Charles I’s Dwarf
C. Northcote Parkinson describes the life and times of Jeffery Hudson of Oakham, Rutlandshire, a remarkable member of Charles I's court who nonetheless measured under three feet tall.
Among his Worthies of England, published in 1662, Thomas Fuller includes the dwarf, Jeffery Hudson of Oakham in Rutlandshire, immortalised by him in the following words:
Jeffery was born in the Parish of Oakham in this County, where his father was a very proper man, broad-shouldered and chested, though his son never arrived at a full Ell (i.e. 45") in stature... His father, who kept and ordered the baiting Bulls for George Duke of Buckingham (a place, you will say, requiring a robustious body to manage it) presented him at Burleigh on the Hill to the Duchess of Buckingham, being then nine years of age, and scarce a foot and a half in height, as I am informed by credible1 persons then and there present and still alive. Instantly Jeffery was heightened (not in stature but) in condition, from one degree above rags into Silk and Satten, and two tall men to attend him.
He was without any deformity wholly propotionable whereas often Dwarfs, Pigmies in one part, are Giants in another... And so I take my leave of Jeffery, the least man of the least County in England.
Fuller’s account is somewhat expanded in the Gentleman’s Magazine of December, 1732 (p. 1120), from which we learn the supposed year of Jeffery Hudson’s birth:
His name at length was Jeffery Hudson, born in the year 1619, at Oakham in Rutlandshire, his father a Butcher of a stout and corpulent Frame, and his Mother of no mean Size, but a very little Mouth, when pregnant with him, she was not cumbersome, nor concern’d herself about a Midwife, for truly my little Gentleman was beforehand with them and flew into the world like a Cork out of a Bottle.
It is the sad fact that these early references to the famous dwarf are not particularly reliable. Fuller is unable to give Jeffery’s surname or date of birth, and makes no claim to have met him. He is more precise about his height and appearance but talks nonsense again about the dwarfs rise in the world from ‘one degree above rags’. Whoever heard of an impoverished butcher, least of all one who numbers a Duke among his patrons?
We must rather assume that his father was reasonably prosperous, as suggested indeed by the survival to this day of the cottage in which he is said to have lived. Any mere hovel would have fallen down. The cottage, to which we can still point, clearly represented a fair standard of living in 1619, supposing that to be the year of Jeffery’s birth.
The parish has no register of the period, however, from which the date might be verified, and there is some reason to doubt whether that date can be correct. But while our authorities may be vague about names and dates, they are agreed, more or less, on Jeffery Hudson’s height as a child. He was said to have been slightly under eighteen inches but ‘wholly proportionable’.
Jeffery Hudson is usually described as a Dwarf, but the word is one we must define. In Human Curiosities (1968) Colin Clair tells us that:
Medically, dwarfs can be divided into two categories: proportionate dwarfs and disproportionate dwarfs, the latter category being again divided into achondroplasiac and rachitic. The proportionate dwarfs are normal in their proportion but of abnormally short stature; in fact they resemble a normal human being seen through the wrong end of a telescope.
On the other hand the achondroplasiac is distinguished by having a disproportionately large skull and a very round face; the bridge of the nose is usually depressed. The trunk is usually normal, but the legs and arms are short in comparison: The rachistic type is deformed through a disturbance of the calcium metabolism, which leads to defective bone growth, particularly in the spine and the bones of the leg.
Jeffery Hudson was a proportionate dwarf, a person of a type sometimes popularly described as a midget. For the purposes of this article, however, we shall describe him as a dwarf, that being the term in use during the seventeenth century. We need to recognize, moreover, the implications of his deformity. Like many other proportionate dwarfs, he was attractive and intelligent. His small size meant, however, that he was always in danger, liable to be knocked over by a dog and quite likely to drown in the smallest stream or pond.
When the Duchess of Buckingham gave him two attendants, we can assume that they were needed for his mere safety. She must also have ensured his education-he could never have been sent to school. Like the Duchess of Buckingham herself, Jeffery was almost certainly a Catholic. When Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria visited Burley, near Stamford, a cold pie was brought to table, out of which Jeffery rose, being thereupon taken into the Queen’s service as a page. This could have been in 1628, before the Duke of Buckingham was assassinated.
The Queen had previously had another dwarf, Richard Gibson (born 1615), who married Anne Sheppard, also a dwarf, who was given away by the King himself. It may have been this marriage that created the vacancy Jeffery now filled. Charles I had a porter called William Evans, ‘2 yards and a half in height, and the joke was to place Will and Jeffery together; a joke immortalized by a low relief sculpture placed over the entrance to Bullhead Court in Newgate Street.
When the Queen was with child in 1630, Jeffery was sent to fetch Madame Peronne, the midwife, from France. His ship was taken by a privateer, however, and the midwife came too late for the event; which was the birth, in fact, of Charles II. Jeffery seems to have been popular at Court ‘wanting nothing but humility,’ and was the subject of an anonymous poem ‘The New Yeere’s Gift’ printed in 1636. There followed Jeffereidos, a poem about his capture, possibly written by Davenant and published in 1638.
Before this, in 1637, the Queen’s dwarf appeared, with other English volunteers, at the Siege of Breda, during which campaign he came to be known as ‘Strenuous Jeffery’- although no bigger, seemingly, then when he first came to Court. We hear nothing of Jeffery during the next few years, the period leading up to the Civil War. On February 23rd, however, 1641/2, the Queen sailed for Holland with the object of raising money for the royal cause. She was successful in her mission and returned to England a year later with a man-of-war and eleven transports laden with ammunition and stores.
Her squadron was caught in a gale and her ladies gave up all hope of survival, but Henrietta Maria told them not to worry - ‘Queens of England are never drowned’. She came nearer to being shot after landing at Bridlington, her headquarters ashore being bombarded by a Parliamentary man-of-war. She reached York, nevertheless, and reported her arrival in a letter to the King dated March 20th, 1643. It is virtually certain that Jeffery was with her, and more than probable that he was now created Captain of Horse, perhaps to give him some status and pay.
History books have paid little attention to the part played by the Queen at this time. She played, in fact, a significant role, her first success being to provide the King with forty waggon-loads of arms and munitions, her second being to join him at Edgehill at the head of her cavalry, with 3,000 infantry and six cannon. ‘Her She Majesty Generalissima’ she gaily called herself, and was evidently adored by everyone. But the war went badly for Charles, and the Queen, again pregnant, was sent to Exeter for safety.
Following the battle of Marston Moor, fatal to the King’s cause, the Earl of Essex marched into the west country. Having given birth to a daughter, the Queen fled to Truro and eventually sailed for France from Falmouth. Jeffery was certainly with her during this adventure, and was under fire again when her ship was almost captured by a Parliamentary man-of-war. There is reason to suppose that Jeffery was his strenuous self on this occasion, making himself useful and expecting to be taken more seriously in future.
The Queen and members of her household landed near Brest. She was received in Paris and given for her residence the Chateau at St Germain-en-Laye. She moved temporarily to Nevers in 1644 so as to be near the medicinal baths at Bourbon; and it was here, in October, that Jeffery suddenly made himself conspicuous. In previous years he had been something of a butt; but he now made it clear that he would resent any future jokes at his expense.
A gentleman of the household, Mr Croft, lost no time in provoking the dwarf to challenge him: a duel, only meant for fun, was arranged in the park at Nevers. Croft and the dwarf were to meet on horseback, armed with pistols. The gibing cavalier took no fire-arms, but merely a huge squirt, with which he meant at once to extinguish his small adversary, and the powder of his weapon. The vengeful dwarf, however, managed his good steed with sufficient address to avoid the shower aimed at himself and his loaded pistols, and, withal, to shoot his laughing adversary dead.2
That this encounter took place we know to be a fact - we have the Queen’s letter to Cardinal Mazarin dated October 20th, asking to be allowed to deal with the matter herself- and yet we are left to wonder what really happened. How could a midget fire a pistol without being knocked senseless by the recoil? Did he ride a horse or a Shetland pony? Did the seconds really allow Croft to appear unarmed? Of one thing we may be certain, that Jeffery must have presented an almost impossible target to his opponent.
Be that as it may, Croft (Lord Croft’s brother) was certainly killed, and Jeffery was certainly in disgrace, though not imprisoned. We hear no more of him for a number of years. The story goes that he was captured off the French coast by a Turkish pirate and spent some years as a slave in Barbary. After reaching the age of thirty (in 1649), he started to grow and so reached his final height of three foot nine inches. Redeemed - we are not told how - he would seem to have been back in England by 1658, the year in which he is mentioned in Robert Heath’s Clarastella. In 1660 Charles II was restored to his throne, and Jeffery might have expected a renewal of royal protection. It would seem that he was disappointed.
What did he do, and how did he live? He went back, presumably, to the Oakham neighbourhood, where he must have had relatives, and where he still had the patronage of the Villiers family. Charles II would seem to have taken no great interest in him: but he came to London in 1679 and was somehow involved in the Popish Plot, being lodged for a while in the Gatehouse Prison. Described as ‘Captain’, he received money from the Secret Service Fund in 1680 and 1681, and finally died in 1682. There is here a hint of his being useful as a secret agent or spy.
But how could a dwarf pass unrecognized or unobserved? What could be secret about a man whose every movement must always be noted and remembered? What little we know of Jeffery Hudson adds up to a tantalising story, with years unrecorded and doubts in plenty; but it remains an astonishing record of what could be achieved by a man in miniature.3
1 John Armstrong of Cheshunt.
2 From: The Letters of Henrietta Maria. Ed. by Mary Anne Everett; London, 1857.
3 The above article is based upon material collected by the late Mrs Charles Graves, who intended to write a book about Jeffery Hudson but who died unfortunately before her story had begun to take shape. This brief biography is no sort of substitute for the work she had planned to publish but may serve to place on record her interest in the subject.