- Alan Smith uncovers two little-known stories from the past
From time to time, in my career as an amateur historian (the pay is lousy but the hours are great), I come across hidden stories that deserve a wider audience. In this article I introduce two of them: the strange story of Maximilian de Veau, a Huguenot émigré who became so unlikely a hero of Scottish nationalists; and the true origin of the inn name, ‘The Durham Ox’.
Maximilian de Veau was born in France, c.1570, to Huguenot parents. After the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Huguenots in 1572, his parents took Maximilian to Edinburgh, thinking that the Protestantism of Scotland would be more attuned to their views than the Anglican via media of Elizabethan England. In the course of time, Maximilian enrolled at the University of Edinburgh.
During his time as a student the political scene was dominated by the expectation that James VI, King of Scotland, would inherit the throne of England on the death of his cousin Elizabeth. While many Scots saw this as a Scottish takeover of England, the more far-sighted realized that the disparity between the scale of the Scottish and English economies would prompt James to relocate to London and rule both countries from there. Maximilian was in this latter group and he foresaw that James, or possibly one of his descendants, would feel compelled to introduce the English form of Protestantism to Scotland lest two diverging religions would imperil the united Crown.
When Queen Elizabeth died in 1603 and the Union of the Crowns had come to pass, Maximilian returned to his native France, perhaps thinking that he would be safer under Henri IV, the former Protestant who converted to Catholicism in order to inherit the throne of France. Under Henri’s successor, Louis XIII, and his Minister Cardinal Richelieu, though little is known for certain, it is probable that Maximilian allied himself to the various separatist groups that sought to undermine the authority of the French Crown. When he was killed in Paris in 1625, it was assumed that his death had occurred as a result of a scuffle with the Cardinal’s Guards.
In his student days in Edinburgh, his natural leadership qualities led to his name being adopted as a rallying cry by separatists, using the form in which it appeared in the University Register: ‘de Veau, Max.’. On the rare occasions when it appeared in print, it was converted to the form ‘de Vo Max’ or ‘Devo Max’. For a hundred years or so until the Darien fiasco brought about the union of the Scottish and English Parliaments, ‘Devo Max’ continued to be used by Scottish nationalists seeking a separation from England, though knowledge of the phrase’s origin had long since vanished. Will the cry of ‘Devo Max’ ever be heard again, I wonder?
We turn now to the second story. The philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas (1224/5–74) found a ready response in the more intelligent artisans of England in the later medieval period. Virtually spontaneously, with no centralized organization, small groups sprang up, meeting in the evenings to discuss problems of the day in the light of Thomist philosophy.
Fearful of interference from both Church and State that might have put them under close ecclesiastical or baronial control, the groups met in borrowed rooms, often changing their venue from meeting to meeting. At the meetings, plentiful supplies of food and ale were made available to meet the material needs of those attending.
To identify the locations discreetly, each group displayed a picture of ‘The Dumb Ox’. This referred to a nickname given to the young Thomas by his fellow students who had mistaken his failure to ask questions for a lack of intelligence rather than a complete mastery of the subject. Thomas’s teacher, Albert the Great, told them: ‘You call brother Thomas a dumb ox. Let me tell you that one day the whole world will listen to his bellowings.’
The true origin
Over the years the popular interest in Thomism declined and the meetings concentrated on the consumption of food and ale; discussions continued but without the unifying basis provided by St Thomas. Losing their fear of Church and State, those groups that survived became inns, retaining the name of ‘The Dumb Ox’. However, as memory of the name’s origin faded, many of the inns changed their name to ‘The Durham Ox’, it being thought that ‘Dumb’ had been a corruption of ‘Durham’. This gradual process was quickly completed after the Reformation, when it was thought that ‘The Dumb Ox’ might indicate a connection with the resistance.
Still today it is possible to find public houses named ‘The Durham Ox’. However, it is unlikely that you would find one with a landlord who knows the true origin of the name!