Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Of Palaces Built by Ministers.

Our ministers and court favourites, as well as those on the Continent, practised a very impolitical custom, and one likely to be repeated, although it has never failed to cast a popular odium on their names, exciting even the envy of their equals — in the erection of palaces for themselves, which outvied those of their sovereign; and which, to the eyes of the populace, appeared as a perpetual and insolent exhibition of what they deemed the ill-earned wages of peculation, oppression, and court-favour. We discover the seduction of this passion for ostentation, this haughty sense of their power, and this self-idolatry, even among the most prudent and the wisest of our ministers; and not one but lived to lament over this vain act of imprudence. To these ministers the noble simplicity of Pitt will ever form an admirable contrast; while his personal character, as a statesman, descends to posterity unstained by calumny.

The houses of Cardinal Wolsey appear to have exceeded the palaces of the sovereign in magnificence; and potent as he was in all the pride of pomp, the “great cardinal” found rabid envy pursuing him so close at his heels, that he relinquished one palace after the other, and gave up as gifts to the monarch what, in all his overgrown greatness, he trembled to retain for himself. The state satire of that day was often pointed at this very circumstance, as appears in Skelton’s “Why come ye not to Court?” and Roy’s “Rede me, and be not wrothe.”1 Skelton’s railing rhymes leave their bitter teeth in his purple pride; and the style of both these satirists, if we use our own orthography, shows how little the language of the common people has varied during three centuries.

Set up a wretch on high

In a throne triumphantly;

Make him a great state

And he will play check-mate

With royal majesty ——

The King’s Court

Should have the excellence,

But Hampton Court

Hath the pre-eminence;

And Yorke Place2

With my Lord’s grace,

To whose magnificence

Is all the confluence,

Suits, and supplications;

Embassies of all nations.

Roy, in contemplating the palace, is maliciously reminded of the butcher’s lad, and only gives plain sense in plain words.

Hath the Cardinal any gay mansion?

Great palaces without comparison,

Most glorious of outward sight,

And within decked point-device,3

More like unto a paradise

Than an earthly habitation.

He cometh then of some noble stock?

His father could match a bullock,

A butcher by his occupation.

Whatever we may now think of the structure, and the low apartments of Wolsey’s palace, it is described not only in his own times, but much later, as of unparalleled magnificence; and indeed Cavendish’s narrative of the Cardinal’s entertainment of the French ambassadors gives an idea of the ministerial prelate’s imperial establishment very puzzling to the comprehension of a modern inspector. Six hundred persons, I think, were banqueted and slept in an abode which appears to us so mean, but which Stowe calls “so stately a palace.” To avoid the odium of living in this splendid edifice, Wolsey presented it to the king, who, in recompense, suffered the Cardinal occasionally to inhabit this wonder of England, in the character of keeper of the king’s palace;4 so that Wolsey only dared to live in his own palace by a subterfuge! This perhaps was a tribute which ministerial haughtiness paid to popular feeling, or to the jealousy of a royal master.

I have elsewhere shown the extraordinary elegance and prodigality of expenditure of Buckingham’s residences; they were such as to have extorted the wonder even of Bassompierre, and unquestionably excited the indignation of those who lived in a poor court, while our gay and thoughtless minister alone could indulge in the wanton profusion.

But Wolsey and Buckingham were ambitious and adventurous; they rose and shone the comets of the political horizon of Europe. The Roman tiara still haunted the imagination of the Cardinal: and the egotistic pride of having out-rivalled Richelieu and Olivarez, the nominal ministers but the real sovereigns of Europe, kindled the buoyant spirits of the gay, the gallant, and the splendid Villiers. But what “folly of the wise” must account for the conduct of the profound Clarendon, and the sensible Sir Robert Walpole, who, like the other two ministers, equally became the victims of this imprudent passion for the ostentatious pomp of a palace. This magnificence looked like the vaunt of insolence in the eyes of the people, and covered the ministers with a popular odium.

Clarendon House is now only to be viewed in a print; but its story remains to be told. It was built on the site of Grafton-street; and when afterwards purchased by Monk, the Duke of Albemarle, he left his title to that well-known street. It was an edifice of considerable extent and grandeur. Clarendon reproaches himself in his Life for “his weakness and vanity” in the vast expense incurred in this building, which he acknowledges had “more contributed to that gust of envy that had so violently shaken him, than any misdemeanour that he was thought to have been guilty of.” It ruined his estate; but he had been encouraged to it by the royal grant of the land, by that passion for building to which he owns “he was naturally too much inclined,” and perhaps by other circumstances, among which was the opportunity of purchasing the stones which had been designed for the rebuilding of St. Paul’s; but the envy it drew on him, and the excess of the architect’s proposed expense, had made his life “very uneasy, and near insupportable.” The truth is, that when this palace was finished, it was imputed to him as a state-crime; all the evils in the nation, which were then numerous, pestilence, conflagration, war, and defeats, were discovered to be in some way connected with Clarendon House, or, as it was popularly called, either Dunkirk House, or Tangier Hall, from a notion that it had been erected with the golden bribery which the chancellor had received for the sale of Dunkirk and Tangiers.5 He was reproached with having profaned the sacred stones dedicated to the use of the church. The great but unfortunate master of this palace, who, from a private lawyer, had raised himself by alliance even to royalty, the father-in-law of the Duke of York, it was maliciously suggested, had persuaded Charles the Second to marry the Infanta of Portugal, knowing (but how Clarendon obtained the knowledge his enemies have not revealed) that the Portuguese princess was not likely to raise any obstacle to the inheritance of his own daughter to the throne. At the Restoration, among other enemies, Clarendon found that the royalists were none of the least active; he was reproached by them for preferring those who had been the cause of their late troubles. The same reproach was incurred on the restoration of the Bourbons. It is perhaps more political to maintain active men, who have obtained power, than to reinstate inferior talents, who at least have not their popularity. This is one of the parallel cases which so frequently strike us in exploring political history; and the ultras of Louis the Eighteenth were only the royalists of Charles the Second. There was a strong popular delusion carried on by the wits and the Misses who formed the court of Charles the Second, that the government was as much shared by the Hydes as the Stuarts. We have in the state-poems, an unsparing lampoon, entitled “Clarendon’s House-warming;” but a satire yielding nothing to it in severity I have discovered in manuscript; and it is also remarkable for turning chiefly on a pun of the family name of the Earl of Clarendon. The witty and malicious rhymer, after making Charles the Second demand the Great Seal, and resolve to be his own chancellor, proceeds, reflecting on the great political victim:

Lo! his whole ambition already divides

The sceptre between the Stuarts and the Hydes.

Behold in the depth of our plague and wars,

He built him a palace out-braves the stars;

Which house (we Dunkirk, he Clarendon, names)

Looks down with shame upon St. James;

But ’tis not his golden globe that will save him,

Being less than the custom-house farmers gave him;

His chapel for consecration calls,

Whose sacrilege plundered the stones from Paul’s.

When Queen Dido landed she bought as much ground

As the Hyde of a lusty fat bull would surround;

But when the said Hyde was cut into thongs,

A city and kingdom to Hyde belongs;

So here in court, church, and country, far and wide,

Here’s nought to be seen but Hyde! Hyde! Hyde!

Of old, and where law the kingdom divides,

’Twas our Hydes of land, ’tis now land of Hydes!

Clarendon House was a palace, which had been raised with at least as much fondness as pride; and Evelyn tells us that the garden was planned by himself and his lordship; but the cost, as usual, trebled the calculation, and the noble master grieved in silence amidst this splendid pile of architecture.6 Even when in his exile the sale was proposed to pay his debts, and secure some provision for his younger children, he honestly tells us that “he remained so infatuated with the delight he had enjoyed, that though he was deprived of it, he hearkened very unwillingly to the advice.” In 1683 Clarendon House met its fate, and was abandoned to the brokers, who had purchased it for its materials. An affecting circumstance is recorded by Evelyn on this occasion. In returning to town with the Earl of Clarendon, the son of the great earl, “in passing by the glorious palace his father built but a few years before, which they were now demolishing, being sold to certain undertakers,7 I turned my head the contrary way till the coach was gone past by, lest I might minister occasion of speaking of it, which must needs have grieved him, that in so short a time this pomp was fallen.” A feeling of infinite delicacy, so perfectly characteristic of Evelyn!

And now to bring down this subject to times still nearer. We find that Sir Robert Walpole had placed himself exactly in the situation of the great minister we have noticed; we have his confession to his brother Lord Walpole, and to his friend Sir John Hynde Cotton. The historian of this minister observes, that his magnificent building at Houghton drew on him great obloquy. On seeing his brother’s house at Wolterton, Sir Robert expressed his wishes that he had contented himself with a similar structure. In the reign of Anne, Sir Robert, sitting by Sir John Hynde Cotton, alluding to a sumptuous house which was then building by Harley, observed, that to construct a great house was a high act of imprudence in any minister! It was a long time after, when he had become prime minister, that he forgot the whole result of the present article, and pulled down his family mansion at Houghton to build its magnificent edifice; it was then Sir John Hynde Cotton reminded him of the reflection which he had made some years ago: the reply of Sir Robert is remarkable —“Your recollection is too late; I wish you had reminded me of it before I began building, for then it might have been of service to me!”

The statesman and politician then are susceptible of all the seduction of ostentation and the pride of pomp! Who would have credited it? But bewildered with power, in the magnificence and magnitude of the edifices which their colossal greatness inhabits, they seem to contemplate on its image!

Sir Francis Walsingham died and left nothing to pay his debts, as appears by a curious fact noticed in the anonymous life of Sir Philip Sidney prefixed to the Arcadia, and evidently written by one acquainted with the family history of his friend and hero. The chivalric Sidney, though sought after by court beauties, solicited the hand of the daughter of Walsingham, although, as it appears, she could have had no other portion than her own virtues and her father’s name. “And herein,” observes our anonymous biographer, “he was exemplary to all gentlemen not to carry their love in their purses.” On this he notices this secret history of Walsingham:

“This is that Sir Francis who impoverished himself to enrich the state, and indeed made England his heir; and was so far from building up of fortune by the benefit of his place, that he demolished that fine estate left him by his ancestors to purchase dear intelligence from all parts of Christendom. He had a key to unlock the pope’s cabinet; and, as if master of some invisible whispering-place, all the secrets of Christian princes met at his closet. Wonder not then if he bequeathed no great wealth to his daughter, being privately interred in the choir of Paul’s, as much indebted to his creditors though not so much as our nation is indebted to his memory.”

Some curious inquirer may afford us a catalogue of great ministers of state who have voluntarily declined the augmentation of their private fortune, while they devoted their days to the noble pursuits of patriotic glory! The labour of this research will be great, and the volume small!

1 Skelton’s satire is accessible to the reader in the Rev. Alexander Dyce’s edition of the poet’s works. Roy’s poem was printed abroad about 1525, and is of extreme rarity, as the cardinal spared no labour and expense to purchase and destroy all the copies. A second edition was printed at Wesel in 1546. Its author, who had been a friar, was ultimately burned in Portugal for heresy.

2 The palace of Wolsey, as Archbishop of York, which he had furnished in the most sumptuous manner; after his disgrace it became a royal residence under the name of Whitehall. — Note in Dyce’s ed. of Skelton’s Works.

3 Point-device, a term explained by Mr. Douce. He thinks that it is borrowed from the labours of the needle, as we have point-lace, so point-device, i. e., point, a stitch, and devise, devised or invented; applied to describe anything uncommonly exact, or worked with the nicety and precision of stitches made or devised by the needle.Illustrations of Shakspeare, i. 93. But Mr. Gifford has since observed that the origin of the expression is, perhaps, yet to be sought for: he derives it from a mathematical phrase, à point devisé, or a given point, and hence exact, correct, &c. — Ben Jonson, vol. iv. 170. See, for various examples, Mr. Nares’s Glossary, art. Point-devise.

4 Lyson’s “Environs,” v. 58

5 Burnet says, “Others called it Holland House, because he was believed to be no friend to the war: so it was given out that he had money from the Dutch.”

6 At the gateway of the Three Kings Inn, near Dover-street, in Piccadilly, are two pilasters with Corinthian capitals, which belonged to Clarendon House, and are perhaps the only remains of that edifice.

7 An old term for contractors. Evelyn tells us they were “certain rich bankers and mechanics, who gave for it, and the ground about it, 35,000l.” They built streets and houses on the site to their great profit, the ground comprising twenty-four acres of land.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37