Prodigall ancestor

A long time ago now, I remember hearing about a supposed ancestor of mine. Members of my mothers’ family have an interest in genealogy, and well they might, as the Bushells can be traced back to Knights of the 13th century. The family also includes such illustrious characters as film actor Anthony Arnatt Bushell (1904-1997)[1] and my grandmother’s cousin,  Roger Bushell  (1910-1944), leader of the ‘Great Escape’ in 1943. The particular ancestor I’m interested in here was first mentioned to me as an incredible contriver of water features, with a mischievous interest in soaking his guests. It is not the kind of thing a child forgets.

A portrait of Thomas Bushell. Image taken from The First Part of Youths Errors. Originally published/produced in Imprinted at London, 1628.

However, it was a long time before I saw this as being in any way connected with my own interest in theatre. It was my colleague, Kara Reilly’s presentation on automata that first made me recall this story and make the connection to theatre.  She was immediately able to reference Thomas Bushell and his ‘Enstone Marvels’, and in fact refers to him in her book (2011:44-47).

Whether Bushell is actually an ancestor of mine is not something I can definitively prove. He was born in Broad Marston in 1694 and is supposed to have led his childhood at Cleeve Prior, with the family from which mine descends. His biographer, J.Gough, notes that he had a brother called Edward and suggests this might be the Edward Bushell, b.1604, who lived at Cleeve Prior. However, he could also be the Thomas who is listed without dates, as brother to a relation, Edward Bushell, b. 1596[2]. He is supposed to have been buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, in 1674, but this is not in the official register, although there is evidence in other Abbey documents. The family tree in my possession dates from 1933, and in 1932, Gough suggests that our Thomas Bushell is not recorded on any of the family trees, being by his own admission a ‘superlative prodigall’ who ran away from home at an early date.

Be this as it may, whether or not I’m related to Thomas Bushell is the least interesting thing about him. If he ran away from home, he seems to have landed on his feet, for he became a protégé, secretary and later seal bearer to Lord Bacon, who was impressed by his looks and intelligence. He seems to have attended Balliol college in Oxford; probably, Gough speculates, funded by Bacon. He made himself useful to Bacon as a servant and also had a high old time, getting into debt, doing dodgy deals, and sporting such finery that he even attracted James I’s attention: ‘’By my soul!’ quoth the King, ‘I have never seen a servant so gay, with yellow buttons.’ ‘Sir, ‘ said one that stood by, ‘your majesty needs not wonder so much at his yellow buttons, for his master makes such buttons all this parliament time” (Mead, letter of 1620-1, cited in Gough 1932:6). According to Aubrey, he became known as ‘Button’d Bushell’ – a jibe at Bacon’s supposed dishonesty (1999: 42).

These comments reflect Bacon’s impending fall from grace, and Bushell later suggested that he and the other servants were largely responsible for this, since their misdemeanours fell on his shoulders. At this point, Bushell undertook the first of three notable sojourns on islands, and we see here some aspects of what seems a lifelong obsession with rocks and water. He went to the Isle of Wight and became a fisherman. Characteristically, it turns out, his motivation comprised a mixed desire to lie low and to repent his sins, for he reportedly wrote to Bacon: ‘I am resolved now to become your lordship’s beadsman in some solitary cell, and endeavour to make myself worthy of your honour’s command in the other world’.  Although he later returned into Bacon’s forgiving employ, he was to spend a further three years as a Hermit on the Calf of Man, after Bacon’s death, eating herbs and writing:

…in obedience to my dead lord’s philosophical advice, I resolved to make a perfect experiment upon myself, for the obtaining of a long and healthy life, most necessary for such a repentance as my former debauchedness required, by a parsimonious diet of herbs, oil, mustard, and honey, with water sufficient, most like to yt our long liv’d fathers before the flood, as was conceiv’d by yt lord, which I most strictly observed as if obliged by a religious vow, till Divine Pr. called me to a more active life. (cited in Pryme)

In later years, during the Civil War, we find Bushell holed up on Lundy Island, which he had gained as an asset to exporting from mines in Combe Martin, Devon, and was able to defend. This was, in fact, the last place in England to surrender to the Parliamentarians. Bushell, an ardent Royalist, finally wrote to Charles I to ask whether he might surrender it in 1646, to which Charles replied rather warmly:


We have perused our Letter, in which We finde thy care to Answer thy trust We at first reposed in thee: no, since the place is unconsiderable in it self, and yet may be of great advantages unto you, in respect of your Mines, We do hereby give you leave to use your discretion in it, with this Caution, that you do take example from Our selves, and be not over-credilous of vain promises, which hath made Us great, only in our sufferings, and will not discharge your debts. (cited in Gough 1932:71)

Taking heed of this, Bushell bargained hard and did not surrender until the following year, when some of his terms were met, and he had gained a promise for protection from his many creditors.

Apart from these protracted periods on islands, he also spent some time hiding from the law, as he seems to have been suspected of Royalist plotting, and was permanently in debt. While lying low, he was involved, characteristically, in spiritual meditation. His garret in Lambeth marshes was dramatically draped in black with a replica of a skeleton at one end and a corpse at the other. He walked in the orchards and gardens by night, no doubt contemplating the various ‘mortifying and divine’ mottoes that he had hung around his room (Aubrey 1999:44).

I mention these interludes first because they provide an interesting context for Bushell’s ‘rock’ and masque at Enstone, suggesting something of what rocks, water and the natural world might have meant to him. While he repeatedly thought it prudent to hide[3], he also seems to have had a genuine need to embrace a meditative existence, generally penitent for something or other, and in close contact with the natural world – at least for substantial periods of time.

Aside from his propensity to sit on rocks and look at water, he evidently learned a great deal about mineralogy and mining engineering – knowledge which he claimed he learned from Bacon himself (though Gough is sceptical), particularly methods for draining mines of water, so that ‘he was reckoned one of the most knowing in such things of any of his time’ (Pryme).  Aubrey recalls that:

His genius lay most towards naturall philosophy and particularly towards the Discovery, drayning and improvement of the Silver Mines in Cardiganshire, etc. He wrote a stitcht Treatise of Mines and improving the adits to them and Bellowes to drive in wind. (1999:42)

In between these sojourns as a hermit/fugitive, he managed to marry twice, the first time gaining enough wealth to buy his estate in Oxfordshire.  Despite having at least two children, the first marriage probably was not a success and even at Enstone, he seems to have desired to live the life of a solitary hermit.

Image from Plot 1677, showing the famous rock at Enstone, with its fountains, niches and grating overhead.

This idea was enabled by his discovery, at Enstone, of a curious rock. A rock:

 ….so wonderfully contrived by Nature herself, that he thought it worthy all imaginable advancement by Art. Whereupon he made Cisterns, and laid down divers Pipes between the Rocks, and built a House over them, containing one fair Room for Banqueting, and several other small Closets for divers uses, beside the Rooms above. (Plot 1677:236)

This rock and the gardens that were eventually built to surround it were developed and improved upon by the next resident, Lord Lichfield, but in Bushell’s time, the rock is reported as being housed in a grotto, with niches for sitting on either side of it. A dining room was built above it, with a grating in the floor through which one could see the rock and its water. At one point Egyptian mummies adorned the waterfall, although they seem unlikely to have lasted long in the damp environment (Aubrey 1898:133). The waterworks themselves included fountains that arced from top and bottom of the rock, criss-crossing one another, and in some cases disappearing back into the rock itself. Water and air were used to produce a sound effect a little like the notes of a nightingale, which ceasing, was followed by a sound like a crashing drum, as water emptied out of one chamber into another. A ‘hedge’ of water bubbled up in front of the rock, while further jets could be used to ‘sportively’ prevent visitors from leaving. Mirrors were cunningly placed to extend the effect. Aubrey says it faced south so if the sun was shining ‘you are enterteined with a rainbowe’ (1999: 43). There were also figures operated by hydraulics – most notably a ‘Neptune’ that aimed an arrow at a duck, which was also chased by a spaniel. These were clearly rotating water features (Aubrey 1999: 43).

Pryme suggests that it was Bushell’s original intention to ‘take up his habitation therein all the days of his life, like as the famous Guy, Earl of Warwick, did in his cliff yet to be seen near Warwick.’ He had a hammock hung there and apparently walked there at night. However, what Bushell more famously did was welcome and entertain Charles I at his rock.

According to Aubrey, the first visit was unannounced. Not at all daunted, Bushell managed to ‘improvise enterainment of artificial thunder and lightnings, rain, hail-showers, drums beating, organs playing, birds singing, waters murmuring all sorts of tunes’(1999:43). Impressed, a second visit followed and it seems that it was on this occasion that Bushell wrote and performed in a short masque or ‘presentation’ of the rock to Charles and Henrietta.

The first part of the masque is spoken by a ‘Hermit’. Although Bushell himself had lived as a hermit, he spoke in his own character in a later section. Gough suggests that he also gave the Hermit’s speech, enacting this part, but, as Reilly proposes, this ‘Hermit’ may have been an automaton, as the hermit is described as rising out of an urn and descending back into it again. Some of the lines also suggest a graven image, since he suggests that the King’s powers ‘my frozen lipps have utterance given’ and that the ‘humble owner brought to light/These eyes of mine’. Quite how the automaton was made to speak is not clear.

Songs written by Bushell were set to music by Simon Ive (‘a composer of some repute’ (Gough 1932:27)) and they were sung by a Student of Christ Church. The voice of an echo was heard in response to Bushell’s own presentation, with a little word-play in which the Echo proposes that he show his gratitude for the royal response by offering them the rock:

‘…we would give what’s real’  (‘All’)

‘All, why all that we have is but this Rock.’ (‘This rock’)

‘Give then this poor Rock, Echo, mean you so?’ (‘So.’) (Bushell 1636)

Bushell’s rhymes are competent, and reflect a number of ideas and attitudes:

1)      That the rock mimics human emotions and can teach purity of mind: ‘There [the Hermit] may learne to weepe./The humble pavement never shall be dry,/But moystend still, with teares that there are shed…’

2)      Observation and celebration of nature. The place is compared to Eden and an embryo farming project is hinted at. Birds are specifically named – owl, lark and thrush are all mentioned.

3)      The hermit and echo seem representative of spirit concealed within nature and implicitly a kind of mixture of magic trick and engineering brings these aspects to light. The owner ‘forc’d great nature show/This master-peece, a grace she did not show/To any age before…’

Was this Bushell’s first attempt at writing a masque? One interesting speculation is that it wasn’t. Honigmann suggests that he is a potential candidate for co-authorship of the ‘Masque of Flowers’ performed at the court in 1614 (Honigmann 1967: 156). ‘T.B.’ is one of three initials that head the published script. Christine Adams, in an article on the masque, suggests that these names do not represent authors at all, and that the anonymous author is Bacon: her reasoning for this is that Bacon’s ideas and knowledge of gardens are evident throughout (2008:passim). This, however, scarcely rules out a young, and impressionable Bushell, for whom Bacon’s influence was pervasive even as an old man. The garden in the masque is also compared to the garden at New College, Oxford (Adams 2008:40), and one might suppose that Bushell would have been to Oxford around that time. However, it is all speculative and it cannot be demonstrated that Bushell was a co-author of the masque.

If he was, it is much more frivolous, exuberant and gentle in tone than his presentation at the rock. This is, of course, only appropriate to a court wedding. There are two interesting points of comparison with Bushell’s masque, but since neither are entirely original, these could be coincidental. It is also possible that in writing his own masque, Bushell drew on memories of the one in 1614, which he may well have seen or read:

1)      The garden in the Masque of Flowers has an elaborate water feature which, as at Enstone, included a Neptune, this time ‘holding in his hand a trident, and riding on a dolphin so cunningly framed that a river seemed to stream out of his mouth.’

2)      The Masque of Flowers shows flowers transform into young men, exhibiting the same interest in transformation hinted at in the emergence of the hermit from the urn, or the echo from the rock. It is also a kind of trick, since the players are concealed behind a bank of painted flowers ‘within the arches’. At the moment of transformation, the flowers ‘softly descending and vanishing, the Masquers…appeared, seated in their arches.’

Bushell’s presentation at his rock proved profitable. As a result of his audiences with Charles I, he was able to gain Royal support and later to launch his mining career. Prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, he was doing rather well in the mines at Aberystwyth, using methods he claimed originated with Bacon, to drain mines that were flooded and to pump air into them. As he poured money into the Royalist cause, and as he ‘was the greatest Master of the Art of running in Debt (perhaps) in the world’ (Aubrey 1999: 42) he never made his fortune from mining. However, in the later years of his life, he dreamed of a mine, staffed by convicts, which would fund a college, conceived as a ‘Salomen’s House’ like the one Bacon describes in the New Atlantis:

But now seriously considering that the taper of my life burns in the socket…I intend to begin the foundation of that Philosophical Fabrick (modell’d at in my Lord’s Atlantis) by placing a select Society of such aforesaid Philosophers in the City of Wells, whose virtuous studies may first intend only the discovery of such Mineral Treasures, as are conceived by some learned Miners to be guarded by Subterranean spirits… (Bushell 1659:9)

So Bushell continued to dream of how he might ‘recover the lost by the help of the dead’ (1659:30), obsessed with the spiritually and materially transformative potential of rocks and water – a theme as theatrical as it was utopian.

Sources cited:

Adams, Christine (2008), ‘Francis Bacon’s Wedding Gift of “A Garden of a Glorious and Strange Beauty” for the Earl and Countess of Somerset’, Garden History, 36.1., Spring 2008, pp.36-58.

Aubrey, John (1669-96) (1999), ed. Lawson Dick, Oliver, ‘Thomas Bushell’ in Brief Lives, pp.40-43, Nonpareil: Jaffrey, New Hampshire.

Bushell, Thomas (1636) The seuerall speeches and songs, at the presentment of Mr Bushells rock to the Queenes most excellent Majesty. Leonard Lichfield:Oxford.

Bushell, Thomas (1659) Mr. Bushell’s abridgment of the Lord Chancellor Bacon’s philosophical theory in mineral prosecutions, London.

Honigmann, E.A.J. (Ed) (1967), ‘The Masque of Flowers’, in A Book of Masques, C.U.P.: Cambridge, pp.149-178.

Plot, Robert (1677) The natural history of Oxford-shire, being an essay toward the natural history of England. / By Robert Plot … , Oxford: The Theatre.

De la Pryme, Rev. Abraham, M.S. Diary, found online at, accessed Feb 1, 2013.

Reilly, Kara (2011), Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[1] Anthony Arnatt Bushell was a member of the Hypocrites club with Evelyn Waugh at Oxford, a boxing champion and rower for the college, before going on to study at RADA. He first acted on the London stage and then on Broadway, before becoming a screen actor in America and later in England. He served in World War II. After the war, he became Lawrence Olivier’s general manager and associate producer on Hamlet (1948), and associate director on The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) and Richard III (1965), although apparently he ‘couldn’t direct traffic…but Sir Laurence needs a chum to guard his rear, as it were, and it is a great joy to have Tony around’ (Colin Clark, cited in Vallance, 1997). He did direct three films himself, however, was associate director on further films and later became a television producer and director.

[2] Edward Bushell (1604-1671) was grandson to Edward Bushell of Cleeve Prior (d. 1615), whose half brother, Thomas of Brodmerston (d.1615) was grandfather to Edward (b.1596) and Thomas (n.d) as well as two other children. However, there is no obvious reason why Thomas would have lived at Cleeve Prior. If he were brother to the first Edward, he would be considerably older (son of Edward’s first marriage)? In both cases, he would not have been a ‘younger son’ as Gough suggests.

[3] He also spent some time in jail for debt.