Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639)

AT his first going ambassador into Italy, as he passed through Germany, he stayed some days at Augusta [Augsburg]: where having been in his former travels well known by many of the best note for learning and ingeniousness (those that are esteemed the virtuosi of that nation), with whom he passing an evening in merriments, was requested by Christopher Flecamore to write some sentence in his albo (a book of white paper which, for that purpose, many of the German gentry usually carry about them), and Sir Henry Wotton consenting to the motion, took an occasion from some accidental discourse of the present company to write a pleasant definition of an ambassador, in these very words:

Legatus est vir bonus peregrè missus ad mentiendum Reipublicae causâ.

Which Sir Henry Wotton could have been content should have been thus Englished:

An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.

But the word for lie being the hinge upon which the conceit was to turn was not so expressed in Latin as would admit (in the hands of an enemy especially) so fair a construction as Sir Henry thought in English. Yet as it was, it slept quietly among other sentences in this albo almost eight years, till by accident it fell into the hands of jasper Scioppius, a Romanist, a man of a restless spirit and a malicious pen, who with books against King James prints this as a principle of that religion professed by the King and his ambassador, Sir Henry Wotton, then at Venice; and in Venice it was presently after written in several glass windows, and spitefully declared to be Sir Henry Wotton's.

This coming to the knowledge of King James, he apprehended it to be such an oversight, such a weakness or worse in Sir Henry Wotton, as caused the King to express much wrath against him; and this caused Sir Henry Wotton to write two apologies, one to Velserus (one of the chiefs of Augusta) in the universal language, which he caused to be printed and given and scattered in the most remarkable places both in Germany and Italy, as an antidote against the venomous books of Scioppius; and another apology to King James, which were both so ingenious, so clear, and so choicely eloquent, that his Majesty (who was a pure judge of it) could not forbear at the receipt thereof to declare publicly that Sir Henry Wotton had commuted sufficiently for a greater offence.

—Walton, Lives, pp. 120-1.

Logan Pearsall Smith describes a notable find at Burleyon-the-Hill, Rutland.

IN examining the Seventh Report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, I found a note by A. J. Horwood, who had been sent in 1878 to examine the manuscripts, at a great mansion near Oakham, of a manuscript volume which contained 'copies of letters seemingly by and to Sir Henry Wotton'. I found that this house was in the possession of a certain elderly colonel, and I began inquiring among the people I met if any of them knew him. At last I met an old lady who was his cousin, and who kindly said that I might write to him and make use of her name as an introduction. I therefore wrote, and received a most courteous answer from the colonel, saying that he knew nothing of the manuscript book, and did not believe he possessed it, but that he was quite willing for me to come and look for it myself.

I therefore went to Oakham, and took a cab up to an immense Italian villa, which is one of the biggest houses in England, if not the biggest. I drove into a great colonnaded courtyard of about twenty acres (larger, I believe, than the Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge), and up to the splendid steps of the mansion—steps partially broken and partially overgrown with weeds, for the whole place looked ill-kept and considerably out of repair, as if funds were not abundant on that hilltop. I rang the great resounding front-door bell, and the stately portal was opened by an old gentleman in a shawl, who reminded me of the Duke of Wellington in his appearance. I introduced myself, and mentioned his cousin, of whom we talked awhile, and then I stated my errand, at which he gave me a somewhat malicious chuckle and showed me into an immense library, which occupied one wing of the great house and looked about a mile long. It was full of debris, pictures without frames, frames without pictures, old rocking-horses without heads, and was lined with immense old bookshelves that seemed to touch the sky. 'Now you can have a look, and you must let me give you luncheon later,' he said, and then he disappeared.

It was a cold day in November; the library was unheated, and I felt the beginnings of a violent cold upon me. My despair at the gigantic search in prospect (which would have required weeks at least for its satisfactory performance) can be imagined; but still I felt that, having come so far, I must at least take a look. While I was doing this, I happened to see the colonel with two maiden ladies (whom I afterwards found to be his daughters) staring at me through an immense window from the terrace outside. By great good fortune I found within half an hour the book I was looking for, and saw at once that it was of even greater interest than I had hoped, as it contained many copies of Wotton's unpublished letters, a number of documents concerning his first embassy at Venice (1604-10), and a large collection of notes of 'table-talk', kept by someone in his household at Venice during that period, with many anecdotes about Queen Elizabeth, James I, Henry IV, Bacon, and Essex, and various personages of the time, as well as a number of poems by Donne and others, a copy of Donne's Paradoxes, with a long unpublished letter which Donne sent with them, and a number of other early, unpublished letters by Donne, some signed and some unsigned, all of which had escaped Horwood's notice when he examined the manuscript.

I took the book to the colonel's study, where there was a good fire, and where the old gentleman, sat reading The Times. Occasionally I caught his eye, staring at me over its pages as if he were asking himself what sort of creature I could be to take so great an interest in old papers.

When at last I hinted that it would take me more than an afternoon to master and copy out the contents of this volume, he most kindly asked me to come and pay him a visit for this purpose. I was, of course, delighted to accept this invitation, and spent several days in this great seventeenth-century palace, whose wide terraces overlooked perhaps the most famous of English hunting counties. I had my meals with the colonel and his daughters, and attended divine service with them in the chapel of the house. They all treated me with the perfect courtesy of their class, and made no attempt to find out who I was, or what motive had induced me to engage in this (to them) so incomprehensible a form of sport. They were much too polite to ask any questions.

When I found that the period of my visit was insufficient for an adequate study of the contents of this book, I arranged for the Oxford University Press to purchase its copyright, and to have the volume sent to Oxford for careful copies to be made. Sir Herbert Grierson came to Oxford to examine the poems, which he afterwards published in his masterly edition of Donne's poems. I remember that when he and I were shut up together to examine this volume in a big room at the top of the Clarendon Press, Satan tempted me to make the suggestion that it would be rather fun to insert among these perfectly unknown notes of tabletalk some chance remark about Bacon as a playwright which might set the Baconians agog; and I remember Grierson's expression of horror at this suggestion, which it is indeed lucky we did not carry out, since, shortly after the volume was returned to the place where I had found it, the house was burnt down and the manuscript destroyed.

—Logan Pearsall Smith, Unforgotten Years (1938), pp. 218-23.

« NEXT » « 16 Century Anecdotes » « All Anecdotes » « Humour » « Library »