Sussex History: Merry Andrew

Sussex History: Merry Andrew

Andrew Boorde was a man of many talents in the diverse fields of health, religion and comedy. Mark Broad gives us an insight into his life

Andrew Boorde (c.1490-1549) was born near Borde Hill. Which came first? The name appears in various spellings, like most words from those times, and several Boordes have lived around that part of the world. The place of Andrew’s birth was said to be Holm’s dayle, but to keep things simple some will just tell you it was the more recognisable Cuckfield!

Portrait of Andrew Boorde
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Boorde became a man of religion, sometime physician to King Henry VIII and a humorist, credited as the original ‘Merry Andrew’ (a comedian – one who entertains others by wit and comic antics). His writings include The Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge, “Dedycated to the right honourable and gracious Lady Mary daughter of our soverayne Lorde Kyng Henry the eyght,” which must count as the earliest continental guide book, plus a Brevyary of Health and, most controversially, a Treatyse upon Berdes (hipsters should read that one).

Boorde’s name is also connected with later collections of humorous writings, but those are possibly endorsements contrived by printers for commercial impact.

After studying at Oxford, Andrew Boorde went to Charterhouse and took Carthusian monastic vows, which thereafter he spent a great deal of effort trying to escape, because he found the religious life (solitude, silence, abstinence generally) ‘too rigorous’. He was able to negotiate a way out, perhaps only on temporary release, and headed off to study medicine in the universities of Europe.

Returning as a Doctor of Physick, Boorde was summoned to the service of Norfolk and also then as physician to King Henry VIII – which must have demanded some courage, considering the  state of Norfolk and Henry’s propensity
for lopping-off the loaves of those who disappointed him.

The Carthusian order still pressed some claim over Andrew who in desperation wrote letters seeking the intervention of Thomas Cromwell, Lord Great Chamberlain.

Thomas Cromwell must have taken a liking to Boorde, who did have a reputation as being good company and
a great joker. Cromwell also placed some trust in him. He encouraged Boorde to travel again pursuing medical studies, but also to send back reports of how King Henry was viewed and thought of in continental corridors and universities.

Thomas Cromwell must have taken a liking to Boorde, who did have a reputation as being good company and a great joker

Boorde wrote lots of letters, from all over Europe and even further. He travelled to Jerusalem and visited North Africa.

From Barbary he sent Thomas Cromwell some rhubarb seeds, with instructions for their cultivation – this was a couple of hundred years before the plant was known here.

In his letters Boorde continued signing himself as ‘Andrew Boorde, priest’. Probably it made a more powerful sign-off
than ‘doctor’, medical science at the time being very much in the research and development stage, while religion had
been going strong for quite some time.

The world’s oldest Medical School: Faculty of Medicine, University of Montpellier

Andrew studied medicine at Montpelier, Orleans, Poitiers, Toulouse, Rome and Wittenberg. Meanwhile his brother Richard became vicar of Pevensey, but then fled to France, the way you do (in a Reformation). He never returned, leaving property to Andrew who bought Mint House with the proceeds.

He travelled widely, living on his wits, and managed to survive when companions perished

In his time at Pevensey, or ‘Pemsey’, Boorde is thought to have hosted Henry’s son Edward VI, at Mint House on a health retreat. Such claims are disputed. We do know that Boorde also composed humorous verse, but perhaps is not the ‘A.B.’ credited on The Merrie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham. The stories are more likely associated with the Gotham village in Notts, but prominent historians of Sussex, Mr Lowerson and Mr Horsfield, no less, support the claim of a Gotham near Pemsey. Either way, the tale’s worth telling:

King John (bad King John, not even really meant to be king) had decided to treat himself to a new hunting lodge and was considering a site near Gotham. If plans went ahead, it meant the king would pass through the village to reach the lodge – and anywhere the king travelled immediately became a King’s Highway.

The villagers didn’t much like the idea. They might be pressed for more taxes if ‘a main road’ came through, and it
could all too soon become yellow lines and parking metres. So the crafty folk arranged amongst themselves to spook
the king’s surveyors, by staging scenes of bizarre behaviour and idiocy, a condition considered catching back then.

In Gotham the king’s men witnessed a group of locals building a fence around a tree, claiming it would keep the Cuckoo from flying away. Another uncouth band was seen trying to drown an eel in a bucket of water. The king’s men returned to advise against visiting Gotham.

Courage and mirth Andrew also found in ale and wine, at least one of which was much safer to drink than water from the roadside ditch. Thus he travelled widely, living on his wits, and managed to survive when companions perished.

In later life, during Boorde’s Winchester days, it could be that money and luck were running out. He was said to be working local fairs, in comedy, quackery and the snake-oil game. Then there was the unfortunate ‘three whores
in his chamber’ controversy. Perhaps Andrew Boorde hastened his own demise with some lethal concoction, but he spent a while in prison before making his will and ultimate escape.