Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Armstrong, Archibald
ARMSTRONG, ARCHIBALD (d. 1672), jester at the courts of James I and Charles I, commonly called Archie, was born of Scotch parents either at Arthuret in Cumberland (Lysons, Magna Britannia, iv. 13) or at Langholm in Roxburghshire (Stark, Biographia Scotica). After gaining a widespread reputation, according to a well-known tradition, as a dexterous sheep-stealer in the neighbourhood of Eskdale (Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, iii. 479), he was attached at an early age to the household of James VI of Scotland. On his accession to the English throne, Armstrong accompanied the king, and, during the first years of his reign in England, he took a regular part in the 'fooleries' which the master of the revels prepared each evening for James's amusement, but the performances recorded of him consisted mainly of the roughest horseplay (Weldon, Court of King James, p. 92). The king, however, evinced a strong attachment for Armstrong, who was characteristically Scotch, and, making him his official court jester, gave him a permanent place among his personal attendants.
Armstrong rapidly took advantage of the influence he acquired at the English court to treat his royal master and the noblemen in his service with the utmost freedom and familiarity, and he was repeatedly the cause of petty imbroglios. The story is told that on one occasion before 1612, when the king was staying with a large company at Newmarket, Armstrong raised a childish quarrel between James and his eldest son, Henry, by ascribing to the prince a greater popularity than his father commanded in the country, and the prince's friends revenged themselves upon the fool's impudent officiousness by tossing him 'every night they could meet him in a blanket like a dog.' Sir Henry Wotton describes an elaborate contest 'at tilt, torny, and on foot,' that took place in London in 1613 'before their Maiesties,' between 'Archy and a famous knight called Sir Thomas Persons,' whom the fool had insulted (Reliquiæ Wottonianæ, ed. 1685, p. 406). On another occasion (9 April 1616) Armstrong addressed a boldly familiar letter to the Earl of Cumberland, lord lieutenant of several northern counties, peremptorily demanding a vacant office for 'my cozen, John Woollsen' (Dartmouth MSS., Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. ii. 19a). Similarly, in September 1619, when the king was being meanly entertained by the Earl of Northampton, who had recently been promoted in the peerage, Armstrong openly called James's attention to the small account the earl 'made of him' now that 'he had got what he wanted.' But in spite of his unruly speeches, the king treated Archie with increasing favour, and he not only gained great social distinction, but amassed a large fortune. On 16 May 1611 he was granted a pension of two shillings a day during pleasure, which a month later was re-granted for life, and almost every year James presented him with an elaborate uniform. On 20 Aug. 1618 a patent for making tobacco-pipes was secured to him, and rich presents were frequently made him by the king's friends and suitors. In May 1617, when James was hunting near Aberdeen, he was admitted, with other royal attendants, to the freedom of the city, and was given 'one Portugall ducat' (Keith-Murray MSS., Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. iii. 409), and the boroughs of Coventry and Nottingham honoured him with gifts of apparel and money when he was visiting those towns in attendance on the king (Nichols's Progresses of James I, iii. 430-1, 711). The important place that Armstrong held in court society at the time is further attested by John Taylor, the water poet, who dedicated, in 1021, his 'Praise, Antiquity, and Commodity of Beggary,' to 'the bright eye-dazeling mirrour of mirth, adelantado of alacrity, the pump of pastime, spout of sport, and regent of ridiculous confabulations, Archibald Armestrong, alias the court Archy.' The dedicatory epistle speaks in no complimentary terms of Armstrong's avarice and of his nimbleness of tongue, which makes 'other men's money runne into your purse;' it is, therefore, significant that in the collected edition of Taylor's poems, published in 1630, the epistle was suppressed (Hazlitt, Prefaces, Dedications, Epistles, selected from Early English Books, 1874).
In 1623 Armstrong reached the zenith of his public career. Although he condemned the Spanish match with his customary directness of speech (Neal, Hist, of Puritans, ii. 122), he was included at his own desire in the retinue of Prince Charles and Buckingham on their famous visit to Spain. An 'extraordinarie rich coate' for Archie holds an important place in the wardrobe accounts of the expedition (Denbigh MSS., Hist. MSS. Com. Rep. vii. 2246), and just before setting out he created much consternation among 'the privy-chamber gentlemen,' who complained bitterly of the favours bestowed on him, by asking permission to take a servant to wait upon him. While in Spain, Armstrong behaved with unprecedented arrogance. He soon ingratiated himself with the royal family at Madrid, and in a letter to James I, dated 28 April 1623, he wrote that the King of Spain received him in audience when neither 'men of your own nor your son's men can come nere of him' (Addit. MSS. 19402, f. 79). According to his own account Philip IV granted him a pension of which he received in 1631 'the arrearages amounting to 1,500l.' (Authentic Documents of time of Charles I, ii. 104), and we know that Olivarez, the prime minister, gave him a 'rich suit.' James Howell (Letters, p. 136), writing from Madrid (10 July 1623), says that 'our cousin Archie hath more privilege than any,' and that he was often invited to amuse the Infanta in her private chamber, and one day twitted her with the defeat of the Armada. To his English companions he made himself repeatedly obnoxious. Sir Tobie Matthew, one of Prince Charles's attendants, unable to endure his blunt taunts, quarrelled openly with him one day at a public dinner, and before the embassy left Madrid he came to very high words with Buckingham. He 'dared to speak his opinion to the duke,' says Fray Francisco, the author of 'the Narrative of the Spanish Marriage' (published for Camden Soc. p. 252), 'with all the force of truth, blaming severely the manner in which the whole negotiation had been carried on without consistency or truthfulness.' Buckingham, unable to silence Armstrong, threatened to have him hanged, and 'the fool replied in a way worthy of one of better sense: "No one has ever heard of a fool being threatened for talking, but many dukes have been beheaded for their insolence."' On his return to England, Armstrong's continued attacks upon the Spanish match and upon Buckingham rendered him highly popular. Ben Jonson made more or less complimentary references to 'the principal fool of state' in a masque prepared for the court revels on Twelfth Night 1623–4, in the 'Staple of News' (iii. 1), written in 1625, and in his 'Discoveries' (vii. 80), and Bishop Corbet in his 'Poems' (p. 68) spoke of the clamorous applause and laughter provoked by 'salt Archy.'
On the accession of Charles I Armstrong retained his office, and, being permitted as much license as before, wielded for a time no little political power. A petition from William Beloe, a Danish pensioner of the king's mother, shows how jealously he was regarded by the other attendants at court. Beloe states, that the king had given so special a direction for the payment of Archie's entertainment, that he was better off than in the late king's time; and another petition of a later date tells us that Charles I gave Armstrong an estate of 1,000 acres in Ireland. In a letter of much political interest addressed at the end of the year 1628 to the Earl of Carlisle, Archie boldly writes in reference to the murder of Buckingham, that 'the greatest enemy of three kings is gone;' from the same source we learn that Armstrong was married, and that a son had just been born to him whom he named Philip for the 'King of Spain's sake,' and whose godparents comprised five of the highest officials and peeresses in the state. But Armstrong's fall was not far distant. With Archbishop Laud he was, as with Buckingham, never on good terms. The fool openly ridiculed his religious and political principles, and a quarrel between them lingered on for many years. On one occasion Armstrong, having obtained permission to say grace at Whitehall in Laud's presence, blurted out 'Great praise be given to God, and little laud to the devil.' The archbishop was at first unable to obtain any redress; his enemies rallied round Armstrong, and the fool continued with impunity to 'belch in his face such miscarriages as he was really guilty of.' But on the Marquis of Hamilton's return from Scotland in 1637 Avith the news of the rebellion at Stirling in opposition to Laud's new liturgy, the fool, after many expressions of disapproval of the Scotch policy, went a step too far. Meeting the archbishop as he was entering the council chamber at Whitehall on 11 March 1636–7, he shouted out, 'Whoe's feule now? Does not your grace hear the news from Striveling?' Laud at once brought the matter before the council, at which the king and many noblemen were present, and Armstrong was condemned 'to have his coat pulled over his head and be discharged the king's service and banished the king's court.' Armstrong pleaded in vain the privilege of his office; the order was summarily executed, and the post of court-jester was immediately filled up. According to some accounts Laud endeavoured to bring the fool before the Star Chamber, and the mediation of the queen alone prevented the success of this attempt.
For some years after his disgrace Armstrong remained in London. He was seen on one occasion walking disconsolately about Westminster Abbey, dressed in black like a priest, a disguise in which, he said, he could speak with impunity whatever scandal he pleased. But his wealth had enabled him to become a large creditor, and he spent much of his time in mercilessly distraining on his debtors. Many petitions to the privy council and the House of Lords complain of the sharp practices he employed to obtain the repayment of his loans, and from 1638 to 1642 a lawsuit was pending between him and the Dean of York with regard to 200l. alleged to be due to him from the latter, and Laud intervened in the clergyman's behalf. One attempt Armstrong made to revenge himself on the archbishop. ln 1641, on Laud's arrest by the order of the commons, he published a small pamphlet entitled 'Archy's Dreams, sometimes Jester to his Majestie; but exiled the Court by Canterburies malice. With a relation for whom an odde chaire stood wide in Hell.' Many instances of Laud's tyrannical cruelty are here adduced, and Armstrong confidently consigns him to hell, to join 'blind Bonner and Woolsey,' whom he introduces 'dancing a galliard.' Almost immediately afterwards Armstrong apparently retired to Arthuret in Cumberland, where, according to a reference to him in a poem on a local topic published in 1656, he became a considerable landowner (Fatal Nuptials, or the Mournful Marriage; London Magazine, x. 287, 408). In the parish register of Arthuret there are entries of the baptism of 'a base son' of Archibald Armstrong on 17 Dec. 1643; of his marriage, probably for the second time, with Sybella Bell on 4 June 1646; and of his burial 1 April 1672; but no memorial of him in the churchyard survives.
Besides the pamphlet ascribed to him above, he is credited with the authorship of 'A Banquet of Iests: a Change of Cheare. Being a collection of modern Iests, Witty Ieeres, Pleasaunt Taunts, Merry Tales,' the first edition of which was published in 1630. A portrait of Armstrong forms the frontispiece, with the verses inscribed below:
Archee, by kings and princes graced of late,
Jested himself into a fair estate.
After the book had passed through three editions, a second part was added in 1633, and a fifth edition of the whole work appeared in 1639. Only a few of the jokes have any claim to originality; the majority are to be found in previous collections. In 1660 there was published in London, 'A choice Banquet of Witty Jests, Rare Fancies, and Pleasant Novels. Fitted for all the Lovers of Wit, Mirth, and Eloquence. Being an addition to Archee's Jests, taken out of his Closet; but never published in his Lifetime.' But the appearance of Armstrong's name on the title-page was probably a bookseller's device; the fact that he was still alive in Cumberland is a certain proof that he was in no way connected with the publication of the work.
[Lysons's Magna Britannia, iv. 13; Calendars of State Papers from 1611 to 1639; Strafford Papers, ii. 133; Osborne, Memorialls of King James in his Works (1682), p. 474; Rushworth, Historical Collections, part 2, vol. i. pp. 470–1; House of Lords Journal, v. 372 b, 433 a; Doran's History of Court Fools, pp. 196 et seq. (with the supplementary chapter in Chambers's Book of Days, i. pp. 181–5); Gent. Mag. xci. part ii., ciii. part ii.; Thoms's Anecdotes and Traditions (Camden Soc.), p. 67; Nares's Glossary (ed. Halliwell and Wright), i. 31.]