Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sheppard, Fleetwood

SHEPPARD, Sir FLEETWOOD (1634–1698), poet and courtier, born 1 Jan. 1633–4 and baptised on 20 Jan., was second son of William Sheppard, esq., of Great Rollright, near Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, by Maria (or Mary), daughter of Sir Fleetwood Dormer of Grange, Buckinghamshire. His father (the son of William Sheppard and Dorothy, sister of Sir John Osborne, remembrancer of the exchequer) was in 1644 'slain by one of the king's soldiers,' as the parish register—or satellitibus as the 'Alumni Oxonienses'—has it; he was buried at Rollright on 2 Oct. 1644, leaving his wife with seven children. She died in January 1647.

Fleetwood matriculated at Oxford on 19 Nov. 1650, and entered as a commoner at Magdalen Hall; but soon after migrated to Christ Church, where he was nominated to a studentship, probably through the interest of the Carnarvon family, to whom he was doubly related: his mother's brother, Peter Dormer, married his father's sister, Ann Sheppard, on 17 May 1637.

He graduated B.A. on 10 May 1654, and M.A. on 11 June 1657, and, declining to take orders, entered as a student at Gray's Inn on 14 Oct. 1657. He did not apparently leave Oxford until after the Restoration. Then, according to Wood, he 'retired to London, hanged on the court, became a debauchee and an atheist, a grand companion with [Charles Sackville] Lord Buckhurst [afterwards Earl of Dorset] [q. v.], Henry Savile, and others.' He satirised in verse contemporary follies, and soon acquired considerable reputation as a critic and a wit. In 1678 Thomas Rymer [q. v.] addressed to him in the form of a letter his critical essay on 'The Tragedies of the Last Ages.'

To Lord Buckhurst, whose acquaintance he probably first made about 1664, Sheppard seems to have owed such success in life as he achieved. It is doubtful if his virtue was superior to his patron's. A satirical Latin epitaph (Gent. Mag. 1778) describes Sheppard as an ardent votary of Apollo, Bacchus, and Venus. Wood tells us that Dorset often accompanied Sheppard on visits to his brother at Great Rollright. In 1674 Dorset established his protégé at Copt Hall, where he passed much time thenceforth. Buckhurst introduced Sheppard to Killigrew, Henry Savile, Bab May, Rochester, Mulgrave, and most of Charles II's profligate courtiers. When Dorset went to Paris to visit Henry Savile, the English ambassador there, in 1681, Sheppard went with him; Wood adds, ‘They enjoyed themselves in talking blasphemy and atheism, in drinking, and perhaps in what is worse.’

More interesting acquaintances which Sheppard made while associated with Dorset were Nell Gwyn, for a time his patron's mistress [See Gwyn, Eleanor], and Matthew Prior, then a mere lad. After Nell Gwyn had become Charles II's mistress, and had borne the king a first son, Charles Beauclerk [q. v.], Sheppard was appointed her steward. He seems to have managed all her financial business, and the large fortune which she acquired at court was doubtless for a time in his charge. Subsequently he seems to have become tutor to her son Charles, when Earl of Burford.

There seems little doubt that Sheppard first recognised Prior's promise when he visited the Rummers, the tavern kept by Prior's uncle, and noticed the future poet serving behind the bar. It was when Dorset one day called for Sheppard at the tavern, that the latter pointed out young Matthew to his patron and roused Dorset's interest in the lad, according to the well-known story. Prior in his ‘First Epistle’ to Sheppard, which is dated 1689, although probably written in 1688, attests this version of the facts. Prior reminds Sheppard:

    Now as you took me up when little,
    Gave me my learning and my vittle;
    Asked for me, from my Lord, things fitting,
    Kind as I'd been your own begetting,
    Confirm what formerly you've given,
    Nor leave me now at six and seven.

In May 1689 Prior sent Sheppard a second amusing epistle, in which he longs to get back to town, ‘when fate and you think fit.’ In the next year Prior came back, and by Sheppard's good offices was soon appointed secretary to Lord Dursley (afterwards the Earl of Berkeley).

Sheppard was a grata persona at Charles II's court. He seems to have been in receipt of an income of 200l. a year, perhaps on account of the services he rendered to Nell Gwyn and her son. But the payment was irregularly made. His name only figures twice in the accounts of Charles II's secret-service money (1680–1).

With the king's brother James he was no favourite, and on James's accession to the throne Sheppard retired from court to Copt Hall, where he wrote a satirical ‘Explanation of King James's Declaration,’ which was reprinted in 1693. With the revolution fortune again smiled on Sheppard. Dorset was appointed lord chamberlain in 1689, and in the following year Sheppard became one of the gentleman ushers to William III, with a lodging at Whitehall. A disastrous fire took place there in May 1693. On 25 April 1694 Sheppard was appointed usher of the black rod, on the death of Sir Philip Duppa, and was knighted on the following day (Luttrell). Sir Philip Carteret claimed the reversion of the office, and presented a patent from Charles II assigning it to him. A lawsuit followed, but in the end Sheppard kept the place. Bliss seems to think (Life of Wood) that Sheppard had himself—for a consideration— procured this patent for Carteret, and quotes in support of the conjecture a remark of Swift: ‘Old courtiers will tell you twenty stories of Killigrew, Fleetwood Sheppard, and others who would often sell places that were never in being, and dispose of others a good pennyworth before they were vacant.’ When, in 1696, the House of Commons presented an address to the king, Sheppard as black rod, by his majesty's command, took all the members to the king's cellar, where they drank the king's health (Luttrell).

Sheppard died unmarried at Copt Hall on 25 Aug. 1698 (Luttrell), and was buried at Great Rollright on 6 Sept. Letters of administration were granted to his brother Dormer on 6 Oct. He had already in 1691 written his epitaph inside Lord Dorset's Prayer Book at Copt Hall, but it did not see the light until nearly a century afterwards.

Sheppard remained to the end a patron of the poets. ‘All who write would fain please Sheppard,’ says the author of ‘Poems in Burlesque’ in 1693. His own poetic compositions, which Rochester credited with ‘fluent style and coherent thought,’ consist of fugitive verses on passing events, and were published in contemporary miscellanies. They have not been collected independently. His longest and wittiest piece, ‘The Calendar Reformed; or, a pleasant Dialogue between Pluto and the Saints in the Elysian Fields, after Lucian's Manner; written by Sir Fl. Sh——rd, in the year 1687,’ as well as some satirical lines ‘Upon an old affected Court Lady,’ may be found in ‘State Poems,’ London, 1704; ‘The Countess of Dorset's Petition for Chocolate’ is in ‘A New Miscellany of Original Poems,’ London, 1701.

The Margaret Sheppard who was governess to an English merchant's family in Stockholm, and wrote under the signature of ‘Leonora’ two ‘moving’ letters to the editor of the ‘Spectator’ (Nos. 140, 163, anno 1711), is stated to have been a collateral descendant of Sir Fleetwood ‘of facetious memory’ (cf. Chalmers, British Essayists, 1823, vol. v. p. lxvi; Say Papers, ap. Monthly Repository, 1809, pp. 303 sq.).

[Rollright Registers; Athenæ Oxon.; Alumni Oxon.; Luttrell's Brief Relation; Hatton Correspondence; Pepys's Diary; Prior's Poems; Rochester's Poems, 1707, p. 25. There appears in the Annual Register (September 1768, p. 175) the erroneous statement: ‘There is now living, at his seat in Essex, Sir Fleetwood Sheppard (a friend of the late celebrated Mr. Prior), who is in perfect health, though at the age of 120 years’.]

H. F. S.