Plaque in High Petergate YO1 7EN
Thomas Herbert, 1st Baronet Tintern, was born in York in 1606 and, after a career as traveller, courtier and government official, returned in 1665 to a quiet retirement in his native city, where he died in 1682.
Thomas was born into a family of York merchants distantly related to the Herberts, Earls of Pembroke. They seem to have settled in York in the middle of the 16th century. Thomas’s great grandfather, Christopher, and his wife, Elizabeth, bought a house in Markitshire (Pavement) from the Merchant Adventurers Company in 1557. Their son, also Thomas, was baptised at St Crux on 9 April 1554 and became a leading York citizen with close connections to the Merchant Adventurers Company and the holder of several civic offices including Chamberlain in 1582, Sheriff in 1591-2, Alderman in 159? and Lord Mayor in 1604. He died in 1614.
Thomas’s son, another Christopher, was baptised at St Crux on 18 June 1583 and does not seem to have inherited his father’s flair for business. He died intestate in 1625, the sworn balance at probate being under £40. It was into this family that Sir Thomas Herbert was born in 1606, to Christopher and his wife Jane, née Ackroyd, in the house on Pavement which his great grandfather Christopher had bought in 1557. He was baptised across the road at St Crux on 4 November. Although the building we now see on the site is called Herbert House after Christopher it was, in fact, rebuilt around 1620 by John Jaques, a tenant when Thomas Herbert died in 1614 who later bought the property.
There seems to be no information about Sir Thomas’s early life in York but a generous bequest from his grandfather, Thomas (born 1554), enabled him to consider a career in law. The alumni books of both Oxford and Cambridge Universities include him as having entered Jesus College, Oxford in 1621 and then Trinity College, Cambridge where his mother’s brother, Ambrose Ackroyd, was a Fellow, but neither university has records of his time there or of his ever having taken a degree.
Diplomatic mission to Persia
Thomas moved to London where two of his father’s younger brothers, William and James, were in business. They managed to arrange an introduction to their kinsman, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke who, in 1626, obtained a place for Thomas on a diplomatic mission to Shah Abbas of Persia where Sir Dodmore Cotton was to take up his post as ambassador. The party left England on 23 March 1627 sailing via the Cape of Good Hope, Madagasar, Goa and Surat, landing in the Persian Gulf in January 1628. Disaster struck the following July when, visiting various cities in Persia, both Cotton and the expedition’s co-leader, Sir Robert Shirley, died. The rest of the expedition then made a slow return to England, journeying further in Persia before sailing via Ceylon, Mauritius and St Helena. They arrived back in England in late 1629.
Soon after this, Thomas lost his patron when the 3rd Earl of Pembroke died in April 1630. For a short while he then travelled in Europe but was back at court the following year where he met and became friendly with Sir Walter Alexander, a gentleman usher to King Charles I. On 16 April 1632, he married Alexander’s daughter, Lucy, at a church in Knightsbridge. Over the years the couple had four sons and six daughters but only Henry, the eldest son and heir, and three of the daughters were still surviving when Thomas made his will in 167?. Lucy died in 1671 and, within a year, Thomas married Elizabeth, daughter of Gervase Cutler of Stainborough. They had one daughter, also Elizabeth, who died in infancy. On Sir Thomas’s death Elizabeth had a memorial brass with coat of arms and details of his family and career erected in St Crux. This is in the present St Crux Parish Room enclosed in a modern wooden frame.
The 4th Earl of Pembroke, Philip Herbert, who was a courtier and privy councillor, now introduced his kinsman to King Charles I and Thomas was promised a position at court. Whilst he waited for this to materialise, he and Lucy lived with her parents in Westminster and Thomas began the first of several books detailing his travels, the first edition being published in 1634 under the title A relation of some years travaile, begunne Anno 1626, into Afrique and the greater Asia, especially the territories of the Persian Monarchie: and some parts of the Orientall Indies and Iles adjacent. Of their religion, language, habit Discent, Ceremonies and other matters concerning them. It was printed in London by William Stansky and Jacob Bloome. Subsequently three enlarged editions appeared expanding to include details of places he probably had not visited but pretended he had. He also added speculation about Prince Madoc’s possible discovery and colonisation of America, no doubt to please his Welsh patrons.
When the Civil War broke out in 1642, Thomas Herbert followed the 4th Earl, siding with the Parliamentarians. He was appointed commissioner to both Essex’s army and the New Model Army, and was again a commissioner at the surrender of Oxford in May 1646. Thomas then became an attendant to Charles I after the Scots handed him over to Parliament in 1647 and remained with him for two years throughout his captivity. As other former attendants were dismissed by Parliament, Thomas eventually became the only gentleman of the bedchamber remaining with the king until the moment he stepped on to the scaffold. In his memoirs Thomas recalls that the day before he died King Charles gave him a certificate expressing that, ‘Mr Herbert was not imposed upon him but by His Majesty made choice of to attend him in his Bed-Chamber.’
Towards the end of his life, former Royalists persuaded him to write an account of his two years with Charles I, published in 1678 as Threnodia Carolina. He admits that, ‘Some short Notes of Occurrences I then took, which, in this long interval of time, and several Removes with my Family, are either lost or mislaid … which renders this Narrative not so methodical, nor so large, as otherwise I should ….’ (Herbert p.2). As details of the Civil War and trial of the king are very well known, Thomas Herbert’s narrative is probably most revealing now for the “behind the scenes” moments.
Charles I’s execution
On one occasion Thomas had been ordered to wake the king an hour earlier than usual but he overslept, so the king told him to ask the Earl of Pembroke to order him ‘a Gold Alarm-Watch to awake him in future’. This watch was purchased but did not reach the king, although the Earl had given it to a prominent military officer on his way to St James’s Palace to deliver. When told of this, Thomas Herbert quotes the king as saying, ‘Ah! Had he not told the Officer it was for me, it would probably have been delivered; he well knew how short a time I could enjoy it.’ On the last walk they made together through St James’s Park towards Westminster Hall and the scaffold, the king gave Thomas a silver clock ‘and bade him keep it in memory of him’. This Thomas Herbert left in his will to his grandson, George.
Thomas also tells of the tearful farewell visit of two of the king’s younger children, Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Gloucester, and of the night before the execution when the king commanded him to ‘lie by his Bed-side upon a Pallat … that being the last Night his Gracious Sovereign and Master enj’d’. The king thought of this day as being his wedding day to ‘my blessed Jesus’ and wished to have on ‘a Shirt more than ordinary, by reason the season is so sharp as probably may make me shake, which some Observers will imagine proceeds from fear’. Thomas was unable to face the sight ‘of that Violence they upon the scaffold would offer the King’, so was told by Bishop Juxon, Bishop of London, who was to accompany the king on to the scaffold, ‘to wait at the end of the Banquetting-House, near the Scaffold, to take care of the King’s Body’. Subsequently he was also instrumental in making arrangements for the king’s funeral.
Modern historians have begun to doubt the reliability of the Herbert memoirs in the belief that he was trying to overemphasise his loyalty to the monarchy. He was, after all, a Parliamentarian and had a regicide as a son-in-law and was looking back over almost thirty years. However the fact that Charles II created him a baronet at the Restoration must indicate that his devoted service to Charles I was recognised at the time.
Charles’s execution took place on 30 January 1649 and, by the summer of that year, Thomas Herbert, still a loyal Parliamentarian, was in Ireland serving with the Parliamentary army as commissioner. In 1653 he was appointed secretary to the Governing Commission (later Council) for Ireland. During this time, in 1658, his daughter, Elizabeth, married the regicide Colonel Phaire (or Phayre) of Cork whose name appears at the beginning of the king’s death warrant. Thomas returned to London in 1660 to take advantage of the general pardon offered at the Restoration and Charles II created him a baronet in recognition of his services to his father.
After this time Thomas Herbert lived quietly, compiling further editions of his travel books and indulging in antiquarian studies. He is thought to have helped Sir William Dugdale with work on his Monasticon Anglicanum. In 1665, presumably fleeing the plague in London, he bought a house in High Petergate, York (no.11) from Henry Swinburne and lived there until his death on 1 March 1682. He was buried at St Crux.
Two of these travel volumes, the first of 1634 and the third of 1677 are available to view in the Special Collections of York Explore Archives.
Robert H. Skaife, Civic Officials of York and parliamentary representatives (G-R), York Explore Archives
Royal Commission on Historical Monuments of England, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the City of York, Vol. 5, Central (London, 1981)
Ronald H. Fritze, ‘Herbert, Sir Thomas, 1st baronet (1606-1682)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004)
Thomas Herbert, Memoirs of the two last two years of the reign of King Charles I: To which is added a particular account of the funeral of the king, in a letter from Sir Thomas Herbert to Sir William Dugdale (London, 1813, facsimile edition in the British Library, 1815 edition in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
Two of Thomas Herbert’s travel volumes, the first of 1634 and the third of 1677, are available to view in the Special Collections of York Explore Archives.
© Dinah Tyszka