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North Mymms - Parish and People
by Dorothy Colville

Chapter 20 - Three Famous Writers

During the century and a half of uneasy peace that preceded the civil war of 1642, three famous writers lived and worked in North Mymms. One was the son of a judge, one was the son of the curate and the other was one of whom so little is known that his birth-place is given as "perhaps London, perhaps North Mymms, perhaps Essex." All were famous in their day, not only in this country but throughout Europe.

Thomas More was the son of the judge Sir John More, citizen of London and a mercer. Thomas was born in London in 1478 and his education followed the pattern of those days - school, then a period in a nobleman’s household, in this case in that of Cardinal Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, followed by University. Thomas went to Oxford, then to Lincoln’s Inn, and after being called to the Bar followed his father’s profession as a judge.

The More's ancestral home was a small property, More Hall, sixteen miles north of London, set in a pleasant glade a short ride from the Bishop of Ely’s residence at Hatfield. The Mores were deeply attached to their country home, spending in it whatever time they could spare from their duties in London.

A brilliant career seemed assured to Thomas when Henry Vl1I became king in 1509, though Thomas himself had no desire for public life. Indeed, he seems to have led a somewhat retired life at More Hall during 1515 and 1516 when he wrote his most famous work Utopia. Written in Latin, it was printed at Louvain under the supervision of his friend the Dutch scholar Erasmus. Utopia purported to be an account of life on an imaginary island and provided its writer with an outlet for his views on such modern-sounding problems as unemployment and old age, the enjoyment and use of leisure and racial discrimination. "War and Battle as a thing [are] very beastly."

John Heywood

It was probably at this time that Thomas More met the young John Heywood, just down from Oxford, and despite the great difference in age, about twenty years, the two men became firm friends. Thomas introduced the young man to court, doubtless keeping an eye on him for some time, and a few years later gave his blessing to the marriage of John with his niece, Elizabeth Rastell.

Henry VIII was not willing to forgo the services of so able a man as he found Thomas to be, and various diplomatic missions were assigned to him. Honours came as the missions were successfully concluded, and when Wolsey fell from favour Thomas More became chancellor of England.

History tells of Henry’s delight to visit his witty, gentle chancellor at his Chelsea home, but it is said that in 1530 the king came to the country to visit him. How we would like to know who accompanied the king on this jaunt. Was Holbein, the Dutch painter, among the gay crowd, and did he see the wonderful oak mantel which he used as the background for his picture of his friend Thomas? The mantel was at More Hall for another 300 years until it was moved into Brookmans when More Hall was demolished in about 1840, and it was saved when a disastrous fire destroyed Brookmans fifty years later. Did the fourteen-year-old Princess Mary Tudor accompany her father on this visit? It is said by Henry Peacham that Mary was on a visit to More Hall when she was introduced by Sir Thomas More to the poet John Heywood. In 1530 Mary was still in favour, though four years later, after the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, the princess was in disgrace. It says much for the loyalty and courage of John Heywood that he wrote a poem in honour of Mary’s eighteenth birthday at a time when she was in disgrace.

We can only speculate upon the events of that day in 1530 when the king is said to have visited More Hall, but the hard facts of history tell that in July 1535 Thomas More was beheaded to satisfy the whim of a ruthless master.

Meanwhile John Heywood continued at court in favour with Henry, then with the young Edward VI and lastly with Mary Tudor. Doubtless he had to tread warily at times, for his old friend and uncle-in-law was still thought of as a traitor. John had a pleasing singing voice and played on the virginals (an early form of spinet in a box used in the 16th and 17th centuries - usually by young women).

He amused by his wit and repartee in the manner of a high-class jester, and he wrote little "interludes" for the company of child players of whom he was master. His most famous interlude, "The Four PP.," was a debate between a palmer, a ‘poticary and a pardoner with a pedlar as judge to see who could tell the biggest lie. His humour was whole-some and was appreciated by Mary, who enjoyed innocent fun. It is said that even on her death-bed John was admitted to her room, where he amused her with his pleasantries.

John Heywood was an ardent papist, and on Elizabeth Tudor’s accession he exiled himself to Malines, where he died about 1580. To the end of his long life he was able to joke about his own misfortunes, but there is a pathetic undertone in his letter to the great Lord Burleigh thanking him for attending to his financial affairs in London after he had "been despoiled by Spanish and German soldiers of the little I had."

Henry Peacham

Henry Peacham, 1576-1643, was the clever son of the curate. Henry Peacham the curate was a good classical scholar and in 1577 published The Garden of Eloquence, a treatise on rhetoric which he dedicated to the Bishop of London.

The young Henry went to school in St. Albans and then to Trinity College, Cambridge. He could compose, could write poetry in Latin as well as in English, and was a mathematician, a botanist, a student of heraldry and a competent artist, illustrating his writings with his own wood-cuts. On leaving Cambridge he became a schoolmaster at Wymondham, Norfolk, but London and the court called him and by 1610 he was translating tracts for James I. In November 1612 he was writing doleful "mourning hymnes" on the death of Henry Stuart, Prince of Wales, but by St. Valentine’s Day of the following year gay wedding songs were flowing from his pen in honour of the marriage of Elizabeth Stuart to Frederick of Hanover.

Henry may have been among those who accompanied the sixteen- year-old princess to her new home in Heidelberg, for his patron, the cultured Earl of Arundel, with his countess, made the journey. Henry became tutor to the earl’s young sons. Progress to Heidelberg was slow, a circumstance that Henry turned to good account, for he and his charges had time to become familiar with the chief cities of Holland, France and Bohemia. He was a keen sightseer and during a short period of freedom he made a journey to Italy, where lie met a famous music teacher, but he rejoined the party and so was able to visit the elector’s court at Heidelberg.

By 1616 he was settled in London and was following a literary career. His humour, like that of John Heywood, was wholesome, as the following story from his Dispute between Coach and Sedan shows: "And now I speak of whispering. I remember a good fellow of Goosetoft neare Boston came to a Fishmonger in the market who had mackerels to sell (a fish very rare in those parts) and taking up a mackerel in his hand, whispered in the mackerel’s eare, then he laid the mackerel’s mouth to his eare; which the fishmonger observing said "Friend doe you make a foole of my fish and of youre selfe too?’ ‘No,’ said the fellow, ‘I make bold but to aske him when hee was at Sea and hee tells mee not these three weeks’ - but this is by the way."

Sad to say, he became very poor in his old age, but it is pleasing to think that Sir Paul Pindar, then owner of Brookmans, may have relieved his distress, if only temporarily, for in 1639 Henry dedicated to Sir Paul a tract, "The Duty of Subjects to their King and Love of their Native Country in time of Extremity and Danger!’ Henry knew that the streets of London were not paved with gold, and he knew of the temptations that faced young men on their visits to the capital, so for their guidance he wrote two little booklets, "The Worth of a Peny" and "The Art of Living in London."

Cosmopolitan though he had become, he retained a love for his birthplace and at a time when he had seen many of the beauties of Europe he wrote:

"I thinke the place* that gave me first my birth The genius had of epigram and mirth, There famous More did his Utopia wrighte And thence came Heywood’s Epigrams to light And then this breath I drew …

*North Mimmes near S. Albanes.

Those lines occur in Thalia’s Banquet, written in 1620, and two years later in his best known work, The Compleat Gentleman, he wrote "Merry John Heywood ... wrote his Epigrammes as also Sir Thomas More his Utopia in the parish wherein I was borne; where either of them dwelt and had fair possessions."

Dorothy Colville, 1971


Chapter 21 - Mr Capes
Index - North Mymms Parish and People

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