Tag: history of friendship

A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed

Prince-James-Peterhead-2-Jan-1716-300x276

By James Hawkes

Saving lives may have been Sir Hans Sloane’s day job as a physician, but in one case he even saved a friend from the hangman: Patrick Blair, who had been sentenced to death for high treason.

A Scottish surgeon and botanist, Blair had known Sloane since 1705 after persuading a fellow Scotsmen to introduce him. Sloane and Blair corresponded for several years on diverse subjects, from botany, elephants, medical practices, books and more. But in the aftermath of the failed Jacobite rising of 1715, Blair also discovered the real importance of networking and patronage.

Britain was in a state of political upheaval for decades following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. James II may have been dethroned,  but his followers–Jacobites–repeatedly attempted to restore him to the throne. The Union of the English and Scottish parliaments in 1707 was resented by many in Scotland and strengthened Jacobitism.

Sloane, born a Presbyterian son of Ulster planters, was staunch Whig and loyal to the new royal family. Not only was his brother, James, a Whig Member of Parliament, but Sir Hans was a royal physician. In 1714, he had even attended Queen Anne upon her deathbed, prolonging her life long enough to thwart the schemes for a Jacobite restoration and to secure the Protestant Hanoverian succession.

Just one year later came ‘the Fifteen,’ a poorly organised Jacobite uprising in both Scotland and western England. Blair joined the revolt in Scotland as a surgeon, but was captured at the Battle of Preston and sent to Newgate Prison, London. He desperately wrote to his friends in the hopes of obtaining relief for himself and his suffering family.

my poor wife and children are in greatest misery and distress and that the very little they have to Live upon in Life to be utterly Lost so that they are Like to be reduced to a starving condition unless the Government shall see fit to show me their mercy and grant me relief.

A prisoner in a Newgate cell just a decade after Blair left. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A prisoner in a Newgate cell just a decade after Blair left. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In these pathetic pleas Blair also denies that he was ever truly a Jacobite, insisting that the rebels gave him no choice. One might suspect that Sloane found these claims a little hard to swallow given that he probably knew that Blair came from a Jacobite family and was religiously a Non-Juror–a member of the schismatic Episcopalian church who refused to swear allegiance to any but the exiled Stuarts.

It is only natural that Blair sought to preserve a sense of normality during this time of personal crisis. For instance, he sent Sloane a letter discussing their mutual botanical interests and his desire to do some gardening for Sloane, “I want to be serviceable to you for the obligations I received from you. The plants spring in my mind as fast as they do in the ground you proposed I might assist you with Last.”

Despite the efforts of his friends, including Sloane who visited him in prison, Blair was condemned to death following his guilty plea. He continued to beg for Sloane’s help.

But now having in the most submissive manner subjected myself to his majesty’s mercy I hope by your intercession… to obtain his most gracious pardon and Liberation … I therefore humbly crave you’l be pleasd to use your endeavours in that matter.

Blair had good reason to be frightened, as the Lord High Steward’s sentence of death against other rebels a few months earlier declared that they were to be brought from the Tower and:

drawn to the place of execution. When you come there, you must be hanged by the neck, but not until you are dead; for you must be cut down alive, then your bowels must be taken out and burnt before your faces; then your head s must be severed from your bodies and your bodies divided each into four quarters and these must be at the king’s disposal.[1] 

Although most of the condemned had their sentences commuted to a ‘mere’ beheading, it’s unlikely that Blair would have been reassured. There was a distinct possibility that he could end up one of the relatively few Jacobites made an example of, either through execution or exile to the colonies. Although Blair hoped that Sloane could secure him a pardon, the government kept him waiting until midnight before his scheduled execution to inform him of his reprieve.

Afterwards, Sloane continued to support Blair financially by helping him to relocate and put his life back together.  This demonstrated not only the enduring value of wealthy and well-connected friends, but also how friendship could cross political and sectarian boundaries. Despite the polarised and often violent atmosphere of politics in this period, friendship and the higher cause of the Royal Society and Republic of Letters still trumped politics.

Broadside image of the Pretender, Prince James, Landing at Peterhead on 2 January 1716. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Broadside image of the Pretender, Prince James, Landing at Peterhead on 2 January 1716. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, aside from simple friendship, cultivating these connections may have represented something of an insurance policy for Sloane, just in case the King over the Waters should ever follow in footsteps of his uncle Charles II and make a triumphant march into London.

[1] Margaret Sankey, Jacobite Prisoners of the 1715 Rebellion: Preventing and Punishing Insurrection in Early Hanoverian Britain, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2005), 27.

 

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Early Modern Friendship

By Alice Marples

We all miss our friends – whether they leave for study, work or holidays, their sudden absence in our daily lives can leave a bit of a gap. Most of us are fortunate enough to expect to see them again, sooner or later. Early modern absences were different, especially if they involved a lengthy journey to the New World. With countries at war, and the dangers of both high-seas and unknown lands, letters could take a very long time to go halfway around the seventeenth-century world. There were any number of possible reasons for miscarriage, some more deadly than others. Letters exchanged across these absences can therefore reveal the ways in which routine gossip and friendly banter were used to mask loss and genuine fear.

Neither the correct country or period – but you get the idea! [By Francisco Aurélio de Figueiredo e Melo (1854–1916) via Wikimedia Commons]

While Hans Sloane was in Jamaica, he frequently wrote letters home to colleagues in the Royal College of Physicians, to his scholarly patrons, and to regular punters in various coffeehouses, telling extraordinary tales of the New World. However, there appears to be a difference in the letters exchanged, depending on whether the correspondents were Sloane’s London-based friends or his far-away friends .

Though the highly-esteemed naturalist, John Ray, was a close and loving friend of Sloane’s for many years, he was almost entirely taken up with his own botanical cataloguing work at the point of Sloane’s imminent departure, and seems to think only in those terms: “If you goe to Jamayca I pray you a safe and prosperous voyage. We expect great things from you, no less than the resolving all our doubts about the names we meet with of Plants in that part of America.” Because he did not regularly see Sloane–however frequently they corresponded or visited one another–Sloane’s absence was, for him, no more an insurmountable issue than usual.

Sloane’s physician colleague, Tancred Robinson, on the other hand, missed him deeply. His first letter, in Robinson’s typical off-hand style, covers anxiety with medical banter, betraying his sincere affection and strong sense of Sloane’s physical distance:

My deare Dr This hopes to find you Safe at St Iago notwithstanding the great reports at London of the Drs dying at Sea, and of his being taken by Pyrates; I sacrificed daily to neptune for your preservation, your friends at Dicks and Bettys were mourning for you, but I conforted them with Cordiall and Alexipharmick draughts, they are all well and are like to continue so if they hear often from you, for without your frequent prescription wee can neither have health or so much as life. (Sloane MS 4036, f. 30)

Sloane, too, seems to have preferred to use his correspondence with his closest friends as a way of maintaining the same relationship they had while in close proximity. For example, much of his correspondence with William Courten contained advice for the elderly man on his health, acknowledging that his concern had grown now that he was no longer close at hand to watch over him. Sloane sought to ease the separation by reminding his old friend that he could anticipate his words and, therefore, not miss him at all:

you know my opinion about severall of your distempers & I am almost confident I am in the right, I hope for my sake you will abstaine as much from excesse in wine as the too good & complaisant humour will suffer you, you cannot doe me a greater favour then to be careful of your own health… I have att all times discoursd soe largely my opinion of the state of your body that I believe you may remember every thing very particularly. (Sloane MS 3962, f. 309)

In a later letter, Sloane longs to be reunited (though not at the expense of Courten’s health, however imaginary!): “you may be sure the last I have already is delightfull to me for this is indeed a new world in all things, I wishd heartily for you to day if you could have been back in your chambers at night, I find this place very warme.” (Sloane MS 3962, f. 310)

By writing in a way that maintained the natural, nuanced tones of the friendships left behind, correspondents remained bound together across vast distances. At home, reading letters aloud could conjure up the image of a person in the space they used to occupy. Robinson, for example, deliberately seeks to provoke an anticipated reaction from Sloane:

Wee are all overjoyed to understand by yours… that you weatherd your voyage so couragiously, and was in such good health under a fiery Sun, and new climate. I read your letter to all your friends at Dicks, Bettys, Trumpet, etc. who return you their best services, and hearty wishes for your welfare. Mr Courtin shewd mee your letters, and we often sacrifice a bottle to you. (Sloane MS 4036, f. 33)

Robinson is here either comforting the famously temperate Sloane with the assurance he and Courten are dutifully following his medical advice… Or teasing him over their defiance in his honour! If the latter, it is highly likely that Sloane would have been equal parts entertained, touched and infuriated by his friends in this instance. You can imagine him rolling his eyes as he closed the letter.

Making Friends in Early Modern England: Sloane and the Willughbys

The narrative usually associated with Sloane’s early career is one of luck, key patrons, and opportunities. It goes something like this… In 1685, aged 25, Sloane finished his medical degree at the University of Orange and moved back to London. Robert Boyle, his friend, helped Sloane to obtain an apprenticeship with the famous Thomas Sydenham. Two years later, Sloane had another wonderful opportunity when he became personal physician to the Duke of Albemarle, the new Governor of Jamaica. He returned to London in 1689, after the Duke died, but had during his stay in Jamaica found a wealthy wife and started an extensive exotic botanical collection. From this point, his career was set.

But Sloane’s correspondence suggests that Sloane worked hard to build up his own social and patronage networks. What often gets left out of the grand narrative of immediate success is that Sloane remained a household physician for four years to the widowed Duchess of Albemarle (who remarried, becoming Duchess of Montagu). A comfortable position, perhaps, but one of dependence. It wasn’t until 1693 that Sloane became an independent man. He began his private medical practice and became second secretary for the Royal Society. He also started a friendship with the Willughby family. In early modern Europe, patronage and friendship were closely related—the word ‘friend’ could refer to either, or both. Sloane’s relationship with the Willughbys reveals his care in cultivating friendships.

The Willughbys were a gentry family known for their naturalist interests. Francis Willughby (d. 1672) had been an active Royal Society member and his children Thomas and Cassandra also took an interest in natural history. Miss Willughby oversaw her brother’s gardens and catalogued her father’s library. They also had a connection with a close friend of Sloane’s, John Ray. Francis Willughby was Ray’s patron, giving him employment as household chaplain and tutor to the children and leaving him a generous annuity to continue his scholarship full time. Making friends with such a family could only help Sloane’s career.

Cassandra Willughby married widower James Brydges, Duke of Chandos in 1713. Sloane advised the Duke, who was involved in the Royal African Company, on botanical matters and slave inoculation. (Chandos family portrait by Kneller, 1713. Source: National Gallery of Canada, Wikimedia Commons. )

Sloane wrote the first letter to Miss Willughby on behalf of the Duke of Montagu in November. Lord Montagu enquired after the family’s health, remembering their ‘greate favours to his sonne the last summer’ (BL Sl. MS 4066, f. 164). In a second letter, this time on his own behalf, Sloane presented two favours (BL Sl. MS 4068, ff. 13-14). He shared the news that he had successfully proposed Thomas Willughby for fellow of the Royal Society and enclosed a recipe for cashew sugar enjoyed by Miss Willughby at Montagu House.

These were offerings to potential friends, but also emphasised Sloane’s scientific connections and sociability. The Royal Society nomination was Sloane’s initiative, ‘Mr Thomas Willughby giving me leave to propose him’. Sloane promised that when Willughby came to London, ‘I will wait on him & carry him thither’, something that further marked Sloane out as a well-connected member of the Royal Society.  Introducing the new Fellow was not just a courtesy, but gave Sloane a chance to show his own extensive network.

The recipe for Miss Willughby was particularly meaningful, suggesting at its most basic that he had attentively noticed her food preferences. Recipe exchange was also a form of social currency. Bonds were strengthened through sharing secret knowledge and assuming future reciprocity. The recipe also featured cashews, an imported, high-status food that casually referenced Sloane’s and Miss Willughby’s shared interest in botany. Sloane would later provide the Willughbys with other favours; his early offer of service to the family established a long-lasting relationship.

Willughby’s family home, Wollaton Hall (Samuel Hieronymous Grimm, 1773). Source: British Library, Wikimedia Commons.

In return, the Willughbys often consulted Sloane on medical matters. The correspondence does not specify other ways in which the Willughbys reciprocated, but there are hints. When Willughby thanked Sloane for his help in finding a house to rent, Willughby complained that he had not been able to come to London and instead hoped that he ‘could tempt [Sloane]’ to visit him in Nottinghamshire soon BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 13). The invitation was a return of Sloane’s help and indicated a genuine interest in seeing a friend.

Sloane also used his position with the family to request favours on behalf of John Ray’s family.  At Ray’s death in 1705, for example, his widow Margaret told Sloane that the family had been left with £40 annually. She appealed to Sloane to ask Willughby for half a year’s salary that would cover the costs from Ray’s illness and funeral. Willughby was indeed ‘very sorry Mr Ray has left his family in so ill a condition’ and given Ray’s reputation and service, was ‘willing to doe what you ask of me if there is reasonable occasion in charity to the widow to doe it’ (BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 24). Willughby provided other support to the family, sending £20 to Sloane for them and discussing a Ray monument (BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 22).

Sloane’s assistance must have been effective. Margaret Ray thanked Sloane in 1706, sending her gratitude to Willughby. In this case, Sloane tapped into his other friendships to help the Rays.  The Willughbys were Ray’s patrons, with Thomas Willughby paying £12 more annually than his father’s will specified (BL Sl. MS 4062, f. 24), but Mrs Ray did not feel able to approach them directly.  Sloane, however, was in a good position to help, being Willughby’s friend and social equal.

When Sloane met the Willughbys, he was at a transitional point in his career. He was starting to be able to use his newfound status to expand his circle of friends and potential sources of patronage. By the early eighteenth century, Sloane had developed extensive scientific, medical and collecting networks through which he could obtain, give and negotiate favours. Sloane’s success was not just a matter of luck and important patrons, but was closely tied to his efforts in building relationships and exchanging favours, just as he’d done with the Willughbys. The idea of winning friends and influencing people as a career strategy is not just a twentieth-century concept…

And Sloane was very, very good at it.

A longer version of this case is discussed in my soon-to-be-out chapter, “Friend and Physician to the Family” in From Books to Bezoars: Sir Hans Sloane and His Collections, eds. M. Hunter, A. Walker and A. MacDonald (University of Chicago Press, 2012).