04 March 2011

Doctor Lambe, the Duke's Devil

"[Doctor] Lambe Stinkes worse than Mackerall or Haddocke," 
wrote one master of Jacobean light verse.  

I present to satisfy your curiosity, dear readers, the tale of the seventeenth-century astrologer-magician-physician John Lambe, a self-styled "Doctor" who numbered among his clients the most powerful man in England, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, favorite of Stuart kings James I and Charles I.  

Born around 1545, little is known of Lambe's life before he came to London to ply his trade as conjurer-at-large.  He seems to have been a tutor to gentlemen's sons in Worcestershire, afterwards studying medicine.  But, as young medical students are wont to do, Lambe soon fell prey to "other mysteries, as telling of fortunes, helping of divers to lost goods, shewing to young people the faces of their husbands or wives that should be in a crystal glass."

Lambe was arrested in 1608 in Worcestershire for practicing his new profession, charged with disabling the physical and mental strength of and "generalley givving bad Vybes" to Thomas, Lord Windsor, and accused of invoking and entertaining "certain evil and impious spirits."  While being held, he proved to several visitors that he could cause apparitions to proceed from his crystal ball. He also prophesied death with fatal success, with some forty people that had been present in court dying within two weeks of the trial (probably just an outbreak of gaol fever, now called typhus :( ).  

Worcesterites successfully, and understandably, lobbied for Lambe's transfer to London's King's Bench prison, where he lived there in easy confinement, occupying two rooms, employing servants, and practicing "medicine" as before.  Indeed, in his heyday as a physician in London, Lambe claimed he could conjure spirits, find missing items with his crystal ball, treat maladies, exorcise witchcraft, and "do dirtey Deedes" cheaply.  

One of his client-visitors at the prison was Buckingham, always on the lookout for an easy anecdote when his fortunes waned at the Royal court. On June 12, 1626, London was hit by an unexpected storm, after which a mist hung over the River Thames near York House, Buckingham's residence. The superstitious, and Buckingham-haters, discerned ominous shapes in the fog, including a skull, a horse, and a giant lace collar. Lambe had appeared on the river earlier in the day, and many attributed these fearful meteorological disturbances to his conjuring. Buckingham's mother, though to be practitioner of the "cunning arts" herself, said she saw in Lambe's crystal ball the shadowy figure of a large man holding a dagger, poised to kill her son.  Needless to say, things didn't look good for either of our boys.  

John Lambe's patron, the Duke of Buckingham, who reputedly had his astrologer summon angels, naked children, and Greek sea gods for his enjoyment.  

Because of his perceived control of Buckingham, Lambe was slandered widely, in alehouses and in print. Broadsheets of the day called him things like the "Foole Lambe, that lewde Impostar," and Lambe was known widely as "the Duke's Devil."  A popular chant (and lullaby) went thus: "Who rules the Kingdom? The King. Who rules the King? The Duke. Who rules the Duke? The Devil!"

Public opinion against Lambe and the Duke became so negative that, by 1628, the octogenarian feared for his life.  Curiously enough, Lambe began his last evening, Friday the 13th (!) of June, attending an entertainment at an open-air theater called the Fortune (!) playhouse. There, he noticed a gang of "never-do-weles" and young punks making threats on his life and giving him the stink-eye.  The angry crowd followed him to dinner at a tavern, despite the sailor-bodyguards he had hired for the evening. He ducked into the Windmill Tavern, then hid a friend's house nearby. His naysayers surrounded both hideouts, demanding with thrown stones that Lambe be released to them. Eventually, kicked out onto the street, the crowd had their way with the old conjurer, assaulting him with stones and beating him with cudgels until no part of his body "was left to receive a wound," according to one witness.  Lambe was carried to the nearby Counter prison, where, despite desperate attempts at magical intervention, he died the next morning.  

Constables failed to locate any of the murderous mob, and no one was ever punished for Lambe's death. Many alleged this slight of justice, and law enforcement's failure to prevent the crowd setting upon the hated physician, was intentional. London mobs chanted, "Let [King] Charles and George [the Duke] do what they can, the Duke shall die like Doctor Lambe!" Lambe's patron was assassinated less than two months later by one of his former officers while dining in a Bristol tavern on the eve of his military expedition to France.  

A woodcut from the front of the broadside ballad The Tragedy of Doctor Lambe (1628). I'm guessing that's an evil demon, incubus, spirit, succubus, or the like conjured by Lambe on the lower-right.  

From the back of the same.  Apparently, Lambe was a Catholic monk who liked hiding under tables.

Crowds came (and paid) to see Lambe's body at the Counter prison. It was reported that Lambe had a strange assortment of items on his person when he died, as befitting an astrologer-physician. These everyday needs included a sword, knives, a crystal ball, a gold nightcap, twelve silk pouches, forty shillings, and eight small engraved portraits, including that of the Countess of Somerset, a favorite at court, an alleged witch and pardoned murderess.  

England was flooded with printed satiric commemorations, anti-tributes, and scandal-rags in prose and verse after Lambe's murder, remaining as popular a topic for discussion in death as he was in life. One balladeer, in The Tragedy of Doctor Lambe (1628), wrote of Lambe's death:

"Neighbours cease to moan,
And leave your lamentation,
For Doctor Lambe is gone,
The Devil of our Nation."

Another eulogized, in An Epitaph on Dr Lambe:

"Here Dr Lambe, the conjurer lyes,
Against his will untimely dies.
The Divell did show himselfe a Glutton
In taking this Lambe before he was mutton."

*     *     *
So, readers fair, here endeth our tale of the notorious life and ignominious death of Doctor John Lambe, infamous conjurer, passable early modern physician, and the face that launched a thousand hackneyed broadsides.  Until next time, the Cabinet is closed!  

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