Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Buildings in the Metropolis, and Residence in the Country.

Recently more than one of our learned judges from the bench have perhaps astonished their auditors by impressing them with an old-fashioned notion of residing more on their estates than the fashionable modes of life and the esprit de société, now overpowering all other esprit, will ever admit. These opinions excited my attention to a curious circumstance in the history of our manners — the great anxiety of our government, from the days of Elizabeth till much later than those of Charles the Second, to preserve the kingdom from the evils of an overgrown metropolis. The people themselves indeed participated in the same alarm at the growth of the city; while, however, they themselves were perpetuating the grievance which they complained of.

It is amusing to observe, that although the government was frequently employing even their most forcible acts to restrict the limits of the metropolis, the suburbs were gradually incorporating with the city, and Westminster at length united itself to London. Since that happy marriage, their fertile progenies have so blended together, that little Londons are no longer distinguishable from the ancient parent; we have succeeded in spreading the capital into a county, and have verified the prediction of James the First, “that England will shortly be London, and London England.”

“I think it a great object,” said Justice Best, in delivering his sentiments in favour of the Game Laws, “that gentlemen should have a temptation to reside in the country, amongst their neighbours and tenantry, whose interests must be materially advanced by such a circumstance. The links of society are thereby better preserved, and the mutual advantages and dependence of the higher and lower classes on one another are better maintained. The baneful effects of our present system we have lately seen in a neighbouring country, and an ingenious French writer has lately shown the ill consequences of it on the continent.”1

These sentiments of a living luminary of the law afford some reason of policy for the dread which our government long entertained on account of the perpetual growth of the metropolis; the nation, like a hypochondriac, was ludicrously terrified that their head was too monstrous for their body, and that it drew all the moisture of life from the middle and the extremities. Proclamations warned and exhorted; but the very interference of a royal prohibition seemed to render the crowded city more charming. In vain the statute against new buildings was passed by Elizabeth; in vain during the reigns of James the First and both the Charleses we find proclamations continually issuing to forbid new erections.

James was apt to throw out his opinions in these frequent addresses to the people, who never attended to them: his majesty notices “those swarms of gentry, who through the instigation of their wives, or to new-model and fashion their daughters (who if they were unmarried, marred their reputations, and if married, lost them), did neglect their country hospitality, and cumber the city, a general nuisance to the kingdom.”— He addressed the Star Chamber to regulate “the exorbitancy of the new buildings about the city, which were but a shelter for those who, when they had spent their estates in coaches, lacqueys, and fine clothes like Frenchmen, lived miserably in their houses like Italians; but the honour of the English nobility and gentry is to be hospitable among their tenants.” Once conversing on this subject, the monarch threw out that happy illustration, which has been more than once noticed, that “Gentlemen resident on their estates were like ships in port; their value and magnitude were felt and acknowledged; but when at a distance, as their size seemed insignificant, so their worth and importance were not duly estimated.”2

A manuscript writer of the times complains of the breaking up of old family establishments, all crowding to “upstart London.” “Every one strives to be a Diogenes in his house, and an emperor in the streets; not caring if they sleep in a tub, so they may be hurried in a coach: giving that allowance to horses and mares that formerly maintained houses full of men; pinching many a belly to paint a few backs, and burying all the treasures of the kingdom into a few citizens’ coffers; their woods into wardrobes, their leases into laces, and their goods and chattels into guarded coats and gaudy toys.” Such is the representation of an eloquent contemporary; and however contracted might have been his knowledge of the principles of political economy, and of that prosperity which a wealthy nation is said to derive from its consumption of articles of luxury, the moral effects have not altered, nor has the scene in reality greatly changed.

The government not only frequently forbade new buildings within ten miles of London, but sometimes ordered them to be pulled down — after they had been erected for several years. Every six or seven years proclamations were issued. In Charles the First’s reign, offenders were sharply prosecuted by a combined operation, not only against houses, but against persons.3 Many of the nobility and gentry, in 1632, were informed against for having resided in the city, contrary to the late proclamation. And the Attorney-General was then fully occupied in filing bills of indictment against them, as well as ladies, for staying in town. The following curious “information” in the Star Chamber will serve our purpose.

The Attorney-General informs his majesty that both Elizabeth and James, by several proclamations, had commanded that “persons of livelihood and means should reside in their counties, and not abide or sojourn in the city of London, so that counties remain unserved.” These proclamations were renewed by Charles the First, who had observed “a greater number of nobility and gentry, and abler sort of people, with their families, had resorted to the cities of London and Westminster, residing there, contrary to the ancient usage of the English nation”—“by their abiding in their several counties where their means arise, they would not only have served his majesty according to their ranks, but by their housekeeping in those parts the meaner sort of people formerly were guided, directed and relieved.” He accuses them of wasting their estates in the metropolis, which would employ and relieve the common people in their several counties. The loose and disorderly people that follow them, living in and about the cities, are so numerous, that they are not easily governed by the ordinary magistrates: mendicants increase in great number — the prices of all commodities are highly raised, &c. The king had formerly proclaimed that all ranks who were not connected with public offices, at the close of forty days’ notice, should resort to their several counties, and with their families continue their residence there. And his majesty further warned them “Not to put themselves to unnecessary charge in providing themselves to return in winter to the said cities, as it was the king’s firm resolution to withstand such great and growing evil.” The information concludes with a most copious list of offenders, among whom are a great number of nobility, and ladies and gentlemen, who were accused of having lived in London for several months after the given warning of forty days. It appears that most of them, to elude the grasp of the law, had contrived to make a show of quitting the metropolis, and, after a short absence, had again returned; “and thus the service of your majesty and your people in the several counties have been neglected and undone.”

Such is the substance of this curious information, which enables us at least to collect the ostensible motives of this singular prohibition. Proclamations had hitherto been considered little more than the news of the morning, and three days afterwards were as much read as the last week’s newspapers. They were now, however, resolved to stretch forth the strong arm of law, and to terrify by an example. The constables were commanded to bring in a list of the names of strangers, and the time they proposed to fix their residence in their parishes. A remarkable victim on this occasion was a Mr. Palmer, a Sussex gentleman, who was brought ore tenus into the Star Chamber for disobeying the proclamation for living in the country. Palmer was a squire of 1000l. per annum, then a considerable income. He appears to have been some rich bachelor; for in his defence he alleged that he had never been married, never was a housekeeper, and had no house fitting for a man of his birth to reside in, as his mansion in the country had been burnt down within two years. These reasons appeared to his judges to aggravate rather than extenuate his offence; and after a long reprimand for having deserted his tenants and neighbours, they heavily fined him in one thousand pounds.4

The condemnation of this Sussex gentleman struck a terror through a wide circle of sojourners in the metropolis. I find accounts, pathetic enough, of their “packing away on all sides for fear of the worst;” and gentlemen “grumbling that they should be confined to their houses:” and this was sometimes backed too by a second proclamation, respecting “their wives and families, and also widows,” which was “durus sermo to the women. It is nothing pleasing to all,” says the letter-writer, “but least of all to the women.” “To encourage gentlemen to live more willingly in the country,” says another letter-writer, “all game-fowl, as pheasants, partridges, ducks, as also hares, are this day by proclamation forbidden to be dressed or eaten in any inn.” Here we find realized the argument of Mr. Justice Best in favour of the game-laws.

It is evident that this severe restriction must have produced great inconvenience to certain persons who found a residence in London necessary for their pursuits. This appears from the manuscript diary of an honest antiquary, Sir Symonds D’Ewes; he has preserved an opinion which, no doubt, was spreading fast, that such prosecutions of the Attorney-General were a violation of the liberty of the subject. “Most men wondered at Mr. Noy, the Attorney-General, being accounted a great lawyer, that so strictly took away men’s liberties at one blow, confining them to reside at their own houses, and not permitting them freedom to live where they pleased within the king’s dominions. I was myself a little startled upon the first coming out of the proclamation; but having first spoken with the Lord Coventry, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, at Islington, when I visited him; and afterwards with Sir William Jones, one of the King’s Justices of the Bench, about my condition and residence at the said town of Islington, and they both agreeing that I was not within the letter of the proclamation, nor the intention of it neither, I rested satisfied, and thought myself secure, laying in all my provisions for housekeeping for the year ensuing, and never imagined myself to be in danger, till this unexpected censure of Mr. Palmer passed in the Star Chamber; so, having advised with my friends, I resolved for a remove, being much troubled not only with my separation from Recordes, but with my wife, being great with child, fearing a winter journey might be dangerous to her.”5 He left Islington and the records in the Tower to return to his country-seat, to the great disturbance of his studies.

It is, perhaps, difficult to assign the cause of this marked anxiety of the government for the severe restriction of the limits of the metropolis, and the prosecution of the nobility and gentry to compel a residence on their estates. Whatever were the motives, they were not peculiar to the existing sovereign, but remained transmitted from cabinet to cabinet, and were even renewed under Charles the Second. At a time when the plague often broke out, a close and growing metropolis might have been considered to be a great evil; a terror expressed by the manuscript-writer before quoted, complaining of “this deluge of building, that we shall be all poisoned with breathing in one another’s faces.” The police of the metropolis was long imbecile, notwithstanding their “strong watches and guards” set at times; and bodies of the idle and the refractory often assumed some mysterious title, and were with difficulty governed. We may conceive the state of the police, when “London apprentices,” growing in number and insolence, frequently made attempts on Bridewell, or pulled down houses. One day the citizens, in proving some ordnance, terrified the whole court of James the First with a panic that there was “a rising in the city.” It is possible that the government might have been induced to pursue this singular conduct, for I do not know that it can be paralleled, of pulling down new-built houses by some principle of political economy which remains to be explained, or ridiculed, by our modern adepts. It would hardly be supposed that the present subject may be enlivened by a poem, the elegance and freedom of which may even now be admired. It is a great literary curiosity, and its length may be excused for several remarkable points.

 

An Ode,
By Sir Richard Fanshaw,

Upon Occasion of his Majesty’s Proclamation in the Year 1630, commanding the Gentry to reside upon their Estates in the Country.

Now war is all the world about,

And everywhere Erinnys reigns;

Or of the torch so late put out

The stench remains.

Holland for many years hath been

Of Christian tragedies the stage,

Yet seldom hath she played a scene

Of bloodier rage:

And France, that was not long compos’d,

With civil drums again resounds,

And ere the old are fully clos’d,

Receives new wounds.

The great Gustavus in the west

Plucks the imperial eagle’s wing,

Than whom the earth did ne’er invest

A fiercer king.

Only the island which we sow,

A world without the world so far,

From present wounds, it cannot show

An ancient scar.

White peace, the beautifull’st of things,

Seems here her everlasting rest

To fix and spread the downy wings

Over the nest.

As when great Jove, usurping reign,

From the plagued world did her exile,

And tied her with a golden chain

To one blest isle,

Which in a sea of plenty swam,

And turtles sang on every bough,

A safe retreat to all that came,

As ours is now;

Yet we, as if some foe were here,

Leave the despised fields to clowns,

And come to save ourselves, as ’twere

In walled towns.

Hither we bring wives, babes, rich clothes,

And gems — till now my soveraign

The growing evil doth oppose:

Counting in vain

His care preserves us from annoy

Of enemies his realms to invade,

Unless he force us to enjoy

The peace he made,

To roll themselves in envied leisure;

He therefore sends the landed heirs,

Whilst he proclaims not his own pleasure

So much was theirs.

The sap and blood of the land, which fled

Into the root, and choked the heart,

Are bid their quick’ning power to spread

Through every part.

O ’twas an act, not for my muse

To celebrate, nor the dull age,

Until the country air infuse

A purer rage.

And if the fields as thankful prove

For benefits received, as seed,

They will to ’quite so great a love

A Virgil breed.

Nor let the gentry grudge to go

Into those places whence they grew,

But think them blest they may do so.

Who would pursue

The smoky glory of the town,

That may go till his native earth,

And by the shining fire sit down

Of his own hearth,

Free from the griping scrivener’s bands,

And the more biting mercer’s books;

Free from the bait of oiled hands,

And painted looks?

The country too even chops for rain;

You that exhale it by your power,

Let the fat drops fall down again

In a full shower.

And you bright beauties of the time,

That waste yourselves here in a blaze,

Fix to your orb and proper clime

Your wandering rays.

Let no dark corner of the land

Be unembellish’d with one gem,

And those which here too thick do stand

Sprinkle on them.

Believe me, ladies, you will find

In that sweet light more solid joys,

More true contentment to the mind

Than all town-toys.

Nor Cupid there less blood doth spill,

But heads his shafts with chaster love,

Not feather’d with a sparrow’s quill,

But of a dove.

There you shall hear the nightingale,

The harmless syren of the wood,

How prettily she tells a tale

Of rape and blood.

The lyric lark, with all beside

Of Nature’s feather’d quire, and all

The commonwealth of flowers in ’ts pride

Behold you shall.

The lily queen, the royal rose,

The gilly-flower, prince of the blood!

The courtier tulip, gay in clothes,

The regal bud;

The violet purple senator,

How they do mock the pomp of state,

And all that at the surly door

Of great ones wait.

Plant trees you may, and see them shoot

Up with your children, to be served

To your clean boards, and the fairest fruit

To be preserved;

And learn to use their several gums;

’Tis innocence in the sweet blood

Of cherry, apricocks, and plums,

To be imbrued.

1 Morning Chronicle, January 23, 1820.

2 A proclamation was issued in the first year of King James, “commanding gentlemen to depart the court and city,” because it hinders hospitality and endangers the people near their own residences, “who had from such houses much comfort and ease toward their living.” The King graciously says:—“He tooke no small contentment in the resort of gentlemen, and other our subjects coming to visit us, holding their affectionate desire to see our person to be a certaine testimonie of their inward love;” but he says he must not “give way to so great a mischiefe as the continuall resort may breed,” and that therefore all that have no special cause of attendance must at once go back until the time of his coronation, when they may “returne until the solemnity be passed;” but only for that time, for if the proclamation be slighted he shall “make them an example of contempt if we shall finde any making stay here contrary to this direction.” Such proclamations were from time to time issued, and though sometimes evaded, were frequently enforced by fines, so that living in London was a risk and danger to country gentlemen of fortune.

3 Rushworth, vol. ii. p. 288.

4 From a manuscript letter from Sir George Gresley to Sir Thomas Puckering, Nov. 1632.

5 Harl. MSS. 6. fo. 152.

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