Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Hero of the Pie

by Ella March Chase

I confess, I suffer from claustrophobia. Closed up spaces are not my friend. As for the prospect of being encased in a pie—well, I read Titus Andronicus in lit class. Being included as one of the courses in a royal banquet rarely ends well. Maybe that is where my fascination with the eighteen-inch-tall “angelic freak” and cherished member of the Stuart court, Jeffrey Hudson, began.

Famous as The Hero of the Pie, Jeffrey was entombed in a large pastry crust called a ‘coffin pie’ at the command of George Villiers, the notorious duke of Buckingham. Jeffrey’s mission: to pop out of the pie and dazzle a jaded court-- especially the homesick seventeen-year-old French Queen, Henrietta Maria, who had recently wed Charles I.

It sounded like a scene from one of the fairytales I loved as a child. Homesick Henrietta Maria, wed to the king of her country’s great foe. A resolutely Protestant English court that regarded her with suspicion and outright enmity because of her Catholicism.

Her painfully shy, aloof young husband was a younger son who was never supposed to be king. He was ill suited to the task, stammering, where his glittering elder brother had been dashing, socially awkward where the ill-fated Prince Henry was the admired by men like Sir Walter Raleigh.

Charles was delighted with his vivacious, if headstrong and overly emotional wife. Yet, he was in thrall to the one powerful courtier who had bothered to be kind to him while his brother was alive: the ambitious and inept Duke of Buckingham the royal favorite—and probable lover—of Charles’s father, James I. Buckingham was a dangerous rival, and he was determined to keep his Svengali-like hold on Charles and undercut the influence of the queen.

Court seethed with intrigues where a single misstep could mean disaster and even courtiers schooled from the cradle to attend the king and queen walked a perilous path. Into this glittering world of excess and intrigue, Buckingham dropped a lad who had known nothing of life outside his village’s shambles. Not only that but made him the pinnacle of the night’s entertainment. Jeffrey’s performance would make the banquet a success or a dismal failure.

I couldn’t stop thinking about what Jeffrey Hudson must have felt.

He was the son of the Oakham butcher who trained the Duke of Buckingham’s bull baiting dogs. It had to be a brutal and frightening world for an eighteen-inch-tall boy who would look like a tasty morsel to dogs trained to attack. He would not know how to eat with proper court manners or understand any of the complex rules of precedence the courtiers took so seriously. He would not even understand how to manipulate hooks and eyes on his clothing. Whatever he wore would be held closed with pins. Intense lessons in deportment must have exhausted and confused him.

Then, on the night of the banquet, he was dressed in a miniature suit of armor and stuffed into the pre-baked piecrust. The gilded lid of the pie was lowered down over him. As he waited in that stifling darkness, he dared not twitch a muscle, for fear of breaking the crust and ruining the duke’s plans. With a fanfare, the pie was presented to the queen and Buckingham handed her a knife.

Fortunately for Jeffrey, she was so taken aback by this insult she froze. (Queens do not cut their own food!) Before she could sink the knife into the pie—and its secret passenger—Jeffrey burst through the crust and marched up and down the table waving his pennon. Henrietta Maria was so enchanted by Jeffrey that Buckingham made a gift of the tiny, perfectly formed ‘dwarf’.

Once inducted into the queen’s household, Jeffrey joined what was known as The Royal Menagerie of Curiosities and Freaks of Nature, a collection that really existed. There, he would find his best friend, seven-foot-seven-inch Welsh giant and Sergeant Porter of the Queen’s Back Stairs, William Evans. There are still pubs in England named The Dwarf and Giant for this unlikely pair.

Jeffrey became the embattled Henrietta Maria’s favorite ‘pet’ and confidant and would accompany her through countless intrigues and adventures. He performed in Inigo Jones’s masques. He traveled to Paris on a secret mission for the queen. He would be captured by pirates twice, witness the siege of Breda, and fight in skirmishes during the English Civil War.

He would never desert his royal mistress willingly. But as years passed, he grew tired of being the butt of jokes. One day he had enough. When the queen’s Master of Horse, a full sized courtier, insulted Jeffrey, the queen’s dwarf called the man out. He shot the man between the eyes during a duel on horseback.

Since dueling carried a death penalty, the heartbroken queen exiled him to save his life. Now Jeffrey, accustomed to court life, was flung back out into the world beyond palace gates. A world he was as ill-fitted for as he had been court when he popped out of the pie.

The interesting thing about Jeffrey was that he was not, in truth, a dwarf. He was born perfectly formed, with none of the health issues of little people. Jeffrey just failed to grow. During Jeffrey’s lifetime, physicians attributed his tiny size to “a surfeit of gherkins” his mother ate while pregnant.

What he really suffered from a pituitary condition in which his body failed to produce growth hormones. In our modern world, he would have been treated with injections. He would have grown to a nearly normal height. That would have deprived him of one of his forms of traveling through crowded streets, however. Riding in Will Evans’s pocket.

The county of Rutland, in which Jeffrey was born, has the motto ‘Molto en Parvo’. Much in Little. The hero of the pie lived large, lived bravely, and served his queen with devotion. There are many portraits of him, painted by Van Dyck and other famous artists of the time. In my favorite, he stares up at the queen, a monkey on his shoulder. Jeffrey is garbed in the finest satins and laces coin can buy.

I wonder, what is he thinking as he looks up at her? How far he’s travelled from the shambles? How to entertain the queen so she will not send him back there? Is he thinking he is no more to her than the pet monkey or is does he judge himself fortunate to have escaped life in the shambles? It is impossible to know. We know only that when he burst out of the pie, his armor gleaming, his pennon streaming behind him, he enchanted a queen and found himself a home among giants and mages, geniuses and royalty, artists and rogues. He was what he had seemed the night of the banquet. A hero, indeed. The Hero of the Pie.


Ella March Chase cannot remember a time she did not want to write historical fiction. She earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois. She lives in a house filled with books and music and is lovingly herded by a loyal Shetland sheepdog named Oliver. Chase is the author of The Virgin Queen’s Daughter and Three Maids for a Crown, a story of the Grey Sisters. She invites you to visit her at her website: www.ellamarchchase.com

The Queen's Dwarf
Amazon US
Amazon UK

Coming soon: Crown of Mist, Gather the Stars and Angel's Fall by Ella March Chase, writing as Kimberly Cates.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, yes, I know of Jeffrey Hudson, poor man! He was sold into slavery at one point and by the time he got back to England it was the reign of Charles II. He was no longer young or cute and he'd grown a bit, enough that he couldn't make a living out of hs height any more. He died in poverty, only middle-aged. But he had quite an adventurous life!


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