Mystery found within the archives of Spalding Gentlemen's Society
The process of cataloguing the large and miscellaneous range of documents in the collections
of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society sometimes throws up some real oddities.
One which came to light recently is a pamphlet which, according to the front cover, was printed in 1648, and contains ‘The Earl of Pembroke’s Speech in the House of Peers [the predecessor of our House of Lords], when the seven Lords were accused of High Treason’. It is certified as ‘copia vera’, a true copy, by a certain Michael Oldsworth.
This title seems self-explanatory, but further research has revealed a mystery at the heart of the document.
Philip Herbert, who became the fourth Earl of Pembroke, was born in 1584 at Wilton House
in Wiltshire. As a teenager he came to the notice of the new Stuart king, James I, not for
outstanding intelligence or statecraft, but for his addiction to hunting, hawking and gambling.
James bestowed a succession of honours on him, no doubt finding the young man engaging
company, but Philip had a dark side in the form of a violent temper. Nevertheless, further
honours followed, including Knight of the Garter, High Steward and Privy Councillor.
After the accession of Charles I in 1626 his good fortune continued, and the following year he was appointed Lord Chamberlain of the King’s household.
In 1630 he succeeded his elder brother as fourth Earl of Pembroke. According to one estimate, his income at this time amounted to a staggering £30,000 a year. Another estimate suggests that he spent £18,000 a year on hunting.
Despite his rough and uncouth reputation, Pembroke had a keen interest in architecture and
painting, and had an outstanding collection of pictures. He was patron to the renowned
portrait painter Anthony van Dyck, and from the early 1630s oversaw a major landscaping
project at the family home, Wilton House. He was no great lover of books but was a noted
literary patron, including to the spiritual poet George Herbert, a relative.
This charmed life was not destined to last once relations between Charles I and Parliament
deteriorated. Pembroke became alienated from the court, not least because of the offence
caused by his rough manners. In 1641 he fell out with the King, and became increasingly
identified with the cause of Parliament. Nevertheless, he avoided openly taking sides, and
was often chosen to act as a mediator between King and Parliament.
Matters came to a head, however, in 1647 when he severely criticised Cromwell’s New Model Army. When the Army marched into London and imposed its will on Parliament, Pembroke back-pedalled and tried to insist that he acted under duress.
He must have had a persuasive tongue, since the next year Parliament installed him as constable of Windsor Castle, effectively the king’s gaoler.
Charles I went to the block in January 1649, and a few months later Pembroke fell ill, dying
in Westminster in January 1650. His body was embalmed at great expense, and was taken to
Salisbury Cathedral for burial. Members of Parliament lined the road out of London as his
funeral cortege passed.
You will have noticed that there is no reference in this potted biography to Pembroke’s ever
being put on trial for high treason. Indeed, by temperament he seems to have preferred the middle ground, showing an uncanny knack of riding the waves of political turmoil.
How, then, do we explain the pamphlet with which we began this article?
The language seems consistent with what we know of Pembroke, to the extent that it borders at times on self-parody. The writer claims to be in peril of his life (‘I must either find a tongue, or lose my head’), and prays not to be sent to the Tower. The style of writing is suitably uncouth (‘Damme, I think nothing is Jure Divino but God’.) His love of hunting is encapsulated in ‘My Lords, you know I love dogs, and [...] I thank God I have as good dogs as any man in England’, and his lack of learning in ‘‘Tis known I can scarce write a word besides my name [...] I see now my grandfather was a wise man, he could neither write nor read, and happy for me if I were so too.’
The answer may lie in the hostility felt towards him by royalists, particularly in Oxford where
he was Chancellor of the university, even though he had worked tirelessly for a reconciliation
between King and Parliament. Royalist pamphleteers published a number of satirical works
purporting to be speeches by Pembroke and mocking his lack of scholarship. These
pamphlets, like ours, claimed to have been published by Pembroke’s real-life secretary,
Michael Oldsworth. Could our document be one of them?
The SGS museum in Broad Street, Spalding, is a treasure trove, and we hold open days when
visitors can see the very varied collections on show. We also host group visits and welcome
researchers by arrangement. More information and dates of our open days can be found on
our website http://sgsoc.org , our Facebook page and in the pages of the Free Press and
Spalding Guardian, or email us at email@example.com.