"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, March 2, 2015

Goodwin Wharton, King of Fairyland

Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake

"Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence--whether much that is glorious--whether all that is profound--does not spring from disease of thought--from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect. They who dream by day are cognizant of many things which escape those who dream only by night. In their gray visions they obtain glimpses of eternity, and thrill, in awakening, to find that they have been upon the verge of the great secret. In snatches, they learn something of the wisdom which is of good, and more of the mere knowledge which is of evil."
~Edgar Allan Poe, "Eleonora"

Being a younger son in a family of 17th century aristocrats was often not an easy lot. Goodwin Wharton was an ideal example of that. His older brother Thomas was promised all the family's income and estates, leaving Goodwin with no prospects and no practical way of earning his own keep. Worse yet, his father, Lord Wharton, made no secret of the fact that he much preferred his gregarious, dynamic elder son and heir to Thomas' more inward, decidedly oddball sibling.

Goodwin did his erratic best to find a place for himself in the world. In 1675, he patented a design for deep-sea diving equipment, as well as "new inventions for buoying up ships sunk in the sea," and "an ingenious design...for the squenching of public fires."  Another attempt to make his fortune failed when an "alchemist" hired to teach him to make gold instead took his money and ran.

Unsurprisingly, these visionary ventures failed to keep the wolf from the door. He then tried his hand at politics, that favorite last resort of a gentleman incapable of holding a normal job. He was elected an MP in 1680, but his career both began and ended with his maiden speech. It consisted of a bizarre rant against the Duke of York (later James II,) accusing him of everything from cowardice to starting the Great Fire of London. In one stroke, he managed to unite both the Court party and the opposition Whigs. Unfortunately, what united them was their conviction that Wharton was a jerk. Things were not going any better in his personal life. He had a quasi-affair with his sister-in-law Anne, (which, typically for Goodwin, never really got off the ground and ended badly.) Unsurprisingly, this liaison alienated him from both his father and his brother. He was, Goodwin wrote with rather endearing bemusement, "generally hated and slighted by my own relations."

In such desperate circumstances, it is not surprising that our hero sought out a fairy godmother or godfather. What is a bit unusual is that he did took the "fairy" part quite literally.

Wharton's Walk on the Weird Side began in the spring of 1683, when he met a fiftysomething "wise woman" named Mary Parish. She was not very successful at her profession, eking out only a bare living selling "charms" and dubious homemade medicines. For some reason, however, this third-rate witch made a great impression on Wharton. In fact, the story she spun for him would change the course of his life for good.

She told Wharton that although she was now poor, when she was a small child, her family had suddenly acquired a mysterious amount of money. She confided to her new friend the source of these strange riches: Her grandfather had discovered a pot of "fairy gold" in the woods at Northend. What's more, an inscription on the pot promised still more wealth to anyone who knew where to find it. One day young Mary, while searching the woods in search of this treasure, saw a group of fairies. After that, her family, in the hopes that she would expand upon these latent occult talents, sent her to an uncle, who taught her many healing and esoteric arts. Despite this promising start in life, she fell on hard times, and wound up in prison for debt.

While in Newgate, she became friends with a condemned man named George, who promised to become her guardian spirit after his execution. George, she sighed, fulfilled his promise, but alas! despite this otherworldly support and her own native gifts, the jealous machinations of the royal physician, Sir Thomas Williams, kept her in undeserved poverty and obscurity.

However, although the human world may have let her down, Mary had recently found allies in the land below. She explained that while walking through Hounslow Heath, she heard mystic bells ringing underground. She followed the music down into the kingdom of the fairies--the "Lowlands." While there, she visited the royal palace, where she ingratiated herself with no less than the King and Queen of Fairyland. With a little human help--say, someone of high birth, good social connections, and, of course, the ability to raise a little cash (here she stared meaningfully at Goodwin)--she would be able to obtain wealth and powers beyond the imaginings of mere humanity.

Mary told Goodwin all about the world of the Lowlands. The fairies were mortal, but capable of living for many centuries. Through their technological wizardry, they could appear and disappear at will, and change their size and appearance. She effortlessly spun him long, meticulously detailed accounts of these magical creatures--their customs, religion (Roman Catholic with some Jewish trimmings,) and history. She filled him in on the complex, and surprisingly bloody, rivalries at the royal court, complete with biographies of everyone who was anyone in the Lowlands. It all read like J.R.R. Tolkien meets "I, Claudius." Mary's stories were so colorful and spellbinding that Goodwin soon felt himself more immersed in the Lowlands than in his own relatively drab, dull little world. He believed every word she said, and was eager to communicate with these exciting, marvelous creatures.

Goodwin did not find any of this at all weird.

With Mary's spirit pal George acting as mediator, it was arranged that Penelope, Queen of the Fairies, would meet with Goodwin in his lodgings. Frustratingly for Wharton, he always seemed to be asleep when she arrived, and thus kept missing her visits. Annoying though this was, he was cheered when the messages she relayed to him via Mary and George took a new tone. Penelope announced that she wanted to marry Goodwin and make him king of the Lowlands. After this, when she would visit the sleeping Wharton in his rooms, she would--so he was told--make love to him, somehow without wakening him. She even became pregnant by him, but before long Goodwin was told the sad news that she had suffered a miscarriage.

Goodwin still did not find any of this weird.

Around this time, in a curious "as above, so below" parallel, Mary and Goodwin also became lovers. Although she was by now past the age of 60, Mary soon announced that she was carrying his child. After an appropriate number of months, she informed Goodwin that she had given birth to a boy named Peregrine, who had been given over to a nurse to raise. Goodwin never laid eyes on the child, but for the rest of his life, he unhesitatingly provided money for the boy's care. (Mary later produced--God knew how--a second son, Hezekiah.) Further good news came to him when he learned that Queen Penelope had named him as the new King of the Fairies. Young Peregrine would be his successor.

No, of course Goodwin did not find any of this weird.

Wharton and Mary did not let this spectral soap opera distract them from their real goal: Uncovering the hidden fairy gold of Northend. By late 1683, they had located the site of the treasure, but there was just one problem: The gold was protected by an evil spirit named Rumbonium. Fortunately, another, more benevolent spirit named Bromka tipped them off that Rumbonium took every Monday afternoon off, leaving the treasure unguarded during those hours.

Now, the problem was that the two partners were nearly out of money. Goodwin sought out a wealthy acquaintance, the former postmaster-general, John Wildman, and invited him to contribute to their little business scheme.

Whenever an old friend asks, "Can you lend me some money so I can dig up a fairy treasure?" most people, I imagine, react by slamming the door and calling the police. Wildman, however, thought it sounded like a sound investment, which seems to suggest that Goodwin's social circle was even stranger than the Lowlands. He gave Goodwin 300 guineas, with the promise of more if things looked promising.

So. One Monday afternoon in July 1684, the trio (quartet, if you count George, which we really should,) trooped through Northend to the treasure site. The good news was that Rumbonium was indeed absent. The bad news was that he had left some deputies in his place: Two menacing ghosts named Rismin and Osmindor, as well as a fearsome dragon, Accoron. Mary sighed that there was nothing for it but to conduct an exorcism. This was successful, but then Mary informed her partners that the treasure was just too large for the three of them to manage. She would have to hire some servants from Fairyland to haul it out from them. If Wildman would just give her an additional fifty guineas to pay them...

Wildman did not find any of this at all weird. He obediently handed over the money.

Mary obtained these fairy porters, but before they could get to work, Bromka informed her that the treasure was just, oops, well, gone. Taken by whom? And to where? Who knew?

Not to worry! Bromka assured them. He knew where they could find an even better treasure: The "Urim and Thummim," taken from the Temple of Jerusalem when it was sacked in 70 AD. It was now in the possession of a spirit named Ruben Pen Dennis, who was ready to hand it over to them--er, in about a week or so.

All right, then. A week later, the trio hiked back to the woods, only to have Bromka announce regretfully that they were just fifteen minutes too late. The Jerusalem treasures had also unaccountably vanished.

Oh, well.

Although Mary and Goodwin were undiscouraged, John Wildman became occupied with other matters. Always a busy, if rather inept, political plotter, he had become involved in the Monmouth Rebellion, and after its failure Wildman was forced to flee to the Continent. (Accompanying him was another player in the Rebellion, Goodwin's father, Lord Wharton.)

Up to this point, Goodwin's only contact with the angels, fairies, and spirits had been through Mary. In October 1684, he began to hear them speak to him personally. They had wonderful news. He learned that he, humble Goodwin Wharton, was destined to become the greatest ruler who ever lived. Throughout that winter, he became increasingly absorbed in these communications. He and Mary would sit in his candlelit lodgings, praying, listening, and marveling. (While hearing these spirit voices, Goodwin occasionally thought he saw Mary's lips move, but he dismissed such uneasy thoughts from his mind.) His faith was rewarded in the spring of 1685, when none other than God spoke to him--curiously enough, the Almighty's voice seemed to always come through doors or walls, and always when Mary was out of the room. It was at this time that Goodwin began to write his memoirs, intended as a message to his "son," Peregrine. He put down some half-a-million words in a manuscript relating his incredible experiences and the amazing destiny he faced. (This memoir now sits in the British Library, but is unpublished, and, alas, largely unread, which hardly seems like doing justice to God's Elect.)

It was around this time that, at long last, Goodwin began to feel things were getting weird.

He started to hear and see very strange things, even when Mary was nowhere in the vicinity. He would see flashes of sacred fire, encounter Christ on a rowboat in a local river, find himself attacked by Satan. He heard voices telling him that he was the "Solar King of the World," destined to turn earth into God's Kingdom.

With all this to occupy his mind, it is not surprising that the Lowlands began to pale in comparison. Mary told him of the death of his "wife" Queen Penelope, and the succession to the Fairy Throne by her sister Ursula. Although the new queen also wanted to marry Wharton, he rejected her advances. Ursula also died soon afterwards, leaving Goodwin Wharton the sole ruler of Fairyland. He paid little attention to his new honor. Now that God was speaking to him directly, Mary's channeling was no longer so important to him.

Besides, the new King of the Lowlands was about to become royal above ground, as well. God was now instructing Wharton to become lovers with Mary of Modena, the wife of James II. He was meant to father her child, who would then become King of England. Wharton followed the queen to Bath, where he arranged to meet her privately...but, oddly enough, she always failed to show up in person. When later in the year, it was announced that Queen Mary was expecting a child, Wharton immediately knew it was all a fraud. He, and he alone, was destined to make her pregnant. The Revolution of 1688 came as no surprise to him whatsoever.

Although he had no role in James' overthrow, it proved to be a lucky turn of events for Goodwin. The Wharton family's well-known support for the Whigs meant that when William of Orange took over, their loyalty (or, depending on how you look at it, disloyalty,) was well-rewarded. Goodwin's brother Thomas became one of the richest and most powerful men in the country.

And Goodwin--the ruler of Fairyland and Solar King of the World--was made one of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty.

Startling though this may be to anyone with knowledge of Goodwin's remarkable private life, it seemed like a perfectly normal turn of events to outsiders. In 1690, he had returned to Parliament, where, in contrast to his brief, disastrous previous attempt at a political career, he soon gained a reputation as an expert in military and financial issues. The former feckless ne'er-do-well impressed everyone as hard-working, serious, and learned. His fairy friends--still secretly with him every step of the way--were serving him well. One could hardly find a more solid, respectable figure.

Goodwin's life appeared to be moving towards a peaceful and prosperous close, but his uncharacteristic success was fated not to last. In 1698, he suffered a stroke which forced him to retire from public life. Then, in 1702, King William was replaced by Anne Stuart. Her Tory sympathies ensured that the once-powerful Whartons were in the descendant.

You may be surprised to learn (assuming that by this point in our tale you can be surprised by anything) that Goodwin was pleased by this turn in the political wheel. For some years, he had "known" that Anne cherished a hidden passion for him. One of his visions told him that she would marry him once her husband died. He was certain that before long, his destiny of becoming King of England would at last be realized.

In the meantime, however, he had to deal with the death of Mary Parish early in 1703. Although he had been playing solo, so to speak, on his visions for some time, Mary had been his closest friend and partner for twenty years. Although it is unquestionable that at first, she had seen him merely as yet another pigeon ripe for plucking, it arguably does them both a disservice to simply classify them as "con artist" and "victim." Mary had, in a deranged sort of way, brought fulfillment and purpose to his life. In the words of Wharton's biographer J. Kent Clark, Mary "constructed and described to him a dramatic world in which he had played the central role. She had made his life significant."

One could say that Goodwin had performed the same service for her.

After Mary's left the scene, Goodwin's "dramatic world" rather lost the plot. His subjects in the Lowlands failed to recognize him as their monarch. Queen Anne failed to reveal her love for him. Even Mary failed to keep her deathbed promise to visit him after her death. He lived quietly, but sadly, on his country estate until his death in October 1704.

The fairies didn't even bother to send condolences.

So, what to make of this unusual life story? The easiest and most obvious response is to simply dismiss Goodwin as a madman--someone who, in the words of the "Dictionary of National Biography," ranked "high in the annals of psychopathology."

This may be an oversimplification of a complex character. Although Wharton was undoubtedly a peculiar man, and trusting to a rather stunning degree, it must be remembered that he was a product of his time. An acceptance of fairies, spirits, demons, alchemy, and the like was hardly out-of-the-ordinary among his contemporaries. (Note that John Wildman, whom nobody regarded as mad, found Goodwin's tales of fairies and buried treasure entirely plausible.) Wharton's "spirit voices," could, in other circumstances, have led him to be regarded as a saint, rather than a lunatic. Seen in the context of the 17th century, Wharton's beliefs were no odder than anything shown on "Ancient Aliens."

There is also the fact that no one who knew Wharton, even in his disreputable younger days. seems to have regarded him as a nut. In his mature years, he was regarded as not just talented, but disciplined and responsible. It is, ironically enough, his own memoir that provides any evidence that he was anything more than just another dull politician.

Perhaps, in the end, it's best to simply say that Goodwin Wharton was one of those who dream by day.

[Note: My main source for this post was Jonathan Law's highly entertaining "The Whartons of Winchendon," a book that incidentally proves that Goodwin was among the more normal members of his family.]


  1. Wharton's gullibility seems to have been on a fantastic scale, but otherwise, as you say, it was rather typical of the times. And how many people nowadays gather at spots on certain dates to await the latest end of the world, or aliens who will take them to better planets? How many otherwise sane people went mad over the impending destruction of Earth in the year 2000, with Y2K and that thing in 2012 when the Mayans (whose every other prediction was ignored) predicted a cataclysm? It seems the only real difference is that in sphere, Wharton actually made a contribution and was, for a time, a sober and capable administrator. A disillusioned man - but one who could have been a king, in his own mind.

    A very interesting tale, as always.


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