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Shepherd Earl of Cumberland

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

     It is a generally accepted article of belief that there are few English families around whose members is thrown a brighter halo of romance than the Cliffords, ancient Barons of Skipton, and afterwards Earls of Cumberland. Bold, warlike, and restless, they were also the owners of the broadest lands of any house in the north, save possibly the Percies and the Dacres of Gillesland.
    A greater contrast could not well be seen than that between John, Lord Clifford 'the black-faced Clifford,' as ho was styled for his ferocity-who fell in the battle of Wakefield, nod his son Henry, tenth Lord of the Honor of Skipton. Adversity is one of the best schools for the growth and cultivation of the gentler virtues; and the young noble, being compelled to pass the years of his youth in shade and obscurity, grew up to manhood at all events with a tender and susceptible heart.
     At his father's death, in 1460, he was but six years old; and four years later he had the mortification of seeing the castle, manor, and lordship of Skipton, which had been forfeited by his father's attainder, bestowed first on the Stanleys, and afterwards on Richard Duke of Gloucester, the latter of whom held them till his death on Bosworth Field.
     In the meantime it became necessary to conceal from the ruling, house the son and heir of one who had proved himself so formidable a foe. Banishment and imprisonment, if not death, would certainly have been the fate of the child if he had been discovered; but, fortunately for him, he possessed in his mother's love and care a talisman which saved him from such danger. At the age of seven she clothed him in the habit of a shepherd's boy, and procured for him employment as such in the fields around Londes- borough, where she took up her abode. In this sequestered spot, amid the Yorkshire wolds and hills, entrusted to the care of peasants whose wives had been servants in his father's halls, and therefore were familiar with him from his infancy, he carried out and acted out his destiny; and doubtless, a lord's son though he was, he submitted to his hard lot all the more readily from the conviction instilled into his ear by his excellent mother that the thread of his life hung on his perfect resignation to a state of poverty and obscurity.
     Whilst thus occupied at Londesborough, on reaching his fourteenth year, occurred the death of his mother's father, the Lord Vesey; and this gave rise to an ill-natured report among the hangers-on of the court to the effect that her two sons were alive. Search was therefore made for them; but her answers, dictated by the tenderest instincts of maternity, lulled these rumors to sleep. But she could not have passed a very easy life; for though, on the death of her husband, she had sent the younger one away to the continent (where be died), yet she knew that there were many persons privy to the secret that the shepherd-boy on the hills about Londesborough was her elder son, and the rightful lord of Skipton, and the head of the house of Clifford.
     About this time his mother seems to have married, for her second husband, Sir Lancelot Tbrelkeld, a knight of the county of Cumberland, and a man of high repute and integrity, who was equally anxious with his wife to screen her young son from danger till better days should dawn upon him. They, therefore, finding that there was danger of his eventually becoming known at Londesborough, removed him and some of his youthful playmates to Threlkeld, in Cumberland, on the Scottish border, where he grew up under the watchful eyes of his stepfather's kindred.
     Here, in the lowly disguise of a shepherd, this child of Nature, bred up in forests and in mountain fastnesses, and inured to the privations of a common laborer, passed twenty-five of the best years of his youth and early manhood years which are usually regarded as the best and the fairest of our lives. Yet, though deprived of the honors and luxuries to which the nobility of his house should have entitled him, he was more than compensated by higher and better gifts, for his heart was uncorrupted and his integrity unassailed. He possessed, we are told, a strong, natural understanding and an amiable and contemplative disposition. In one thing only was he unfortunate; for, under the apprehension that any show of learning might lead to the detection of his birth, his education was so entirely neglected that he could neither write nor read; and it was only after his restoration to the honors and possessions of his family that he was taught to write his name. He wanted not, however, the pleasures which health, activity, and conscious innocence could bestow; nor, if what I have now to bring forward be correct, did he want, daring this long period of enforced concealment, those consolations which  spring from the tenderest of all affections--from the interchange of faithful and enduring love.
     There is reason indeed to believe that the exquisitely-pathetic ballad entitled 'The Nutbrown Maid,' printed by Bishop Percy in his 'Relics of Ancient Poetry,' was founded on what really had occurred between this young nobleman and the object of his attachment, during the latter part of his seclusion on the fells of Cumberland. The barony of Westmoreland was the inheritance of Henry, Lord Clifford; of one whom the circumstances of the time made a 'shepherd's boy;' who was obliged to put on various disguises to secure himself from dangers; and who, instead of giving festive treats in the balls and palaces of his ancestors, was forced to seek his own scanty portion in the mountain solitudes and woodland recesses. He then may be truly said to have been (as the ballad represents him) a ‘banished man' and an  ‘outlaw.' For nearly thirty years he was obliged to forego the patrimony of his father, and in that period, if, as I surmise, he was the real hero of, The Nut-brown Maid,' the adventure recorded in the poem took place.
     The 'great lynage' of the lady, and her being a ' baron's child,' agree perfectly with the descent of his first wife, Anne, daughter of Sir John St. John, of Bletsoe. This account of the origin of ' The Nut-brown Maid' carries with it a high degree of probability and verisimilitude. It accords remarkably not only with the style, language, and orthography of the composition-which are those of the period immediately preceding the accession of Henry VII.---but it coincides throughout with the extraordinary circumstances which accompanied the youth and opening manhood of the persecuted nobleman; and in its denouement it points with singular precision to what were in fact his prospects and expectations.
     We may, in short, infer from the closing stanzas of the poem that the interview which it commemorates took place almost immediately after it was known to Lord Henry that the attainder of his house had been reversed, and before any intimation of such a change of fortune could have reached the cars of the object of his affections.
     Interesting as the ballad of ' The Nut-brown Maid' must assuredly be, deemed merely as a work of fiction, yet it becomes incomparably more striking and affecting when it is discovered to have been built on the basis of reality, and a reality, too, of which the circumstances are, at the same time, in a high degree romantic and extraordinary.
     It is highly probable that ibis fine old poem was written very shortly after the scene which it commemorates, and whilst the singularly interesting result of that scene was yet rife amongst the inhabitants of the adjacent district. It may therefore, without deviating perhaps much from the mark, be attributed to the year 1485, when Henry of Lancaster mounted the throne of these kingdoms. But who the minstrel was who has thus, in strains of exquisite feeling, so sweetly sung of female truth and constancy, has hitherto escaped all research. As he was certainly a stranger to Arnold in 1502, we may conclude him to have been some obscure and nameless bard of the north of England---
     ‘Some youth to fortune and to fame unknown,’
but one who evidently possessed not only great knowledge of the human heart, but skill to picture what he knew.
    There is, indeed, so much fidelity to nature in this ballad, in accordance with the situation of the parties, as to afford strong internal evidence of its direct relation to the peculiar circumstances and character of the Henry Lord Clifford who is the subject of the present paper.
     We must recollect that this heir of the Cliffords, though from necessity deprived of the education due to his rank, was yet no stranger to the nobility of his birth-a consciousness which would almost inevitably give to his bearing and carriage a certain degree of self-confidence and elevation. We also know that he frequently, though secretly, enjoyed the society of big mother, Lady Margaret, and of his father-in-law, Sir an intercourse which, to those who had the opportunity of familiarly observing him, would insensibly give a polish to his manners that could not fail to be favorably contrasted with the rudeness and rusticity of those who were his daily companions or attendants. If to these features we add, what danger and the necessity of varied disguise and frequent change of place would certainly bring on, a habit of adventure and romantic expedient, and mingle them with what we know him to possess, an amiable disposition and a tender heart, we shall have before us a character of no common interest, and in a high degree calculated to make an indelible impression on a bosom so susceptible, faithful, and affectionate as that of the 'Nut-brown Maid.'
     The reversal of the fortunes of the House of Lancaster in the person of Henry VII. brought about a change in the fate and fortunes of the ' Shepherd Earl.' Almost immediately on the re-ascendancy of the House of Lancaster a petition for the restitution of the Clifford estates in the counties of Westmoreland and York, together with their rank and honors, was presented in the first year of Henry VII; to which petition the king, in the same parliament, subscribed  ‘Soit fait come est desier.’ The petition, in fact, was granted. Thus, in the thirty-second year of his age, after having led for twenty-five years the life of a shepherd and an outlaw, and latterly either in Cumberland or on the borders of Scotland, was Henry Lord Clifford restored to the wealth and dignities of his forefathers.
     There is reason to conclude that it was in Westmoreland, from the vicinity of that county to the district in which he had usually wandered as a banished man, that he first assumed the honors of his family. The Cliffords, indeed, possessed not less than four estates in Westmoreland, namely, Pendragon, Brough, Appleby, and Brougham; and the last, lying towards the northern boundary of the county, must have been the first mansion on his patrimony which Lord Clifford would reach on his return from exile. It was, in fact, the most magnificent of all the four structures, as its remains yet testify; avid in the great hall, which occupied one of the stories of the massive Norman towers, did the friends and retainers of Lord Clifford assemble to celebrate his restoration. Hither also, there can be little doubt, as she survived the happy event six years, came his mother, Lady Clifford, acid with her, in all probability, the venerable partner of her days, Sir Lancelot Threlkeld.
     The scene of festivity which we may suppose to have taken place on this occasion has furnished to Wordsworth a pleasing opportunity for the exercise of his muse; and the song of exultation which, for this purpose, he has put into the mouth of the family minstrel, is beautifully illustrative of the character and disposition of Lord Clifford, and of some of the incidents which befell him during his sojourn in the wilds of Cumberland.
     It will hereafter be found, however, that this shepherd-lord, though happily void of the ambition and ferocity of some of his ancestors, had not degenerated from the martial spirit of his race; and that, when a proper occasion called for its exertion, he was the first to rally round the standard of his king and country. In the meantime, he was what the preceding lines, in conformity with history and tradition, have represented him-humble, courteous, and kind, fond of retirement, and addicted to contemplative pursuits. Having visited, therefore, his Westmoreland estates, lie passed into Yorkshire; and, on reaching Skipton, in Craven, he fixed upon the neighboring forest of Barden as the place of his retreat. In this romantic tract, which from ancient time had formed part of the honor and fee of Skipton, there were six lodges for the accommodation of the keepers and the protection of the deer; and, in one of these, called Barden Tower, which he greatly improved and enlarged, adding to its other conveniences that of a chapel, did Lord Clifford take up his residence, preferring it to the splendor and parade which almost necessarily awaited him in his larger houses. Here, with the object of his early choice, the beautiful and affectionate daughter of Sir John St. John, the heroine of the ballad of `The Nut-brown Maid,' Lord Clifford found the happiness of which he was in search.
     Though uneducated, and aware of his deficiencies-a consciousness which, at the period of his elevation, had for a time depressed his spirits -lie possessed a vigor of mind and rectitude of principle which prevented him from becoming a prey to vicious or luxurious habits. If, in his shepherd state, no portion of scholastic learning had fallen to ibis share, he had imbibed what may assuredly be considered as some of Heaven's choicest gifts-an enthusiastic love of Nature, a taste for natural history and philosophy, and, above all, a spirit of sincere devotion. With acquisitions such as these, we can no longer be surprised that, despising the vanities of wealth and rank, he preferred the beautiful seclusion of Barden to the pomp and splendor of Skipton or of Brougham Castle, especially when we learn that this retreat was in the immediate vicinity of Bolton Abbey, from an intercourse with the Canons of which place he hoped more effectually to prosecute both his religions and philosophical pursuits. He had, early in life, and whilst yet a shepherd's boy, owing to the total want of instruments fur measuring the lapse of time, become a diligent observer of the heavenly bodies-a practice which had excited in him an ardent thirst for astronomical knowledge. As soon, therefore, as the means were in his power, he purchased the best apparatus which the science of the day could supply; and, converting the tower of Barden into an observatory, he there, in company with some of the Canons of Bolton-who are said to have been well acquainted with the astronomy of their age-spent no inconsiderable portion of his time.
      This, however, was not the only resource in the fields of science to which the 'Shepherd Lord' could apply himself, for it would appear, from the Clifford MSS., which once belonged to the monks of Bolton Abbey, that he joined with some of the reverend brethren of that house in the study of chemistry, and even entered upon the mysterious and visionary search after the ' philosopher's stone.' These pursuits on the part of Henry Clifford almost of necessity threw, around his person, in the minds of the inhabitants of Craven, an air of mystery and awe; and though he was too religious to lead his poorer neighbors to believe that he had any dealings with the black art and unhallowed powers, yet it was whispered at the fire-side of the cottages, and possibly of the convent also, that during his long period of concealment the young lord had been the especial favorite of a good fairy, who watched over his safety, and, in the lines of Wordsworth:


'Who loved the shepherd lord to meet

In his wanderings solitary; wild notes she in his
             bearing sang,

            A song of Nature's hidden powers,

That whistled like the wind, and rang

            Among the rocks and hollow bowers.

'Twos said that she all shapes could wear,

And oftentimes before him stood

Amid the trees of some thick wood

In semblance of a lady fair,

And taught him signs and showed him sights

In Craven's dens, on Cumbria's heights,

When under cloud of fear he lay

A shepherd clad in homely gray,

Nor left him at his later day.

And choice of studious friends had he

Of Bolton's dear fraternity;

Who standing on the old church tower,

 In many a calm propitious hour

Perused with him the starry sky;

Or is their cells with him did pry

For other lore; through strong desire

Searching the earth with chemic fire.'

Yet, from his attachment to the arcana of science, it must not be supposed that Henry Clifford led the life of a hermit. Far from it.  He was charitable and hospitable; and, though in his Yorkshire home at Barden he did not maintain such state as would have been necessary at Brougham or at Skipton, yet we find two tons of wine forwarded to him from Newcastle at his retreat in 1021, when nearly three hundred tenants were admitted on his 'bederoll.' Nor did he neglect from time to time to visit his various castles, keeping his Christmas sometimes in one and sometimes in another-a custom which, owing to the carelessness of his servants, brought on the destruction of his castle of Brough; for it was burnt, if we may believe the topographer Whitaker, ‘after a noble Christmas kept there by Henry, Lord Clifford, the Shepherd, in his latter days.'
     At what time Lord Henry lost his first wife--the 'Nut-brown Maid'--is not known; though he left by her a son. But ten or twelve years before his decease, in 1533, he married a second lady-Florence, daughter of Henry Pudsey, of Bolton, and widow of Sir Thomas Talbot, of Bashall.
     Thus, in the bosom of domestic quiet and studious retirement, he passed the last thirty years of a long life, never traveling out of England, and seldom visiting its court or its capital, save when called to take his seat in Parliament, where he is said to have shown the good sense of an honest and patriotic nobleman, in spite of his want of early education. In the year 1513, however, when on the verge of sixty, he was roused from the peaceful tenor of his home by the sudden call of war, being honored by his sovereign to command a part of the army sent to act against the Scotch in the expedition which found its end on the field of Flodden. The patriotism of the Shepherd Lord was not forgotten in the records of that day's encounter, as is witnessed in the following;

'From Penigent to Pendle Hill,

From Linton to Long Addingham,

And all that Craven coasts did till,

They with the lusty Clifford came ;

All Stainclitfe Hundred went with him

with striplings strong from wharloydale.'

Yore fortunate than his brave ancestor Robert de Clifford, first Lord of Skipton, who perished in the fatal struggle at Bannockburn, Lord Henry lived several years to wear the laurels that he had won at Flodden. He returned home from that field, hoping to enjoy with increased zest the quiet retreats of Barden Forest and Bolton Abbey. But, as is often the case with men of wealth and rank, his station and connections often forced him into scenes which were foreign to his taste, and his peace of mind was sadly broken by the wild and extravagant conduct of his son by his first wife; so that perhaps, ere he was called to his rest, he found that lie had been quite as happy in his shepherd's cot in youth, as he could be as a man in all his castles and manor-houses.
     On April 23rd, 1523, this amiable and virtuous lord paid the debt of nature, having survived the battle of Flodden just ten years. He bad given directions in his will that he should be buried at Shap in Westmoreland, if he died in that part of England, or at Bolton, if he died in Yorkshire; and there is every reason to believe that a vault on the southern side of the choir of Bolton Abbey is the resting-place, not only of many other Lords of Skipton, but also of Henry Clifford, the I Shepherd Lord

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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