusioned with the body politic, Meriwether chose not to return to Parliament but to devote his energies to his personal business interests and the interests jointly held by his sister, Katryne, and himself. 

As the sole male heir, David had inherited his father’s share of Meriwether and Son Mercantile at his father’s death but assigned his share to his sister in recompense for her managing both businesses during his diplomatic service.  

3 A New Path

Over the next five years, Meriwether and Son Mercantile and London Coffee Holdings thrived in London and beyond. Looking for a way to continue to grow, David Meriwether, ever the thoughtful and methodical entrepreneur, charted a new path. 

Because London Coffee Holdings purchased its coffee from Meriwether and Son (although at a discount), both businesses produced orders to buy goods, invoices, sales receipts, and paid clerks to process them. Both paid banks to handle the finances. By merging the two businesses, David reasoned that if duplication of effort by employees could be eliminated, staff growth could be met internally, money would be saved in a reduction of paper, transportation, and consolidation of banking costs.  The elimination of duplication meant that the money saved could be used for growth.

In 1676, Meriwether and Son Mercantile and London Coffee Holdings merged and became the even more valuable and powerful Meriwether and Pyburn Mercantile Holdings. 

David Meriwether became the President. Katryne, in a move roundly criticized by London businessmen—and not a few women—became the Vice-President for Operations, and Reginald served as Vice-President of Finance and Legal Affairs. The corporate offices of Meriwether and Pyburn Mercantile Holdings stayed where Meriwether Mercantile had begun—with significant modernizing to appeal to a higher level of clientele from London, Scotland, Ireland, and the Continent. David and his family moved to Oxford soon after the merger, where he maintained an upstairs office and his ear to the ground in the Angel Coffee House. At the time of the merger in 1676, William was 15, Charles was 12, and Honeysuckle was 9.

4 The Scholar

Where William apprenticed in the family businesses as his father David had with his father, Wyllm, as often befalls a middle child, Charles found the path to adulthood was never smooth for either him or his parents. At 15, Charles seemed to possess the same intellectual acumen as his father and older brother, but none of the drive or ambition. Charles, with his father’s help, was to embrace scholarship instead of profits.

Although a commoner, David used his considerable financial and political influence to facilitate Charles’ enrollment in Oxford’s Merton College in 1679, where he would be pushed, prodded, embarrassed, and punished to convince him to employ his under-used intellect.  Interestingly, and much to his father’s surprise, Charles needed none of these incentives as he had found his vocation and his calling as a scholar.

__________

It was a late August Thursday when his father, after a rather relaxed lunch and casual conversation at the Angel Coffee House, invited Charles for a carriage ride.  Neither the informal lunch nor the conversation, and especially not the carriage ride in the middle of the day, in any way known heretofore to Charles, represented the father he knew to this point in his short life.

“Father, are you dying?” Charles finally asked as they traveled the cobblestoned High Street beyond the Botanical Gardens, where Charles had conducted research into medicinal plants.

“Well, I have no doubt that you could treat me with some of your cures from the Botanical Garden if I were!” His father retorted with a laugh to punctuate his reply.

“What then are we doing, wasting what each of us would deem as a perfectly good and potentially profitable afternoon?” Charles asked, still not understanding.

“I have a proposition for you, Charles.” His father began—this time in the same unusually calm demeanor that had characterized their lunch conversation. “It is evident to me that Merton College shall, at some point, have your name engraved among the distinguished scholars who have traversed its hallways.

“It is beyond my understanding why exploring the unknown holds such fascination for you when traveling the known pathways of commerce or statesmanship or the law has provided for our family so well over the decades.”

“Father, this is as much a mystery to me as it is to you,” Charles almost whispered in response. “I just know that the mystery of the joys, the pleasure, the ills, and the aches of the human body offer me rewards that money could never purchase.”

Charles continued, “I understand even less the mystery of spiritual yearnings and gratifications, but I do not doubt that they are as real as their sisters in the physical body. And I have seen the Churchmen, who by demonstrating forgiveness rather than retribution have changed the very character of men. A task impossible with my herbs and potions. At least at this point in my study.”

“Son,” David Meriweather replied after a long pause for reflection, “I wish that I could have foreseen my life with such clarity and wisdom at your age.”

“I do not fret about the paths I have taken. I traveled roads made familiar to me by your grandfather and by Father Redyng of St. Mary’s who taught me the intricacies of mathematics and reading and writing, but who also preached into me the merits of truth and honesty and integrity.”

As the carriage pulled up next to a recently completed country cottage only a mile’s walk from Merton College, David Meriwether finished his thought.  “I believe that you and I are not so different as perhaps we have thought. Such are the fruits borne from heartfelt conversations when freed from life’s appointments.”

“Whose cottage are we stopping at, Father?” Charles inquired of his father. 

“It is yours, Charles. You only need to sign the deed that awaits us inside.” His father said with evident pride.

“I do not deserve such a gift, for you have not made similar gifts to William or Honeysuckle.” Worriedness had entered the conversation with Charles’ response.

“Honeysuckle will have her dowry soon enough. And William is to become a full partner in Meriwether and Pyburn Mercantile Holdings by year’s end. They both know of this cottage and are waiting for us inside the threshold.

“But let me clear up one small misunderstanding. This cottage is not a gift. This is an investment, with your mother and me as the sole shareholders, and we expect future returns on our investments until you pay the price in full,” Said his father, ever the businessman.

“We shall talk about when those first returns will come due, but for now, let’s celebrate your entrance into your scholarly graduate pursuits with your siblings and your mother who await us inside.” 

At this last point, had Charles looked carefully, he would have seen his father wiping tears from his eyes. His father’s sneeze was simply the art of statesmanship.

In the spring of 1694, at age 30, Charles Meriwether completed his dual graduate studies in religion and medicine – a first for Merton College.  Now he must decide, as all graduate degree holders have henceforth, how to put it to good use.

__________

Charles was not to wait long. His tutor at Oxford, Father Cutheberd Foote, contacted his former tutor at the Sorbonne. Soon, an official invitation to lecture on religion made its way to Charles’ cubbyhole in his tutor’s office at Merton College.

Always the contrarian, Charles was not to be satisfied to lecture in only one area of his scholarly pursuits in medicine and religion. So much to the consternation of his father, mother, and tutor, but to his siblings’ amusement, Charles waited. But not without a plan of sorts.

Charles, like his father, frequented the Angel Coffee House in Oxford and for similar reasons. He looked to engage in dialectic dialogue with fellow Oxford students and on issues not always on their Dons’ agenda. Life after graduation was a topic just too arcane for an Oxford Don to waste his time on but was perfect for students to debate over coffee and biscuits. 

During such a discussion, Charles met his future housemate and lifelong friend, Francis Aquinas Rowland. Rowland, studying religion at Oxford’s Jesus College, was the conservative thinker of the two. With science and religion occupying a quiet incongruity and often incredulity in his mind, Charles was the less sure of the two. Charles envied Francis’s assuredness, and they complimented each other’s views in any discussion. 

For Francis, the personal philosophies that he brought to Oxford were already soundly rooted in the religious thought of the day – at least as much as his sixteen-year-old brain could wrap itself around. His father was a Don of humanities at Oxford’s “evil twin,” Cambridge. 

As Francis Rowland grew intellectually, his father – ever the thoughtful tutor – never considered enrolling his son at Cambridge, even at a college not his own. Instead, he rode on horseback the almost 85 miles to Oxford, where he met the Dons of Jesus College to present his arguments that his son would prosper away from his influence at Cambridge. His arguments were successful.

__________

On a pleasant early September afternoon in Oxford, Charles told Francis of his decision not to accept the Sorbonne’s offer.

“You either have had too much coffee or not enough. Who turns down an offer to lecture at the Sorbonne?”

“I do,” Charles replied. “You know that I can argue both sides of almost any religious question that you bring up, but when it comes to this decision, I have but one mind.”

Charles continued, “I do not understand the connections between medicine and religion, but I know that they are there, and I must pursue both in my scholarship. To do less would be to be untrue to me.”

“Well, my friend,” Francis interjected. “If that is your decision, then I may have a solution for you and perhaps a surprise.” 

__________

At the beginning of the first term of 1695, Charles Meriwether took his seat among the most learned men at Cambridge University’s Trinity College. Until his death at age 61, he conducted his scholarly pursuits in both medicine and religion, and the number of students he taught, tutored, challenged, and advised was in the hundreds. His children with his wife Johnna numbered three: Aquinas, Gracea, and Timothy.  Johnna Rowland was the surprise that Francis Rowland had delightedly hinted at 30 years earlier.  Three years after arriving at Trinity College, Charles married Johnna Rowland with his good friend, Father Francis Rowland, associate vicar at the Trinity Chapel, presiding.

When he died peacefully in 1725, his wife and three children were at his side. Francis, his lifelong friend, and colleague presided at Charles’ funeral and burial in the Cambridge University Cemetery. The epitaph on his tombstone yet remains to this day: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” – John 1:1. 

The heritage of scholarly pursuit passed down from father to sons. The debt owed to Meriwether and Pyburn Mercantile Holdings for the small cottage near Merton College was paid in full when his son, Timothy Meriwether, son of Charles and graduate of Oxford, arrived in Virginia to teach  Religious Studies at the College of William of Mary. The topic of studies: “Does The Bible endorse slavery as an acceptable practice?”

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