Saturday, November 4, 2023

Some great calamitie

Today marks the 470th anniversary of the birth of Roger Wilbraham, a lawyer by training who held various high posts under Elizabeth I  and James 1, and who was very charitable towards his native town of Nantwich. His diary, not printed until the first years of the 20th century, is of interest for its description of current affairs - not least the gunpowder plot of 1605 (‘some great calamite’) - and for his personal opinions, such of those describing the colleges in Oxford.

Wilbraham was born in Nantwich, Cheshire, on 4 November 1553, the second of four sons of Richard Wilbraham and his first wife, Elizabeth. He was admitted to Gray’s Inn in London in 1576, and, in 1585, was appointed Solicitor-General for Ireland, a position he held for 14 years. Around the time of his return to England, he married Mary Baber de Tew of Somerset, and they had three daughters.

Wilbraham purchased the Dorfold estate in the parish of Acton near Nantwich in 1602, and was involved in the region’s salt-making industry. He soon, though, gave the estate to his youngest brother, Ralph, who built Dorfold Hall on the site of an earlier building. Though this is no longer home to Wilbrahams, another stately home nearby, Rode Hall, has been in the Wilbraham family since the mid-1600s.

In 1600, under Queen Elizabeth I, Wilbraham was appointed Master of Requests, a position he retained when James I became king in 1603. He also served as the King’s Surveyor of the Court of Wards and Liveries. In 1604, Wilbraham was elected a Member of Parliament for Callington; subsequently, he was knighted, and was returned to Parliament in 1614 as a knight of the shire for Cheshire. A year earlier he had founded Natwich’s first almshouses, for six poor men, subsequently known as Wilbraham’s Almshouses. He died in 1616. A little more information can be found at Wikipedia.

Wilbraham kept a journal - comprising of about 300 pages written in a close small hand - from 1593 to the end of his life. He described it as a ‘book of observations for my age or children’. This was first edited by Harold Spencer Scott and published in 1902, under the Royal Historical Society imprint, in the 10th volume of the so-called Camden Miscellany, as The Journal of Sir Roger Wilbraham, Solicitor-General in Ireland and Master of Requests for the years 1593-1616, together with notes in another hand for the years 1642-1649. The full text can be read online at Internet Archive
The following extracts cover the difficulties of ruling Ireland, descriptions of some Oxford colleges, the gunpowder plot, and the death of the writer’s father.

24 November 1599
‘Patrick Crosby that connyng pilot of Ireland that parlied with Desmond, father Archer, legate, Donogh McCragh, capten Terril, Mcdonogh, Knight of Kerry, &; used by the late president as a spy, brought this: 1 - that Ireland was lost &; saving townes and castels all at the rebels will: that no meanes but famyne to constraine them to loyalti: &; that must be by taking their cattall and hindering the seedes &; harvest and burning ther corne: that it now apereth Englishe soldiers are good onlie to garrizon &; to make incursions wher they may retorne to harbour with 40 howres: &; not able to make long marches nor to want ther lodginge &; good diett, &; that it will now troble England to send over 40,000 men which (being now unwilling to goe into Ireland) will not suffice to make recovery of Ireland.’

9 September 1603
‘I was at Oxford; wher lying at the Crosse Inne, the best in the citie, yet was ther two howses on either side adioyning infected with plague: sed deus nos protegat.

There was the Spanishe Ambassador lodged in Christchurch and the Archduke’s Ambassador lodged in Mawdelin Colledge: the attended ther audience at the king’s coming to Wodstock.

I surveyed the chiefest colledges: 1 Christchurch which was ment to have ben a famous monument, but never finished by the founder Cardinall Wolsey: it was ment to be a square of 8 score: three parts built, but the churche not builded: ther is the fairest hall with great church windoes, &; the largest kichin I ever sawe.

Mawdelins is the second chief colledge: a large uniform square, about 4 score yardes within & all clostered benethe: a hall with church windoes, &; chappell fairer then faire &; lardge churches: ther are walkes sufficient to environ a litle towne: for besides a close of x acres walled about for walkes &; severall divided walks with ash trees, they have manie orchards walled in, &; ech chamber to 2 Fellows have a peculiar orcharde.

They have walkes also made in the medowes wherin the river of Temmies, &; of Charwell do runne &; meete; invironed close walk of willow &; some elmes, to walk the distance of half a mile, in shadowes: this is the most compleet & fairest colledg & walks in England: (tho Trinitie Colledg square is much larger and fairer.)’

5 November 1605
‘The Lords &; Commons attended to expect the King’s coming the begynning of this parliament then to be held by prorogation: A week before, the Lord Mountegle imparted to the King & Council, a letter sent to his hands by one unknowen &; fled: wherein he was advised to be absent from the parliament, for that undoutedlie, some great calamitie wold happen soddainlie by unknowen accident, which wold be as soddaine as the fyring of the letter: wherupon the king after one serch about Parliament Howse grew so ielouse he caused a secrett watch, &; discovered one Johnson practizing about midnight to make a traine to fyre 34 barrels powder, hidden under billettz in a vault iust under the Upper Howse of Parliament, confessed by one Johnson servant to Thomas Percy, a pentioner, to have ben preparing 8 moneth to blow up the King, his Queen, children, nobles, bishops, iudges &; all the commons assembled, if it had not been so happelie discovered. So the parliament was proroged till this Saterdaie.’

[NB: Editor Harold Spencer Scott provides the following relevant footnotes: ‘The letter was not shown to the King until November 9’. ‘The first search was made by Suffolk as Lord Chamberlain on November 4, at about 3 o’clock’. ‘At 11 o’clock the same night was made the further search which resulted in the capture of Fawkes’.]

2 February 1613
‘Candlemas dat at night dyed Richard Wilbraham of Nantwich, Esq. my father, whose second sonne I was: his age at his death was 88 yeres &; 5 monthes: of a strong voice, perfect memorie, &; sound stomak to digest all grosse meates till his deathe: naturalllie wise &; politick: iust in all his dealings: verie liberal &; charitable to the pore: never stayned with any deceat or notorious cryme: his chief care for 20 yeres was to see his grand child [Thomas, son of Roger’s older brother Richard] &; heire maried &; setled to succeede him: but manie mocions & non succeded: his overeaching experience &; long age made him ielouse of his younger children and best freinds till the yere of his deathe: which seemed to be hastened by reason of a fall, werby tho not hurte yet made him languis in his bed 17 monthes &; so as a candle whose oyle was spent died without payn: god not giving him leave to see his heire maried, which was never the whole care of his lief; like Abraham who after his toile never lived tho to see, yet not to dwell in Canaan the land of promise: so as man’s wisdome or care will not prevaile to add one cubite to our stature.’

This article is a slight revised version of one first published on 4 November 2013.

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