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Jermynology: how genealogy can change history

Anthony Adolph talks about his research into the life of Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of Saint Albans (1605-1684) and the founder of the West End. Find out more about the Anthony Adolph at his website.


Good afternoon, thank you. Now the instructions we were given for this says that you’ve got to explain what each of these slides show, because this is being broadcast on the internet. So in fact I had a clever idea last night: I put the pictures on my website as well. So if anyone out there is listening and wants to see the slides which I’m talking about this afternoon, it’s on my website which is and then follow the links to Jermyn.

Now the first slide shows then the title of this talk which is Jermynology, and it adds: ‘How Genealogy Can Change History’. I put that there to encourage people not to leave early actually!

Jermynology is the study of Henry Jermyn, the Earl of St Albans, a 17th century statesman, and his immediate family. Jermyn’s dates are 1605 to 1684, and in fact he received two titles during his long and eventful life: he was made Baron Jermyn of St Edmundsbury in 1643, and Earl of St Albans in 1659. He also became a Knight of the Garter in 1672. There’s a rumour that Louis XIV wanted to make him a Duke in France, but that never happened. I’ve never known whether it was actually a true story or not.

Still he wasn’t bad for someone who is in fact the second son of a family of near Suffolk gentlemen. I’ve been studying Henry Jermyn since the late 1980s, and last December I published the first ever book about him which I called Full of Soup and Gold: The Life of Henry Jermyn.

The term Jermynology is one that I’ve made up. You sometimes hear about people claiming to be the world’s leading experts in something or other, and in fact I used to work for a firm of genealogists who claimed to be the world’s leading genealogists. I don’t know about that, but I think I can say, without fear of too much contradiction, that I am currently the world’s leading Jermynologist. However, if I’m successful in enthusing other people in studying the life of this extraordinary and amazing man, I’m more than happy to yield that title to someone else.

Now you sometimes hear people saying that history and genealogy don’t mix. Of course that’s not true, but the fact remains that there are still some historians who think that we genealogists are a lesser species. We’re obsessed with personal details, we’re unable to grasp the wider picture, we’re pests actually, who simply crowd out the archives and stop proper historians having a seat. Now needless to say I don’t agree with that view. If it weren’t for genealogists, archives – even The great National Archives here – would have far fewer users and probably wouldn’t be as well-resourced as they are. And the obsessive quest for detail, of which we’re all entirely guilty, isn’t just a worthwhile pursuit in its own right, because sometimes genealogists like us can unearth details that can simply force historians to change their minds.

So this is slide number two. Now, who was this man? I’m showing a slide of Henry Jermyn in his full regalia which sums up the publicly acknowledged achievements of his lifetime. Nice to see him there actually in The National Archives – first time he’s probably been seen here for a very long time. If ever. Conventional history tells us that Henry Jermyn was a 17th century courtier, who spent most of his life in the service of Charles I’s Queen, Henrietta Maria. He was known to have taken part in the army plot of 1641, whereby a group of officers plotted to bring the King’s army in the North down to subdue Parliament, just before the Civil War. The plot failed.

Jermyn was found out and he fled to France. He joined the Queen and she went into exile in Holland, and they came back together to take a surprisingly active part in the Civil War, raising their own army in Yorkshire and then marching south to join the King at Oxford.

In 1644, when the war was nearly lost, Henrietta Maria fled to France and she took Jermyn with her. Their home in Paris was in the ‘Louvre Palais’. I knew I was going to get that wrong, it’s a tongue twister. They lived in the Louvre in Paris.

When you go to the Louvre nowadays you never think of English queens living there but Henrietta Maria did live there with this man, Jermyn. And he was widely accused at the time, and quite unjustly, of fattening himself up on the Queen’s money while the rest of the Royalists were left starving.

After the Restoration in 1660, Jermyn served as ambassador to France, he became the leader of England’s Freemasons and he also served as Charles II’s Lord Chamberlain. The picture here shows him painted by Sir Peter Lely, wearing the insignia of the Order of the Garter, which Charles II gave him in 1672, and the white stick he’s carrying is his wand of office as Lord Chamberlain.

Now if you think the picture’s slightly odd, that’s for a reason. Lely was a very busy painter and like many fashionable portrait artists he only painted people’s faces from life. The bodies were painted by his students, usually using much younger models. Therefore when you look at portraits of famous people or indeed of ancestors of yours – or they might be one and the same – you’ll often get the slightly disturbing juxtaposition of quite literally an old head on young shoulders. Jermyn here has certainly got the legs of a young man, as you can see. But his face does look old and very serious and almost as if he was in pain. And he probably was, when he was sitting for his portrait, because he suffered from terrible gout. He also spent many years poring over his desk in candlelight, writing and ciphering letters, both on his own behalf and on behalf of the Queen of England, and as a consequence by this time he’d gone almost completely blind. He died twelve years after this portrait was painted, as a contemporary poem describes him, ‘full of soup and gold’.

If you look Jermyn up in many of the histories – most, in fact, of the histories – of the 17th century, and in many of the biographies of Henrietta Maria herself, you will find him. He’s usually mentioned about three times; twice in passing and once to tell us that he was ‘Henrietta Maria’s fat major-domo’ or some such phrase. But it usually mentions that Pepys repeated a rumour: that Jermyn and the Queen had secretly got married. And that, invariably, is all you’ll read. An interesting character then, but perhaps nothing special.

There’s a much respected guide on how to become a writer that lists various topics to be avoided like the plague, and included amongst these explicitly it said, as I read it: ‘Interesting 17th century aristocrats’.

The mainstream publishers that my agent approached with this book seemed to feel exactly the same; 17th century noblemen, especially those of whom very few people have heard, are simply not a good commercial proposition. You might therefore be wondering why on earth I decided to publish a book about Henry Jermyn, let alone write about him and research him in the first place. And indeed you might be wondering why you’re sitting here listening to a talk about him at all. Well, the answer to the last two questions I hope will become clear.

As to why I published this book, I did so for several reasons. First I did it because I could afford it. It sounds brutal but I’d never advise anyone to invest money in publishing that you couldn’t afford to lose if the books never sold. However, the economic pros and cons – I discovered with the publishing of a small-ish edition of a book – are very different for private individuals like me or indeed you, and big commercial firms. Basically, you don’t need to sell anything like as many books in order to make economic sense. And of course, more importantly, I published this book really for the same reason that I researched it and wrote it, which is because I have absolute faith that the subject matter – this person here, Henry Jermyn – was intriguing and colourful enough to make the project work. Now I’m going to give you slide three.

So I’m now showing two pictures side by side. One is Henrietta Maria as a young Queen and the other one is Jermyn, the chap you just saw before, but this time as a young man. They’re both from engravings of portraits by the leading artists of Charles I’s court. So Anthony Van Dyck. My journey started when I discovered Henry Jermyn in the branches of a family tree that I was researching.

Jermyn came from a long established family of Suffolk gentry, ‘seated’ as they used to say, at Rushbrook, not far from Bury St Edmunds. They were a moderately interesting lot in family history terms. As you work through the 16th century, they start appearing at court and getting involved in Elizabeth I’s wars, and towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign, Jermyn’s father was quite closely embroiled in the rise and fall of the Earl of Essex. But when Henry Jermyn comes on the scene in the 17th century, things really hot up.

Now of course as a genealogist, my interest was more than piqued by that throwaway line, ‘and he may have married Queen Henrietta Maria’. If it was true, I could put an equals sign next to Henry Jermyn’s name on the family tree and add the name of Queen Henrietta Maria. I’m sure as genealogists like me you can understand exactly where I was coming from on that one.

So I started looking for evidence, beginning of course with Samuel Pepys’ Diary. Now Samuel Pepys writes unequivocally in his diary in 1662 that ‘her being married to my Lord of St Albans is commonly talked of’ – ‘her’ being the Queen and ‘Lord St Alban’s’ being Henry Jermyn, here. Of course Pepys also says that he believed the story for certain, but we know that he was one of the biggest gossip-mongers of his age and not entirely reliable.

I also examined the biographies Henrietta Maria herself, and I knew that Jermyn had been in her service for 44 years. And the fact that he’s hardly ever mentioned in biographies of her just made me pretty suspicious. But it was when I read a biographical entry for Henry Jermyn in Joseph Gillow’s Dictionary of the English Catholics that my genealogical hackles really went up.

Gillow stated that the rumour of their marriage existed, but then he wrote that they could not possibly have got married because at her funeral in the Cathedral of St Denis in France, the prelate who gave her funeral oration described her as ‘a woman of exemplary piety’, and so devoted to the memory of her martyred husband Charles I that she couldn’t possibly have married someone else. I’m going to read you the offending passage. One sentence in Bossuet’s funeral oration is sufficient to brush it aside:

‘Great Queen, well do I know that I fulfil the most tender wishes of your heart when I celebrate your monarch’ – that’s Charles the First – ‘that heart which never beat but for him, is it not ready to vibrate though cold in the dust, and to stir at the sound of the name of a spouse so dear, though veiled under the mortuary pall?’

Don’t you love that phrase, ‘couldn’t possibly’, which is so often used by people who really couldn’t know one way or the other? Here Gillow is saying ‘couldn’t possibly’.

Now we all know as family historians that people in families very seldom did what they were thought to have done or supposed to have done. Stern or sweet little old grannies often turned out to have had fairly wild and reckless younger days. You don’t look to obituaries, especially those read out in cathedrals for members of royal families, for evidence of anything they really got up to when they were younger. Just think of the speeches given at the funerals of Princess Diana and indeed Princess Margaret, and you’ll see what I mean.

The words I’ve just quoted were spoken at the funeral of a venerable, dead, dowager queen. The aunt to the ruling monarch in France, Louis XIV, she’d spent part of the last couple of decades living in a convent. But before then, she had been a middle-aged woman, and before then she had been the impetuous young girl you can see here, the young princess in Van Dyck’s portrait. And what she may or may not have got up to when she was that age is certainly not something you’d expect to find out from a funeral oration.

Now to be fair, Gillow took his view for a very definite reason: he was a Catholic and he was at great pains to defend Henrietta Maria, who was a Catholic Princess, against many of the criticisms that had been levelled against her unjustly, simply on the grounds of her religion. For Gillow to have made all that effort and then told his Victorian audience, ‘Oh by the way she ran off and married her equerry’, would have rather defeated the point. Gillow needed Henrietta Maria to have behaved in an exemplary fashion, and so for him she really could not possibly have married Henry Jermyn.

Now I found that quote from Gillow in the library of my university about 20 years ago, and it was realising how flawed his argument was that made me really want to find out more about Jermyn. It was a genealogist’s quest for detail, and I suppose you could say a genealogist’s scepticism of the established facts, that started me off down the long road that led to me writing this book.

Next slide. I’m now showing two pictures side by side. On the left is Henry Jermyn as a young man, which is the same one you’ve just seen in the previous slide, and on the right is a portrait of Charles II at about the same age. If Jermyn and Henrietta Maria had really got married, it would have been after January 1649 when Charles I, her husband, was executed.

Now I ended up drawing my own conclusions about the marriage: I don’t think they did get married but I can’t prove that. However, the stories about their intimacy that led to the rumours of the marriage went back a lot further, to when they really were young people in the 1620s. And when you look in the original sources you will find that there were stories that they may have slept together while Charles I was still very much alive.

And in fact there is no shortage of stories that it was Jermyn, not the King, who was the real father of Charles II. Of these things there is also no firm proof, but the circumstantial evidence is much stronger than it is for the marriage. I genuinely don’t know whether Charles II was biologically a Stuart or a Jermyn. It’s certainly possible and it’s perhaps likely, but regardless of the truth here’s a thought: throughout the lives of Jermyn and Charles II, they both knew that everyone out there had heard stories linking them together as father and son.

Not surprisingly, neither man is ever known to have commented on this during their lives, but it must surely have affected the way they treated each other. And that is significant when you realise just what a major part Jermyn played in getting Charles II restored to the throne in 1660, and then in the political history of his entire reign.

Now look at these two, you see what I mean, don’t you? It’s rumour and gossip, coupled with the fact that Jermyn and the Queen were incredibly close, that’s all we have to link these two men together as father and son. That they actually look similar, from my point of view, is just a happy coincidence but it could actually be a very significant coincidence.

As my research into Jermyn progressed, I discovered many more things about him and his relationship with the Stuarts than had ever been thought about before. It soon became clear that I really could rewrite his life story. Now that wasn’t such a very big deal. The task had been attempted by a clergyman called the Reverend Sydenham Harvey about 100 years ago. He collected together a lot of notes about Jermyn which he published, but he never attempted to form them into a biography or to draw any real conclusions. There was also a fairly short entry in the Dictionary of National Biography that was pretty dismissive really.

When I heard that the Dictionary of National Biography was being overhauled and rewritten as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, I approached them and I applied to rewrite Jermyn’s biographical entry, and to my surprise and pleasure they agreed. I submitted a completely new entry, based entirely on my own research and conclusions, and to my amazement, despite it being radically different to the old one, they accepted it. Most of the research I did couldn’t be based on published histories because, as I said, very few published histories give Jermyn much of a mention.

Now we know, don’t we, as good genealogists that we should be relying in any case on original sources. In my case I have very little choice but to do that. So I did spend a fair amount of time examining original sources in the British Library and other archives, including here, and some sources in France and Ireland which I couldn’t get hold of, I had them searched for me. I also examined endless volumes of printed original records, such as the calendars of state papers and the volumes of the Historic Manuscripts Commission, via the fantastic inter-library loan system. It would have been virtually impossible actually to have written the book without the inter-library loan system – I was a student in Canterbury at the time with very limited free time when libraries were open and certainly very little money, and without the inter-library loan system I don’t think I’d ever have managed to gather together enough material to make this book work.

Now the next slide here shows St James’s Square in London. Not as it is now, but as it was when Jermyn finished it, as a fully unified classical square with a fully unified classical facade. Now in the programme you were given today it says the Jermyn was founder of the West End. Now that’s not my claim, that’s what it says in the Survey of London’s volume on St James’s and Westminster.

Now this chapter of Jermyn’s life had been very well researched. But when it was, Jermyn’s biographical background was very sparse, and you are left with the impression that the writers of the Survey of London must have wondered how and indeed why Jermyn of all people ever came to be the man who founded the West End.

There are in essence two reasons. First, because he was so closely attached to Henrietta Maria and Charles II, Jermyn was one of the leading figures behind the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Part of his efforts entailed raising enormous personal loans from Venetian and Dutch merchants for the Royalist cause. Now in 1660, Charles II inherited a virtually bankrupt throne and he couldn’t possibly repay Jermyn in cash. Instead he gave him the leases of the rough fields that stretched north and north-east from the Palace of St James’s. And it was here that Jermyn built this great Square, St James’s Square, and all the streets around it including Jermyn Street, which is now famous for its shirt shops. (That’s another tongue twister there, shirt shops.) He also built the Church of St James’s, which you can see very clearly in that engraving there, which is still there now. He built it largely at his own expense and he fought a long battle with the ecclesiastical authorities of the Church of England to have the area made into an independent parish. The area that Jermyn developed is encompassed today roughly by Piccadilly, which is running along north of St James’s Church there; by Pall Mall, which you can’t see down here; Regent Street over on that side and Green Park on this side. He also developed further leaseholds in Soho, creating much of the area as it is today. Following his example, many other developers started acquiring and building on adjacent land and thus the West End grew.

Jermyn’s great achievement in all this wasn’t just building these squares; it was choosing to build them in a new classical style that was considered rather avant garde still, in Protestant England. His love of classical architecture is traceable back to Henrietta Maria herself. His mother, Marie, Queen of France, was a member of the Medici family of Florence, who pretty much pioneered the Renaissance there and [they] were certainly great champions of reviving the old classical style of Roman architecture. Henrietta Maria also employed Inigo Jones, who was England’s pioneering classical architect, and Jermyn also learned from his relationship with Inigo Jones.

As I’ve argued in my book, St James’s Square and its surrounding streets were both a money-making scheme for Jermyn but also a rather grand embodiment of his political theories – the aggrandisement of Britain and especially the aggrandisement of the Stuart monarchy. The sense of social unity created by unified classical design, which you can see here, was an embodiment of the unity Jermyn wanted to see the Stuarts impose on the people of Britain.

Next slide. I’m now showing a slide showing Jermyn in his robes again, which you’ve seen before, and also the cover of my book. Now the conclusions I’ve come to in this book about Jermyn’s political importance are simply what became obvious in my studies.

It became clear that Jermyn had not so much been discounted by historians as never actually taken into account in the first place. In fact, thanks to his rather unique position in relation to Henrietta Maria and Charles II, Jermyn was an immensely powerful man who exercised a huge influence on the domestic and international politics of this country for a long period. Let me just give you some quotes: ‘He was looked upon by the whole court and everything approved done by him’, and that was in 1641. ‘Premier Minister in the management of all His Majesty’s greatest and most secret affairs’ – that’s 1653. ‘A man without any office yet entrusted with the King’s most secret affairs’ – that’s 1678.

Each of these many such references, taken out of context, looks like a one-off remark and each has been individually either dismissed or ignored before. It was only when I put together all the references to Jermyn, once I’d tried in fact to write a biography of him, that I saw a pattern emerge that nobody had seen before. In fact, from the late 1620s right up to the 1680s – that’s about 50 years – Jermyn was one of the most powerful and influential men in Britain.

And not only did Jermyn have power and influence in great quantity, but it transpired that he had a very clear and persistent vision of what he wanted to do with them. In a nutshell, he did all he could to promote the cultural and political co-operation of England and France, partly of course as a means for his own self-aggrandisement, but also and without any doubt because he desired passionately to see England and France, the countries of birth of Charles II and Henrietta Maria respectively, prevail as the dominant co-operating powers in the world.

This means that all the published histories of the central 50 years of the 17th century have completely missed one of the most important keys to understanding why many of the things that happened, happened the way they did. Well, that’s my modest claim anyway.

I’d like to say thank you very much to Simon Fowler for giving me the opportunity of giving this talk, as I say it is the first time Jermyn has been talked about in a public institution for a very long time. And I’d also like to just summarise by saying that this is, I think, a very clear case of how a genealogist’s investigations into a particular family line, and ultimately into just one man, has shown the historians that they don’t always get it right. Our approach does work. Genealogy can, and often does, rewrite history. All of you have probably overturned your own family stories, you’ve corrected long-held family beliefs and you’ve probably discovered long-buried secrets in your own research. Often such discoveries won’t overturn and rewrite the history of Britain, but once in a while they just might!

Transcribed by Lisa Forrest as part of a volunteer project, May 2015