1606. The Ailing Aristocrat

Dudley Lord North. (Source V&A)

He played music, he composed poems, he danced gracefully and excelled at jousting. Dudley, the third Baron North, was a man of many talents. He threw himself wholeheartedly into the  life at the court of King James I and was popular with most courtiers, although his hot temper alienated some of them.

Over time the excesses of Lord North’s lifestyle harmed both his finances and his health and in around 1606 he developed a lingering, consumptive disease, which sapped his energy and lowered his spirits. He was only twenty-five years old, but he felt like an old man at the end of life. A few years earlier, while travelling in Europe on military service, he had consumed copious amounts of hot treacle to protect himself from the plague and he later decided that this (rather than the manner in which he had been living) was the cause of his ill health.

‘Get away from court’, Lord North’s friends and physicians advised. ‘Country air will benefit your health’. So he travelled to Earage in Sussex (now called Eridge) to visit his friend the Earl of Bergavenny (now Abergavenny) and, hopefully, recuperate.

His host’s property, a gothic hunting lodge, was certainly in the country. A good distance from London, it was surrounded with dense, dark forest, broken only by occasional sandstone outcrops, clearings in which iron was smelted over charcoal fires, a few scattered houses and some poor quality roads. The closest town, nine miles or so away, was Tunbridge (present day Tonbridge), with its castle, market and school.

Plaque to Lord North beside the wells

Rural life soon proved too quiet and restrictive for Lord North and the fresh air seemed not to be making any difference to his health. So after just a short time he set off to ride back to London, feeling more despondent than ever. He had only gone a short distance when, as he was passing through a wooded valley, he caught sight of water bubbling up from a spring. The shiny scum on its surface, and the rust-red trail it left as it flowed into a nearby brook, reminded him of a spa he had visited while abroad. Perhaps this water would have the same healing properties?

The story goes that he borrowed a bowl from the occupant of a nearby cottage and drank some of the water. Its iron taste seemed to indicate mineral content and so he had several bottles filled and took them back to London. The physicians he consulted there analysed the water and concluded that it contained ‘vitriol’ – a substance thought to be able to cure ‘the colic, the melancholy, and the vapours’. In addition to this it was said of it: ‘it made the lean fat, the fat lean; it killed flat worms in the belly, loosened the clammy humours of the body, and dried the over-moist brain’. [Note: I have found a number of places where these words are quoted, but nowhere that cites the original source.]

The following year, once winter was over and the roads were in a better state, Lord North returned to Earage and stayed for three further months, drinking the waters regularly. When he appeared at court again, looking in the best of health, the contrast with his previous sickly condition made other courtiers curious as to what had brought about his recovery. Soon many of them were heading into the country in the summer months each year  to visit the spring. To accommodate them Lord Bergavenny had the site cleared, wells dug, paving laid and the area enclosed with wooden railings. A Mrs Humphreys was appointed as the first in a long line of ‘dippers’ to extract water from the spring and pour it out for visitors to drink. (She was said to be the person who had drawn water for Lord North on that first occasion).

Although he had benefited from the water, Lord North was evidently not completely healed. Suffering from both ill health and financial difficulties, he spent most of the rest of his life quietly at his home in Cambridgeshire, occupying himself with his family, music and writing.

The Spring in 1664 (Source: Colbran’s Directory)

The Chalybeate spring, meanwhile, continued to grow in popularity. In the early years visitors had to find accommodation in the nearby hamlets of Rusthall and Southborough, or further away in Tonbridge. However, when Charles I’s French wife, 19-year-old Queen Henrietta Maria, came in 1629 to convalesce after the premature birth and death of her first child, she opted for a different solution and set up camp on nearby Bishops Down for six weeks. As many as forty tents were required to accommodate the Queen and her entourage, who were entertained during their stay by masques and dancing. A further royal visit in 1663, by Henrietta Maria’s son Charles II and his wife Catherine, secured the spa’s popularity.

 

Over 400 years later…..

In the summer of 2014 the Chalybeate spring ran dry for the first time since Lord North discovered it. Despite various investigations it seemingly has not been possible to discover the reason.

Meanwhile at my home, on the other side of the Common, the rusty spring water that soaks the ground around my bins shows no sign of drying up. A pity that a covenant on the house (which was built in 1901) says I am not permitted to pump water out of the ground!

The Wells

Note

  • This version of the discovery of springs at Tunbridge Wells is the most generally accepted one. However, there is a lack of original sources to confirm it. The earliest account is in Benge Burr’s ‘History of Tunbridge Wells’, published over 100 years’ later in 1766. Even he acknowledges the lack of concrete evidence available to him.
  • A ‘Chalybeate’ spring is one whose water contains iron salts. It is pronounced Ka-lee-bee-at.

 

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