William Laurence

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A sketch of Will Laurence. (c) Anke Eissmann

Character Profile

Name: William Laurence; Chinese name Lao-ren-tze
Date of Birth: c. 1774
Service: Aerial Corps, formerly Royal Navy
Rank: Former Captain
Nationality: British
Billets: HMS Shorewise, Fourth Lieutenant
HMS Normandy, Second Lieutenant
HMS Goliath, First Lieutenant
HMS Belize, Captain
HMS Reliant, Captain
Loch Laggan covert, captain to Temeraire


William Laurence was the third son of Lord Allendale, whose family seat of Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire. Young Will was raised in privilege, with an education and travel that included a boyhood trip to Rome. Lord Allendale was a staunch advocate for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade, and Will absorbed these views from his father.

Lord Allendale's oldest son, George Laurence, stood to inherit his father's title. As traditional in the Laurence family, the second son entered the church; Will was intended for the same profession but wanted to enter the Royal Navy instead.

Royal Navy, ~1786-1805

In the face of paternal opposition, Will Laurence ran away from home at age 12 and became a midshipman under the command of Captain Mountjoy, a family friend. As a young midshipman, he was once taken prisoner by the French and treated with perfect courtesy, which left a deep impression as to how prisoners should be treated.

He was promoted to lieutenant in 1791 at the age of 17. His first posting as lieutenant was to the HMS Shorewise under Captain Barstowe, a coarse and insecure man who resented Laurence's more elevated birth and manners. Barstowe died three months into the voyage, ending a routine of harsh punishments that might have endangered Laurence's life.

Subsequent postings gave Laurence the chance to prove his abilities. While he served as second lieutenant aboard the HMS Normandy under Captain Yarrow, the ship ran onto a reef and left them wrecked on an island 700 miles from Rio. Laurence, along with Tom Riley and ten other men, were sent in the ship's cutter for rescue. The captain and premier, not willing to go themselves, supplied them only with hard tack and coconuts. Laurence and his men caught fish and ate it raw.

Laurence credited this successful rescue mission as the reason Captain Thomas Foley chose him as first lieutenant on the HMS Goliath. During that posting, he served at the Battle of the Nile and received a decoration for his service.

By the end of 1804, Laurence had been away from England for most of the previous four years. He had served on first- or second-rate ships of the line for most of his naval career, and considered himself fortunate in his postings. He had also visited India, presumably during his naval service.

During this time, Laurence had the prospect of marriage to Edith Galman, whom he had known since childhood, but they were not formally engaged.

Transition, 1805

Laurence's career in the Navy was abruptly curtailed in January 1805, when he was captain of the HMS Reliant as part of Admiral Croft's squadron. While patrolling in the north Atlantic, the Reliant captured the French ship Amitie, which proved to have an unexpected carto-- a dragon egg ready to hatch.

Laurence put the Amitie under the command of his first lieutenant, Gibbs. The remaining officers of the Reliant drew lots to determine who should harness the dragonet and transfer to the Aerial Corps, which had a wild and dissolute reputation. Laurence included himself in the draw but exempted those with wives and families. Only the giddy midshipman Battersea found the prospect appearling, but another midshipman, Carver, had his name drawn out.

On hatching, the dragonet ignored Carver to explore the ship for some minutes, then abruptly chose Laurence and allowed him to harness, feed, and name it. At a loss, Laurence impulsively chose the name Temeraire in honor of a particularly graceful ship. To free his full attention for the dragonet, Laurence surrendered command of the Reliant to his second lieutenant, Tom Riley, for the three weeks' voyage to Madeira.

First Flight, depicting Laurence's first flight with Temeraire. (c) Anke Eissmann

On their arrival, Admiral Croft was not pleased by Laurence's prospective transfer to the Aerial Corps, nor was the Corps eager to accept him. While this dilemma was considered, Laurence consulted with the dragon scholar Sir Edward Howe, who identified Temeraire's breed as a Chinese Imperial.

Lawrence reunited with Temeraire. (c) Anke Eissmann

Temeraire refused to accept an experienced aviator as a new captain. Laurence was formally transferred to the Aerial Corps, and the two of them were sent to the Loch Laggan covert for training.

Aerial Corps, 1805+

Laurence experienced some culture shock from the new social conventions that surrounded him. He retained many habits formed by his upbringing and naval service, including the formalities of dress and etiquette. Most aviators were less punctilious about maintaining their personal appearances or the distinctions of rank.

Accustomed to the all-male Navy and the traditional limits on female social roles, Laurence was deeply uncomfortable to find women in active service in the Aerial Corps. He adjusted, however, and formed a relationship with Jane Roland during September 1805 while both were at the Dover covert.

After training at Loch Laggan, Laurence and Temeraire served in the Battle of Dover. Soon afterward, Sir Edward Howe corrected Temeraire's breed identification from Imperial to Celestial.

In December 1805, a Chinese Embassy came to England to demand Temeraire's repatriation, on the grounds that only their Emperor's family were appropriate partners for Celestial dragons. Temeraire, Laurence, and their crew accompanied the embassy back to China on the HMS Allegiance, under the command of Captain Tom Riley.

During the voyage and after their arrival in China, several attempts were made on Laurence's life. These were apparently instigated by Prince Yongxing, who was accidentally killed when his own dragon, Lung Tien Lien, attempted to protect him from Temeraire's anger.

Laurence's "worthiness" as Temeraire's partner was settled by a technicality. The Jiaqing Emperor formally adopted Laurence as a son, after learning of the Laurence family's distant descent from English royalty.

Laurence then received urgent orders to retrieve three dragon eggs purchased from Turkey. The Allegiance was undergoing lengthy repairs, so Laurence took an overland route guided by Tharkay.

While still in Europe, one of the Turkish eggs hatched out a fire-breathing Kazilik dragonet, who named herself Iskierka and chose John Granby from Temeraire's crew to become her captain. Tharkay brought Arkady's band of feral dragons to join them at the Siege of Danzig and return with them to England.

In England, the Aerial Corps was struggling to conceal the devastating effects of the Dragon Plague. Temeraire had briefly contracted the disease en route to China before being apparently cured in Cape Town. Laurence was sent back there with Lily's formation to identify the cure (a strange three-capped mushroom) and obtain larger quantities of it

After bringing the cure to England, Laurence learned that the Admiralty intended to deliberately kill French dragons with the Dragon Plague. Appalled, he and Temeraire stole some mushrooms and took them to France. Napoleon Bonaparte praised his heroism and offered him great rewards.

Laurence declined them and returned home, where he was convicted of treason, stripped of his rank as captain, and sentenced to death. His execution was indefinitely deferred if Temeraire agreed to stay in the Pen Y Fan breeding grounds.

A false report of Laurence's death caused Temeraire to lead most of the dragons out of the breeding grounds and fight Napoleon's invasion of England. Luckily, by the time Temeraire's absence was discovered, Laurence had already escaped from captivity; he soon rejoined Temeraire and fought valiantly against the invaders.

As a reward for their efforts, Wellesley commuted Laurence's death sentence to labor and transportation. He was sent to the New South Wales penal colony in Australia, along with Temeraire.