Friday, January 13, 2012

Bryson and the pilfering Queen Elizabeth

Bill Bryson's book At Home, intended to be a "history of household life", is written in his usual avuncular style, rambling through his subject matter at will, with more a regard for an entertaining anecdote than academic rigour.

Some of his meanderings, however, strain belief a little bit.  At the very least, one would suspect that our Bill is prone to a dose of exaggeration for effect.

Still, even with a dose of healthy skepticism, it was a bit hard to swallow the following passage I read this morning:

"A hapless courtier named John Puckering gave Elizabeth a silk fan festooned with diamonds, several loose jewels, a gown of rare splendour and a pair of exceptionally fine virginals, then watched at their first dinner as Her Majesty admired the silver cutlery and a salt cellar and, without a word, dropped them into the royal handbag." (p69)

Now I'm the last to call myself a defender of royal privileges, but it did make me wonder if Uncle Bill had been on the grog.  So I did some research.

 After wading through similar double takes at the same passage, I found Bryson had belatedly added (some) references, via his web site.  That passage referred to a 2003 magazine (!) called History Today.  I found a copy of the article - however, it did not include the incident.  To be fair on Bryson, I suspect him more of shoddy record-keeping than out-and-out fibbing.

The article appeared to be an extract from a book about "royal progresses", where the court, with all its baggage and hundreds of attendants, would visit (or descend upon) a member of the gentry, at some cost to the host.

Bryson again:

"But his daughter Elizabeth cannily saw that it was much cheaper to visit others and let them absorb the costs of her travels, so she resurrected the venerable practice of making annual royal progesses." (p68)

Elsewhere I read that these progresses actually left her out of pocket, so I suspect Uncle Bill of interpolating somewhat.

However, I did finally find reference to that very incident - in an official site called The History Of Parliament Online:

"Elizabeth twice visited Puckering’s ‘poor hermitage’ at Kew, where her entertainment in 1595 was ‘great and costly’. Puckering gave her a fan (its handle garnished with diamonds), a jewel valued at £400, and a pair of virginals. The Queen ‘to grace his lordship the more ... took from him a salt, a spoon, and a fork of fair agate’. In the same year Puckering complained that serving her as lord keeper was costing him £1,000 a year, that the job had no residential accommodation, and that he had never been paid for being Speaker, which had cost him £2,000 in losses from his law practice. He claimed £400 was due, as each Parliament had lasted two sessions, but the suggestion that he had not been paid was, in fact, false, as his fee had gone to cancel a debt he owed the Crown."

 In fact, Puckering was apparently a self-made man, who rose through the ranks from a legal profession to eventually become a man of fortune and the Speaker of the Parliament.  He wasn't exactly crying poor mouth...  well actually he was, judging by the comments above.  But he certainly was a man of means.  He left estates in four counties, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

And yes, clearly Uncle Bill was heightening the story for effect (I bet he tells whoppers around the campfire).  Elizabeth did take, but not in the manner Bryson depicted; I suspect any more details found would put the incident in even more realistic a context.

It does rather sound like I'm defending royalty, doesn't it?  Whoops.  And I'm just as guilty as Bryson of incomplete referencing.  Well I had them here somewhere...

...Here's Bryson's notes (such as there are); the magazine was May 2003; the book was Royal Court and Progresses, by Alison Sim.

No comments: