It is normally the winners, not the losers, who erect triumphal irches at a war’s end. Yet at Parlington Park in West Yorkshire, some two hundred miles north of London, stands this monument, boldly dedicated to Liberty in North America Triumphant, MDCCLXXXIII . Built in 1783, the year America officially wrested her independence from England, it is the little-known creation of Sir Thomas Gascoigne, the eighth Baronet of Parlington and an aristocrat with distinctly individual views.
He was born in France in 1745 and went on the Grand Tour at twenty—quite unexceptional in itself for someone with his background, were it not that in Rome he made a sexual attack on his coachman that resulted in a drunken brawl and the unfortunate man’s death. Though not prosecuted, Gascoigne left Italy abruptly. In 1771 he succeeded his elder brother to the baronetcy, and nine years later he entered the House of Commons as a Whig. During his undistinguished five-year parliamentary career he is known to have made only one speech-on a motion to license horse dealers-but he was a loyal party man, a steadfast if silent foe of Lord North’s government and its harshness toward the colonies.
It is difficult for Americans to understand how deeply split English public opinion was before and during the Revolution. At one time, wrote Charles Fox, a leader of the pro-American minority, his followers “were called Americans … in short, they were anything but Englishmen.” But in Yorkshire, where economic well-being depended on a healthy American market for manufactured cloth, men who shared Gascoigne’s views were fairly safe. The countryside was dominated by sympathetic Whig families, and the local Whig press was openly friendly to the American cause: it urged the ringing of church bells at the repeal of the Stamp Act, warned of impending economic disaster when the break came in 1776, and took an openly skeptical view of official dispatches once the war was underway.
Gascoigne’s great arch was apparently first intended as a monument to himself; the family archives contain a crude drawing (perhaps done by Sir Thomas) with no other inscription than Tho: Gascoigne: Eques: MDCCLXXX . But news of the American victory at Yorktown in October, 1781, followed in March of the next year by the fall of North’s hated government, evidently moved Gascoigne to a more grandiose vision. He hired Thomas Leverton, a well-known architect, to draw up a second, more impressive arch with a jubilant new political message for posterity: To that Virtue which for a series of Years resisted Oppression & by a glorious Peace rescued its Country & Millions from Slavery T.G. dedicates this arch. 1782. The arch was completed the next year, though with a shorter dedication; perhaps the original would not fit.
Gascoigne lived on, breeding prize race horses and farming his lands until 1810, his brave inscription rarely read by anyone except the inhabitants of his little stone village of Aberford. But, according to local legend, at least one outsider who saw it was deeply wounded. Four years before Gascoigne’s death, the Prince of Wales, the future George IV, toured Yorkshire and visited Gascoigne’s estate. Glimpsing the arch, he winced, professed himself appalled by a “man who could thus perpetuate the Memory of England’s defeats…,” and refused to meet its builder.