The Works of the Rev. Jonathan Swift/Volume 1/Anecdotes of the Family of Swift

Anecdotes of the Family of Swift written c. 1700-1740







The original Manuscript in his own hand is lodged in the University Library of Dublin.

THE family of the Swifts was ancient in Yorkshire; from them descended a noted person, who passed under the name of cavaliero Swift, a man of wit and humour. He was made an Irish peer by king James or king Charles the First, with the title of baron Carlingford, but never was in that kingdom. Many traditional pleasant stories are related of him, which the family planted in Ireland has received from their parents. This lord died without issue male; and his heiress, whether of the first or second descent, was married to Robert Fielding, esquire, commonly called Handsome Fielding; she brought him a considerable estate in Yorkshire, which he squandered away, but had no children: the earl of Eglington married another coheiress of the same family, as he has often told me.

Another of the same family was sir Edward Swift, well known in the times of the great rebellion and usurpation, but I am ignorant whether he left heirs or not.

Of the other branch, whereof the greatest part settled in Ireland, the founder was William Swift, prebendary of Canterbury, toward the last years of queen Elizabeth, and during the reign of king James the First. He was a divine of some distinction: there is a sermon of his extant, and the title is to be seen in the catalogue of the Bodleian Library, but I never could get a copy, and I suppose it would now be of little value.

This William married the heiress of Philpot, I suppose a Yorkshire gentleman, by whom he got a very considerable estate, which however she kept in her own power; I know not by what artifice. She was a capricious, ill-natured, and passionate woman, of which I have been told several instances. And it has been a continual tradition in the family, that she absolutely disinherited her only son Thomas, for no greater crime than that of robbing an orchard when he was a boy. And thus much is certain, that except a church or chapter lease, which was not renewed, Thomas never enjoyed more than one hundred pounds a year, which was all at Goodrich, in Herefordshire, whereof not above one half is now in the possession of a great great grandson.

His original picture is now in the hands of Godwin Swift, of Dublin, esq., his great grandson, as well as that of his wife, who seems to have a good deal of the shrew in her countenance; whose arms of an heiress are joined with his own; and by the last he seems to have been a person somewhat fantastick; for in these he gives as his device, a dolphin (in those days called a Swift) twisted about an anchor, with this motto, Festina lente.

There is likewise a seal with the same coat of arms (his not joined with his wife's) which the said William commonly made use of, and this is also now in the possession of Godwin Swift abovementioned.

His eldest son Thomas seems to have been a clergyman before his father's death. He was vicar of Goodrich, in Herefordshire, within a mile or two of Ross: he had likewise another church living, with about one hundred pounds a year in land, as I have already mentioned. He built a house on his own land in the village of Goodrich; which, by the architecure, denotes the builder to have been somewhat whimsical and singular, and very much toward a projector. The house is above a hundred years old, and still in good repair, inhabited by a tenant of the female line, but the landlord, a young gentleman, lives upon his own estate in Ireland.

This Thomas was distinguished by his courage, as well as his loyalty to king Charles the First, and the sufferings he underwent for that prince, more than any person of his condition in England. Some historians of those times relate several particulars of what he acted, and what hardships he underwent for the person and cause of that blessed martyred prince. He was plundered by the roundheads six-and-thirty times, some say above fifty. He engaged his small estate, and gathered all the money he could get, quilted it in his waistcoat, got off to a town held for the king, where being asked by the governor, who knew him well, what he could do for his majesty? Mr. Swift said, he would give the king his coat, and stripping it off, presented it to the governor; who observing it to be worth little, Mr. Swift said, then take my waistcoat: he bid the governor weigh it in his hand, who ordering it to be ripped, found it lined with three hundred broad pieces of gold, which as it proved a seasonable relief, must be allowed an extraordinary supply from a private clergyman with ten children, of a small estate, so often plundered, and soon after turned out of his livings in the church.

At another time, being informed that three hundred horse of the rebel party intended in a week to pass over a certain river, upon an attempt against the cavaliers, Mr. Swift having a head mechanically turned, he contrived certain pieces of iron with three[1] spikes, whereof one must always be with the point upward: he placed them over night in the ford, where he received notice that the rebels would pass early the next morning, which they accordingly did, and lost two hundred of their men, who were drowned or trod to death by the falling of their horses, or torn by the spikes.

His sons, whereof four were settled in Ireland (driven thither by their sufferings, and by the death of their father) related many other passages, which they learned either from their father himself, or from what had been told them by the most credible persons of Herefordshire, and some neighbouring counties; and which some of those sons often told to their children; many of which are still remembered, but many more forgot.

He was deprived of both his church livings sooner than most other loyal clergymen, upon account of his superiour zeal for the king's cause, and his estate sequestered. His preferments, at least that of Goodrich, were given to a fanatical saint, who scrupled not, however, to conform upon the restoration, and lived many years, I think till after the Revolution: I have seen many persons at Goodrich, who knew and told me his name, which I cannot now remember.

The lord treasurer Oxford told the dean, that he had among his father's (sir Edward Harley's) papers, several letters from Mr. Thomas Swift writ in those times, which he promised to give to the grandson, whose life I am now writing; but never going to his house in Herefordshire while he was treasurer, and the queen's death happening in three days after his removal, the dean went to Ireland, and the earl being tried for his life, and dying while the dean was in Ireland, he could never get them.

Mr. Thomas Swift died in the year 1658, and in the 63d year of his age: his body lies under the altar at Goodrich, with a short inscription. He died about two years before the return of king Charles the Second, who by the recommendation of some prelates had promised, if ever God should restore him, that he would promote Mr. Swift in the church, and otherwise reward his family, for his extraordinary services and zeal, and persecutions in the royal cause: but Mr. Swift's merit died with himself.

He left ten sons and three or four daughters, most of which lived to be men and women: his eldest son Godwin Swift, of the Inner Temple, esq. (so styled by Guillim the herald; in whose book the family is described at large) was I think called to the bar before the restoration. He married a relation of the old marchioness of Ormond, and upon that account, as well as his father's loyalty, the old duke of Ormond made him his attorney general in the palatinate of Tipperary. He had four wives, one of which, to the great offence of his family, was coheiress to admiral Deane, who was one of the regicides. Godwin left several children, who have all estates. He was an ill pleader, but perhaps a little too dexterous in the subtle parts of the law.

The second son of Mr. Thomas Swift was called by the same name, was bred at Oxford, and took orders. He married the eldest daughter of sir William d'Avenant, but died young, and left only one son, who was also called Thomas, and is now rector of Putenham in Surry. His widow lived long, was extremely poor, and in part supported by the famous Dr. South, who had been her husband's intimate friend.

The rest of his sons, as far as I can call to mind, were Mr. Dryden Swift, called so after the name of his mother, who was a near relation to Mr. Dryden the poet, William, Jonathan, and Adam, who all lived and died in Ireland; but none of them left male issue except Jonathan, who beside a daughter left one son, born seven months after his father's death; of whose life I intend to write a few memorials.

J. S. D.D. and D. of St. P——, was the only son of Jonathan Swift, who was the seventh or eighth son of Mr. Thomas Swift above-mentioned, so eminent for his loyalty and his sufferings.

His father died young, about two years after his marriage: he had some employments and agencies; his death was much lamented on account of his reputation for integrity, with a tolerable good understanding.

He married Mrs. Abigail Erick, of Leicestershire, descended from the most ancient family of the Ericks, who derive their lineage from Erick the Forester, a great commander, who raised an army to oppose the invasion of William the Conqueror, by whom he was vanquished, but afterward employed to command that prince's forces; and in his old age retired to his house in Leicestershire, where his family has continued ever since, but declining every age, and are now in the condition of very private gentlemen.

This marriage was on both sides very indiscreet, for his wife brought her husband little or no fortune; and his death happening so suddenly, before he could make a sufficient establishment for his family, his son (not then born) hath often been heard to say, that he felt the consequences of that marriage, not only through the whole course of his education, but during the greatest part of his life.

He was born in Dublin, on St. Andrew's day; and when he was a year old, an event happened to him that seems very unusual; for his nurse, who was a woman of Whitehaven, being under an absolute necessity of seeing one of her relations, who was then extremely sick, and from whom she expected a legacy; and being extremely fond of the infant, she stole him on shipboard unknown to his mother and uncle, and carried him with her to Whitehaven, where he continued for almost three years. For, when the matter was discovered, his mother sent orders by all means not to hazard a second voyage, till he could be better able to bear it. The nurse was so careful of him, that before he returned he had learnt to spell; and by the time that he was five years old, he could read any chapter in the Bible.

After his return to Ireland, he was sent at six years old to the school of Kilkenny, from whence at fourteen he was admitted into the university at Dublin; where by the ill treatment of his nearest relations, he was so discouraged and sunk in his spirits, that he too much neglected some parts of his academick studies: for which he had no great relish by nature, and turned himself to reading history and poetry; so that when the time came for taking his degree of bachelor, although he had lived with great regularity and due observance of the statutes, he was stopped of his degree for dulness and insufficiency; and at last hardly admitted in a manner, little to his credit, which is called in that college, speciali gratia. And this discreditable mark, as I am told, stands upon record in their college registery.

The troubles then breaking out, he went to his mother, who lived in Leicester; and after continuing there some months, he was received by sir William Temple, whose father had been a great friend to the family, and who was now retired to his house called Moor Park, near Farnham in Surry, where he continued for about two years: for he happened before twenty years old, by a surfeit of fruit, to contract a giddiness and coldness of stomach, that almost brought him to his grave; and this disorder pursued him with intermissions of two or three years to the end of his life. Upon this occasion he returned to Ireland, by advice of physicians, who weakly imagined that his native air might be of some use to recover his health: but growing worse, he soon went back to sir William Temple; with whom, growing into some confidence, he was often trusted with matters of great importance. King William had a high esteem for sir William Temple by a long acquaintance, while that gentleman was ambassador and mediator of a general peace at Nimeguen. The king soon after his expedition to England, visited his old friend often at Sheen, and took his advice in affairs of greatest consequence. But sir William Temple, weary of living so near London, and resolving to retire to a more private scene, bought an estate near Farnham in Surry, of about 100l. a year, where Mr. Swift accompanied him.

About that time a bill was brought into the house of commons for triennial parliaments; against which, the king, who was a stranger to our constitution, was very averse, by the advice of some weak people, who persuaded the earl of Portland, that king Charles the First lost his crown and life by consenting to pass such a bill. The earl, who was a weak man, came down to Moor Park, by his majesty's orders, to have sir William Temple's advice, who said much to show him the mistake. But he continued still to advise the king against passing the bill. Whereupon Mr. Swift was sent to Kensington with the whole account of that matter in writing, to convince the king and the earl how ill they were informed. He told the earl, to whom he was referred by his majesty (and gave it in writing) that the ruin of king Charles the First was not owing to his passing the triennial bill, which did not hinder him from dissolving any parliament, but to the passing another bill, which put it out of his power to dissolve the parliament then in being, without the consent of the house. Mr. Swift, who was well versed in English history, although he was then under twenty-one years old, gave the king a short account of the matter, but a more large one to the earl of Portland; but all in vain; for the king, by ill advisers, was prevailed upon to refuse passing the bill. This was the first time that Mr. Swift had any converse with courts, and he told his friends it was the first incident that helped to cure him of vanity. The consequence of this wrong step in his majesty was very unhappy; for it put that prince under a necessity of introducing those people called whigs into power and employments, in order to pacify them. For, although it be held a part of the king's prerogative to refuse passing a bill, yet the learned in the law think otherwise, from that expression used at the coronation, wherein the prince obliges himself to consent to all laws, quas vulgus elegerit.

Mr. Swift lived with him (sir William Temple) some time, but resolving to settle himself in some way of living, was inclined to take orders. However, although his fortune was very small, he had a scruple of entering into the church merely for support, and sir William Temple then being master of the rolls in Ireland, offered him an employ of about 120l. a year in that office; whereupon Mr. Swift told him, that since he had now an opportunity of living without being driven into the church for a maintenance, he was resolved to go to Ireland and take holy orders. He was recommended to the lord Capel, then lord deputy, who gave him a prebend in the north, worth about 100l. a year, of which growing weary in a few months, he returned to England, resigned his living in favour of a friend, and continued in sir William Temple's house till the death of that great man, who beside a legacy, left him the care and trust and advantage of publishing his posthumous writings.

Upon this event Mr. Swift removed to London, and applied by petition to king William, upon the claim of a promise his majesty had made to sir William Temple, that he would give Mr. Swift a prebend of Canterbury or Westminster. The earl of Rumney, who professed much friendship for him, promised to second his petition; but as he was an old, vicious, illiterate rake, without any sense of truth or honour, said not a word to the king. And Mr. Swift, after long attendance in vain, thought it better to comply with an invitation given him by the earl of Berkeley to attend him to Ireland, as his chaplain and private secretary; his lordship having been appointed one of the lords justices of that kingdom. He attended his lordship, who landed near Waterford, and Mr. Swift acted as secretary during the whole journey to Dublin. But another person had so insinuated himself into the earl's favour, by telling him that the post of secretary was not proper for a clergyman, nor would be of any advantage to one, who only aimed at church preferments; that his lordship, after a poor apology, gave that office to the other.

In some months the deanery of Derry fell vacant, and it was the earl of Berkeley's turn to dispose of it. Yet things were so ordered, that the secretary having received a bribe, the deanery was disposed of to another, and Mr. Swift was put off with some other church livings not worth above a third part of that rich deanery; and at this present not a sixth. The excuse pretended was his being too young, although he were then thirty years old.

  1. It should be four.