THE STORY OF THE CAVENDISH FAMILY
"It is strange how much more poetical are the events of history than poetry itself."—Renan.
The Greendale Oak, Welbeck Park.
WHAT a number of remarkable events have taken place in connection with Welbeck! Imagine first, the monastic house rising in the forest at the instance of Thomas de Cuckney, occupying eighteen years in construction; then, when the building is finished, the installation of those pious men, disciples of the noble German who forsook a life of pleasure to establish this religious order at the secluded village of Premontre in the forest of Coucy, to show by the most absolute self-denial and acts of devotion, a worthy example to the world.1
For nearly four hundred years these Premonstratensian monks, with their linen gowns bound at the waist by a leathern girdle, were familiar to the inhabitants as they traversed the forest paths on their way to visit and comfort the sick in the villages, or they would be seen in the fields at harvest time reaping, or the strains of their voices would be heard in the woodland when mass was being said in the chapel. The White Canons of Welbeck were in such good repute that the custody of all the Premonstratensian houses in England was conferred on the abbot of this Monastery.
In 1538, however, Welbeck Abbey shared the fate of other religious houses; the voices of the monks no longer resounded in the chapel; the fraternity was disbanded.
At the time when Thomas de Cuckney was building this abbey there lived a family of note named de Gernon, the descendants of some of whom were destined to play a conspicuous part in the history of Welbeck. Ralph de Gernon, Justice itinerant in the reign of Henry III., was of this family. Another was Geoffrey de Gernon, who in the time of Edward I. was seated at Moor Hall, in the Peak of Derbyshire.
Sir John Cavendish, who was afterwards Chief Justice of the King's Bench, is said to be the grandson of Ralph de Gernon, the Justice itinerant, and to have taken the name of Cavendish on his marriage in 1359, when Sir John de Oddyngesles conveyed by fine to him and to his wife Alice, the Manor of Overhall and Cavendish.2 This John Cavendish, in addition to his other honours, was Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Unfortunately, during a rising of the infuriated peasantry under Jack Straw, in 1381, Sir John, along with the prior of the Abbey of St. Edmonds Bury, was cruelly put to death in the market-place of that town; the mob being especially incensed against the Chief Justice on account of his son, an esquire of the King's body, being the man who killed Wat Tyler in Smithfield. From this son, who bore the same name as his father, was descended Thomas Cavendish, a clerk of the pipe in the Exchequer, who had three sons, George, William, and Thomas, of whom the two first became famous: George, as "the author of one of the most beautiful specimens of unaffected, faithful biography that any language contains;"3 William, as one of the principal agents of Henry VIII. in the suppression of the monasteries and as the founder of the ducal families of Devonshire and Newcastle.
George Cavendish was of Glemsford in Suffolk; he married Margery, daughter of Sir William Kemp, of Spains Hall in Essex, niece of Sir Thomas More. Although, as eldest son, he inherited the manor of Cavendish Overall, he was not so prosperous as his younger brother. Entering the service of Cardinal Wolsey as gentleman usher, he was his faithful attendant, not only through the period of his prosperity, but when the great prelate incurred the King's displeasure, still, for the love he bore him, " failed him not to the last sad end at Leicester Abbey."
Unlike Cromwell and others of Wolsey's followers, George Cavendish did not "find himself a way out of his master's wreck to rise in." After the Cardinal's death Cavendish retired to his estate in the country, with a small gift of money from the King in recognition of his faithful service, and six of his master's horses to carry his furniture. In this quiet retreat, during the reign of Queen Mary, when the old form of religion, which he always favoured, was again in the ascendant, Cavendish, to rescue the name of his friend and master from the obloquy into which, through false reports, it had fallen, composed those affecting memoirs of the master he had served.4
Referring to the Cardinal's rapid advance in state and fortune, Cavendish says: "Here may all men note the chances of fortune, that followeth some whome she intendeth to promote, and to some her favour is clean contrary, though they travaille never so much, with all the painful diligence that they can devise or imagine, whereof for my part I have tasted the experience”5 It is not improbable that this thought arose in the mind of Cavendish from contrasting his own lack of preferment with the rising fortunes of his brother, for when this biography was being written, William Cavendish was in the high tide of prosperity. More than twenty years had elapsed since George, on the death of his master in 1530, retired to Glemsford, a poor man, and in the same year his brother, in his capacity as one of the principal commissioners for the suppression of the religious houses, had before him the prior and convent of Sheen, who surrendered their monastery into his hands. William Cavendish had continued in this office and was being rapidly enriched by receiving numerous grants of abbey lands in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Dorset, and other counties.
In 1539 he was also appointed one of the auditors of the Court of Augmentation, received the honour of knighthood, and about the same time was made a member of the Privy Council. He was then living luxuriously at North Awbrey, near Lincoln, as the inventory of the furniture of his mansion shows, although the only books in the house of this wealthy man, who was at one time believed to be the author of the biography of Wolsey, were " Chaucer, Froyssartes Cronicles; a boke of French and English."6
William Cavendish married, as his third wife, at Brodgate, in Leicestershire, the seat of the Marquess of Dorset," at two of the clock after midnight Elizabeth, daughter of John 'Hardwick of Hardwick, near Mansfield, Esquire: the bride being then in her twenty-seventh year." By this marriage with Sir William, who was much older than herself, there were eight children, Frances, Henry, William, Charles, Elizabeth, Mary, and two who died in infancy.
1 Addy's Beauchief Abbey.
2 Dictionary of National Biography.
3 Joseph Hunter, F.S.A.
4 The Cardinal, when in sore trouble near the end of his career, said of Cavendish: "I lament that I see this gentleman, how faithful, how diligent, and how painful he hath served me, abandoning his own country, wife and children, his home and family, his rest and quietness, only to serve me, and I have nothing to reward him for his high merits."
It is not improbable, owing to Cavendish's life of his master, although it only existed in manuscript until 1641, that Shakespeare was able to estimate so clearly the character of the great churchman :—
"Lofty, and sour, to them that lov'd him not, But to those men that sought him, sweet as summer."
5 The fortunes of this branch of the family must have been on the decline, for in 1558, George Cavendish granted to his eldest son William, for an annual payment of forty marks, the manor of Cavendish Overhall, while afterwards his grandson, also named William, who was a mercer in London, early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, disposed finally of the estate from which the name of the family was derived to William Downes of Sudbury, in Suffolk.
6 This inventory of the furniture at North Awbrey, from which a few items are given, was, when Hunter published Who wrote Cavendish's Wolsey? in the possession of John Wilson, Esq., of Broomhead Hall, near Sheffield. In the "new parler " where the books were kept were also " the picter of our sovreigne lord the Kyng. The pictor of the Frenche Kyng, and another of the Frenche Quene : also two other tables, one with tow anticke boys, and the other of a storye of the Byble." In the " lyttle parler" was "a painted clothe, with the picter of Kyng Harry the VHIth, our sovereygne lord, and Kyng Harry the VIIth, and the VIth, Edward the forthe and Richard the Third."