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Charles Waterton's Life and Family

Charles Waterton's Autobiography
From Essays on Natural History.



I think I have seen it in book, but I forget which just now, that, when we read a work, we generally have a wish to see the author's portrait, or, at least, to know something of him.
Under this impression, I conceive that a short account of myself will not be wholly uninteresting to the reader; who, it is to be hoped, will acquit me of egotism, as I declare, in all truth, that I write these Memoirs with no other object in view, than that of amusing him.
I was at Walton Hall, near Wakefield, in the county of York, some five and fifty years ago; this tells me that I am no chicken; but, were I asked how I feel with regard to the approaches of old age, I should quote Dryden's translation of the description which the Roman poet has given us of Charon:-

"He seem'd in years, yet in his years were seen
A vernal vigour and autumnal green."

In fact, I feel as though I were not more than thirty years old. I am quite free from all rheumatic pains; and am so supple in the joints, that I can climb a tree with the utmost facility. I stand six feet high, all but half an inch. On looking at myself in the glass, I can see at once that my face is any thing but comely: continual exposure to the sun, and to the rains of the tropics, has furrowed it in places, and given it a tint, which neither Rowland's Kalydor, nor all the cosmetics on Belinda's toilette, would ever be able to remove. My hair, which I wear very short, was once of a shade betwixt brown and black: it has now the appearance as though it had passed the night exposed to a November hoarfrost. I cannot boast of any great strength of arm; but my legs, probably by much walking, and by frequently ascending trees, havehave acquired vasy muscular power: so that, on taking a view of me from top to toe, you would say that the upper part of Tithonus has beenplaced upon the lower part of Ajax. Or to speak zoologically, were I exhibited for show at a horse fair, some learned jockey would exclaim, he is half Rosinante, half Bucephalus.

I have preferred to give this short description of myself by the pen, rather than to have a drawing taken by the pencil, as I have a great repugnance to sit to an artist; although I once did sit to the late Mr. Peale of Philadelphia, and he kept my portrait for his museum. Moreover, by giving this description of myself, it will prevent all chance in future, of the nondescript's portrait in the Wanderings being taken for my own. (A late worthy baronetin the North Riding of Yorkshire, having taken up the Wanderings, and examined the representation of the nondescript with minute attention, "Dear me!" said he, as he showed the engraving to his surrounding company, "what a very extraordinary looking man Mr. Waterton must be!"

The poet tells us, that the good qualities of man and of cattle descend to their offspring. 'Fortes creantur fortibus et bonis.' If this holds good, I ought to be pretty well off, as far as breeding goes; for on the father's side, I come in a direct line from Sir Thomas More through my grandmother; whilst by the mother's side I am akin to the Bedingfields of Oxburgh, to the Charltons of Hazelside, and to the Swinburnes of Capheaton. My family has been at Walton Hall for some centuries. It emigrated into Yorkshire from Waterton in the island of Axeholme in Lincolnshire, where it had been for a very long time. Indeed, I dare say I could trace it up to Father Adam, if my progenitors had only been as careful in preserving family records as the Arabs are in recording the pegigree of their horses; for I do most firmly believe that we are all descended from Adam and his wife Eve, notwithstanding what certain self-sufficient philosophers may have advanced to the contrary. Old Matt Prior had probably an opportunity of laying his hands on family papers of the same purport as those which I have not been able to find; for he positively informs us that Adam and Eve were his ancestors:-

'Gentlemen, here, by your leave,
Lie the bones of Matthew Prior,
A son of Adam and Eve:
Can Bourbon or Nassau go higher?'
(Matthew Prior, poet, 21 July 1664 - 18 September 1721)

Depend upon it, the man under Afric's burning zone, and he from the frozen regions of the North, have both come from the same stem. Their difference in colour and in feature may be traced to this: viz., that the first has had too much, and the second too little sun.

In remote times, some of my ancestors were sufficiently notorious to have had their names handed down to posterity. They fought at Cressy, and at Agincourt, and at Marston Moor. Sir Robert Waterton was Governor of Pontefract Castle, and had charge of King Richard II. Sir Hugh Waterton was executor to his Sovereign's will, and guardian to his daughters. Another ancestor was sent into France by the King, with orders to contract a royal marriage. He was allowed thirteen shillings a day for his trouble and travelling expenses. Another was Lord Chancellor of England, and prefrred to lose his head rather than sacrifice his conscience. Another was Master of the Horse, and was deprived both of his commission and his estate (Methley Park) on the same account as the former. His descendants seemed determined to perpetuate their claim to the soil; for they sent a bailiff once in every seven years to dig up a sod on the territory. I was the first to discontinue this septennial act, seeing law and length of time against us.

Up to the reign of Henry VIII, things had gone on swimmingly for the Watertons; and it does not appear that any of them had ever been in disgrace:

- 'Neque in his quisquam damnatus et exsul.'

But during the sway of that ferocious brute, there was a sad reverse of fortune:-

'Ex illo fluere, ac retro sublapsa referri,
Spes Danaum.'

'From thence the tide of fortune left their shore,
And ebbed much faster than it flowed before.'

Click me to enlarge.. The cause of our disasters was briefly this: - The king fell scandously in love with a buxom lass, and he wished to make her his lawful wife, notwithstanding that his most virtuous quueen was still alive. Having applied to the head of the Church for a divorce, his request was not complied with; although Martin Luther, the apostate friar and creed-reformer, had allowed the Margrave of Hesse to have two wives at one and the same time. Upon this refusal, our royal goat became exceedingly mischievous: 'Audax omnia perpeti ruit per vetitum nefas.' Having caused himself to be made head of the church, he suppressed all the monasteries, and squandered their revenues amongst gamesters, harlots, mountebanks, and apostates. The poor, by his villanies, were reduced to great misery, and they took to evil ways in order to keep body and soul together. During this merciless reign, seventy-two thousand of them were hanged for thieving.

In good* Queen Mary's days there was a short tide of flood in our favour; and Thomas Waterton of Walton Hall was High Sheriff of York. This was the last public commission held by our family.

(*Camden, the Protestant historian, says that Queen Mary was a princess never to be sufficiently commended of all men for pious and religious demeanor, her commiseration towards the poor, &c.)
[Read more about Mary Tudor - Mary I 'Bloody Mary']

The succeeding reigns brought every species of reproach and indignity upon us. we were declared totally incapable of serving our country; we were held up to scorn of a deluded multitude, as damnable idolaters; and we were unceremoniously ousted out of our tenements: our only crime being a conscientious adherence to the creed of our ancestors, professed by England for nine long centuries before the Reformation.
Charles Waterton

Read more in Autobiography of Charles Waterton, Esq.
Essays on Natural History, Chiefly Ornithology
by Charles Waterton, Esq., Walton Hall, Dec. 2, 1837, and in various other editions.

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