Moll Cutpurse - Roger Hudson on The Chamberlain Letters

A Notorious Baggage

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We can touch the past through diaries, letters and memoirs, which allow a measure of intimacy and immediacy even across the centuries. The accepted view is that they begin to proliferate in the second half of the seventeenth century with Pepys, Evelyn, Lucy Hutchinson and John Aubrey. But there is an earlier figure who has somehow slipped below the literary horizon. The letters that John Chamberlain (1554–1628) wrote are the first in English that can be read without difficulty and with pleasure.

Chamberlain was well placed to be an observer of the end of Elizabeth’s reign and the subsequent Jacobean period. His father had been Master of the Ironmongers’ Company in London, as were three of his brothers. His was therefore a comfortably off family, on the cusp between the urban middle class and the gentry. He went to Trinity, Cambridge, but did not take a degree; attended Gray’s Inn, but was not called to the bar; never had a job and never married. He knew his station and his limitations: ‘I never did abound, so I was. . . never in want . . . I am past all ambition and wish nor seek nothing but how to live suaviter and in plenty.’ Here was an ideal looker-on, gathering all the news and gossip in circulation on his daily visits to St Paul’s Cathedral where he and many others went ‘Paul’s Walking’, up and down its naves and aisles. By far the greatest number of his letters are to Dudley Carleton, a career diplomat much younger than he who is anxious to be kept abreast of what is happening back in England.

This is the age of Shakespeare, though alas Chamberlain makes no mention of him. He does, however, report the burning of the Globe Theatre in 1613 after its thatched roof was set alight by the discharge of a stage cannon, and of the Fortune Theatre in 1621, owned by Edward Alleyn, the founder of Dulwich College. He also gives frequent evidence of how the English language had suddenly caught fire, not merely at the hands of the p

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We can touch the past through diaries, letters and memoirs, which allow a measure of intimacy and immediacy even across the centuries. The accepted view is that they begin to proliferate in the second half of the seventeenth century with Pepys, Evelyn, Lucy Hutchinson and John Aubrey. But there is an earlier figure who has somehow slipped below the literary horizon. The letters that John Chamberlain (1554–1628) wrote are the first in English that can be read without difficulty and with pleasure.

Chamberlain was well placed to be an observer of the end of Elizabeth’s reign and the subsequent Jacobean period. His father had been Master of the Ironmongers’ Company in London, as were three of his brothers. His was therefore a comfortably off family, on the cusp between the urban middle class and the gentry. He went to Trinity, Cambridge, but did not take a degree; attended Gray’s Inn, but was not called to the bar; never had a job and never married. He knew his station and his limitations: ‘I never did abound, so I was. . . never in want . . . I am past all ambition and wish nor seek nothing but how to live suaviter and in plenty.’ Here was an ideal looker-on, gathering all the news and gossip in circulation on his daily visits to St Paul’s Cathedral where he and many others went ‘Paul’s Walking’, up and down its naves and aisles. By far the greatest number of his letters are to Dudley Carleton, a career diplomat much younger than he who is anxious to be kept abreast of what is happening back in England.

This is the age of Shakespeare, though alas Chamberlain makes no mention of him. He does, however, report the burning of the Globe Theatre in 1613 after its thatched roof was set alight by the discharge of a stage cannon, and of the Fortune Theatre in 1621, owned by Edward Alleyn, the founder of Dulwich College. He also gives frequent evidence of how the English language had suddenly caught fire, not merely at the hands of the playwrights and poets of the period, but also among ordinary men of the middling sort, such as himself. Right from the earliest letters in the 1590s phrases flash out on the page. He says the treasurer of the Earl of Essex’s expedition to Ireland ‘shall not be troubled with much receipt . . . a well saddled rat may carry all his accounts’. He is all too prophetic and the following year (1598) talks of Ireland being ‘farther out of square than ever, so that there is no other way but to provide the sharper sword’.

It is this combination of historical and literary appeal that should earn Chamberlain a much wider audience. In 1601 he is present at the trial of Essex for treason: ‘I never saw any go through with such boldness and show of resolution and contempt of death; but whether this courage were borrowed and put on for the time, or natural, it is hard to judge.’ Essex was doomed, ‘Yet the general opinion is there will be no great executions, for the Queen is very gracious and inclines much to mercy.’ Throughout the letters it is the King (or Queen), Princes, Princesses and royal favourites who, as the motive forces of society, dominate proceedings. Chamberlain makes this plain, confessing in December 1616 that ‘The King’s and Queen’s absence, together with the end of the [law] term, hath made this town as barren of news as it is of good company.’

The high (or low) points in these years are the Catholics’ attempt to blow up James in 1605, the death of his eldest son Henry in 1612, the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth, the Winter Queen, to the Rhineland ruler, the Elector Palatine, in 1613, and the attempted ‘Spanish Match’ of his son Charles followed by his successful marriage to Henrietta Maria of France.

Guy Fawkes is ‘taken, making his trains at midnight with a blind lantern’. To the physicians, ‘the extremity of Prince Henry’s disease seemed to lie in his head, for remedy whereof they shaved him and applied warm cocks and pigeons newly killed, but with no success’. A week after his death ‘a very handsome young fellow . . . came stark naked to St James’s while they were at supper, saying he was the Prince’s ghost come from heaven with a message for the King . . . All the penance they gave him was two or three lashes, which he endured as it seemed without sense, and keeping him naked as he was all night and the next day in the porter’s lodge, where thousands came to see him.’ The morning after the marriage of ‘the Palsgrave and the Lady Elizabeth . . . the King went to visit these young turtles that were coupled on St Valentine’s Day, and did strictly examine him whether he were his true son-in-law, and was sufficiently assured’. When the English party return from the unsuccessful attempt to marry Charles to the Spanish Infanta, they report finding ‘nothing but penury and proud beggary, besides all other discourtesy’, in her country. Then in December 1624, ‘We had here great triumph and rejoicing for the good forwardness of the French match, by public commandment: the organs in Paul’s played two hours on their loudest pipes, and so began to the bells, the bells to the bonfires, the bonfires to a great peal of ordnance at the Tower. God grant it may prove worth all this noise.’

In December 1614 Chamberlain grumbles that ‘For all this penurious world, we speak of a masque this Christmas towards which the King gives £1,500, the principal motive whereof is thought to be the gracing of Young Villiers [James’s new favourite, the future Duke of Buckingham] and to bring him on the stage.’ The royal finances were always in a parlous state in spite of subterfuges such as the sale of the new rank of baronet, invented in 1611, for about £1,000 each, or the making of 50 new barons at £6,000 each, suggested in 1615 – ‘I think they should scant have found five at that rate.’ In addition, ‘new gifts and daily warrants under the privy signet do alter the course of orderly payments and disorder all’, as did the irresponsible granting of monopolies to courtiers. The ‘new plantations of Virginia and Bermuda are like to be stifled as it were in the cradle’ by a tobacco monopoly granted in 1620, and there are others: ‘for scouring and trimming of armour throughout England; . . . for sixpence a load of hay of all that comes to this town by land or water; . . . for whatsoever is printed but on one side’.

Chamberlain could not see ‘how the King’s wants can be supplied’, except by ‘the ordinary, ancient, and plain highway’ of taxation authorized by Parliament. The trouble was that ‘Impositions and patents [monopolies] are grown so grievous that of necessity they must be spoken of [by the Commons], and the prerogative [the King’s ‘divine right’ to them], on the other side, is become so tender that it cannot endure to be touched.’ Here we see perhaps the largest of the seeds which were to grow into the Civil War two decades later.

There is plenty of illuminating trivia to counterbalance such high matters of state. In 1601, ‘Last week one came hopping from Charing Cross into Paul’s bound in a sack, and another carried up a horse and rode upon him to the top of Paul’s steeple.’ In 1605, ‘Dr Milward, preaching at Paul’s Cross, a cuckoo came flying over the pulpit and very lewdly called and cried out.’ In 1612, ‘Moll Cut-purse, a notorious baggage (that used to go in man’s apparel and challenged the field of diverse gallants), was brought to Paul’s Cross, where she wept bitterly and seemed very penitent, but it is since doubted [for] she was maudlin drunk, being discovered to have tippled off three quarts of sack before she came to her penance.’ Six years later, ‘Mistress West, the Lord Delaware’s daughter, one of our prime and principal beauties, is seized on by the smallpox, which if they [the pox marks] deal not mercifully with her she is quite undone, seeing her good face is the best part of her fortune.’ In 1619, ‘A woman of Whitefriars held her maid’s head so long in a tub of water, that she drowned her. And a player about the town, upon some displeasure to the Lord of Doncaster’s  barber (that was very dear to him), ran him through and killed him unawares.’

Much of this may seem far removed from life today, but then one comes on an item that suddenly concertinas the intervening centuries: ‘We have every week almost a new proclamation for somewhat or other, as for buildings (forward and backward), for weights and measures, for inns and alehouses, for horse meat, and I know not what else, all for the good of the subject, and yet they either believe it not or will not acknowledge the good pretended.’ John Chamberlain is one of us.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 11 © Roger Hudson 2006


About the contributor

Roger Hudson’s modestly titled Hudson’s English History was published in 2005, when his anthology drawn from letters and diaries and called Murray’s Daily Companion also appeared.

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