One day during the winter of the year 1817, an English gentleman climbed up and placed his glove on the tip of the lightening rod which protects the cross above the dome of Saint Peter's, Rome.
Charles Waterton, the Squire of Walton Hall, near Wakefield, Yorkshire, was in his thirty-sixth year that winter of 1817, but he is just now beginning to be appreciated by more than an inner circle of admirers. "The tendency to regard him as a queer eccentric is a survival of that mistaken early nineteenth century inclination to dismiss as odd anyone with an adult zest for intellectual pleasures."1
In all the nations of the world, individuals are found who hold established forms and customary conduct in low esteem, but this eccentricity seems to exist particularly among the English. Edith Sitwell, considered by some an exxectric in her own right, suggests that this is partly because of that peculiar and satisfactory assurance of infallibility which is the hallmark and glory of the British nation. Since America is accused of having produced a generation of the "outer-dirercted", of conformists, let us look to the Isles and find some refreshment in one of these individuals.
He is Charles Waterton, Esq., Naturalist, Taxidermist, and Author, whose works include Wanderings in South America and Essays on Natural History. A bold champion of Roman Catholicism at a time when Roman Catholics were decidedly and oppressed minority in England, and a drily humorous critic of the political scene, Waterton was primarily an energetic personality, keenly enthusiastic in observing nature.
Born on the third of June, 1782, Charles Waterton of Walton Hall was the ninth in descent from Sir Thomas More, and the representative of one of the most ancient untitled aristocratic families in England. His ancestor Reiner, son of Norman of Normandy, and of Saxon origin, became Lord of Waterton in 1159 A.D. Charles was descended from Richard, second son of William Waterton, Lord of Waterton, who dies in the year 1255. In 1435, John Waterton married the heiress of Sir William Ashenhull, and became Lord of Walton and Cawrhorne, iure uxoris. Charles was the twenty-seventh Lord of Walton (and the sixteenth from John) who had acquired that Lordship. Charles remarked, in his own way, that if his ancestors had been as careful of their family records as the Arabs are of the pedigrees of their horses, he might have been able to trace his descent back to Adam and Eve.
Waterton's family had remained Roman Catholic all through its history, despite the bitter persecutions during the English Reformation. Charles and his family suffered much from this situation, and, as a result, there appear in his writings repeated and sometimes uncalledfor allusions to Martin Luther, Henry VIII, Queen Bess, Archbishop Cranmer, Oliver Cromwell, Charles Stuart, "Dutch William", and other personages celebrated in history. Charles felt deeply the indignities to which he, his family, and his co-religionists had been subjected, and he frequently referred to them, but his references are always tempered with a characteristic underlying current of humor.
Charles Waterton spent his early years in the old mansion on the family estate. At a very early age he displayed those powers of observation, love of nature, and that enterprise which resulted, in later years, in his earning a place among the first rank of practical naturalists. In 1792, Charles, aged ten, was placed in the care of a priest, Rev. A. Strong, and sent to the newly founded primary school at Tudhoe, County Durham.2
When he was fourteen, Charles entered Stonyhurst College, Lancashire, where he was one of the first pupils. The College was founded by the English Jesuits who had been driven from their home at Liège. Waterton's life at Stonyhurst was a singularly happy one, and he always spoke with reverence and affection of the Jesuit Fathers. His "predominate propensity" — watching the things of nature — was known to the Fathers of the faculty, and Charles writes:
|Though it was innocent in itself, nevertheless it was productive of harm in its consequences, causing me to break the college rules, and thus to give bad example to the community at large. Wherefore, with a magnanimity and excellent exercise of judgement, which are only the providence of those who have acquired a consummate knowledge of human nature and who know how to turn to advantage the extraordinary dispositions of those intrusted to their care, they sagaciously managed matters in such a way as to enable me to ride my hobby to a certain extent, and still, at the same time, to prevent me from giving bad example.|
In the year 1801, Charles Waterton left Stonyhurst and spent a year at Walton Hall. After that year, at the age of twenty —it was during the peace of Amiens— he sailed for Malaga, Spain. After staying for a short time at Cadiz, he landed at Malaga and visited Gibraltar to see the celebrated apes. This was the first of many journeys which he made seeking a better knowledge of nature. While at Malaga, the plague, "the black vomit", broke out with irresistable force and was accompanied with cholera and yellow fever. Waterton was a victim of this disease, but, surprising everyone, he recovered and returned to England in the autumn of 1803.
Thomas Waterton, Charles's father, died in 1805, and Charles inherited Walton Hall. Two years later, when he was twenty-five, he received a commission as a Lieutenant in the Second Regiment of the Demerara Militia in South America. On his first mission as an officer, carring Admiral Collingwood's dispatches to the Captain-General of the Orinoco River District, Charles had the following experience:
|While we were wending our way up river... there was a large Labarri3 snake coiled up in a bush which was close to us. I fired at it and wounded it so severely that it could not escape. Being wishful to dissect it, I reached over into the bush with the intention to seize it by the throat amd convey it aboard. The Spaniard at the tiller took alarm and put his helm a port. This forced the vessel's head to the stream, and I was left hanging to the bush with the snake close to me, not having been able to recover my balance as the vessel veered from the land. I kept firm hold of the branch to which I was clinging, and was three times overhead in the water below...Luckily a man who was standing near the pilot, on seeing what had happened, rushed to the helm, seized hold of it, and put it hard astarboard in time to bring the head of the vessel back again. As they were pulling me up, I saw the snake was evidently too far gone to do mischief and so I lay hold of it and brought it aboard with me, to the horror and surprise of the crew. It measured eight feet in length.4|
Waterton appears to have been seized early in life with as unconquerable aaversion to Piccadilly and to that train of meteorological questions and answers which form the great staple of polite conservation. His knowledge of nature was almost wholly obtained from personal observation, and not one single statement of his has ever been proved to have been exaggerated, much less false. The book of his Wanderings in South America was first published in 1825; in it are found the names and descriptions of many animals native to South America which had been unknown before in Europe. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature comments that, "One may open this book at any page and be sure of entertainment." By way of example, mention could be made of his description of a sloth who, "moves suspended, rests suspended, sleeps suspended and passes his whole life in suspense like a young clergyman distantly related to the bishop."
Charles Waterton continued his journeys, most of them for their value to a lover of nature, but some to investigate and keep abreast of civilization. His mind was saturated with Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Cervantes, Washington Irving, and Chevy Chase. Daily he read Latin and Spanish books &emdash; surely he was a man of liberal education.
Eccentricity formed one of the peculiar charms of Charles's society, and he was completely unconscious of it. He thought himself the most commonplace of human beings, and yet no one could be in his company for more than five minutes without feeling himself in the presence of no ordinary man.
Charles had no idea that he was doing anything out of the ordinary course of things if he asked a visitor to accompany him to the top of a lofty tree to look at a hawk's nest, or if he built his stables so that the horses might converse with each other, or his kennel so that his hounds would be able to see everything that was going on. He used to say that swine, in a wild state, were not dirty beasts, but penned into small sties they have no opportunity of being clean; so he had his sties built of stone, with a stone platform in front, and he had it so constructed that they had a southern aspect so the pigs might enjoy the beams of the sun &emdash; beams which he loved very much himself.
Some people considered Waterton's rooted abhorrence of mourning eccentric. He carried this principle so far that he could never be induced to wear a black coat of any kind on any occasion; he usually wore a blue coat with solid gold buttons. These buttons caused the police much anxiety, and he finally consented to have them covered with blue cloth. His peculiar disapproval of mourning, even to the extent of never wearing black clothing, once caused him to lose an introduction to Pope Gregory XVI. Etiquette demanded a uniform or ordinary evening dress. He would not wear the black evening dress, and so lost the presentation. On another similar occasion he wore his blue coat, with gold buttons, surmounted by a pair of naval epaulettes, and, with the addition of a naval captain's cocked hat and sword, presented a strining appearance.
On his first trip to Rome, when he was thirty-five, Charles Waterton, who was never affected by heights, climbed up the angel surmounting Castel San Angelo, and, having reached that height, he stood on the head of the Guardian Angel. Another day he scrambled up the cross of Saint Peter's, climbed to the top of the lightening conductor and placed his glove on it. All Rome rang with the exploit, which reached the ears of Pope Pius VII, who, fearing that the glove would spoil the conductor, ordered it to be removed at once. Not a man was fould who would be willing to undertake such a task, and so Waterton repeated the ascent to fetch his glove down again &emdash; to the amusement of his friends and the delight of the populace.
Waterton numbered among his ancestors: Saint Martilda, Queen of Germany; Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland; Saint Humbert of Savoy; Saint Louis of France; Saint Vladimir of Russia; Saint Anne of Russia, and Saint Thomas More; nor was he unfaithful to his lineage. For all his oddities, Charles Waterton was a saintly man; his life was a long record of saintliness and fidelity to the highest ideals. But his saintliness too had its unusual aspects. At home he always retired to his room at eight o'clock. Punctually at three in the morning, being roused by the crowing of a huge Cochin China cock which he called his "morning gun", he rose from his plank couch &emdash; he had no bed, but always lay on bare boards with a blanket wrapped around him, and with an oaken block by way of a pillow &emdash; and lighted his fire, and was always dressed and closely shaven, which in his day was as unusual as a full beard is today, by four o'clock, when he went into his private chapel which was next to his room and made an hour's meditation. After his prayer, he read Latin and Spanish books (Don Quioxte every day), and then he wrote, received bailiff's reports, and so forth, until a clock which had belonged to Saint Thomas More struck eight, when breakfast was served. Charles ate very little.
In The Newcomes, William Makepeace Thackeray speaking of Waterton, writes:
|A friend who belongs to the old religion took me, last week, into a church where the Virgin lately appeared to a Jewish gentleman, flashed down upon him from heaven in light and splendour celestial, and of course, straight way, converted him. My friend made me look at the picture, and kneeling down beside me, I know, prayed with all his honest heart that the truth might shine down upon me, too. But I saw no glimpse of heaven at all, I saw but a poor picture, an altar with blinking candles, a church hung with tawdry stripes of red and white calico. The good, kind, W., went away, humbly saying that such might have happened again, if heaven so willed it. I could not help feeling a kindness and admiration for the good man. I know that his works are made to square with his faith, that he dines on a crust, lives as chastely as a hermit, and gives his all to the poor.|
In Bruges, at five-thirty, on the morning of May eighteenth, 1829, Charles Waterton married Anne Mary Edmonstone, who dies of puperal fever on April twenty-seventh, 1830, after giving birth to a son, Charles's only child, Edmund. Charles never remarried. His son Edmund entered Stonyhurst, aged eleven, in 1841 and left in 1850. Edmund died in 1887.
On the twenty-fifth of May, 1865, while directing some carpenters at the far end of the park, Charles caught his foot in an overhanging bramble and fell hard on his right side. He realized the extent of the injury at once, but he reached home, changed his clothes as usual, and despite terrible pain, he walked up the stairs without help. He would have gone to his own room on the top floor, but he consented to stop half way, so as not to inconvenience the members of the household. In the words of Dr. Moore, who was present:
|The end was now at hand, and he died at twenty-seven minutes past two on the morning of May twenty-seventh, 1865. The window was open. The sky was beginning to grow grey, a few rooks had cawed, the swallows were twittering, the landrail was cracking from the Ox, and...a favorite cock, which he used to call his "morning gun", leaped out from some hollies and gsvr his accustomed crow. The ear of his master was deaf to the call. He had obeyed a sublimer summons, and he had woke up to the glories of an eternal world.|
Above his grave is a simple cross with a little marble slab at the base which reads:
IVXTA HANC CRVCEM
NATVS 1782 -- OBIIT 1865
In her book, The English Eccentrics, Edith Sitwell has written this description of Charles Waterton:
|He was a great gentleman, one of a long race of untitled nobles, and showed the pride and splendour of his race in every action of his long life. He comes into this book because his very bravery is born of such an irrepressible sense of fun, that it is impossible to pass over him. He was eccentric only as all great men are eccentric, by which I mean that their gestures are not born to fit convention or the cowardice of the crowd.|
Charles Waterton's biographer, Rev. J. G. Wood, comments:
|Had he not been eccentric, he could not have been the Charles Waterton so long known and loved. It was perhaps eccentric to have a strong religious faith, and act up to it. It was eccentric, as Thackeray said, to "dine on a crust, live as chastely as a hermit, and give his all to the poor." It was eccentric to come into a large estate as a young man (twenty-four years old) and to have lived to extreme old age without having wasted an hour or a shilling. It was eccentric to give bountifully and never to allow his name to appear on a subscription-list. It was eccentric to be saturated with a love of nature. It might have been eccentric never to give dinner parties, preferring to keep an always open house for his friends; but it was a very agreeable kind of eccentricity. It was eccentric to be ever childlike, but never childish. We might multiply instances of his eccentricity to any extent, and may safely say that the world would be much better than it is if such eccentricity were more common.|
1 R. A. Irwin, ed. Letters of Charles Waterton (London, 1955). In an introductory note.
2 Tudhoe later developed into Ushaw College.
3 The Labarri snake is one of the most venomous serpents of Guiana; a Craspedocephalus, it is allied to the Rattlesname and Fer-de-Lance. Waterton states that it often climbs trees.
4 Charles Waterton, Wanderings in South America, ed. J. G. Wood (London, 1905), p. 16.
Irwin, R. A., ed. Letters of Charles Waterton. London, 1955.
Sitwell, Edith. The English Eccentrics. London, 1958.
Waterton, Charles. Waterton's Wanderings in South America, ed. J. G. Wood. London, 1905. With an 85 page biography by J. G. Wood.