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Courtier, Scholar and Man of the Sword

November 9, 2021

Dr Christine Jackson’s biographical monograph Courtier, Scholar and Man of the Sword: Lord Herbert of Cherbury and His World will be published by Oxford University Press next month (13th December 2021). It examines the life and writings of Lord Herbert a flamboyant Stuart courtier, county governor, soldier, and diplomat who acquired a reputation for duelling and extravagant display but also numbered among the leading intellectuals of his generation. Herbert (1582-1648) enjoyed the patronage of princely rulers and their consorts, acquired celebrity as the embodiment of chivalric values, and defended European Protestantism with sword and pen. As a scholar and author of De veritate and The Life and Raigne of King Henry the Eighth, he commanded respect in the European Republic of Letters, accumulated a much-admired library, and anticipated the intellectual and theological liberalism of the Enlightenment. As a courtier, he penned poetry and exchanged verses with John Donne and Ben Jonson, compiled a famous lute-book, wrote an autobiography, commissioned portraits, and built a new country house. His life and writings, Christine suggests, provide a unique window into the aristocratic world and cultural mindset of early seventeenth century Britain and Europe during decades dominated by religious division, Stuart unpopularity, Habsburg territorial ambition, and war.

Christine describes researching and writing Lord Herbert’s life and writings as a pleasurable though sometimes frustrating journey through time and place. ‘Thanks to the survival of an autobiography dictated to his secretary during his final years and the preservation of his voluminous correspondence as ambassador to the court of Louis VIII’, she explains, ‘some parts and periods of his life are significantly better documented than others. In order to provide a balanced account of Herbert’s life and political career, she regretfully jettisoned some of the abundant information about his European travels, chivalric exploits, military service and diplomatic missions and set to work reconstructing the final two decades of his life from estate records, parliamentary journals, scholarly correspondence, family letters, and other sources. Tracing and evaluating the activities and achievements of a polymath, Christine acknowledges, presented a much larger task than she had anticipated at the outset. It was not just the breadth of Herbert’s scholarship and literary activities or the length of his works (his study of Henry VIII’s reign is a veritable doorstopper) but the fact that multiple drafts survived and that he published two revised editions of De veritate during his own lifetime. Capturing and analysing the evolution of his scholarship and the interconnections between his philosophical, theological, historical, and literary writings in a single volume presented a challenge. It was fortunate that his major works had been translated from Latin to English by earlier scholars and that many of the letters he and other wrote discussing his published writings have been preserved in collected editions.

During the course of the project, digitisation increased the research resources available online but the bulk of the research was undertaken in the reading rooms of the Bodleian Library, National Archives, British Library, National Museum of Wales, and Huntington Library in California, and in smaller archives and libraries. Christine appreciates her good fortune in being able to examine Herbert’s letters, manuscripts, first editions and annotated volumes from his library at first hand and notes that Herbert similarly took pleasure in handling original sources. Day trips and holidays provided opportunities to view Herbert’s portraits in galleries, museums and country houses, visit his former estates in England, Wales, and Ireland and to track some of his travels in France, Italy and Germany. It is amazing she points out to imagine his peripatetic adult lifestyle in the age of horses, coaches, sail boats and barges. Even in old age, when he suffered with his eye-sight and arthritis, he journeyed as far afield as Edinburgh, Dublin and Paris, as well as commuting regularly between London and Wales.

‘When I started work on Herbert’s life and writings’, Christine says, ‘I was very familiar with his autobiographical account of his aristocratic foibles, chivalric adventures, and ambassadorial service because I had studied it, and his portraits, with successive cohorts of students. Like them, I found him a fascinating and colourful but not always admirable individual. Getting to grips with his philosophical, theological and historical writings, verse and diplomatic correspondence has increased my respect for his wide-ranging intellectual talents and his transition from militant Protestantism to scholarly irenicism, and enabled me to move beyond Sidney Lee’s criticism of his “overweening sense of his worth” built upon the “trivialities of fashionable life … and butterfly triumphs”, Mario Rossi’s charge of intellectual dilettantism, and Horace Walpole’s disappointment that ‘a man who found it necessary to take up arms against Charles I. should have palliated the enormities of Henry VIII’. My book places Herbert’s career, life-style, political allegiances, religious beliefs, and scholarship within their contemporary British and European cultural and political context and offers a new assessment of the life and achievement of the scholarly knight captured in Isaac Oliver’s exquisite portrait miniature reproduced on its cover.’

Further information about the book can be found on the publisher’s website.