Have you ever met one of those peckerheads who’s almost too pathetic for so robust an insult? The kind of guy who doesn’t want to do bad things, but would be okay with it if bad things happened to people he didn’t like?*
Our Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead for March** is that guy. His name was Henry, Lord Neville, the earl of Westmorland, and he conspired to murder his wife and father. Kind of.
I learned about Henry in this great book called The Sorcerer’s Tale by Alec Ryrie that I bought at the Wellcome Collection bookstore (not where you’d expect to find a book about a sorcerer). I bought it because I’m fascinated by the intersections of magic and science in 16th- and 17th-century England, and this book didn’t disappoint: Ryrie meticulously recreates the life of Gregory Wisdom (yes, that seems to have been his real name), who managed to craft a life as (in unequal parts) con-man, magician, and surgeon in 16th-century London.
Ryrie’s book is about Wisdom, but this blog post is about Henry, Lord Neville. As Ryrie describes it, Lord Henry was easy pickings for a charlatan like Wisdom. He was rich, dumb, greedy, and unhappy in his marriage.
Wisdom was introduced to Lord Henry by one of Henry’s servants, the euphonically named Ninian Menville (who was also a massive peckerhead, but maybe we should leave that for another month).
Wisdom offered to make a magic ring for Lord Henry, a talisman that would help him win at cards and dice. Not that Wisdom was in the habit of making such rings for just anybody, mind you . . . only his “dear friends.” He assured Lord Henry that the ring would net £2000 or £3000 in only a few months, and for this amazing trinket he required only a pension of £20 for life (enough, says Ryrie, to comfortably retire on). Lord Henry took the bait.
The ring didn’t work. Wisdom blamed Lord Henry, accusing him of laying with a woman not his wife, an act that would void the ring of any magic it contained. (This was a pretty astute guess on Wisdom’s part, as Lord Henry was known to have an unhappy marriage and to frequent the brothels as well as the gambling houses.)
You’d think Lord Henry would have nothing more to do with Wisdom, but ignorance and greed are powerful forces. To distract Lord Henry from the ring debacle, Wisdom revealed that another magician of his acquaintance had told him of a vast buried treasure on the Nevilles’ own estate, a cache of gold worth well over £2000. Of course, somebody would have to go retrieve it, and that somebody would need traveling expenses…
Lord Henry was out another £6.
Up till now, Lord Henry had proved to be an idiot, but he wasn’t yet a peckerhead. That was about to change.
After allowing time for Menville to soothe Lord Henry’s ruffled feathers, Wisdom again showed up, this time tempting Lord Henry with a different kind of bait: “My lord, I know you love not your wife” said Wisdom (according to Lord Henry’s own account), “whereby you lead an abominable life in whoredom, which will be your destruction both of body and soul. If your wife were dead, then might you choose one, which you might find in your heart to love, and by that means lead an honest and a godly life. And here I have a book, wherewith I can dispatch her, and not known but that she died of God’s hand.”
Lord Henry wrote that he was shocked—gasp, just shocked!—by Wisdom’s proposal to use magic and spells to murder his wife, but somehow he overcame his revulsion in order to meet Wisdom and Menville again three weeks later. This time, though, they informed him that they had placed a spell on his father as well. This double murder would make Lord Henry not just a bachelor, but a *rich* bachelor.
The spell on the father was a bit of a surprise, it seems, and seems to have caused Lord Henry some guilt–though not enough guilt to do anything about the situation for several weeks. However it came about, Lord Henry had Wisdom captured and claims to have gone, with Menville, to the duke of Suffolk’s house to confess his sins. Unfortunately, claimed Lord Henry, the duke was too ill to see him (a clear fabrication, as the duke, who did get sick later in the year, was perfectly capable of receiving visitors during the time in question).
Oh well. He tried. Shrug.
He let Wisdom go, perhaps finally realizing that he, too, would be implicated in any charge brought against the sorcerer.
Lord Henry’s wife, Anne, lived. The earl lived. Everything went on as normal until a year later, when the story finally broke. Lord Henry was imprisoned, and there was the requisite scandal.
And then, here’s the crazy thing—after a little cooling-off period, Lord Henry was free to go. He went back to his wife and father and resumed his gambling and whoring and all-around-jerkiness. He outlived his wife and lived to assume the earldom from his father.
What gets me about Lord Henry is his bullshit passiveness in the proposed murder of his wife and father. One can imagine him throwing up his hands, feigning helplessness: “Oh well, what could I do? I mean, the spell was already cast! And, I mean, my wife was going to get to go to heaven, after all…”
So, for behavior befitting a peckerhead (albeit a weak, limp, flaccid peckerhead), I nominate Henry, Lord Neville, for March’s Vile-Hearted Renaissance Peckerhead of the Month.
*Kind of like George Costanza from Seinfeld, maybe? I still haven’t recovered from the episode in which George called up Marisa Tomei for a date mere hours after Susan died from licking too many of the wedding invitation envelopes . . . but that’s fodder for an altogether different kind of blog.
**I know, I know, I skipped February. I was too busy celebrating Valentine’s Day and the birthday of my decidedly non-vile-hearted husband.