A note on Sir Christopher Heydon and the Great Conjunction

by Barendina Smedley

Not much is left of one of my very favourite no-longer-extant neighbours, Sir Christopher Heydon of Baconsthorpe and Saxlingham in the county of Norfolk, who was born in 1561 and died at the start of 1623.

Heydon was the son and grandson of Norfolk landowners — the culmination of intermarried lines of ambitious lawyers and local political figures, in that sense not unlike the Townshends of Raynham or the Cokes of Holkham, except that in Sir Christopher’s case, the upward trajectory was due to receive a correction in the very near future.

Heydon studied first at Gresham’s School in Holt, and then at Peterhouse, Cambridge. As someone who lives in the Old Rectory, Blakeney, it’s quite striking to me that while Heydon matriculated at Peterhouse at Easter 1576, both James Calthorpe — another north Norfolk landowner and patron of the living at Blakeney — and James Poynter, soon to serve as the controversial incumbent at Blakeney and Wiveton 1584-1621 — matriculated at Cambridge (Trinity Hall and Corpus Christi, respectively) the year before, in Easter 1575. Cambridge wasn’t a big place then, so it’s hard to imagine these young men with their north Norfolk connections wouldn’t have known each other.

Heydon’s university education was presumably intended to equip him further to advance his family’s status in local and national politics, but for some reason, after he took his degree in 1578/9 at the age of 18, it’s reported that he ‘travelled widely on the continent’. Once he returned, he attempted a parliamentary career. It was not an immediate success. In 1586, he stood for the Norfolk county seat against another local gentleman and lost. His father Sir William Heydon, who must have been pretty influential at this point, somehow convinced the privy council to call a fresh poll, in which Heydon was duly elected. Unfortunately the House of Commons then embarked on a dispute with the privy council about its right to overturn electoral results, quashing the second poll result. In 1588, when there was another election, Heydon managed to win properly on the first try — but made little impact on the national scene, remaining more interested in travelling across continental Europe, where restless Englishmen could play out the era’s great doctrinal tensions in actual battlefield engagements. This seems to have suited Heydon, whose zeal for reformed religion was consistent throughout his life.

Meanwhile, however, Heydon faced other problems. His father, Sir William, enjoyed making speculative investments but wasn’t much good at it. As a result by the 1590s he had run up debts of something like £11,000 — a fortune by the standards of the day — and so decided to sell off most of his property. As heir to these estates, some of which were entailed to him, Christopher Heydon unsurprisingly objected to the plan. The feud between the two escalated to the point where Sir William, as much out of spite as anything else, threatened to demolish the family seat at Baconsthorpe, a plan only thwarted by yet another intervention by the privy council, which thought this tactic would set a bad precedent. Christopher Heydon had to sue first his father, and then his father’s widow, in order to receive any of his inheritance, which ultimately consisted of mostly of debt. All of this goes a long way towards explaining why Baconsthorpe Castle is a ruin, albeit an extremely attractive one, today.

Worse was to come. Heydon’s time at Peterhouse had coincided with that of Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex. Heydon accompanied Essex on the Cadiz expedition of 1596, during which he was knighted, and would have accompanied him to Ireland afterwards, as did Heydon’s younger brother, had his own financial and other domestic problems not intervened. Finally, in February 1601, when Essex disastrously attempted a coup d’etat, both Heydon brothers offered him their energetic support, leading rebel troops through Ludgate. When the coup collapsed, Sir Christopher was forced into hiding, from which he fired off abject letters to Sir Robert Cecil, pleading for his life. For reasons best known to himself, Cecil brokered a deal whereby Heydon was let off with a short prison sentence and a £2,000 fine to add to all his other unpayable debts. From this point onward, Heydon effectively retired from public life, which in practice meant internal exile either at Baconsthorpe, or once he had mortgaged that, in the house that his father had started building, but never quite finished, in the tiny hamlet of Saxlingham, about a half hour’s walk up the hill from what were then the flourishing Glaven ports of Blakeney, Wiveton and Cley-next-the-Sea. 

But there had always been more to Sir Christopher Heydon than the contentious stuff of local political disputes or even the more intoxicating stuff of high-level court intrigues. 

Heydon married twice. His first wife was Mirabel Rivet, daughter of a London merchant, who died in 1592, at the young age of 22 years. Heydon designed her tomb, which was erected in the tiny church at Saxlingham. Here is how the antiquary Francis Blomefield described it in the middle of the 18th century: 

“[Sir Christopher Heydon] erected a most curious and sumptuous monument, which takes up almost the whole area [of the chancel], inclosed with iron rails, there being just space enough left to go round the monument, which is raised in form of an Egyptian pyramid, of marble and stone, supported by pillars, and reaching almost to the top of the chancel, having an urn on the summit; in the arch under the pyramid, and which supports it, is the effigies of a lady kneeling on a cushion, with a desk before her, on which lies a Bible opened with these words, — “I am sure that my Redeemer liveth, &c.” Over her head, an oval stone projects, so curiously polished, as to reflect her effigies, as from a looking-glass; and at each corner are two children, four boys and four girls, on their knees; there are four steps to ascend to the effigies of the lady; at each corner of the second step, stands a Dorick pillar; on the top of that which stands south-west, is the statue of a woman veiled, her left foot treading on a tortoise, with a dog by her right foot; on the north-west pillar, a swan charged with stars or estoils; on the north-east, a centaur in a maze, or labyrinth; and on the south-east pillar, a man in armour kneeling on a cushion.

“This pyramid is ornamented with many hieroglyphical figures and representations; on the east side, is a man blowing bladders, &c. Heydon’s crest, and Heydon quartering Loverd, Moore, Owlton, Warren and or, on a chevron gules three swans proper, and azure, three mascles argent in semi of cross croslets or, impaling quarterly in 1st and 4th argent three barrulets, and in chief as many trivets sable, Rivet; and in the 2d and 3d per pale argent and sable on a chevron between three lozenges, as many martlets counterchanged, Rivet, with the crest of Rivet, an arm couped at the elbow, per pale argent and sable, holding a sword proper, and this inscription:

M[irabilae] H[eydonae] T[homae]  Rivet Militis et A. Cotton filiæ Fæminæ pientissimæ Christophorus Heydonus, Uxori suæ, de se Optime merenti, Amoris, Virtutisqe causâ Lugens posuit. Also Rivet impaling Cotton with his quarterings.

On the west side, Haydon’s crest, and a thunderbolt, Prov. 31, c. v. 28, &c. Filii assurgentes beatam prædicant eam, Maritus ejus similiter laudat eam. Fallax Gratia, et vana pulchritudo, Mulier Reverentiâ Jehovæ prædita, Ipsa laudem comparat sibi. Heus! bone Viator! Expolitum quod vides virtute, non fænore partum est, neq; Omnibus decens Monumentum.”

In case the meaning of any of this was somehow unclear, Heydon also produced a treatise decoding the hieroglyphics and other more esoteric points regarding the tomb, which must have cost quite a lot to erect. Incidentally, if it’s true that Lady Mirabel Heydon died aged 22 after giving birth to eight children, this perhaps explains why, by 1601 when Heydon was pleading for his life to Sir Robert Cecil, he and his second wife, Anne Dodge, to whom he was married by 1599, had fourteen living children — and perhaps also why Heydon’s personal finances were such a continual disaster.

Yet there was more yet to Heydon than incompetent political scheming, extravagance, debt and philoprogenitive impulses. He was also passionately interested in astrology. 

Heydon seems to have encountered astrology under the influence of his friends Richard Forster, physician to the earl of Leicester, and Richard Fletcher, a mathematician, physician and astrologer attached to Caius College, Cambridge. In due course Heydon retained as his personal chaplain William Bredon, an important astrologer in his own right. The point was to observe the apparent movements of the stars and planets, and to deduce from them the fortunes of individuals, projects or even kingdoms here on earth. This had been done since ancient times, but by Heydon’s era, technical advances made celestial observations easier and more accurate than ever before. At the risk of stating the obvious, the early seventeenth century was a point at which the boundary between astrology and astronomy was permeable; when gentleman amateurs could function alongside learned professionals; and where Heydon’s own brand of militant protestantism could coexist comfortably with a belief in rational scientific enquiry and also astrological predictions. The heavens were God’s creation, and His judgements could, with enough learning, be prognosticated there.

In pursuing his passion, Heydon put together an extensive library, conducted his own observations using what was at the time cutting-edge astronomical equipment and carried on extensive correspondence with other experts in the field. He read Tycho Brahe and Galileo, and corresponded (a bit) with Kepler. But he also recalled to his friend William Camden that, using a ‘trunk’ (a telescope) ‘of my own experience, I have told eleven stars in the Pleiades, whereas no age ever remembers above seven’. Imagine the sharp thrill of being one of the first to understand some aspect of God’s handiwork that no one had ever observed accurately before — it is there in Heydon’s language. He must have felt that, whatever else had gone wrong in his life, in his star-gazing he was a member of a very exalted company indeed.

And then, in 1603, Heydon published his great contribution to the subject: A defence of judiciall astrologie in answer to a treatise lately published by M. John Chamber, wherein all those places of Scripture, Councells, fathers, schoolmen, later divines, philosophers, histories, lawes, constitutions, and reasons drawne out of Sixtus Empirics, Picus, Pererius, Sixtus ab Heminga, and others, against this arte, are particularly examined, and the lawfulnes thereof, by equivalent proofes, warranted. His argument was that astrology was both useful — in the practical sense that it could predict events — but also in no way incompatible with protestant Christianity. At the time, Heydon’s social status made it hard for critics to argue with him; today, it makes it easy for scholars to patronise him as an amateur who got his more rough-and-ready chaplain, apparently a hard-drinking chain-smoker who would smoke bell-ropes when he ran out of tobacco, to do all the really difficult mathematical calculations for him. 

Heydon’s arguments were played out more specifically in his treatise upon the Great Conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter that took place on 17 December 1603. Observing this event as it took place in north Norfolk’s clear arching skies, as well as the passage of a highly visible comet a few years later, he discerned all sorts of useful lessons. For instance, he predicted that the Dutch would defeat their Spanish oppressors, and that Spain would lose the West Indies. The Austrian Habsburgs would fall in 1623, followed by Rome in 1646. All this would lead to the ruin of the Ottomans and the rise of Christ’s kingdom, ‘the fifth Monarchies of the world’, in or around 1682. Privately, in correspondence, he speculated about whether these changes might also bring about a return to true apostolic simplicity and even ‘a new Democraty or Aristocraty of the Church and Commonwealth’ — but perhaps, for someone who had already got in quite a lot of trouble with secular authorities, that was a speculation too far, although it was certainly one that would attract some posthumous interest during the millenarian free-for-all of the Interregnum.

Did Heydon ever discuss any of this with James Poynter, his erstwhile Cambridge near-contemporary and the parson at Blakeney? Poynter, after all, had served as chaplain to Henry Percy, 9th earl of Northumberland, whose circle included the astronomer James Harriot, and who was no stranger to abstruse speculation, cutting-edge science — or indeed, after his disastrous implication on the fridges of the Gunpowder Plot, political disgrace. Poynter must have been lonely in Blakeney. As the years went by, he fell out quite badly with his patron, James Calthorpe, and possibly with many of his parishioners, too, as well as existing in a permanent state of acrimony with local puritan grandee Sir Nathaniel Bacon. A surviving libel text relating to Poynter portrays him as arrogant and dictatorial — ‘thy mind so much to pride inclined / thy betters thou doest not know’ — a scholarship boy who now went about dressed in velvet, learned but insufficiently deferential. He appears to have been estranged from his wife, but also to have been involved with a number of woman in contexts that could imply anything from casual but consensual relationships to outright sexual assault. Heydon, for his part, served as a justice in the 1580s and 90s, and as a commissioner for musters in the late 1590s, during which he surely would have encountered Poytner as well as Calthorpe. Did Heydon and Poynter form some sort of bond? Is it too whimsical to picture the two of them here at what is now my Old Rectory, sitting until late in the night by the big hearth in what was then simply called the parlour, discussing court gossip or astrological predictions or tedious neighbours? Did James Poynter ever climb the tower at Baconsthorpe and look to the heavens with Sir Christopher Heydon? Might they even have viewed the Great Conjunction together there?

Heydon died at the beginning of 1623, at the age of 61 years; Poynter had died two years before. This is a shame, as on 16 July 1623 there occurred a much closer version of the Great Conjunction of 1603 — something that would next occur centuries later on 21 December 2020 — which I expect Heydon would have liked to have observed at first hand.

But there is now very little left to show for Sir Christopher Heydon’s life.

Baconsthorpe, as mentioned above, became derelict through lack of repair, and was later largely broken down and sold off for the value of the building materials. The smaller house at Saxlingham mostly burned down at the start of the 20th century — then the surviving 17th century wing was torn down in the 1980s, with the casualness regarding historical survivals that passes for normal in this part of the world, before the house was more or less entirely rebuilt

Heydon and his second wife were buried in Baconsthorpe church. As far as I can discover, his tomb is no longer extant — unlike that of his father, whom he disliked. The spectacular tomb of his first wife, Lady Mirabel Heydon, was judged in 1789 to have become unsafe, although that may simply have been an excuse to get rid of something by that time unfashionable, and was also demolished. Only two fragments of it remain — the effigy of Lady Mirabel herself, kneeling at prayer, and her open Bible. 

The tomb, at least, seems to have left a lasting scar on the sensibilities of Saxlingham residents. Writing in the 1930s, local historian F. N. Stagg of Salthouse recorded the following:

“In 1931 there was living an old resident of Saxlingham who remembered that all the children in his boyhood days were scared to go near the avenue leading to [Heydon] Hall after dark, for fear of meeting Lady Heydon (Mirabel) on her nightly ride to Bayfield Hall. His elder sister who had been in service as a girl in the farm house which was then within the ruins of the Hall, remembered an indelible red spot on the stone stairs which was believed to have been the blood of a serving wench killed by Lady Mirabel.”

But it’s striking that Sir Christopher Heydon has vanished from this narrative, leaving only his young, apparently revenant wife to frighten the local infants.

Worst of all, perhaps, at least from their own point of view, is the fact that Sir Christopher Heydon’s generation of his family was the last to make much of an impact on national or even county life. His eldest son, named William after Sir Christopher’s unloved father, was one of thousands of men killed on the Duke of Buckingham’s unsuccessful attempt to relieve the siege of San Rochelle in 1627; Heydon’s second son, also a soldier, served as lieutenant-general of the ordnance to Charles I during the Civil War, also enjoyed casting horoscopes but died before the Restoration. After this, however, while the Townshends and Cokes prospered, and even the Calthorpes melded into other gentry families, the Heydons lapsed into obscurity, remembered if at all as a picturesque explanation for stains on a farmhouse staircase that itself no longer exists. Sic transit gloria mundi. 

And then there is Heydon’s astrological writing, which no one now takes seriously as what he surely intended — inside information on how God’s wonder-working providence was going to play out — but which instead has collapsed into something he possibly would not have recognised — a lengthy footnote within a wider history of science and its overlap with a particular strand of militant protestant religious belief.

Last year, in 2019, saddened by another demolition closer to home, I decided to get away from Blakeney for the space of a morning, and undertook a brief pilgrimage on foot to see what was left of Sir Christopher Heydon in the little hamlet of Saxlingham. The route I took — up a steep hill, then along a narrow little lane where the crops in the field rose high on either side, obscuring any view except the way ahead — was surely the one James Poynter would have taken had he ever had cause to visit his gallant and learned neighbour. 

I visited Saxlingham church, and located the effigy of Lady Mirabel, and her Bible, and tried to imagine that extraordinary tomb shoehorned into its narrow chancel. Peering out at me was an enigmatic medieval corbel, which Sir Christopher must surely have known very well. I looked at some stones in the churchyard, including the one shown at the start of this note. There were old yews huddled about, but these were far too young to have loomed over Sir Christopher.

I wandered between the few scattered houses. At one point I saw a wall that might possibly have been old enough for Sir Christopher to have known it — a really elegant example of coursed, knapped, closely-laid, wholly structural flint — so different from the nasty applied, pastiche version that blights every cheap new-build here these days. I tried to imagine what must have gone through Sir Christopher’s mind as he looked up at the very same sky that arched over me that morning — what it told him about the conflicts and doubts and enmities that were so real and urgent to him. Towards the end of his life, Sir Christopher contacted the privy council to try to alert them to a supposed recusant Catholic plot on the part of some of his own Norfolk neighbours to raise money to aid the Habsburgs in their campaigns against the protestants in Bohemia. His own locality, I suspect, all too often got on his nerves; looking to the heavens, he found vindication, clarity and spurious certainty — the promise, however insubstantial, of a happier future. 

Tonight, soon after sunset, here in north Norfolk, the newest long-awaited and very rare Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn should be visible — were it not for the clouds that, this being 2020, will presumably hide it from view.

No matter. I am neither an astronomer nor an astrologer; although I’d have enjoyed the spectacle for its rarity and oddity, it would have told me nothing much either about affairs on earth or in heaven. What it will do, and has done, however, is to have reminded me one again of this half-forgotten, part-mythic, in some ways unintelligibly different but in other ways very recognisable life, that of Sir Christopher Heydon, of Baconsthorpe and Saxlingham, in the county of Norfolk.

That the Great Conjunction is happening at such a consequential time, for this country and its relationship with continental Europe, would, I think, have pleased him — or perhaps simply agitated him. The fact that Jupiter and Saturn can, by accident, form themselves into an improvised cosmic reminder of such a tiny, fragile and inconsequential thing as one individual human life certainly pleases me.