A Lot of Hot Air

Banner fake Victorian cure label - Aubrey Brief Lives gossip

10 June 2016
· Degassing an old falsehood ·

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 a single source. Here is that source. There is no other. This is the ur-stinker.

Only source for the false story - Aubrey Brief Lives gossip

It’s a fabrication that became a legend.
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 Clark’s source material was a heap of unpublished notes penned long before, between 1669 and 1696, by one John Aubrey.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 professional houseguest, and a gossipmonger par excellence in the years following the Restoration.

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 that link, I’ve described his background in one of my tangents.] Hill was my Nicolaus factotum for a short while in the latter 1590s. He was a paid servant, a steward, a scribe– though only for my regular business, not the important stuff. Contrary to the intentionally misleading imputations in Brief Lives and elsewhere (a further example is in the tangent), Nicholas Hill did not accompany me to the Continent 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 Roman Catholic recusancy, 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.
  • • Satirised 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 treason charges in a very lame succession plot [another tangent] against the incoming James VI and I. He remained an exile until his death.

Cartoon John Bull treasonably farts at George III - Aubrey Brief Lives gossipIt’s the wrong king being gassed (that’s George III),
but the cartoon was too good to pass wind up.

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

I spent a good bit of time with this man during the few months he worked for me– in conversation, 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 this day, or any other day 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 were 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 in the time of Henry VIII, talking together within the unfriendly confines of the Tower of London. (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 or the lowliest pot-boy in one of my kitchens. Do you think that public flatulence was taboo in the 16th century? Let me educate you.

Consider all the rancid and otherwise gone-off 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. Thou art fortunate.

Emanations from either end were so commonplace as to be unremarkable to all except ill-bred children. You proffered a polite ‘beg pardon’ and that was the end of it. (All my puns are intentional.) People and living spaces normally smelled bad. Lacking running water, flush toilets, detergent cleaners, anti-perspirants, and so on, neither bodies, clothing, nor rooms were cleaned frequently. Why do you think that the wealthy moved so often between their many homes? Because after you lived in one for a while, it stank. You packed your portable goods and chattels and betook yourself to your next manor, while servants left behind did the mucking-out. Unpleasant odours were the norm, not the exception.

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

The idea that 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. It doesn’t sell. You can’t sing it for your supper to amuse the other guests. It’s odourless and flat, so it has to be augmented. 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 gossip anthology, Aubrey’s Brief Lives.

The rest is history. Or in this case not history, but legend. As folklorist Bacil [sic] Kirtley wrote in John Aubrey upon the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford [tangent the third, including a music video], in The Journal of American Folklore:

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 cold truth.

One more inaccuracy needs correcting: I only 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 whatsoever to do with flatulence. My only embarrassment occurred in Venice, when I was forced to return to England because my funds were cut off. (Need you ask? Burghley. Another story.)

The nugget in Brief Lives about my living at Florence in more grandeur than the duke of Tuscany, though: 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.