Burning Jesus

“Bring me a glass of champagne!” said William Price, as he lay on his deathbed. The champagne consumed, Price passed away. He was 93. A few days later, his body was laid on a pyre of Welsh coal on the hillside above his home town of Llantrisant, and with appropriate Druidic ritual, the mortal remains of William Price were consigned to the flames.

Price had been one of the most prominent eccentrics of Victorian Britain. He had become a doctor through the hard route of medical apprenticeships and being surgeon’s assistant, rather than taking a medical degree. Such a career path was still possible in the nineteenth century, with membership of the Royal College of Surgeons giving Price the authority to set up in in South Wales as a general practitioner.

He was very interested in Welsh culture and the promotion of the Wesh language, having been brought up as a Welsh speaker himself. He joined a Neo-Druidic society (almost all information regarding Druid beliefs and practices has been lost to history, but Victorian enthusiasts invented a whole new corpus).

He was also a supporter of the Chartist movement, which sought political and parliamentary reform. There were two strands of thought in Chartism, “moral force” and “physical force”. The inclinations of William Price are revealed by the fact that by 1839 he had somehow acquired seven artillery pieces. In the event, he was never personally involved in any violent rebellion, but retired to France for safety after severe disturbances and a crackdown on Chartists by the government.

William Price of Llantrisant (1800-1893)It was in Paris that Price had his “Road to Damascus” moment. Or mental breakdown, call it what you will. In the Louvre, he saw a classical Greek inscription, which he decided was a Welsh prophecy concerning himself. He was to be a great leader of Welsh language, culture and religion. He returned to Wales and set up a new Druid cult, with himself as Archdruid.

He was forty years old and unmarried. In fact, he declared himself morally opposed to marriage, since it made women property. However, he moved in with a woman in Pontypridd and they had a daughter, who was baptised in a pseudo-Druidical ceremony at the Rocking Stone. Dispensing entirely with the Victorian costume of a medical gentleman, he grew his hair and beard long and invented various “priestly” outfits, usually in emerald green and featuring a large fox-skin hat.

In spite of his enthusiasm, Price was never successful as a Druid, with no followers of his cult; and none of his events or projects came to anything. In 1861, after twenty years of futilely wandering around in costume, he abandoned his partner and grown-up daughter and fled again to France, this time to avoid creditors after a failed project to build a Druidical museum in Pontypridd. From France, he wrote to the British newspapers, with ridiculous claims about himself and Welsh history. Homer was born in Y Van near Caerphilly, apparently.

After five years in exile, during which time his former partner had died, Price returned to Wales and set up in medical practice again, in Llantrisant where his daughter was living, and became a relatively prosperous doctor over the next dozen or so years. He then “married” Gwenllian, a young woman of 21, in a Druidic ceremony which he had devised (he was 81) and they had a son, named Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, the baby Jesus only survived for five months. Price had decided that burying a body to decay was a desecration of the holy earth, and decided to cremate his young son. But when he tried to light a pyre on the hillside a crowd pulled the body from the flames and assaulted the old man, who had to be rescued by police.

It was established that the baby had died of natural causes, so there was no issue of infanticide, but William Price was charged with attempting illegal disposal of a human body. However, although cremation was virtually unheard of in late Victorian Britain (even held in some repugnance), the court ruled that there was nothing in law that made it actually illegal. Price was released, and was able to hold a solemn Druidic cremation of his little son’s body, this time to a degree of public sympathy.

Publicity about the case had raised the issue of cremation, and the first “official” cremations in the UK began to occur within a couple of years. Several large crematoria were built in British cities before the end of the century, and today, more than three-quarters of disposals in the UK are by cremation.

Price had two further children in his late eighties, a boy again named Jesus Christ and a girl, Penelopen. After his death, Gwenllian re-married in the Christian faith and Jesus was re-baptised as “Nicholas”.

William Price had been a keen walker and a strong supporter of conservation. He never wore socks (which, he thought, were unhygienic) and washed every coin he received as he considered them a major source of cross-contamination. He refused to treat patients who were smokers.  He was also a vegetarian, saying that eating meat “brought out the beast in man”. He disliked the capitalist coal mine owners and the all-powerful local gentry, and was a supporter of the local miners in several strikes during the 19th century. Today, there’s a statue of him, complete with fox hat, in Llantrisant.

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