Worcester’s Wisdom and Prospero’s Steam Engine

Worcester’s Wisdom and Prospero’s Steam Engine October 16, 2020

I have been posting about the world of the seventeenth century, an exceedingly significant era for religious history (just think Puritanism, and the Mayflower of 1620). There is one source that I first explored many years ago but which still gets used remarkably little in the scholarly literature. It takes the form of a readable collection of stories and sayings published in 1650 under the slightly daunting title of Worcester’s Apothegmes, which I will explain shortly. The book illuminates the world of the early and mid-seventeenth century, centered on an aristocrat who was very like a Renaissance prince. It tells us about the social structures and values of the time, its complex and often startling religious and spiritual beliefs. And it describes a moment when fervent religion met and mingled with the most advanced technology then available.

Raglan’s Renaissance

Worcester refers to Henry Somerset, Earl of Worcester (1577-1646), who was descended from medieval lords with royal pretensions: some of his forebears feature prominently in Shakespeare’s historical plays. Henry became first Marquess of Worcester, and that is the title by which he is usually known. Even by the standards of the aristocracy of his time, he was phenomenally wealthy, surely a billionaire in modern terms. When King Charles I went to war against the Parliament in 1642, he could not have done so without Worcester’s support: the family claimed to have supplied the Royalist cause with an eye-watering £900,000. Financially, Worcester could have bought and sold many minor or middling European princes. His descendants went on to become the Dukes of Beaufort, who are still still great landowners.

The Marquees of Worcester was very much an old school lord, living in the magnificent castle of Raglan in South Wales, and completely dominating the area with his own private forces, administered from what we can only call a princely court. In the 1630s, 150 people dined daily at Raglan, where there was an elaborate ritual and procedure, together with a hierarchy that included the steward, comptroller, sewer, master of the horse, gentlemen waiters, pages, purveyor of the castle, ushers, wardrobe master, master falconer, gentlemen, and ladies of the chamber.

This was a center for cutting edge Renaissance culture. As Simon Jenkins wrote in Country Life, “For a brief time at the turn of the 16th century, Wales led Britain as landfall of the European Renaissance. Supreme was Raglan.” Worcester patronized the greatest composers and musicians of the time, notably fellow-Catholic William Byrd, not to mention visual artists, and we can only imagine what the chapel services would have looked and sounded like.

Worcester’s faithful Catholic loyalties gave his court a powerfully Counter-Reformation feel. His younger son Thomas Somerset became a Catholic priest in Italy, and joined the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, the Oratorians. The Marquess himself was a fervent exponent of contemporary spirituality, whose prayers and meditations regularly left him in floods of tears. We happen to know three devotional books that moved him particularly. One favorite author was the once very popular Jesuit author Jeremias Drexel, and his Considerations on Eternity. Drexel was a celebrated preacher at the Bavarian court in Munich, providing a direct link with the European Catholic spirituality of the day. Worcester also treasured a manuscript version of “The Love of God,” presumably the Treatise of that name by St. Francis de Sales. The third beloved text was “the Book of Patience,” which I assume to be the work of that name by the Welsh Catholic diehard Richard Whitford, a friend of Thomas More (I am prepared to be corrected on this). If so, that also linked Worcester to the native Welsh Catholic resistance, as well as to contemporary Europe.


Worcester was a very loyal subject to the Crown, but that did not prevent him discreetly supporting and mentoring a whole network of local Jesuits, who made the southern Welsh borders as strong a bastion of active popular Catholicism as any part of Britain. And all centered on Raglan.

If only we had some contemporary account of what Raglan was like in those dazzling years … but we do.

Worcester’s World

As the Royalist cause progressively lost ground in England, so its supporters gravitated to Wales and to fortresses like Raglan. One of those was the cleric Thomas Bayly, from a distinguished Anglican family. His father Lewis Bayly was a bishop who had written The Practice of Piety, one of the century’s best-selling religious books, which was translated across Protestant Europe. But the staunchly Protestant Thomas Bayly was entranced by Worcester, with whom he stayed for some years, and he was attracted to his faith. After Raglan fell to the Parliament’s forces and the war was lost, Thomas traveled in Catholic Europe, and himself (sensationally) converted to Catholicism. He ended his career as a priest and a prolific writer on Catholic subjects.

Bayly collected many stories about Worcester, which he presented in the form of stories culminating in witty or wise sayings, that is, of aphorisms or apothegms, with a strong emphasis on religious themes. In 1650, he published those as Worcesters Apophthegmes Or Witty Sayings Of The Right Honourable Henry (Late) Marquess And Earl Of Worcester, Delivered Upon Severall Occasions, a substantial book that runs to some 20,000 words. The whole text is available online. It makes no pretense to be anything like a biography, and indeed is totally miscellaneous. But that does not detract from its value.

There are some impressive resources for social history. Just to take one example, a local couple are presented to the Marquess after their marriage. “The Bride a goodly, proper woman, her face well featur’d, an excellent eye she had; but was pittifull dis-figured with the small pox.” The Marquess struggles to find something that he can say to her, and then begins an impressive dialogue about woman’s social role. He concludes,

I have compared your wife unto a building, and I must commend your choice; for (said he, alluding unto her disfigurement) a goodly house, must not be chosen by the smoothness or whiteness of the wall: for such a one, may be but a dairy-house, or milk-house: nor according to the colours or paintings of the out-side, for such a one may be but a Tavern or an Ale-house: but if I see a house that is lofty, and stately built, and have fair windows, though the outside be but rough cast, yet I am sure, there are goodly rooms within. And so both parties were well pleas’d.

Church records might record the fact that this couple married at a particular time, but how else would we get a sense of just how many people walking around at this time would be so “pittifull dis-figured” by smallpox and other diseases?

So rich is the material that it is difficult to know what to sample. The whole atmosphere of the castle at the time was that of a Renaissance court, with its bewildering mixture of the supernatural and scientific, and at every point we seem to be in a Shakespeare play. In 1642, when the young Prince of Wales visited Raglan to drum up support for the war effort, an account of the lavish hospitality notes that “Some of the chief rooms were richly hung with cloth of Arras, full of lively figures and ancient British stories.” British in this context clearly meant Welsh, and we would dearly love to know what those stories were. Cymbeline? Brutus? Arthur? Medieval Welsh princes? The orator welcoming the prince stressed that “It is the glory of the Britons that we are the true remaining and only people of this land.” They, not the seditious English, were the “true and ancient Britons.” That visiting prince, by the way, was the later King Charles II.

So Pulled Down By Prophecies

No less ancient than the Britons were the legends and superstitions surrounding the house and family, indicating the elaborate spiritual universe in which even the most educated elites lived and operated. Bayly remarks that

Never was there a noble house so pull’d down by Prophesies, usher’d into its ruin by predictions, and so lay’d hold upon by signes and tokens …

There was an old book of Prophesies which was presented to the Marquess, because it so much concerned Raglan Castle. Wherein there were these predictions, viz. That there should come an Earl that should first build a white gate before the Castle-house, and after that should begin to build a red one, but before that red one should be finished, there should be Wars over all the Land, this was fulfill’d in the Marquesses time, who having built the one, and begun the other by reason of the distractions of the time, left the later work unfinished; some standing requested his Lordship to make haste to finish his red Gate-house, because we should have no quiet untill that were up.

Hark ye said the Marquess, none shall prophecie so much money out of my purse in such times as these, besides the prophet doth not say until, but before, and for ought I know, if I should make haste with that building, I should hasten the War to my own door; for the Prophet says, that before the red Gate-house shall be finished, there shall be Wars over all the Land; but what if I had built neither the one nor the other, how would this Prophesie have concern’d me?

O my Lord, said one, it is done, and you could not otherwise chuse but do what you did, I but (said the Marquess) I can chuse whether I will believe the Prophet.

Bayly lists several old supposed prophecies, and actually quotes the poetic Welsh text of one. All these visions were much cited and discussed during the Parliamentarian siege of the castle in 1646, and its actual fall. That included

Also of an Eagle that should come into the Park, and be there slain, which should be a forerunner to the destruction of that house. Which I saw literally perform’d, but executed by one who heard not of the prophesie:

Also of a Cloud of Bats that should hang over the Castle a little before its demolishment, this three days before, all the Castle beheld to their no small astonishment. Which continued about a quarter of an hour, about twilight, so thick, that you could not towards the middle of them, see the skie, though clear, which being shot at with haile-shot, some of them fell down, and the rest fled away.

Reading all this tells us much about the world-view of the armies of the time, and even their commanders. As I have remarked in the past, even the soldiers of the First World War were very open to superstitions, dreams, visions, and prophecies: how much more so their ancestors of the 1640s.

Prospero’s Science

But at the same time, this ancient and deeply haunted house was at the forefront of scientific advances. Worcester’s son and successor Edward Somerset was a scientific genius who wrote extensively on modern inventions, including irrigation and hydraulic devices. His 1663 Century of Inventions is a monument of the scientific revolution. Most famously, he offered his own pioneering version of the steam engine, “an admirable and most forcible way to drive up water by fire,”and he published a description of what he modestly termed “the most stupendous Water-commanding Engine.” Richard Haslam describes how Raglan’s

setting had become a typically Renaissance combination of history, science and art: the “deep moat 30 foot broad, wherein was placed a rare artificial water work, which spouted up water to ye height of ye castle” … and “next unto it was a pleasant walk set forth with several figures of the Roman Emperors in arches of divers varieties of shell work.”

Raglan’s ornate gardens were supplied with mechanical devices to create amazing and terrifying effects. I like to think of that son – then known as Lord Herbert – as a real life Prospero, and he performed appropriate magic. I can’t answer this question, but did he ever use those technologies to create effects for masques or performances? Just to put this in context, it was in 1634 that Milton’s masque Comus was performed at the other mighty Welsh border fortress at Ludlow Castle, some fifty miles north of Raglan.

Bayly tells one lovely story that almost amounts to a classic masque scenario, but in real life and deadly earnest. In the lead-up to war in 1642, the angry local peasants (“certain rusticks”) approached Raglan Castle to demand to search it for weaponry. History does not record if they were clutching pitchforks. The Marquess of Worcester was indeed a leading Catholic and Royalist.

In those threatening circumstances, WWPD? What Would Prospero Do? The Marquess led them around the grounds, and then sprung his surprise:

At length the Marquess brought them over the high bridge that archt over the moat that was between the Castle and the great Tower, wherein the Lord Herbert had newly contriv’d certain water-works, which when the several engines and wheels were to be set a going, much quantity of water through the hollow conveyances of the aqueducts were to be let down from the top of the high Tower.

Upon the first entrance of these wonderfull Asinegoes [that is, idiots] the Marquess had given order that these cataracts should begin to fall, which made such a fearful and hideous noise, by reason of the hollowness of the Tower, and the neighbouring echoes of the Castle, and the waters that were between and round them both, that there was such a roaring, as if the mouth of hell had been wide open and all the devils had bin conjur’d up, that the poor silly men stood so amaz’d, as if they had been half dead, and yet they saw nothing.

At last as the plot was laid, up comes a man staring and running, crying out before he came at us, “Look to your selves my masters, for the Lions are all got loose!”

whereupon the searchers gave us such a loose, that they tumbled so over one another down the stairs, that we thought one half of them had broken their necks, never looking behind them, till they were sure they had got out of sight of the Castle.

This particular isle really was full of noises. The Calibans heard and fled.

More next time.


My thanks to my Baylor colleagues Dan Watkins and David Whitford for answering queries arising from this post.

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