A Lot of Hot Air


· 10 June 2016 ·

Let’s clear this up, once and for all.

It didn’t happen.

No matter how many times you’ve heard this tale, or read it in a biography of Queen Elizabeth, or run into it on odd blogs being chuckled over by pillocks from Warwickshire – all of it derives from one single source. Here is that source. There is no other. This is the ur-stinker.

It’s a fabrication that became a legend.
So how did such a false and noxious cloud escape into the atmosphere?

In 1898, the Reverend Doctor Andrew Clark, a C of E minister and literary editor, published a two-volume work of biographical anecdotes concerning peers and other famous or infamous persons, under the title Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Clark’s source material was a heap of unpublished notes penned long before, between 1669 and 1696, by one John Aubrey. Aubrey was an antiquarian, a semi-professional house-party guest, and a gossipmonger par excellence in the years following the Civil Wars.

Among Aubrey’s 200-year-old scribblings, Clark found a 300-year-old tidbit of third-hand hearsay, which became fourth-hand hearsay when he included it in Brief Lives. You see it reproduced above, exactly as it was printed in 1898. (Well, almost exactly. I added the coloured bits.) This snickering snippet painted me flatulent and florid.

I object, m’lud.
Clark writes that Aubrey wrote that

Henshawe tells me that Hill was
secretary to the great earle of Oxford 

Nicholas Hill. Do click on that link. He was my Nicolaus factotum for a while in the latter 1590s – the exact date escapes me now. He was a paid servant, a steward, a scribe – although only for my regular business, not the good stuff. Contrary to misleading implications in Brief Lives and elsewhere (that link again), Hill did not accompany me to Europe in 1575. He was five years old at the time.

Once he attained his majority, he was:

• Expelled from his fellowship at St. John’s College, Oxford, in 1591. This was supposedly due to his reversion to Roman Catholicism, but no one seems to be quite sure.
• Intellectually unstable, flirting with -isms ranging from Epicurus to Paracelsus to Ramon Llull.
• Very good at spending the money of others. Few of his outlays were as cheap or as witty as my £10 bestowed upon the beggar. He was skilled at keeping company with those of wealth and high lifestyles.
• Satirized by John Donne in Catalogus Librorum Aulicum.
• Ridiculed by name by Ben Jonson in On the Famous Voyage (Epigrams #134), a poem that deals with sewage, flatulence, and malodourous defecations. I can’t make this stuff up.
• A fugitive from the law, fleeing to Rotterdam in 1603 ahead of possible treason charges in a very lame succession plot against the incoming James VI/I. He remained an exile until his death.

It’s the wrong king (that’s George III being gassed),
but the cartoon was too good to pass wind up.

• Finally, a suicide, dying in Rotterdam after swallowing poison in about 1610, unhinged by grief over the death of his son.

I spent a good bit of time with this man during the months he worked for me – in conversation, and sometimes in close quarters. I knew him well enough. He had a lively sense of humour and was good with a story, whether it was true or not. Nicholas Hill is not someone whose word you want to trust about what he says happened to a man twenty years before they met, at an event he clearly was not present to see. The problem of chronology is insurmountable. The story is cut from whole cheese.

No court of law in my day, or in this day, or in any other day you choose, is going to admit this kind of fourth-hand fiction as evidence. The only thing it proves is the malice of the hands that have handled it.

If I was back at Gray’s Inn, I’d have Clark up on a libel charge, and Hill, Henshawe, and Aubrey all for slander. I’d win, too.
Here’s a different argument. Let’s play like those eminent barristers Richard Rich and Thomas More did, back in the time of Henry VIII, as they talked together within the unfriendly confines of the Tower. (Rich was there voluntarily; More, less.) Let’s put a case.

Say that I had broken wind. So what? It would have bothered me not a whit, whether in front of Her Majesty, a congeries of courtiers, or the lowliest pot-boy in one of my kitchens. Do you think that public flatulence was unacceptable in the 16th century? Let me educate you.

Consider all the rancid, spoiled, or fermenting food that we Elizabethans had to eat, in the days before canning, refrigeration, and Milk of Magnesia. Consider next what all that rot did inside our digestive tracts. People were walking methane factories, like cows. And that’s not counting the worms and other intestinal parasites, and the chronic bacterial infections that most people carried in their guts for most of their unhealthy lives. Unless you live today in a third-world country with no access to clean water and antibiotics, you can have no idea what this was like, and thou art fortunate.

Emanations from either end were so commonplace as to be unremarkable, unless you were an eight-year-old boy. (Eight-year-old boys have never changed.) If you were well bred you offered a polite ‘beg pardon’, then it was forgotten. People and living spaces normally smelled bad. Neither bodies, clothing, nor rooms were cleaned often. Running water, flush toilets? Nay. Mouthwash, antiperspirant? Air fresheners, detergent cleaners? Nay, nay. Why do you think that the wealthy owned so many homes, and moved so often between them? Because after you lived in one for a while, it stank. So you packed up your goods and chattels and betook yourself to your next manor, while the servants left behind took care of the mucking-out. Unpleasant odours were the norm, not the exception.

Consider also: Brief Lives was published at the apex of the ultra-repressed Victorian era, when people could only read and titter about things that social convention forbade them to discuss aloud. On Clark’s printed page (jump to the top to look again) you will find only . . . ellipses. You can bet that that 17th-century scribbler Aubrey scribbled the entire (other) f‑word, but by 1898 it had become the vapour that dare not speak its name. I wonder how many books I sold for the Reverend Doctor. Brief Lives remains popular even to this day, in stage plays and radio serials.

To prim Victorians, a hot-air balloon was a coded symbol
for gaseous expulsions that one simply didn’t mention.

The idea that accidental flatulence would be a significant embarrassment to anyone of my time, be he earl or churl, is anachronistic nonsense.

Reductio ad absurdum.
Add it all up, and what do you get? If the perfumed glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.

But the truth won’t serve. You can’t sing it for your supper and amuse the other guests. It’s odourless and flat, so it has to be inflated. Fermented. There’s your explanation, bounded in a nutshell.

Hill’s imaginary gas passed through the bilious digestions of Henshawe, Aubrey, and the Reverend Doctor Clark over the span of three hundred years, until it was finally excreted as printer’s ink into the commode of Clark’s mass-market proto-tabloid, Aubrey’s Brief Lives.

The rest is history. Or in this case not history, but legend. As folklorist Bacil [sic] F. Kirtley wrote in John Aubrey upon the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, in The Journal of American Folklore 78, no. 307 (1965): 64-65:

Legends are history as the naïve would like it to be … they are not really history, but equivalents of and substitutes for history, modes and formulas of historical interpretation applied by the uncritical and the unknowing.

There’s some truth.
One more inaccuracy needs corrected: I wish I’d been able to travell seaven yeares. I was away from February 1575 through April 1576. Fifteen short months, ten of which were spent in Italy, where I picked up a few things that I wrote about later. My reasons for leaving England had nothing to do with flatulence. My only cause for embarrassment was when I was forced to return home after my funds were cut off. (Need you ask? Cecil.)

But that nugget in Brief Lives about my living at Florence in more grandeur than the duke of Tuscany. Aubrey et alii were blowing more smoke, as I was only there for two weeks. But for my time in Italy taken as a whole?

That’s no gas.

[1]  I know that the top-of-the-post banner and the image of the Victorian couple aren’t authentic 19th-century. (The font is a giveaway.) They’re from a retro-style label designed by Halfmoonstudio, at ArtFire.com. If the Victorians weren’t willing to mention flatulence in print, you’d expect that it’s difficult to find vintage labels for products that addressed the problem. If anyone knows of an authentic label, I’ll be glad to make a substitution. Send me a tweet.