Brian Langston is a retired Assistant Chief Constable now living in Southern France where he writes on crime, mysteries and the paranormal.
One of the most controversial figures of the early seventeenth century was alchemist, astrologer and mystic Doctor John Lambe (1546-1628). A formidable character, he was feared and hated in equal measure not only because of his alleged supernatural powers but because of his proximity and malign influence over the Stuart dynasty of England.
Myths and legends followed him wherever he went and stories of incredible acts of sorcery were attributed to him which prompted unsuccessful attempts indict him for witchcraft. Other more sinister rumours however painted a picture of him as a demonic child molester and led to him being sentenced to death for rape and yet he mysteriously escaped the hangman’s noose.
What was the truth behind the legend of the man dubbed ‘The Devil’s Doctor’? How did he come to exert such a Rasputin-like influence on the Royal Household and why did he meet a gruesome end at the hands of a London mob?
Little is known of John Lambe’s early life. He is believed to have been born in Tardebigge, Worcestershire around 1546. As a young man he was a writing tutor to the sons of gentlemen and for a time studied medicine but soon became drawn to the darker arts and ‘other mysteries, as telling of fortunes, helping of divers to lost goods and shewing to young people the faces of their husbands and wives-to-be in a crystal glass’. He quickly developed a reputation as an astrologer and fortune teller and people came from far and wide to avail themselves of his services.
Whilst practising his magic at Tardebigge, he was accused of ‘on 16th December 1607 practising execrable arts to consume the body and strength of Thomas, Sixth Lord Windsor of Bromsgrove’ and ‘...generalley givving bad vybes’. He was indicted early in 1608 and found guilty, but judgment was suspended, and he soon gained his liberty and moved to Hindlip, Worcestershire where on 13th May 1608, he again fell foul of the authorities was arraigned at the County assizes on a charge of having invoked and entertained 'certain evil and impious spirits.' It was proved that he caused apparitions ‘to proceed from a crystal glass’, and prophesied death and disaster with fatal success. He was again convicted and was imprisoned in Worcester Castle.
It was claimed that after this trial 'the high sheriff, foreman of jury, and divers others of the justices’ gentlemen then present of the same jury died within a fortnight’. Other accounts accused Lambe of causing the death of 40 people but this was more likely this was a coincidental outbreak of typhus, then known as ‘Gaol Fever’ which helped to cement his reputation as a deadly sorcerer
The local authorities feared keeping him in such close proximity and petitioned for his removal to King's Bench prison in London. He was removed to London and was apparently kept there in comfortable confinement for some fifteen years. Far from deterring his mystical activity, this period of imprisonment raised his profile to new heights and he revelled in his notoriety. He was known to occupy two rooms, employed servants and practiced as a ‘physician’ very much as he had previously done in Worcestershire, offering to invoke spirits, find missing items with his crystal ball, treat maladies, exorcise witchcraft, and ‘do dirtey deedes’ cheaply.
Lambe showed himself to be a master showman and spin-doctor managing to give sorcery an air of respectability, in an age when witches were reviled and persecuted. He was hugely successful and records show that he charged £40-50 for his mystical services, equivalent to £12000-£15000 today.
Despite being branded a ‘mountebank and impostor’ by the Royal College of Physicians in 1619 who objected to his adopting a medical title, his wealth and reputation as an astrologer continued to grow during his incarceration in London where he received many prominent and titled visitors eager to witness his remarkable powers of prophesy and magic. One such visitor with a penchant for sorcery and a track record for ‘dirtey deedes’ was Sir George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628).
Buckingham was a dashingly handsome but ruthless courtier who used his charm to inveigle himself into the court of King James I and saw an astonishing rise to power under the patronage of his Royal master. He soon became James’ favourite and was widely believed to be his lover. It was not long before he was rewarded with the Dukedom of Buckingham and became the most powerful subject in the land accumulating vast wealth and influence. Buckingham commanded the King’s army in a number of expensive and badly-led campaigns which led to a great loss of life of his own troops. On several occasions, senior courtiers attempted to impeach Buckingham for his incompetence but each time he was protected by the King and rewarded with ever- greater responsibility and resources. Buckingham soon became the most hated man in England and saw clear benefits in having Dr. Lambe as his personal advisor and in 1623 secured his release from prison to act as his private sorcerer.
Power over the Throne
The Buckingham- Lambe alliance soon became a fearsome partnership using a combination of political guile and witchcraft to exert what many believed to be a malign influence over James I and later his equally unpopular and ill-fated son Charles I. For a time the diabolical affiliation thrived, although popular opinion was divided over Lambe’s professed magical abilities. Some believed he was nothing but a charlatan whilst others believed he was the Devil incarnate and referred to him as such.
In the public’s imagination the young King was controlled by Buckingham who in turn was manipulated by Dr. Lambe. Many believed he cast spells which brought about misfortune on the Kingdom. A popular rhyme at the time ran;
Who rules the Kingdom? The King.
Who rules the King? The Duke.
Who rules the Duke? The Devil!
One thing that public opinion did agree upon was that he was a universally loathed and reviled figure. Myths and legends followed Lambe wherever he went. On Monday 12th June 1626 a sudden and violent whirlwind came up the Thames and unearthed corpses from a churchyard, scattering them around London. An eerie mist hung over the river near York House, Buckingham’s London home and the superstitious discerned ominous shapes in the fog which included a skull, a horse and a giant collar. When Dr. Lambe appeared on the river during the day in the wake of the storm, this was seen as evidence of him surveying his diabolical handiwork.
In another extraordinary demonstration of his powers, Dr. Lambe invited an audience into the inner sanctum of his London home where he conjured up a miniature tree out of thin air and then invoked three miniature woodmen who proceeded to chop down the tree in front of the awe-struck spectators. One of the witnesses retained several chips of wood from the magical tree as evidence but his house was plagued by mysterious violent storms until he disposed of the fragments.
Londoners were terrified of Dr. Lambe and resentful of his influence over the King and Buckingham and several attempts were made to have him indicted as a witch but each time they were thwarted by his powerful masters.
Sentenced to Death
Resentment and fear began to fester in London and in 1626 it appeared Dr. Lambe’s luck ran out when at the age of almost 80, he was accused of raping 11 year old Joan Seager. Lambe vehemently protested his innocence claiming it to be a complete fabrication but he was indicted to the Court of the King’s Bench. The surviving accounts detail the evidence put before the court.
A feisty Mabel Swinnington deposed that on the Friday of Whitson week, Elizabeth Seager went to her; ‘in a pitifull manner wringing her hands like a woman over-whelmed with extreame griefe, crying out and saying, I am undone, I am undone.’ Elizabeth told her ‘that villaine Doctor Lambe had undone her child’.
Mabel Swinnington questioned young Joan and found her; ‘much abashed and ashamed’. Joan finally disclosed that, on Whitson Eve, Dr. Lambe needed someone to bring him a basket of herbs, but his women were busy elsewhere, so she brought it to him at the King's Bench. When she arrived, Lambe sent away his serving-man and locked the door, then led her into his closet and locked that door as well. He put her on a joint stool and stuck his tongue in her mouth. Though she; ‘strived with him as much as she could, but hee would not let her alone, but strove with her’.
Mabel Swinnington took Joan Seager into her home to dress her wounds. She reported that; ‘when I opened her to dresse her: the place did smoake like a pot that had seething liquor in it that were newly uncovered, and I found her to bee very sore, and could not abide to bee touched'. She added that someone had tried to dress the girl's injuries, when she asked Joan about it, she said; ‘Lambe’s maid Becke had brought her a thing in a dish, and had drest her.’ However, the dressing contained a venomous speck in the ointment that had stuck to Joan's inner thigh. When Mabel pulled it away, she found that it had festered the spot it was stuck to.
Mabel Swinnington said that she went to see Dr. Lambe the next day at Elizabeth Seager's request. She confronted him, declaring that; ‘You have undone an honest man’s child, for well shee may recover her health of body again, but never her credit, for it will bee a staine to her reputation whilst shee lives'.
He denied the deed, but demanded to see Joan and examine her. Mabel replied; ‘She hath bin too late with you already, she will come no more here’ and told him she not only knew he had sent his maid to dress Joan, but that the dish holding the venomous substance had been left behind.
Presented with this compelling testimony the court found Dr. Lambe guilty of rape and sentenced him to death. The cheers of the public gallery however soon turned to gasps of incredulity when the Judge announced that he was pardoned; ‘by his Majesties especiall grace’. Once again the remarkable Doctor had escaped death thanks to his privileged connections.
A Brutal End
He fled the court amidst a scene of pandemonium and outrage. He rented a house in another part of London for a year and a quarter hoping the scandal would die down but if anything, loathing of Lambe and his despised benefactor Buckingham reached new heights. Charles I was proving to be a despotic and clumsy King who had reached a dangerous stand-off with parliament over his demands for more taxes to pay for his ill-judged wars with France and Spain. Strutting in the vanguard of these military failures was Buckingham who was held singularly responsible for the enormous cost to the country in both financial terms and human life.
Buckingham’s mother, also alleged to be a practitioner of the ‘cunning arts’, said she had seen in Lambe’s crystal ball, the shadowy figure of a large man holding a dagger poised to kill her beloved son. In one of the earliest recorded ghost stories, the spectre of Buckingham’s father appeared to a courtier at Windsor Castle predicting his son’s murder unless he mended his ways. (See ‘True Ghosts and Ghouls of Windsor & Eton’ by Brian Langston).
However it was the demon- summoning, child-defiling wizard Dr.Lambe who was considered to be the cause of all the nation’s woes and was the most accessible of this unholy trinity. The volatile situation reached a crescendo, ominously, on Friday 13th of June 1628. The octogenarian Lambe, attended a play at the Fortune Playhouse in Finsbury. He was recognised leaving the theatre by ‘the boyes of the towne, and other unruly people’. Word quickly spread and a mob formed chasing him towards the City. He appealed to some sailors on the way to protect him and for a while they acted as his bodyguards to get him safely through the streets of London. With their help he reached Moorgate in safety but the crowd pursued him through Coleman Street to the Old Jewry. He briefly escaped the mob and sought refuge at the Windmill tavern and at a nearby barrister’s chambers, but fearing the wrath of the baying crowd, both turned him out onto the streets. His guards fled for their lives leaving him to the mercy of the mob.
Despite his advanced years, Lambe drew his sword and for a few minutes put up a spirited defence against the violent mob but the odds were hugely against him and the he was and stoned, beaten with sticks and kicked unmercifully. One contemporary account reads that ‘by the time the frenzy had passed, Lambe’s skull was broken, one of his eyes hung out of his head, and all partes of his body bruised and wounded so much, that no parte was left to receive a wound.’ When he was finally rescued by four constables, he was still clinging to life. He was taken to the Counter prison in the Poultry where he died of his injuries the next morning.
The brutal death of Dr. John Lambe
His body was put on public display and paying crowds flocked to see the battered corpse of the notorious magician at the Counter prison. It was reported that Lambe had a strange assortment of conjuring paraphernalia on his person when he died, as befitting an astrologer-physician. These included a sword, several knives, a crystal ball, a gold nightcap, twelve silk pouches, forty shillings, and eight small engraved portraits, including that of the Countess of Somerset, a favourite at court, and an alleged witch and pardoned murderess. He was buried the following day at the newly consecrated churchyard near Bishops Gate.
One balladeer wrote captured the public mood after his death:
'Neighbours cease to moan,
And leave your lamentation,
For Doctor Lambe is gone,
The Devil of our Nation.'
Villiers was said to be furious and initiated an inquiry to identify the murderers of his trusted advisor. Two days after his murder the Privy Council expressed the King’s outrage to the Lord Mayor and decreed that the guilty persons should be arrested and treated with the utmost severity. Despite his best efforts, Buckingham met with a wall of silence and the culprits were never identified. In a fit of pique he imprisoned several constables for neglect of duty in failing to protect the doctor and fined the City of London authorities £6000, almost £2million by today’s standards, for not giving up those responsible for the murder.
The death of Dr. Lambe was the cause of much rejoicing in London and a woodcut issued capturing his moment of death sold in its thousands.
The Murder of Buckingham
Among the pamphlets issued afterwards was one that prophesied the death of Buckingham himself;
‘Let Charles and George do what they can,
The Duke shall die like Doctor Lambe’.
The prophesy proved frighteningly accurate. Within ten weeks he was dead too at the hands of an assassins knife. On 23rd August 1628 during a visit to Portsmouth to plan another futile military campaign, Villiers was stabbed by one of his own disillusioned army officers, Lieutenant John Felton, who had been wounded and lost many colleagues thanks to Villiers’ incompetent leadership.
After fatally plunging his knife under Villiers’ left rib from behind, Felton disappeared into the crowd and may well have escaped had he not dropped his hat in the chase. He found someone wearing it a short time later and claimed it as his- expressing a smug satisfaction at his murderous deed. This led to his arrest and trial for murder. During his imprisonment hundreds flocked to the Tower of London to visit ‘Honest Jack’ as he became known. Felton was widely hailed as a hero by the public, but this did not prevent him from swinging from the gallows at Tyburn, the following November.
The doggerel writers continued to mock Buckingham after his death recalling the dead alchemist whose supernatural exertions could no longer protect his wicked patron.
‘The shepherd’s struck, the sheep are fled,
For want of Lambe, the wolf is dead!’
Whether a diabolical sorcerer or misunderstood astrologer, Dr. John Lambe is remembered as one of the most remarkable figures in English witchcraft.
His extraordinary life and death was immortalised in a variety of literature. An anonymous biography of the mystical figure was published in 1628 and a play entitled, Dr. Lamb and the Witches was performed in 1634. Further accounts of Lambe's life would also appear in later writings, such as Isaac D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature and Sir Walter Scott's Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft.
His epitaph was summed up by one of his contemporaries who wrote;
'Here Dr Lambe, the conjurer lyes,
Against his will untimely dies
The Divell did show himselfe a Glutton
In taking this Lambe before he was mutton
The Divell in Hell will rost him there
Whome the prentises basted here.
In Hell they wondred when he came
To see among the Goats a Lambe'.
Even decades after their violent deaths, Buckingham and Lambe were blamed for leading the King astray and setting him off down a path which ultimately led to the deaths of thousands during the English Civil War.
On 30th January 1649 at the age of 48, Charles I became the first and last British Sovereign to be beheaded. The absolute Monarch paid the ultimate price for his arrogance and refusal to negotiate with Parliament and was executed at Whitehall Palace ushering in the austerity of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.
Many have suggested that history would have taken a different course had it not been for the influence of the Duke of Buckingham and the notorious Dr. John Lambe over the Stuart reign.
Brian Langston (author) from Languedoc Roussillon on April 25, 2016:
Thanks for taking the time to make such a positive comment John- Glad you enjoyed it!
John Crosskey on April 23, 2016:
Thanks for your wonderful account of the life and death of Dr Lambe
Brian Langston (author) from Languedoc Roussillon on October 11, 2015:
Thanks Sheila..yes often a surprise just how old these terms are. Forgot to include his penchant for 'ye olde surfingg U.K.'
SheilaMilne from Kent, UK on October 11, 2015:
Really interesting! "Vybes", though? Did they have vybes (or even vibes) in the 17th century? I thought they came in with the Beach Boys.
Saharian from Wyoming on May 06, 2015:
How fascinating! Thanks for sharing!
Ilona E from Ohio on April 28, 2015:
Keep up your high level of writing- it was a pleasure to read.
Brian Langston (author) from Languedoc Roussillon on April 26, 2015:
Many thanks Polly, Lee and Ilona- and thanks too for taking the trouble to read and comment...it is much appreciated.
Ilona E from Ohio on April 26, 2015:
Fascinating story, well told.
Lee Cloak on April 26, 2015:
A fantastic hub, very interesting, great detail, great images, really well put together, thanks for sharing, voted up, Lee
Pollyanna Jones from United Kingdom on April 26, 2015:
An excellent account of this man's diabolical life. Voted up and shared, Brian.