In the first few days of January 1506 a violent storm raged in the English Channel and swept across the southern part of England. In London it brought the cross from the top of St Paul's Cathedral crashing down. As it fell it in turn brought down the sign over the nearby Black Eagle Tavern. To the superstitious minds of those times this was a very bad omen. The Black Eagle was the symbol of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian, ruler over a major part of Europe. Was Maximilian planning an invasion of England? After all, his wife's mother had been a sister of the last two Yorkist kings of England, Edward IV and Richard III, the latter defeated twenty years earlier by the Lancastrian Henry Tudor who now ruled England as Henry VII.
Little did the king know that events far away in Dorset were already fulfilling that omen foretold by the falling inn sign. Emerging from the storm in the English Channel to set foot on English soil at Melcombe was not Emperor Maximilian but his son Phillip. Fortunately for everyone he was not arriving with war-like intentions. Instead he was seeking refuge from his storm-damaged ship. Archduke Philip of Austria and his wife had been sailing from Flanders to Spain when they were overtaken by the terrific storm in the Channel. Their fleet of ships had been scattered to all parts of the West Country from Poole to Falmouth and one even ended up at Ilfracombe in the Bristol Channel. Exact details of Phillip's arrival are lost in the mists of time, but shortly afterwards he and his wife were definitely being entertained by Sir Thomas Trenchard at his home at Wolveton, just north of Dorchester.
At first sight an Archduke and his wife don't sound too impressive, but this couple were far more important that this title suggests. Apart from Philip being heir to his father's Holy Roman Empire (mainly present-day Germany and Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, parts of Poland etc.), in his own right he was ruler of both the vast Austrian possessions along the Danube and also the lands he had inherited from his mother - present-day Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. And his wife Joanna was just as important. She had recently become Queen of half of Spain on the death of her mother, Isabella of Castile, and was heir to the other half then ruled over by her father, Ferdinand of Aragon. And not only this, for Joanna's kingdoms also included - thanks to Christopher Columbus - territories in Mexico, Peru, Central America, and the Caribbean, as well as the gold and other wealth flowing back from there. Between them, this couple were therefore either rulers of, or heirs to, the whole of Europe apart from France and Portugal. And here they were, suddenly and unexpectedly arrived in Dorset.
At 26 years old, their host Sir Thomas Trenchard was the same age as his visitors - Philip was 27 and Joanna 26 - and already had a good record of service to the Crown. References differ as to whether he took his visitors hostage or merely entertained them - while no doubt keeping a watchful eye on them at the same time. One thing that none of the references mention was the disastrous situation confronting the hostess, Lady Trenchard, when suddenly faced with these very important visitors and their large entourage. On the 6th January she would only have been able to look at near empty store-cupboards, sadly depleted of provisions at the end of the Christmas festive season.
Sir Thomas' obvious first duty was to keep his visitors safe while notifying the king of their arrival. In good weather a messenger could get to Windsor from Dorchester in two days, but in the middle of winter and in the aftermath of the great storm that had started these events, there is little doubt that it would have taken at least four or five days. Sir Thomas was therefore faced with the probability of having to entertain his important visitors for a minimum of two weeks. Philip is known to have led a very profligate life, loving hunting and womanising, the latter to the great upset of his wife. Records are silent on how Sir Thomas entertained them, apart from one thing that was to lead to a dramatic change of fortune for one of his Dorset kinsmen, John Russell.
John Russell was a few years younger than Sir Thomas Trenchard, but had one big advantage over him. Although from a Dorset merchant family, John Russell had apparently travelled on the Continent and had some fluency in other languages - unlike 'country bumpkin' Sir Thomas. Russell had recently returned to his home at nearby Swyre to take over his inheritance on the deaths of his grandfather and father. Sir Thomas hastily sent for John Russell to come to Wolveton and help entertain his visitors, probably anticipating that his first-hand knowledge of the Continent would go down well with the visitors. It certainly worked, for when Archduke Phillip eventually left after his two weeks stay in Dorset he took John Russell with him to Windsor. John Russell must have been quite an exceptional person, for he also made a great impression at the Royal Court of Henry VII. So much so that he stayed on there after Phillip's departure, going on to serve Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Queen Mary, and being created the first Earl of Bedford (the family became Dukes of Bedford a century later).
And what happened to the visitors themselves? A large escort sent by the king arrived at Wolveton to convey them to the king at Windsor Castle. (However did Lady Trenchard cope with even more visitors?) Philip's storm-scattered fleet gradually reassembled at Falmouth in Cornwall, and it was from there that Philip and Joanna finally sailed for Spain on April 24th. Five months later Philip was dead and Joanna was descending into the deep depressive illness that was to label her as 'mad Joanna' for the remaining fifty years of her life.
Unlike John Russell, Sir Thomas Trenchard doesn't seem to have benefited from his visitors. There are descriptions of supposed gifts he may or may not have received from Philip and Joanna, among them various portraits, vases, or pieces of furniture. Apart from entertaining the royal visitors, his only other distinction was that he was one of the knights at what became known as 'the Field of Cloth of Gold' in 1510 when Henry VIII met the French king. Otherwise he features in Dorset history usually only in administrative positions - as a Justice of the Peace or Commissioner of Taxes. He was Sheriff of Somerset & Dorset in 1509 and again in 1523. The rest of the time he appears to have resided quietly at Wolveton, involved with the construction of both the present building and the nearby parish church of Charminster, and also carrying on with the extensive and profitable sheep-farming already established on the surrounding downs. He lived to the ripe old age of 71, dying in 1550, no doubt still telling the story of how he unexpectedly entertained royal visitors at Wolveton.