IF the golden gate of preferment is not usually opened to men of real merit, persons of no worth have entered it in a most extraordinary manner.
Chevreau informs us that the Sultan Osman having observed a gardener planting a cabbage with some peculiar dexterity, the manner so attracted his imperial eye that he raised him to an office near his person, and shortly afterwards he rewarded the planter of cabbages by creating him beglerbeg or viceroy of the isle of Cyprus!
Marc Antony gave the house of a Roman citizen to a cook, who had prepared for him a good supper! Many have been raised to extraordinary preferment by capricious monarchy for the sake of a jest. Lewis XI. promoted a poor priest whom he found sleeping in the porch of a church, that the proverb might be verified, that to lucky men good fortune will come even when they are asleep! Our Henry VII. made a viceroy of Ireland if not for the sake of, at least with a clench. When the king was told that all Ireland could not rule the Earl of Kildare, he said, then shall this earl rule all Ireland.
It is recorded of Henry VIII. that he raised a servant to a considerable dignity because he had taken care to have a roasted boar prepared for him, when his majesty happened to he in the humour of feasting on one! and the title of Sugar-loaf-court, in Leadenhall-street, was probably derived from another piece of munificence of this monarch: the widow of a Mr. Cornwallis was rewarded by the gift of a dissolved priory there situated, for some fine puddings with which she had presented his majesty!
When Cardinal de Monte was elected pope, before he left the conclave he bestowed a cardinal’s hat upon a servant, whose chief merit consisted in the daily attentions he paid to his holiness’s monkey!
Louis Barbier owed all his good fortune to the familiar knowledge he had of Rabelais. He knew his Rabelais by heart. This served to introduce him to the Duke of Orleans, who took great pleasure in reading that author. It was for this he gave him an abbey, and he was gradually promoted till he became a cardinal.
George Villiers was suddenly raised from a private station, and loaded with wealth and honours by James the First, merely for his personal beauty. Almost all the favourites of James became so from their handsomeness.
M. De Chamillart, minister of France, owed his promotion merely to his being the only man who could beat Louis XIV, at billiards. He retired with a pension, after ruining the finances of his country.
The Duke of Luynes was originally a country lad, who insinuated himself into the favour of Louis XIII. then young, by making bird-traps (piès-grièches) to catch sparrows. It was little expected, (says Voltaire,) that these puerile amusements were to be terminated by a most sanguinary revolution. De Luynes, after causing his patron the Marshal of Ancre to be assassinated, and the queen mother to be imprisoned, raised himself to a title and the most tyrannical power.
Sir Walter Raleigh owed his promotion to an act of gallantry to Queen Elizabeth, and Sir Christopher Hatton owed his preferment to his dancing: Queen Elizabeth, observes Granger, with all her sagacity could not see the future lord chancellor in the fine dancer. The same writer says, “Nothing could form a more curious collection of memoirs than anecdotes of preferment.” Could the secret history of great men be traced, it would appear that merit is rarely the first step to advancement. It would much oftener be found to be owing to superficial qualifications and even vices.
§ Later editions of the Curiosities add a pair of footnotes, both pertaining to the paragraph beginning ‘George Villiers:’
On his first coming to court he was made cup-bearer to the king, then Master of the Horse, then ennobled, made Lord High Admiral, Warden of the Cinque Ports, Constable of Windsor Castle, Ranger of Royal Parks, &c. &c. A list of the public plunderings of himself and family is given in Sloane MS. 826, amounting to more than 27,000 l. per annum in rents of manors, irrespective of 50,000 l. “paid to the duke by privie seale of free guifts, but alleged to be intended for the navie.” Many pensions and customs were also made over to his use.
King James delighted in calling the Duke of Buckingham “Steenie,” as has been already instanced in the letter quoted, p. 463, Vol. I. This was not the duke’s Christian name, but was invented for him by his royal master, who fancied his features resembled those usually given to St. Stephen, and whose face was usually depicted in accordance with the description in Acts vi. 15, “as it had been the face of an angel.”
¶ This article is revised and expanded from its original in early (1790s) editions of the Curiosities. One anecdote included in earlier versions of the piece, but omitted here, runs thus:
Van Cleeve was a painter of great merit; he came to England, sanguine in expectations of meeting with encouragement from Philip and Mary; but both him and his works were slighted. He was fool enough to turn mad on the occasion.