Over the past week my travels through history have deposited me on my own doorstep, so to speak, but isn’t that always the way? I’ve traveled through ancient Crete, Greece, Troy, Egypt, and Rome and have somehow found myself in Beaconsfield, a small city just west of London. What a week of travel it’s been. The sites I’ve seen and the people I’ve met! Some of these personages include King Agamemnon, a Minoan potter, Cleopatra, and nearly all of the Augustinian Cæsars. My private worm hole has raced me from the 14th century (B.C.E.) through the 1st century (C.E.); how I landed on the door step of Sir Edmund Waller in the mid-17th century I cannot say, but it was a good place to stop to share a rejuvenating cup of tea with my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-uncle (give or take a great or two), who happily shed some light on his life and times.
“Tea does our fancy aid,
Repress those vapours which the head invade,
And keeps that palace of the soul serene.”
And Uncle Edmund (his close friends call him Ned, but I dared not) serves up a cracking cuppa. Although he has the reputation of being frugal with himself and his family, I detected none of that in him. In fact, when I was brought into his library he was signing a sizable bank draft to an undisclosed friend. He was deliberate in his movement as well as his words, but never at a loss for a meaningful insight or a witty rejoinder. On a narrow wall between bookcases there hung a portrait of himself when he was only 25, a young man with a quick mind and a pleasant but serious face with beautiful clear blue eyes. Of course, at our meeting he was probably close to 80 and had only a couple more years to live, but I saw no evidence of dulling in any of these features. Perhaps he was less mercurial, but until I visit him at a younger age I can’t really judge.
If Uncle Edmund spoke truthfully (I later checked with Dr. Samuel Johnson, who corroborated every point so I have no need to doubt him), he was first elected as MP (Member of Parliament) when he was just 18, for Ilchester. Throughout his life he sat as MP for Chipping Wycombe, Amersham, St. Ives, and Hastings. But lest I might think his life was nothing but a series of parliamentary sessions full of men in wigs taking the piss out of each other, he also told me of his exploits during the tenuous and volatile reign of Charles I and the English Civil War. It was with no small pensiveness on his part that he recounted the day he and two of his fellows were arrested by Parliament for a scheme they conceived in favor of the king. This became known as Waller’s Plot, for which he escaped the execution his co-conspirators suffered because, he said, “I was very well-liked by Parliament.” Dr. Johnson told me a slightly different view of this, saying that my uncle was “a wealthy man and confessed whatever he had said, heard, thought, or seen, and all that he knew or suspected of others.” When called before the bar he was sentenced to the Tower of London, but, on paying a fine of £10,000, he was released and then banished from the realm. My uncle chose to live in France, where he hosted lavish dinner parties for his fellow royalists. Two years later, at the end of the Civil War, Uncle Edmund’s banishment was revoked and he returned home. Ten years later he was once again elected to Parliament and was quick to boast the words of Burnet, “He was the delight of the House, and though old said the liveliest things of any among them.”
Of course, through all of this political turmoil, Uncle Edmund continued to pursue his real love, poetry, and in his lifetime he published many editions of his work that are still on the shelves today. When I told him of this, and that he is more famous for his poetry than for his politics, he was quite pleased but didn’t seem to be surprised. He always was known for being more than a little vain where his work was concerned.
Throughout his life Edmund Waller fathered 15 children (and built Hall Barn in Beaconsfield in which to house them all), entertained both Charles I and Charles II (both of whom it is said enjoyed laughing at his witty quips), and died in the bosom of his large, happy family when he was 82.
A good, long, healthy, and colorful life, indeed!