The Holy Boys

Xavi Caballé has read a book which suggests that the 18th century predecessors of the Norfolk Regiment were thus called because Spanish soldiers thought their Britannia badge represented the Virgin Mary. There’s another, more scurrilous version:

Well, I got fond enough, after all, of the Holy Boys, as the old Ninth lads were called… You see, when they came from the West Indies, as a skeleton regiment, they were made up again with growing boys. Colonel Campbell of Blythswood tried to do them some good by getting them schoolmasters and Bibles. But the young rogues had been ill nurtured in the parent nest, and they used to barter their Bibles for gin and gingerbread. The Duke of York used to say of them, that they were every thing that was bad but bad sodgers—ha! ha ! ha ! (Thomas Dick Lauder, Legendary tales of the Highlands (1841))

Lionboxer suggests they may have been known as the Hungry Ninth because they sold their bibles for food, or that actually both nicknames arose from them using bible pages to roll cigarettes. The Britannia cult has its roots in the 17th century, so I suppose the Spanish story could be derived from either the War of the Spanish Succession or a century later from the Peninsular War. It is said here that the right to bear the image was granted in 1797 in recognition of bravery at Almansa, while here a date of 1799 is given. This Spanish source dates it to the Peninsular War, claiming that the East Norkfold Regiment of Foot (sic) received the special attentions of the locals–I assume this means generous supplies alcohol–for being supposed to be Catholics. It also contains a disgraceful libel against Wellington’s Irish troops, who we are told didn’t give a tinker’s for religion except when they thought crossing themselves would lead to a free booze-up. “The Holy Boys” certainly sounds more 1800s than 1700s to me. Maybe the whole thing will turn out to be related somehow to the notoriously recusant Dukes of Norfolk.

I wonder if the foreign interest in Almansa referred to by Xavi may have more to do with it having been the only occasion (?) when it is generally believed that an English army led by a French general was defeated by a French army led by an English general.

This is all of no use to man or beast–unless I start entering slightly more esoteric pub quizzes–but does keep me away from more urgent but desperately boring tasks for a few minutes.

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  1. Actually the book I recently read didn’t say anything about the ‘Holy Boys’. As I posted, I heard that curiosity at the book’s launch speech… then after digging a little on the Wikipedia and also on what seems to be Norfolk Regiment’s Museum website I found both sites explains the same theory. That’s all. No big deal, just a funny anecdote.

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