A Week at Welbeck

Jonson’s visit to Welbeck Abbey, the home of Sir William Cavendish – later Earl, Marquis and Duke of Newcastle – was clearly one of the highlights of his journey north. It occupies more than 1,000 words in the ‘Foot Voyage’ account, a fair proportion of the total. What’s more, many of the account’s most colourful incidents and details are to be found here.

Elizabeth Bassett, Countess of Newcastle

Cavendish was on the rise – he’d come into his inheritance only the previous year, and he was keen to enhance his own, and his family’s, status. The account confirms that he’d recently married Elizabeth Bassett, an heiress of considerable means, though this alliance doesn’t seem to have been known about in London till later in the year. As we’ll see, he had a specific commission in mind when he invited Jonson into his home – one which was designed to endow this branch of the Cavendish family with some of the trappings of nobility.

Cavendish’s late father, Sir Charles, had done much to cultivate these ambitions, and to ensure that his son and heir was in a position to prosecute them effectively. So it’s no surprise to discover from the account that the first thing Sir William did was take bibliophile Ben and his companion up to his father’s library, ‘which besides the neatness and curiosity of the place, the books were many and of especial choice‘. From there, the account says, they were taken to ‘his room of evidences, in handsomeness equal to the other with boxes all about it‘. A ‘room of evidences’ is a kind of muniments room, a secure and special place for storing proofs of property ownership – documents of entitlement, genealogy and inheritance, all the evidence for the dynastic family’s sense of its own importance. Here, though, in addition to boxes full of parchment, we find something else – specifically, ‘all the spoils Sir Charles had brought away from Sir John Stanhope‘.

These ‘spoils’ were weapons:

two pistols, a staff with two pikes in it, a rapier that reached to my nose, and a basket hilt sword as long as that, another sword with a great basket hilt dagger. And there was the cudgel which Sir Charles had bastinadoed Sir John with before, and upon it written ‘the staff that Sir John Stanhope was beaten with.’

The placing of these ‘spoils’ in Welbeck’s inner sanctum shows how a grisly 1599 fight between Sir William’s father and one of his rivals for place and power in the north midlands had already become part of Cavendish family mythology. It was a particularly vicious episode in a long-running feud between the Stanhopes and the family and allies of Gilbert Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury. Cavendish, having ridden out to inspect the work on a house he was then building at Kirkby-in-Ashfield, was ambushed by Sir John Stanhope and a posse of armed retainers; despite being outnumbered, and wounded, Sir Charles and his own servants overcame their attackers and administered a humiliating beating to Stanhope. Until now, our main source for the details of this nasty skirmish has been a letter of protest sent by Cavendish immediately afterwards to the authorities in London, and quoted by the gossipy letter writer John Chamberlain (an almost identical copy survives among the Portland papers at the University of Nottingham). The ‘Foot Voyage’ retells the story, and shows how it was becoming embellished as it passed into family legend:

[Sir John Stanhope] with thirteen well-appointed [men], armed with Pistols, swords, and staves, two of them being Fencers which had took the Sacrament to kill him [i.e. Sir Charles Cavendish], set upon him, having but Mr Harry Ogle, his Groom and Page in his company. Being first shot as he lighted of his horse through the groin and into the buttock, After which wound he slew those two that had sworn his death, and made himself master of their weapons, another left dead and all the rest hurt and put to flight.

It’s the new detail of these vengeful ‘fencers’ – professional swordsman – that does it: despite its difficult syntax, in this telling of the story the supporting characters are given colour and motivation, made over into more malign and determined opponents for Sir Charles to vanquish. In showing these spoils and telling their story, Sir William Cavendish was surely hoping to influence his guest’s impressions not only of Welbeck, but also of the aspirational family who lived there.

Welbeck Abbey in the seventeenth century

Welbeck Abbey in the seventeenth century

James Loxley

Professor of Early Modern Literature, Department of English Literature, University of Edinburgh; Principal Investigator, Ben Jonson's Walk to Scotland

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1 thought on “A Week at Welbeck

  1. It’s topics like that these that make me think during my time at Edinburgh I’d taken more history courses. Will try to go to the site of Wellbeck Abbey in the near future.

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