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«Progress amidst the pitfalls? Perception, deception and reception in the writing of an early modern biography Thomas Byrne (National University of ...»

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eSharp Historical Perspectives

Progress amidst the pitfalls? Perception,

deception and reception in the writing of

an early modern biography

Thomas Byrne (National University of Ireland, Maynooth)

Some 327 years ago Nathaniel Hooke left Ireland and enrolled in

Glasgow University. We know this because in later documents he

referred to an acquaintance whom he says he first encountered while

both were students in Glasgow in 1679. On further scrutiny however, can we be satisfied that we do indeed know this? The records of the University itself reveal no mention of a Nathaniel Hooke having studied there in 1679 or 1680. Without such supporting evidence how much confidence should we place in what Hooke later recalls many years after the events in question? Perhaps even with the best of intentions his memory, a tricky mechanism at the best of times, was faulty, but beyond this and more importantly, as we shall see later, there is good reason to consider the claims Hooke makes about his early life very carefully indeed.

The question of whether Nathaniel Hooke did or did not study in Glasgow was only one of a number of questions relating to issues such as the accuracy, completeness, reliability, interpretation and biases of sources which arose during the research and writing of

my doctoral thesis, entitled From Irish whig rebel to Bourbon diplomat:

the life and career of Nathaniel Hooke (1664-1738). These problems fall into three general categories: those attributable to Nathaniel Hooke himself, those arising from later authors and those created by the vicissitudes of history itself.

eSharp Historical Perspectives Originally in the thesis I set out to explore the life and career

of Nathaniel Hooke who was described in 1685 as:

A tall personable Irishman, who speaks good English, somewhat brownish [...], slender, his face somewhat ruddy, at least sometimes, with a long duskish periwig hanging commonly behind his shoulders, [...] somewhat of the smallpox in his face, his visage long [and] his garb and gate a little too antick. (British Library Ms Add.

41817, f. 199) In 1718 he was described as ‘certainly as cunning and as designing a fellow as any in Europe (Historical Manuscripts Commission 1916, VI p.550). He was born in 1664 at Corballis House in Co. Dublin (Bodleian Library, Carte Ms 154, f. 78v). He was the third son of John and Margaret Hooke. John Hooke was a nonconformist clergyman since his ejection from the Anglican Church of Ireland in

1662. Margaret Hooke (née Hooke) was English by birth (ed. Macray 1870 I, p.ix). Nathaniel’s grandfather, Thomas Hooke (c.

1590-1670), was a merchant who had strong links with the Cromwellian regime in the 1650s, being elected mayor of Dublin in 1654 (Gilbert 1889-1922 IV, p.61).

Tracing the origin of the Hooke family in Ireland is problematic. Much of what exists relating to the Hookes’ migration to Ireland is based on circumstantial evidence. However, direct testimony from Nathaniel Hooke himself informs naturalisation papers he submitted for registration in France in January 1706. These documents traced the origins of the Hookes back to the Norman invasion of England in 1066, where Eustache de la Hougue was one of the knights of William the Conqueror’s invasion force. In 1172 his descendant Florence de la Hougue allegedly accompanied Henry II to Ireland, and the de la Hougues established themselves near

eSharp Historical Perspectives

Waterford, anglicising their name to Hooke. The town which they founded was called Hooke-Town, but unfortunately, (if perhaps conveniently), this bourg had been eventually inundated by the ocean. The only remaining remnant of the settlement was the original family seat, still bearing the name of Hooke Castle. The document then skips directly to Nathaniel Hooke and refers to frequent marriage alliances between the Irish family and branches in England (Bibliothèque Nationale, MSS Dossiers Bleus 59, f. 9351;

ed. Macray 1870 II, p.ix).

A pedigree of the family contained in a French genealogical guide draws on and echoes much of the account given in the naturalisation document (Saint-Allais 1872, p.19-22). Intriguingly however, it then proceeds to add new information fleshing out the rather skeletal family tree presented in the original source. In this version we learn of the same claimed descent from Eustache de la Hougue’s arrival in England, to Florence de la Hougue’s journey to Ireland. From this point it vaults four centuries to arrive at another Eustache Hooke, of Hooke Castle, County Waterford. His existence is unconfirmed by other documentation. He is said to have lived in the 1590s and to have been married to Helen O’Byrne of County Wicklow. His son is named as Thomas Hooke (of Hooke Castle), who married Eleanor O’Kelly from Aughrim in County Galway (or possibly of Aughrim, County Wicklow). Partial veracity of the document is confirmed by the inclusion of Thomas Hooke, Nathaniel’s grandfather. Independent documentation confirms his existence, though not his place of birth, and the feasibility of his being born in 1590s (Twenty-sixth report 1894, p. 428). There is no evidence connecting him with Hooke Castle. It is interesting to note that both of these early Hookes are claimed to have married women

eSharp Historical Perspectives

from prominent Gaelic Irish families. Such a connection with Gaelic nobility would have served Nathaniel Hooke’s purpose by strengthening his claim to noble status in French eyes. It may also have gained him greater acceptance in Irish émigré circles in Paris, where he spent the last 47 years of his life. Significantly, Hooke made no mention of his grandfather being mayor of Dublin. While this would have testified to the family’s status, it would also have highlighted unwelcome links with Parliament and radical Protestantism in the 1640s, 1650s and 1660s. Hooke would appear to have suppressed this aspect of his past by constructing an alternative origin centring on Hooke Castle/Hook Tower.

Most of the confusion surrounding the history of the Hookes, therefore, stems from Nathaniel seemingly constructing this past connection with Hook Tower himself. An early seventeenth-century map depicts a ‘Castle Hooke’ complete with fortifications (Colfer 2004, p.86). A later document by Hooke refers to his possession and use of a book of maps by cartographer John Speed (Archives des Affaires Etrangères, CP Angleterre, supp. vol. 3, f. 277r; Speed, 1614). Hooke wrote in praise of the usefulness of the atlas in 1705, one year before he applied for naturalisation as a French subject. For a man seeking to prove his noble ancestry, the existence of an extant Hooke Castle with suitably impressive battlements hinting at the past martial gloire of the family must have been a godsend. However, the Tower of Hook, was built and functioned as a lighthouse from its foundation in the thirteenth-century (it still fulfils that role today), and the original keepers were the monks of the nearby Rinn Dubhán monastery (Dubhán in Irish means fishing hook), who had also been involved in its construction (Colfer 1984-85, p.68-79). The monks remained in situ until 1641. Given these facts, any involvement of

eSharp Historical Perspectives

the Hooke family in the history of the tower is unlikely (Colfer 2004, p.84). Whether Hooke was aware or not that the building illustrated in his atlas was a lighthouse (and, given his family’s mercantile background, it is quite possible he was) it served his purposes exceptionally well in supporting his claims to nobility in France.

Notwithstanding this, it has been claimed that the Hooke family were driven out of the ‘Hooke Castle’ by Cromwellian troops in the 1640s, escaping or expelled to the West Indies (O’Callaghan 1870, p.328; Hayes 1949, p.128). While members of the Hooke family were indeed to be found on the West Indian islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, it is unlikely that Cromwellian dispossession was responsible for their presence. What had come to be called Hooke Castle was attacked by a small Parliamentary force in July 1642. However, it appears that at this time and before, the only connection between the Tower of Hook and the Hooke family was a chance coincidence in name. Yet both John Cornelius O’Callaghan and Richard Hayes, two authors to have written on Hooke, appear to have accepted the ‘Cromwellian’ attack on Hooke castle as the action which led to the expulsion of the Hookes from their alleged lands in Wexford (O’Callaghan 1870, p.328; Hayes 1949, p.128). There are serious problems with this version of the Hooke’s family history. Despite later misunderstanding or obfuscation, it remains a fact that the Hookes benefited rather than suffered from the Cromwellian conquest and settlement.

Nathaniel Hooke was far from unusual in attempting, retrospectively, to embellish his ancestry to mask the foundations of a rapid social ascent (Bergin 1997, p.12; C.E.A. Cheesman, Rouge Dragon Pursuivant, College of Arms, London, personal

eSharp Historical Perspectives

communication, 9 December 2004). Many first and second generations arrivistes in Ireland, England and France spent much time and money avoiding the stigma of being seen as a parvenu in the ranks of nobility. It was crucial to ‘cover their sometimes unsavoury and usually shadowy backgrounds with a veneer of antiquity’;

similarly, ‘members of the displaced élites of Old Ireland, adrift on the continent, clutched at pedigrees [which] comforted by reminding them of what they had forfeited, and buttressed requests for fresh ennoblement’ (Barnard 2003, p.45-51). That even a man who became as eminent in the hierarchies of the French church and state as Cardinal Richelieu felt the need for a sympathetic redaction of his pedigree demonstrates that the weight of authority and legitimacy attached to the prestige of lineage was no mere foible (Bergin 1997, p.12-13). The consequences of having the legitimacy of claims accepted could be great. For a man in Richelieu’s position in the highest ranks of the elite, an illustrious past served to cast his rise to power in a natural light and reinforce his hold on the most powerful offices of state. To those in Hooke’s position, strangers and exiles in France, far below les grands on the social scale, the benefits of a distinguished ancestry were also practical. Economically the acknowledgement of noble status was vitally important in avoiding taxes and making the financial position of émigré families more secure. Socially it provided an entrée into the exclusive world of the French nobility. Hooke’s true identity as one of the newer English of Ireland complicated his situation still further. Hence he obscured the awkward portions of his heritage and highlighted or invented elements which he believed enhanced his prospects of being granted a patent of nobility in France.

eSharp Historical Perspectives Beyond Hooke’s conscious attempts to muddy the historical record to suit his own purposes, the very nature of his life and career also contributed to later difficulties (some accidental, and others intentional) in writing his history. Alteration and adaptation were the defining hallmarks of Hooke’s life and the period in which he lived.

When he was born in Dublin in 1664, England was one of Europe’s weaker states. In 1738 when he died, Britain was a great power. In this period of change, Hooke’s own life and career were markedly fluid. Raised in a stoutly Protestant family with strong Cromwellian connections, Hooke first mutated from a non conformist clergyman and Whig rebel in 1680s England, into an exile and Catholic convert in France via service to James II in France. Then he metamorphosised again, into another role as a trusted and reliable soldier, diplomat, intelligence analyst and geopolitical strategic advisor in the service of Louis XIV.

As a study of such a fluid life and diverse career, the thesis also necessarily evolved and transformed. The project was initially conceived as a biography of an Irish Jacobite exile. Existing references to Hooke in John Cornelius O’Callaghan’s History of the Irish Brigades in the service of France (1870, p.329-30) and Richard Hayes’ Biographical Dictionary of Irishmen in France (1949, p.127-28), emphasised his Jacobitism, his Catholicism and his military career.

This is not surprising: then as now, history, and the writing of history, is closely intertwined with politics. O’Callaghan joined the staff of the Nation newspaper in 1842. He was a strong supporter of Daniel O’Connell’s campaign to repeal the Anglo-Irish Act of Union. ‘I love not the delicacies of literature but the meat and drink of sedition – I make a daily meal on the smoked carcass of Irish history.’ The fact that O’Connell’s uncle, Count Daniel O’Connell eSharp Historical Perspectives (1745-1833), had been the last colonel of the Irish Brigade in France may have inspired O’Callaghan’s interest in the Irish regiments.

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