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The Buccaneer Earl of Cumberland

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     In one of my previous papers on 'The Cliffords, I mentioned the Earls of Cumberland as a bold, warlike, and restless race. A good and typical specimen of them may be studied in the character of George, the third earl. A few brief particulars of his career and adventures may not, therefore, be unwelcome to my readers, for, in truth, as Southey justly remarks in his 'Naval History of England,' among all the naval adventurers who distinguished themselves during Queen Elizabeth's reign, there was no one who took to the seas so much in the spirit of a northern sea-king as the earl.' And he explains his meaning thus: 'Some of his most noted cotemporaries were sailors by their vocation, some became so incidentally when called upon in the Queen's service, and others pursued that course in the hope of repairing a broken fortune, or else of raising one; but it was this nobleman's mere choice, which he followed to the great injury of his own ample estates, and to the neglect of all his private and domestic duties.'
     This George Clifford, fourteenth Baron Clifford of Westmoreland, and sheriff of that county by inheritance, and in the same descent also thirteenth lord of the honor of Skipton in Craven, Yorkshire, and also Lord Vipont and Baron Vesey, was born in his father's feudal castle of Brougham, near Penrith (in our own times the seat of Lord Brougham) on the 8th of August, 1558. From his father, thirteenth Baron Clifford and second Earl of Cumberland, be inherited a name which had figured with distinction in the wars between the rival houses of York and Lancaster, on account of the fidelity of its holders to the cause of the Red Rose; and, almost in the lifetime of the subject of this paper, Shakespeare added to it a still wider renown than genealogists and chroniclers could confer upon it. To this family also belonged, the Fair Rosamond,' whose name is so mixed up with the royal palace at Woodstock and the abbey of Oseney near Oxford; to say nothing of the ' Shepherd Lord,' whose story lives enshrined in undying verse, and about whom I have said my say. 
     Even when he was a boy, George Clifford seems to have been the object of the ambitious hopes and schemes of his father, who treated for his future marriage with a daughter of Francis, second Earl of Bedford. But the father's early death broke off the negotiation for a time. He was sent as a youth to Battle Abbey, in order to be trained in the ways and manners of a I scholar and a gentleman;' and, doubtless with the same view, he was sent both to Oxford and Cambridge to complete his education. This, however, was cut short by the Earl of Bedford, who, obtaining a grant of him in wardship from the Queen, married him to his own daughter, to whom his father had betrothed him in infancy. The marriage ceremony was performed at the church of St. Mary Overy, in Southwark, the fair bride being two years older than her youthful spouse.
     As a young man he appears to have spent his time in jousts and tournaments, and to have so excelled in tilting that lie was frequently employed by the ' Virgin Queen' as her champion. In this way he spent a good deal of his large patrimony; and it is probable that the Queen added little or nothing to it when she made him a Knight of the Garter, and appointed him one of the peers who sat in judgment on the unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots. In the course of his education it would seem that he showed a taste for mathematical studies, which are said not only to have inclined him to, but to have fitted him for, maritime employment.
     His first adventure afloat was destined for the South Seas; but he did not embark on this expedition in person, having fitted out at his own cost a small flotilla of vessels, which he dispatched under the command of one Robert Withrington, who, after having committed much havoc upon the coast of Brazil, returned home returned home with apparently very little gain. The earl in the following year (1587) set sail for Slut's, in hopes of assisting Roger Williams in the defense of that town against the Duke of Parma; but it
had surrendered before his arrival. He next took part in the defeat of the Armada, on board the Bonaventure; and the Queen was so satisfied with his behavior on the occasion that she gave him a commission to proceed the same year to the Spanish coast as general. One of the royal ships, the Golden Lion, was placed at his disposal for this expedition; but the earl, nevertheless, victualled and furnished it at his own cost.
     Although he met with little or no success in this expedition, better luck was in store for him; for he shortly afterwards set sail again in one of
the ships of the royal navy, called the Victory, and soon succeeded in capturing two French ships, which, belonging to the party of the League, were deemed fair prizes. The earl was not very scrupulous on such occasions, at all events so says the narrative. He afterwards fell in with eleven ships from Hamburg and the Baltic; after a few shots, they sent their masters on board, slowing their passports. These were
respected for themselves, but not for some property belonging to a Jew of Lisbon, which they confessed was on board, and which was valued at 4,500. This, it is needless to say, the earl 'appropriated.'
     Altogether the earl performed nine voyages by sea in his own person, and on his own account, most of them to the West Indies, 'with great honor to himself and service to his Queen and his country.' In 1589 he gained the strong town of Fayal, one of the most important of the Azores; and in his last voyage, in 1598, he succeeded in capturing the strong fort of Puerto Rico, a Spanish city which is described at that time as ' less in circuit than Oxford, but very much bigger than all Portsmouth within the fortifications, and in sight much fairer:'
No other subject,' writes Southey, 'ever undertook so many expeditions at his own cost;' and honest Fuller styles him `the best-born Englishman that ever hazarded himself in that kind.' He adds, in his own quaint style, that the earl's fleets 'were bound for no other harbor the port of Profit in passage thereunto.' But, though he obtained great credit for true honor and valor, yet there were some harsher ingredients in his character; and so, when the earl added to his paternal coat-of-arms ' three murdering chain-shots,' there were those who remarked that the 'canting' heraldry was never leas misplaced.
     It appears, however, that, in spite of all the money which he cleared by his buccaneering, he lost such large sums in the tilt-yard and in horse-racing as even to embarrass his splendid patrimony in the north, and to lead him to sell many of his broad acres; at all events, be is said in the 'History of Westmoreland ' to have consumed more than any of his ancestors.
     When King James travelled southward from Scotland to take possession of his new kingdom, the earl attended him in his progress at York with such an equipage of followers and retainers that he seemed to be rather a king than only Earl of Cumberland. Whilst he was at York, there arose a contest between him and the Lord President of the Northern lurches as to which should carry the sword of state before the king, and upon due inquiry the honor was held to devolve upon the earl.
He died not very long afterwards, in the forty-eighth year of his age, in the Duchy House in the Savoy, London, and was buried at Skipton. The amour which he wore may still be seen in the castle of Appleby, in his native county. His two sons having died before him, he left an only daughter, to whom he bequeathed a fortune of 15,000, entailing his estates upon his brother, whom he probably thought better able in those days to hold them fast than a woman, however strong-minded she might be. And 'strong- minded' indeed she proved, for she contested this disposition of her father's property for years, but unsuccessfully; though, as a matter of fact, upon her uncle's death they reverted to her. , She was one of the most high minded and remarkable women of her age,' writes Southey, I and seems to have been the last person in England by whom the old baronial dignity of the feudal times was supported ; and in this instance all the good connected with that age was manifested without any of the evil. . . She had the honor of erecting Spenser's monument:
     Dr. Whitaker, in his 'History of Craven,' observes that George, Earl of Cumberland, was a great but unamiable man. 'His story,' he continues, 'admirably illustrates the difference between greatness and contentment, between fame and virtue. If we trace him in the public history of his times, we see nothing but the accomplished courtier, the skilful navigator, the intrepid commander, the disinterested patriot. If we follow him into his family, we are instantly struck with the indifferent and unfaithful husband, the negligent and thoughtless parent. If we enter his muniment room we are surrounded by memorials of prodigality and debt, mortgages and sales, inquietude and approaching want. By the grant of the Norton's broad acres he set out with a larger estate than any of his ancestors; in little more than twenty years he made it one of the least. Fortunately for his family, a constitution originally vigorous gave way, at forty-seven, to hardships, anxiety, wounds, and probably licentiousness. His separation from his virtuous lady was occasioned by a Court intrigue; and there are families in Craven who are said to derive their origin from the low amours of the third Earl of Cumberland.'
     Whatever may have been the earl's moral character during his lifetime, it seems, at all events, to have been 'whitewashed' after his death by his daughter, the Lady Anne Clifford, Countess of Pembroke, to whom is attributed the writing of the long inscription on the celebrated portrait of the earl in Skipton Castle. This inscription, after setting forth a biographical account of the earl, and a short narrative of his adventures and death, concludes as follows: This earl George was a man of many natural perfections, of a great wit and judgment, of a strong body and full of agility, of a noble mind, and not subject to pride or arrogance, a man generally beloved in this kingdom. He died of the bloody flux, caused, as was supposed, by the many wounds and distempers he received formerly in his sea voyages. He died penitently, willingly, and Christianly. His only daughter Countess her mother, were both present with him at his death.'
     Fuller makes a casual remark that, 'while Clifford's tower is standing in York, that family will never be forgotten therein: And there is, happily, no reason to believe that the tower is destined soon to fall. Mr. R. Davies, F.S.A., in his 'Walks through the City of York,' lately published, speaks of it as an object of pride with his fellow-citizens, as being `the moat graceful and picturesque of all the remains of mediaeval architecture that our ancient city can boast: It is true that it bas had some narrow escapes from destruction; for on St. George's Day, 1684, its interior was consumed by fire; and earlier yet, in 1596, its demolition for the purpose of quarrying its atones was averted only by a remonstrance from the Lord Mayor and aldermen of the city; and again, only about a quarter- ago, it was feared that it would have to be removed in order to enlarge the county prison! It was probably first built, not as stated by Drake and other writers, by William the Conqueror, but in the reign of King John, or else early in that of Henry III.
     It is to be feared, however, that the name of the Clifford family is now more likely to be remembered in the south than in the north of England; for their northern estates have mostly passed into the hands of the Cavendishes, the Tuftons, and the Lowthers; whilst the real head of the house of Clifford-Lord Clifford of Chudleigh-lives in quiet retirement in the neighbourhood of Exeter. 

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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