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My seven year old nephew, Conor, likes to trade insults with me: “Your head is a bum”.

My response: “No, your head is a bum, and farts fly out your mouth….”

But that’s feeble by comparison with this piece of Tudor vituperation from Mary Talbot, daughter of the mighty Bess of Hardwick.

Mary Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury (1556–1632)

A striking woman, in every sense.

In the course of a feud between her family (she was born a Cavendish) and the Stanhopes, Mary instructed two of her men to deliver the following message to Sir Thomas Stanhope, in the presence of witnesses *:

Though you be more wretched, vile, and miserable than any creature living; and for your wickedness become more ugly than the vilest toad in the world; and one to whom none of  reputation would vouchsafe to send any message; yet she hath thought good to send thus much to you – that she be contented you should live … but to this end, that all the plagues and miseries that may befall any man may light upon such a caitiff as you are; and that you should live to have all your friends forsake you; and without your great repentance, which she looketh not for, because your life hath been so bad, you will be damned perpetually in hell-fire.

Her contempt was probably sparked in 1592 when Stanhope received a royal appointment that Mary had expected for her husband, the Earl of Shrewsbury. At about the same time Stanhope’s brother – an adherent of the great government manipulator, Robert Cecil – was challenged to a duel by a relative of Mary’s, but nothing came of it.

The family’s urge for duelling didn’t stop there. Mary’s husband once challenged his own brother over a suspected attempt at poisoning (the case was dismissed in court), so it seems he shared her temperament. I imagine the Talbot household was a lively place.

Mary was a convert to Catholicism, and suffered lengthy imprisonment in the reign of King James I for her involvement in the tragic life of her niece, Arbella Stuart, a genuine pretender to the English throne. Mary died in 1632, at the age of 76.

If the progress from medieval to modern means anything, the evidence is in the taming of these wild aristocrats by the state. It took centuries, and the Tudors did much of the hard and hateful work.

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* E. Lodge Illustrations of British History 2nd ed. (1791) I xxxi; quoted in A.L. Rowse The Elizabethan Renaissance: the Life of the Society (1971) p.108.

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