Paradise of the Earls of Pembroke:
Beginning in the sixteenth century in England and for three generations, the Earls of Pembroke created their best approximation of earthly beauty and joy.  (Adam Nicolson, Earls of Paradise, Harper Press, London 2008)  It was a project filled with ironies and contradictions.  The man who initiated the work was William Herbert First Earl of Pembroke with a lot of other titles besides.  He was a determined man of action.  It is hard to know quite where to start the tale of the Herberts.  One dramatic place would be on the field of Agincourt.  Henry V had been unhorsed.  William ap Thomas, who had brought a force of Welsh archers to the war, and Davy Gam, who commanded the archers, bestrode the fallen king back to back and hacked away at the eager French would be regicides until the archers could come over and get the situation under control.  It was an event in which William Herbert would have felt right at home.  Family fortunes rose and fell until one day in Wales this descendent of William ap Thomas got embroiled in a gang fight in Bristol and killed somebody.  That is also a good place to start the story.

After the fight, William vanished for some years and then showed up at the royal court near London.  He married one Ann Parr, who was sister to Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife.  Powerful people plotted against Katherine, and it looked like she might go the way other wives had gone but then a letter “fell from the sleeve” of one of the conspirators and was brought to Katherine.  She informed the king and threw herself on his mercy.  By second “funny coincidence” the two were walking elbow to elbow when they met a different conspirator approaching with armed men to denounce her.  It didn’t go well for the conspiracy.  I smell a counter plot.  Things certainly went well for William Herbert.  He became the riches man in all Britain and became the Earl of Pembroke.  It was not completely a whim of the king.  Herberts had been Earls of Pembroke before. 

So there is the picture of the man, fierce, shrewd, violent and spectacularly successful in an era when success was not highly regarded.

The most remarkable thing he did with his resources was to transform the 50,000 acres he was given at Wilton into a rural paradise.  This was a remarkable act.  Men of power gravitate toward centers of power.  This one did just the opposite.  It was hugely popular.  The circle of friends included people like William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Ben Johnson and Phillip Sidney.  Supporting artists had long been a family interest.  The glamour of Wilton was so seductive that later King Charles would become an admirer. 

Politically, the move seemed to be a counter to the Renaissance phenomenon in which absolute power was vested in a king.  Previously the noble families had enjoyed considerable independence.  In terms of religion, it tended to support Protestants, although William Herbert had proved himself adaptable in this matter, remarking once that his was the strength of the supple willow, not the unyielding oak.  (I think he had the wrong tree.  Willow may have applied to advice he did or did not give to his sister-in-law.  I would have said the strength of the yew, the traditional material for the longbow.)  In terms of intellectual life, it included some of the best.  In terms of architecture and parks and gardens, Wilton was among the best and perhaps the best. 

In terms of aesthetics, it was right up with the times.  In the Middle Ages, earthly life was thought to be hard, and it was.  In the Renaissance, the classics were rediscovered and earthly life was thought to be potentially good, even though it was probably just as hard for most people.  William was trying to preserve the ancient rural life, but he was brutal in crushing a protest by some who had been forced off their land. 

Had any of those earls said aloud, “You know, the really great thing about the countryside is that they make babies here.  They don’t in town,” it would surely have been recorded and should have come down to us.  It is as if they smelled it but couldn’t see it.  Shakespeare in his sonnets, dedicated to William, made much of the importance of children.  Herberts tended to be a fecund lot themselves. 

The enormous wealth and talent swirling about Wilton tends to distract one from the fact that this rural bliss was all about the peasants.  They called this vision Arcadia, after the Greek ideal.  Arcadia was the home of happy peasants.  One of the Greek pastoral poems describes a contest between a shepherd and a goatherd, to see who can sing the most sweetly.  The contest is set outside by a stream with witnesses presumed present.  If the goatherd wins he is to get a sheep, and if the shepherd wins, he gets an animal from the goatherds flock.  The two musicians go back and forth and the goatherd is definitely winning until the shepherd sings that the sweetest thing of all is the sexual relationship that he and the goatherd share.  The scandalized goatherd denies it vehemently, whereupon the shepherd acknowledges that he is lying, but points out that the goatherd is not being very sweet, concluding, “I got your goat.” 

You get the tone.  It is all sweetness and light and good humor, and it showcases the peasants.  Classical Arcadia focused on the raising of sheep, and there were certainly sheep in the part of England around Wilton House. 

Arcadia was known to be a healthy place.  In 1637 and 1638 Nicolas Poussin painted a version of his “Shepherds of Arcadia.”  Well developed and well nourished shepherds are examining a tomb with the inscription, “Et in Arcadia, ego.”  As if to say, “I, death, am here in Arcadia, too.”  It was a memento mori piece, one of a host of rather morbid broodings on death that have cluttered art.  The inscription would not have carried force unless it was rather against expectation. 

The healthy, happy peasants.  Had any of the geniuses in orbit around the Earls of Pembroke guessed what that really meant, then Herbert wealth, power, prestige, cunning, audacity and energy would have remade our understanding of community and ensured our biological survival.  So this time no one can blame the people of power for having hidden the truth.  They just didn’t have the truth.  But they sensed it.

There is another sad irony to the scene.  Shepherds mean sheep.  Sheep produce wool.  Wool needed to be spun and woven.  If the Earl of Pembroke could force people off their land, then others could.  They could raise more sheep.  And the part of England around Wilton became the first home of the Industrial Revolution beginning with wool.  But that is a story for another day.

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