Edward, Lord Herbert, must be best known as the sitter (or lier-down) in the portrait by Isaac Oliver showing him resting, booted and spurred, in a woodland glade after fighting a duel. He is using his shield as a duvet, while in the background his page holds his elaborately crested helmet, his black-and-gold armour hangs from a tree, and his richly caparisoned horse paws the ground impatiently. In the blue, Italianate-style background, a large city on a river can be glimpsed.
All this is of course seriously anachronistic: duels between armoured, mounted knights had not been a way of settling an argument for about 100 years when this portrait was painted around 1610, though the idea of jousting as a courtly entertainment was still current (witness the set of armour created for Henry, Prince of Wales, in which Oliver painted him about the same time, below), and there were casualties – Robert Carr, later earl of Somerset, an intimate of James I, Henry’s father, broke his leg in a joust in 1607.
An engraved reproduction (sadly, not a very good one) of Oliver’s famous painting can be found in Sidney Lee’s edition of Lord Herbert’s inaccurate, vainglorious and very entertaining autobiography, which we have reissued. Lee was the doyen of late-nineteenth-century biographical studies (he was recruited by Leslie Stephen for the first Dictionary of National Biography), and among many other works produced the first ‘modern’ life of Shakespeare and a book about his connections with Stratford.
Herbert’s work existed after his death in two manuscript copies held by his family (though according to his will he had intended for a friend to complete and publish it). One was destroyed in the late seventeenth century, but the other was published in 1764 at his Strawberry Hill press by Horace Walpole, who had borrowed it from the earl of Powis, a descendant of the Herbert clan: Walpole described it as ‘the most curious and entertaining book in the world’, and his version was reprinted three times. Lee’s edition provides useful notes and a continuation of Herbert’s story until his death.
Born in 1582, Herbert was raised in prosperous family, distant relatives of the Herbert earls of Pembroke. He was the oldest of ten children and a delicate child, but he complacently informs us that he had inherited the Herbert family’s good looks. After the death of his father in 1596, when he was studying at University College, Oxford, his family arranged for him to marry a cousin, Mary, whose father’s will allowed her to inherit his estate only if she married another Herbert (a rare case of someone NOT actually changing their name to inherit a fortune). He claims the wedding took place when he was fifteen, but this is one of the many inaccuracies noted by Lee: he was in fact seventeen at the time, and his wife four years older.
After Oxford, he went to court. Queen Elizabeth, in the last year of her life, ‘looked attentively upon me, and … said it is pity he was married so young, and thereupon gave me her hand to kiss twice, both times gently clapping me on cheek’. On Elizabeth’s death, he went to meet the new James I at Stamford on his progress from Scotland to London, and was soon after made a knight of the Bath.
Subsequently, he travelled in Europe, was introduced into French high society, and spent some time as a soldier in various engagements involving the British in Flanders, where he distinguished himself by his bravery (he says), and tried to fight duels (his default position, it appears), which were usually prevented by his senior officers.
At home, he spent time with John Donne, Ben Jonson, and John Selden; abroad, he stayed with Isaac Casaubon and knew Grotius, Vossius and Gassendi. He published a highly regarded work of philosophy, De veritate, began a history of the reign of Henry VIII, and wrote poetry (not published until after his death). His younger brother, George Herbert, was, of course, the most gifted poet (I think!) of a stellar company in early Stuart England, and the Cambridge edition of his English works is one of the greatest of our publications in the twenty-first century (so far!).
But the elder brother dwells much more on the social and active side of his life than on the intellectual. He describes his education (and his general opinions on education), and his time at court. He travelled through France, Germany and Italy, both privately and as an accredited diplomat: in 1619 he was appointed ambassador to France, through the patronage of the duke of Buckingham, and set off with a retinue of about 100 people (not including his wife). He carried out the role with some success, until something went wrong with the negotiations over the marriage of Prince Charles to Henrietta Maria, and he was abruptly recalled in 1624, when the autobiography stops. He was never in royal favour again, though he tried hard to make a good impression on Charles I.
He had come into the possession of Montgomery Castle (an ancient Herbert property), and spent his time there and in London. When the Civil War broke out, he was lukewarm on the royalist side (to the great concern of much of his family, and in spite of his having previously written several ingratiating pieces about royal supremacy). He refused to let Prince Rupert fortify the castle, and on the arrival of a Parliamentary army in 1644, he surrendered it, on condition that nothing was to be seized from his study and the room next to it which contained his library. The Parliamentarians ‘slighted’ the castle (as the technical term for laying waste a fortified site has it), and this is how it appeared in 1786.
On his deathbed in 1648, according to John Aubrey, he requested the holy sacrament from his friend Archbishop Ussher (famous for fixing the date of Creation as 23 October 4004 BCE), saying that even if it did him no good, it would do him no harm. Ussher was affronted and refused. If this story isn’t true, it is certainly in keeping with the cynical, good-humoured, vain, argumentative, womanising, observant character who presents himself in this book. Horace Walpole said: ‘My Lady Waldegrave was here in all her grief: … I read it to amuse her. We could not get on for laughing and screaming.’