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John Lambe

Dr. Lambe

A worthy successor to Simon Forman appeared in Dr. Lambe, or Lamb, who, in the first two Stuart reigns, attained a wide celebrity as an astrologer and a quack doctor. A curious story respecting his pretended magical powers is related by Richard Baxter in his ‘Certainty of the World of Spirits' (1691). Meeting two acquaintances in the street, who evidently desired some experience of his skill in the occult art, he invited them home with him, and ushered them into an inner chamber. There, to their amazement, a tree sprang up before their eyes in the middle of the floor. Before they had ceased to wonder at this sight surprising, three diminutive men entered, with tiny axes in their hands, and, nimbly setting to work, soon felled the tree. The doctor then dismissed his guests, who went away with a conviction that he was as potent a necromancer as Roger Bacon or Cornelius Agrippa.

That same night a tremendous gale arose, so that the house of one of Lambe's visitors rocked to and fro, threatening to topple over with a crash, and bury the man and his wife in the ruins. In great terror his wife inquired, ‘Were you not at Dr. Lambe's to-day?' The husband acknowledged that it was so. ‘And did you bring anything away from his house?' Yes: when the dwarfs felled the tree, he had been foolish enough to pick up some of the chips, and put them in his pocket. Here was the cause of the hurricane! With all speed he got rid of the chips; the storm immediately subsided, and the remainder of the night was spent in undisturbed repose.

Lambe was notorious for the lewdness of his life and his evil habits. But his supposed skill and success as a soothsayer led to his being frequently consulted by George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, with the result that each helped to swell the volume of the other's unpopularity. The Puritans were angered at the Duke's resort to a man of Lambe's character and calling; the populace hated Lambe as the tool and instrument of the Duke. In 1628 the brilliant favourite of Charles I. was the best-hated man in England, and every slander was hurled at him that the resources of political animosity could supply. The ballads of the time—an indisputably satisfactory barometer of public opinion—inveighed bitterly and even furiously against his luxuriousness, his love of dress, his vanity, his immorality, and his proved incompetence as soldier and statesman. He was accused of having poisoned Lords Hamilton, Lennox, Southampton, Oxford, even James I. himself. He had sat in his boat, out of the reach of danger, while his soldiers perished under the guns of Ré. He had corrupted the chastest women in England by means of the love-philtre which Dr. Lambe concocted for him. In a word, the air was full of the darkest and dreadest accusations.

Lambe's connection with the Duke brought on a catastrophe which his magical art failed to foresee or prevent. He was returning, one summer evening—it was June 13—from the play at the Fortune Theatre, when he was recognised by a company of London prentices. With a fine scent for the game, they crowded round the unfortunate magician, and hooted at him as the Duke's devil, hustling him to and fro, and treating him with cruel roughness. To save himself from further violence, he hired some sailors to escort him to a tavern in Moorgate Street, where he supped. On going forth again, he found that many of his persecutors lingered about the door; and, bursting into a violent rage, he threatened them with his vengeance, and told them ‘he would make themdance naked.' Still guarded by his sailors, he hurried homeward, with the mob close at his heels, shouting and gesticulating, and increasing every minute both in numbers and fury. In the Old Jewry he turned to face them with his protectors; but this movement of defence, construed into one of defiance, stimulated the passions of the populace to an ungovernable pitch; they made a rush at him, from which he took refuge in the Windmill tavern. A volley of stones smashed against pane and door; and with shouts, screams, and yells, they demanded that he should be given up. But the landlord, a man of courage and humanity, would not throw the poor wretch to his pursuers as the huntsman throws the captured fox to the fangs of his hounds. He detained him for some time, and then he provided him with a disguise before he would suffer him to leave. The precaution was useless, for hate is keen of vision: the man was recognised; the pursuit was resumed, and he was hunted through the streets, pale and trembling with terror, his dress disordered and soiled, until he again sought an asylum. The master of this house, however, fell into a paroxysm of alarm, and dismissed him hastily, with four constables as a bodyguard. But what could these avail against hundreds? They were swept aside—the doctor, bleeding and exhausted, was flung to the ground, and sticks and stones rained blows upon him until he was no longer able to ask for mercy. One of his eyes was beaten out of its socket; and when he was rescued at length by a posse of constables and soldiers, and conveyed to the Compter prison, it was a dying man who was borne unconscious across its threshold.

Such was the miserable ending of Dr. Lambe. Charles I. was much affected when he heard of it; for he saw that it was a terrible indication of the popular hostility against Lambe's patron. The murderers had not scrupled to say that if the Duke had been there they would have handled him worse; they would have minced his flesh, so that every one of them might have had a piece. Summoning to his presence the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, the King bade them discover the offenders; and when they failed in what was an impossible task, he imposed a heavy fine upon the City.

The ballad-writers of the day found in the magician's fate an occasion for attacking Buckingham: one of them, commenting on his supposed contempt for Parliament, puts the following arrogant defiance into his mouth:

‘Meddle with common matters, common wrongs,To th' House of Commons common things belong ...Leave him the oar that best knows how to row And State to him that the best State doth know ...Though Lambe be dead, I'll  stand, and you shall see I'll smile at them that can but bark at me.'