The 17th-Century Debate over Character

Before the civil war, William Cavendish (bap. 1593, d. 1676), then the earl of Newcastle, was renowned for his gallantry and “liberall hospitality.” Lucy Hutchinson (1620–1681), whose husband (a regicide Colonel) was a military adversary of Newcastle’s during the civil war, gave the following character of Newcastle’s Cavalier spirit:

The greatest famely was the Earle of Newcastle’s, a lord so much once beloved in his country that, when the first expedition was against the Scotts, the gentlemen of the country sett him forth two troopes, one all of gentlemen, the other of their men, who waited on him into the north at their owne charges. He had indeed, through his greate estate, his liberall hospitality, and constant residence in his country, so endear’d them to him, that no man was a greater prince then he in all that northerne quarter, till a foolish ambition of glorious slavery carried him to court, where he ran himselfe much in debt, to purchase neglects of the king and queene, and scornes of the proud courtiers.

(L. Hutchinson, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, Written by His Widow, Lucy, ed. Harold Child, 1904, 121–2)

The aging Cavalier was even more at odds with the culture at the court of Charles II after the Restoration of 1660, and was sidelined by the new monarch, who favored younger and more entertaining companions. Even Newcastle’s adoring wife was forced to acknowledge that his star had fallen with the Restoration:

After I was safely arrived at London, I found my Lord in Lodgings; I cannot call them unhandsome; but yet they were not fit for a Person of his Rank and Quality, nor of the capacity to contain all his Family: Neither did I find my Lord’s Condition such as I expected: Wherefore out of some passion I desir’d him to leave the Town, and retire into the Countrey; but my Lord gently reproved me for my rashness and impatience, and soon after removed into Dorset-house; which, though it was better then the former, yet not altogether to my satisfaction, we having but a part of the said House in possession. By this removal I judged my Lord would not hastily depart from London; but not long after, he was pleased to tell me, That he had dispatched his business, and was now resolved to remove into the Country, having already given order for Waggons to transport our goods, which was no unpleasant news to me, who had a great desire for a Countrey-life.

(Margaret Cavendish, The Life of ... William Cavendishe, Duke, Marquess, and Earl of Newcastle ... Written by ... Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, His Wife, 1667, 88–9)

Rumors of Newcastle’s “discontent” over his exclusion from influence circulated, which Newcastle-qua-courtier denied when he

went to his Gracious Soveraign, and begg’d leave that he might retire into the Countrey, to reduce and settle, if possible, his confused, entangled, and almost ruined Estate. Sir, said he to His Majesty, I am not ignorant, that many believe I am discontented; and ’tis probable they’l say, I retire through discontent: But I take God to witness, That I am in no kind or ways displeas’d; for I am so joyed at your Majesties happy Restauration, that I cannot be sad or troubled for any Concern to my own particular; but whatsoever Your Majesty is pleased to command me, were it to sacrifice my Life, I shall most obediently perform it; for I have no other Will, but Your Majesties Pleasure.
     Thus he kissed His Majesty’s hand, and went the next day into Nottingham-shire, to his Mannor-house call’d Welbeck ....

(Margaret Cavendish, The Life of ... William Cavendishe, Duke, Marquess, and Earl of Newcastle ... Written by ... Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, His Wife, 1667, 89)

Returned to his patrimony, Newcastle flourished once again as the magnificent lord of Welbeck and Bolsover, even with his estates in ruins. Clement Ellis, Newcastle’s chaplain, took notice of this in the prefatory epistle to a sermon preached on 29 May 1661:

With much pleasure I have hearkened to you discoursing of that satisfaction you reaped from that sweet privacy and retirement his Majesty is pleased to grant your Lordship here in the country. Indeed, the greatest reward his Majesty can possibly recompense your services withal, is thus to bestow you upon yourself, and I know you think it greater happiness to enjoy my Lord Marquis of Newcastle at Welbeck, than all the offices and honours which your exemplary loyalty has merited.

(qtd. in H. T. E. Perry, The First Duchess of Newcastle and Her Husband as Figures in Literary History, rpt. 1968, 65n2)

Newcastle concentrated on reconstructing his estates, and

pleaseth himself with the Management of some few Horses, and exercises himself with the use of the Sword; which two Arts he hath brought by his studious thoughts, rationall experience, and industrious practice to an absolute perfection: and though he hath taken as much pains in those arts, both by study and practice, as Chimists, for the Phylosophers Stone, yet he hath this advantage of them, that he hath found the right and the truth thereof and therein, which Chimists never found in their Art, and I believe never will: also he recreates himself with his pen, writing what his Wit dictates to him ....

(Margaret Cavendish, “A True Relation of my Birth, Breeding, and Life,” in Natures Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life, 1st edn., 1656, 384)

On 13 September 1660, Charles II gave his assent to a private Act of Parliament restoring to Newcastle all his honours, manors, lands, and tenements.

This could not extend to lands which Newcastle had himself sold, and to recover all that had been lost was beyond hoping for; but he achieved his purpose in large measure, and he actually added to his property by purchasing the Castle of Nottingham. It had been in a semi-ruinous condition even before the Civil War began, and by the time of the Restoration there was little of it left standing; “yet, it being a seat which had pleased his father very much, he would not leave it since it was offered to be sold”. He purchased it from the Duke of Buckingham, and commenced rebuilding it in 1674, apparently with the intention of making it one of the finest residences in the country, and setting aside the income of several of his estates for the purpose.

(A. S. Turberville, A History of Welbeck Abbey and Its Owners, 2 vols., 1938, 1.147–8)

According to Lucy Hutchinson, the newly-restored marquess of Newcastle treated her husband — Colonel John Hutchinson (bap. 1615, d. 1664), who, as governor of Nottingham castle and town, had thwarted royalist attempts to take control of the county during the civil war — “very honorably” (Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, 407) when he was arrested by the state on what Newcastle thought to be trumped-up charges. Newcastle was typically magnanimous: first in 1660, when Hutchinson’s house at Owthorpe was plundered of all his personal weapons and armour by the soldiery (Hutchinson’s son complained to Newcastle as Lord-Lieutenant of the county, who immediately ordered their return); and again in October 1663, when Hutchinson was arrested by the Nottinghamshire militia and carried before Newcastle on suspicion of plotting against the government (Newcastle, believing in Hutchinson’s innocence and asking for his word of honor as a gentleman, sent Hutchinson home on parole without a guard, and promised to do what he could to prevent further action from being taken against the former parliamentarian army officer).

Such old-fashioned magnanimity led to an altercation with Charles II’s new-fashioned favorite, George Villiers (1628–1687), 2nd duke of Buckingham — here acting as the crown’s representative — over Colonel Hutchinson’s imprisonment, and Newcastle was humiliatingly forced to withdraw the promises of freedom he had given to that rebel officer.

[The 2nd duke of Buckingham’s] first real chance to advertise his abilities, and to expunge the republican taint that his return to England in 1657 had created, occurred in autumn 1663, when news reached London of a major republican conspiracy in Yorkshire. The duke journeyed to York, and requested a commission to raise a horse regiment. This was unduly alarmist, since government spies had already infiltrated the claques, but three rabble-like gatherings of dissidents did take place on 12 October, and this appeared to vindicate his caution. He was instructed to oversee the prosecution of the ringleaders, and some twenty men were hanged in Yorkshire early the following year.

(Bruce Yardley, “Villiers, George, second duke of Buckingham (1628–1687), politician and wit,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn., May 2009, n. pag.)

Buckingham had known Newcastle since childhood, when he was under the older man’s guardianship (after their father, the 1st duke of Buckingham, was murdered in 1628, George and Francis Villiers were brought up with Charles I’s sons in the royal nursery at Richmond; in 1636, the earls of Rutland and Newcastle were appointed joint guardians of George). Commenting on her elderly husband’s recreation and exercise while in retirement at Welbeck, the duchess of Newcastle wrote:

His prime Pastime and Recreation hath always been the Exercise of Mannage [manège, or the art of horsemanship] and Weapons; which Heroick Arts he used to practise every day; but I observing that when he had over-heated himself, he would be apt to take cold, prevail’d so far, that at last he left the frequent use of the Mannage, using nevertheless still the Exercise of Weapons; and though he doth not ride himself so frequently as he hath done; yet he takes delight in seeing his Horses of Mannage rid by his Escuyers, whom he instructs in that Art for his own pleasure. But in the Art of Weapons (in which he has a method beyond all that ever were famous in it, found out by his own Ingenuity and Practice) he never taught any body, but the now Duke of Buckingham, whose Guardian He hath been, and his own two Sons.

(Margaret Cavendish, The Life of ... William Cavendishe, Duke, Marquess, and Earl of Newcastle ... Written by ... Margaret, Duchess of Newcastle, His Wife, 1667, 152)

And Buckingham’s ODNB biographer believes

The duke’s boyhood governor, the earl of Newcastle, was a strong influence, for Buckingham soon came to share Newcastle’s enthusiasm for plays, poetry, music, and scientific inquiry.... The duke’s scientific interests grew out of his belief in empiricism and rational thought. He was a fellow of the Royal Society (1661–85), installed a laboratory in Wallingford House, and even had one fitted in his chambers when he was sent to the Tower in 1677. His efforts to convert flint glass into high quality glass yielded a successful glass making factory at Vauxhall. He also attended an astrological discussion group run by John Digby, and it was at one of these that he met the lawyer-cum-astrologer John Heydon, whose horoscope drafting was to embarrass Buckingham so severely in 1667.

(Bruce Yardley, “Villiers, George, second duke of Buckingham (1628–1687), politician and wit,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn., May 2009, n. pag.)

But Newcastle’s Cavalier values and chivalric code irritated the mature Buckingham, who had far-reaching military and political ambitions, and was enraged when the earl of Bristol publicly compared his past loyalty with Newcastle’s in the House of Lords on 6 August 1660:

When the Earl of Bristol in a speech in the House of Lords drew a comparison between the services of the Marquess of Newcastle and those of the Duke of Buckingham, the latter was so incensed that a duel [with the earl of Bristol was scheduled and] would have resulted had it not been for the King’s intervention.

(A. S. Turberville, A History of Welbeck Abbey and Its Owners, 2 vols., 1938, 1.144n1)

Buckingham’s political intrigues, indiscretions, and opportunistic streak (Yardley describes Buckingham’s career as on “a bewildering switchback course”) alienated many, while others, such as Sir John Reresby, described him as “the finest gentleman of person and wit I think I ever saw” (qtd. in Yardley, ODNB entry for George Villiers, n. pag.). Buckingham consorted with kings and “Levellers,” Roman Catholics and Quakers, alike, exhibiting the same broadminded tolerance for cultural and religious diversity as his childhood governor, the earl of Newcastle. Even so, his power and influence in public life did not last, and both he and Newcastle were disappointed in their expectations.

By the end of the 17th century, the “powerful, gallant” nobility of “the Plantagenet Age,” celebrated by Algernon Sidney (1623–1683) — a nobleman with an ancient lineage (the Percys and the Sidneys), an ardent antimonarchist, and an eloquent spokesman for the classical republican life of virtuous self-government, whose entry of 1659 in the signature book of the University of Copenhagen, reading “PHILIPPUS SIDNEY MANUS HAEC INIMICA TYRANNIS EINSE PETIT PLACIDAM CUM LIBERTATE QUIETEM” (“This hand, enemy to tyrants, by the sword seeks peace with liberty”), would become the motto of the state of Massachusetts (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, entry for Sidney by Jonathan Scott, online edn., Jan. 2008, n. pag.) — was no more.

The satirist Thomas Brown (bap. 1663, d. 1704) noted the resulting changes in the quality of the gentry with alarm, ridiculing the trend (accelerated under the Stuarts, when the 1st duke of Buckingham converted the sale of titles into a lucrative business for both the crown and himself) for purchasing, rather than earning, an advanced rank in the social hierarchy, and the inflationary effects of this on society as a whole:

In Days of Yore, a Man of Honour was more Distinguishable by his Generosity and Affability, than by his Lac’d Liveries; but too many of them having degenerated into the Vices of the Vulgar Fry, Honour is grown Contemptible, the Respect that is due to their Births is lost in a Savage Management, and is now assumed by every Scoundrel.
     The Cobler is Affronted, if you don’t call him Mr. Translator. The Groom Names himself Gentleman of the Horse, and the Fellow that carries Guts to the Bears, writes himself one of His Majesty’s Officers. The Page calls himself a Child of Honour, and the Foot-Boy stiles himself my Ladies Page. Every Little Nasty Whore takes upon her the Title of Lady, and every Impudent Broken-mouth’d Manteau-maker, must be call’d Madam Theodosia Br——. Every Dunce of a Quack, is call’d a Physician. Every Gown-Man a Counseller. Every Silly Huff, a Captain. Every Gay thing, a Chevalier. Every Parish Reader, a Doctor: And every Writing Clerk in the Office, Mr. Secretary: Which is all but Hypocrisie and Knavery in Disguise; for nothing is now called by its right Name.
     The Heralds I see have but little to do, Honour and Arms which used to employ all Men of Birth and Parts, now almost dwindled into an Airy Nothing ....

(Thomas Brown, Amusements Serious and Comical, Calculated for the Meridian of London, 1st edn., 1700, 129–30)

What republicans like Algernon Sidney hoped would become a restored meritocracy

We need seek no other definition of a happy human life in relation to this world than that set down by Aristotle as the end of civil societies, namely, that men may in them enjoy vita beata secundum virtutem [“a happy and honourable life”; Aristotle, Politics, 3.1281a, b]. For as there is no happiness without liberty, and no man more a slave than he that is overmastered by vicious passions, there is neither liberty, nor happiness, where there is not virtue.

(Algernon Sidney in a scribal publication dating from 1665–6, not printed until 1996; Court Maxims, ed. by Hans W. Blom, Eco Haitsma Mulier, and Ronald Janse, 1996, 24)

when freed from the absolutist rule of the Stuarts, was anything but.

In a biting essay entitled “A Declamation against Wealth and Quality, in Praise of Poverty. By a Poor Poet without a Name,” Thomas Brown charged that inherited good fortune perpetuated an oligarchy that was “Deaf as well as Blind, when Merit pleads,” and that “the Great and the Rich” of his day had degenerated into corrupt copies of a noble original:

... in the first Ages of the World there were no Men of Quality, especially of Hereditary Quality; in which the Tenth Generation Challenge the Merit of the FOUNDER, as their own, tho’ they are no more allied to his Vertues, or Merits, than they wou’d be to his Person were he yet Alive.

(T. Brown, The Works of Mr. Thomas Brown ... in Two Volumes, 1st edn., 1707, 1.128–9)

Brown thought that his contemporaries, privileged by birth,

pervert all the Principles and Notions of Reason, Right and Gallantry, the Accomplishment of a Wit, and a fine Gentleman; thus they term Atheism and Profaneness, Wit and good Reason. Thus by a strange Abuse of Words, they call a Debt lost to a Sharper at Cards, or Dice, a Debt of Honour, which must be paid; but a Debt of Honesty, due for Commodities receiv’d from the Credulous Tradesman, and confided to their Honour, they scorn to pay, for fear of losing that distinction betwixt them and the Vulgar; for to be bound by the Common Ties of Honesty and Religion is too Mechanick a Scandal with them; as if Honour and Honesty were [two] different things; and a Gentleman and Religion incompatible. For they deny all Principles, that interfere with private Gain; Publick Good being only a popular Bait, to bubble the People and gain their Ends.

(T. Brown, The Works of Mr. Thomas Brown ... in Two Volumes, 1st edn., 1707, 1.137–8)

But changes to aristocratic codes of “honour” and “gallantry” had been underway for some time. Aubrey’s picture of the gentry at the start of the century (“tempore Jacobi I.”),

In those dayes hunting and falconery were at the height: old Serjeant Latham [Simon Latham] then lived, and writt his falconry [Falconry, in 2 Books, London 1614; and Another New Book of Falconry, London 1618]. Good cheere was then much in use; but to be wiser then one’s neighbours, scandalous and to be envyed at. And the nobility and gentry were, in that soft peace, damnable prowd and insolent.

(John Aubrey, MS. note; printed in Aubrey’s Brief Lives, ed. Andrew Clark, 2 vols., 1898, 2.317)

anticipates themes that would preoccupy Thomas Brown at the end of the century, as well as Republican theorists such as Algernon Sidney, who wondered how private-interest government (e.g., monarchical rule) could co-exist with government in the public interest, and eventually decided that, as the two were irreconcilable ontologies, they couldn’t co-exist.