A Catholic Curiosity: The Life of Sir Jeffrey Hudson

Shakespeare’s Henry V offers this advice: “This story shall the good man teach his son….” Such counsel is urgent today, when children will learn little reliably of their history in schools, and so are all the more dependent on good souls at home who will teach them.  Children being children, will especially be fascinated by curiosities. Although I may not have been representative of all children in my own youth, one of my earliest fascinations was with Norse migrations to Vinland in the fourteenth century and, in particular, the controversial Kensington Runestone dug up in Minnesota. Oddities like that tend to rivet a child’s imagination and would be helpful for interesting the fathers of the next generation in the fathers of their past.

A boy’s eyes may glaze over if he is made to memorize only names and dates, but tell him something odd about those names and dates and it will never be forgotten. Consider, as one case in point, the defeat of the Scots by Muslims at Teba near Malaga on their way to bury the heart of Robert the Bruce in Jerusalem. King Robert had been excommunicated by both Pope Clement V and Pope John XXII, and the burial of his heart in the Holy Land was to be a penitential gesture, entrusted to Sir James Douglas. When he was killed at Teba on August 25, 1330, the knight Keith of Glastone brought it back to Melrose Abbey in Scotland.  Some 201 years earlier, the heart of Richard the Lionheart was buried in Rouen, embalmed with frankincense, as were his entrails which were entombed at Chalus, and the rest of his body at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou.  The same John XXII who excommunicated the Bruce, had received favorably in 1320 the Declaration of Arbraoth, which contained many expressions anticipatory of our 1776 Declaration of Independence. Its reputed author, Abbot Bernard, may thus be called the Thomas Jefferson of Scotland. Or, more fittingly, Thomas Jefferson was the Abbot Bernard of the United States. Arbroath had a happier connection with the papacy than did Magna Carta, which Pope Innocent III called “a shameful and demeaning agreement forced upon the King by violence and fear.” At least the Pope could read the Latin document.  In a recent interview on American television, British Prime Minister David Cameron was unable to translate the words “Magna Carta.”  That does not speak well of his schooling at Eton and Oxford. Perhaps his father should have spent more time teaching him at home.

In the saga of Catholic curiosities, unique is the smallest known adult Catholic, Sir Jeffrey Hudson who as a man was eighteen inches tall.  His parents and siblings were of average height.  He was not a typical dwarf, inasmuch as he was perfectly proportioned in every way, only tiny—more of what is called vernacularly a midget, and technically a pituitary dwarf, conditioned by a lack of growth hormone. But his hypopituitarism was without precedent in England and his perfect and delicate miniature size distinguished him from the common Continental court dwarves of his day. As a possible portent, he was born on June 14, 1619 in England’s smallest county, Rutland, whose motto is “Multum in Parvo,” or, Much in Little as David Cameron might try to translate it.  His father raised cattle, particularly bulls for baiting, for the Duke of Buckingham.  When little Jeffrey failed to grow, he was taken in to the Buckingham household as a “rarity of nature.”  He was seven years old and when King Charles I and his queen Henrietta Maria were entertained by the Duke and Duchess of Buckingham, the lavish banquet ended with a large pie out of which popped Jeffrey Hudson in a miniature suit of armor. This gave rise to a rumor that he had been baked in the pie, but this was not the case. The Queen was so delighted that the Buckinghams presented their rarity to her.  The Queen kept a separate household at Denmark House in London, and Jeffrey joined it at the end of 1626, along with two disproportionate dwarfs and a Welsh giant.  Jeffrey became favored for his wit and elegance, and Inigo Jones wrote costumed masques in which he took part.   The French queen’s court was Catholic and housed so many priests that some objections were raised among Londoners who feared a conspiracy might be afoot.  Jeffrey embraced Catholicism and kept his faith throughout his difficult life, regularly assisting at Low Masses which occasioned tasteless puns.

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Hudson and Queen Henrietta MariaIn 1630, ten-year-old Jeffrey was sent to the French court to accompany a midwife back to England for the Queen.  His returning ship was seized by Dunkirk pirates, but he was saved and crossed the Channel again in 1637 to watch the siege of Breda which the Dutch fought against the Spanish.  Back in England, he became an accomplished horseman, with a special saddle, and in the heat of the Civil War he was made a “Captain of Horse” when the royal family was billeted in Oxford and soon was knighted by King Charles I, though Sir Jeffrey preferred the title Captain as he aspired to greater heights. It was better than his court nickname, Lord Minimus. He accompanied the Queen to the Netherlands in 1642 to raise money for the Royalist troops, although the Dutch Protestants would not promise public support. He went with the Queen when she fled to France, living briefly in the Louvre and then removing with the Queen’s court to Nevers. There he made his big mistake.  For some unknown reason he got into a heated argument with the brother of William Crofts, the Queen’s Master of Horse. Very likely, Sir Jeffrey had repulsed an insult about his physical size. By this time, he had assumed a dignity of carriage and sense of importance and no longer would be the court plaything. He was a man, and a man of stature if not of height. So he challenged his offender to a duel. His opponent thought the challenge of tiny Jeffrey ridiculous and said so.  Jeffrey chose to duel with pistols on horseback. Crofts mocked him by showing up with two water pistols.  Sir Jeffrey Hudson rode toward him on his horse and shot him in the head, killing him instantly. As dueling was banned in France, he was expelled from court and country.

By this time he was 25 and set sail only to be kidnapped by Barbary pirates.  His Muslim captors took him to North Africa where he labored as a slave for 25 years. With the restoration of the English monarchy, numerous attempts were made to release slaves in Tunisia and Algeria.  Hudson was among those rescued. He received small pensions from the new Duke of Buckingham, son of his first benefactor, and from Charles II. While Hudson’s first king was only 4’ 8” tall (slightly taller in his shoes with red high heels which were the fashion of royalty), Charles II was 6’ 2”, perhaps a throwback to his great grandmother Mary, Queen of Scots, who was six feet tall. Curiously, in his years of slavery, Jeffrey had grown in spurts to 48 inches, which is not uncommon for those with pituitary deficiency, so he could no longer make much of a living as a curiosity, since he now looked like a small boy rather than a woodland sprite. Nor would he have wanted to, given his self-respect and accomplishments. Unfortunately, his return to England was coincident with anti-Catholic hysteria attendant upon the plot of Titus Oates, who had been born in Hudson’s native town of Oakham, and so he managed to keep a low profile.  He did give some interviews and returned to London from Oakham in 1676 when he was quickly imprisoned at the Gatehouse prison for being a “Roman Catholick.”  He died two years after his release in 1680, but the date of his death is unknown and he was buried as a pauper in an unmarked grave.

Sir Walter Scott mentions him in one of his Waverly Novels, “Peveril of the Peak” and some of his clothing including a blue velvet court dress is preserved at Sherborne castle in Dorset. In the Second World War, that castle housed the commandoes preparing for the D-Day invasion, which would have pleased Sir Jeffrey  (sometimes spelled Jeffery) who landed on the French beaches more than once.  The gardens of Sherborne were much admired by Alexander Pope, who rejoiced in such a Catholic name although he was only a second-generation Catholic. That poet, as the result of disease of the spinal cord, was four feet tall, the same size as Jeffrey upon his return from North Africa. It is fascinating to think that Pope could have fit into Jeffrey’s clothes, at least those of his later period.  For some unclear reason, a life-sized statue of England’s littlest knight is in the public bar of the Boat Inn in Portumna, County Galway. A marker near his birthplace bears the singular inscription:

“Sir Jeffery Hudson—1619-1682—A dwarf presented in a pie to King Charles 1st.”

And this story shall the good man teach his son.

Author’s note:  As plurals, dwarfs and dwarves seem to be legitimate options—Tolkien popularized the latter, while the former was the traditional form, and was preferred by C.S. Lewis. I suppose the two writers had little disagreement over it at the height of their popularity, but the long and short of it is that they agreed to disagree about so tiny a matter and their literary merit dwarfs any minor question about spelling.

Editor’s note: The image above of Sir Jeffrey Hudson and Queen Henrietta Maria was painted by Anthonis van Dyck in 1633.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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