Thanks to the combined generosity of the Leverhulme Trust and the Huntington Library themselves, I have a delightful month to spend at this excellent institution, to which, shamefully, I’ve never yet been. It’s much like any top-rank library, except it’s 30 degrees C outside, and my family texted me this morning to tell me that a policeman had showed up at the house where we’re staying and advised them to go indoors because there was a bear in the next door garden.
But who cares about that when
there are new manuscripts to play with? Today’s treat was a collection of
anti-Parliamentary ballads from the 1640s, some but not all of which were
published in the magnificently titled RUMP
My favourite, which doesn't appear in the published version, is a cruel squib on
Lady Grey of Groby, wife of a senior Parliamentarian general and regicide, who – supposedly
– gave birth to ‘an Infant with a head like a hare and the tayle of a squirrel’.
Tales of monstrous births like this, usually seen as judgements on the
immorality of the parents, were common enough, but this one is done with a
sharp comic edge. The monster, we read, ‘had been a beast at best of all / Had
she brought forth a Gray’. And that fits with a wider sense that the entire
parliamentary party are in some sense monstrous, and that the worst ‘ugly
monsters’ are those that have been ‘hach’t by th’Assembly’s braine’ – meaning
the Westminster Assembly, charged with the doomed attempt to create a new Protestant
settlement for Britain.
What makes this more than routine name-calling, though,
is its ironic voice, sustained almost to the end: in which it robustly denies
that this and the many, many other monsters of all kinds which parliamentarians
are bringing forth mean anything at all. Or as the subtitle puts
it: ‘Whereby you may note, that the pious and godly / may be brought to bed of
things that look odly.’