The amazing life of Jeffrey Hudson, the queen’s dwarf

He was born to a poor country family, but the diminutive Jeffrey Hudson rose to the dizzy heights of Charles I's court. From duels and deeds of valour to enslavement by pirates, John Woolf tells the amazing story of Queen Henrietta Maria's favourite

An illustration of Jeffrey Hudson and Queen Henrietta Maria

London, November 1626: a banquet is in full swing. There’s music, chatter, laughter and sumptuous food. The aromas of exquisite cooking tantalise the nostrils of King Charles I and his teenage wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. Suddenly, trumpets blare and two footmen enter the hall carrying a glorious pie, gilded in gold leaf, 2ft high and 2ft wide. The pie is placed before the queen and, as if in labour, it begins to move. A small hand pops through the crust, and a fresh-faced boy emerges with a cheeky smile, dark brown eyes and light brown hair. He wears a miniature suit of armour and marches up and down the banqueting table waving a flag. He returns to the queen and gives a bow. Here is Jeffrey Hudson, seven years old and 18 inches tall. And he is the queen’s to keep.

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Jeffrey Hudson was born in 1619 to a butcher from Oakham in the East Midlands. His parents were poor country folk, who agreed to release their son into the care of the wealthy Duchess and Duke of Buckingham. Opportunities for dwarfs were exceptionally limited, so this seemed like Jeffrey’s ticket out of poverty. It was the Duke of Buckingham, George Villiers – determined to ingratiate himself with the royals – who decided to serve Jeffrey to the queen. This ‘gift’ was a stroke of genius: it was the beginning of a seemingly unbreakable bond between the queen and her dwarf.

After the banqueting celebrations, Jeffrey Hudson went to the queen’s private residence at Denmark House (today Somerset House stands on its site) in London. She was a French Catholic in Protestant England. Her entourage had recently been expelled from court, and she felt trapped in a loveless marriage to a king some 10 years her senior. But Jeffrey offered her comfort and companionship. He was lively, witty, intelligent and loving. He was given basic schooling and had his own personal servant. Aged 14, he was hunting and shooting; aged 21, he was given a salary of £50 per annum. In summer he would join the queen on her royal progresses across the country; in the winter he would partake in the court theatricals. In one memorable performance, shortly after his arrival, Jeffrey stole the show. The Welshman William Evans, a giant porter of the court, said to have been 7ft 6in tall, removed from his coat pocket a loaf of bread and, from the other, “he drew little Jeffrey the dwarf first to the wonder, then to the laughter, of the beholders”. A week later, Jeffrey was featuring in another performance alongside the king and queen.

Jeffrey and Henrietta Maria forged an intimate, familial bond. They were painted together by Anthony van Dyck (see our illustration above), whose artwork suggests intimacy but also hierarchy: Jeffrey’s position was not much different to the monkey on his arm. He was akin to a court pet: loved, cared for, but ultimately subservient – until, that is, he proved his valour.

Smashing cannonballs

In 1642, the Civil War began. The constitutional mayhem unleashed a loss of life greater than the First World War, as a proportion of the national population. In the year the war began, the queen was forced from London with Jeffrey in tow. Henrietta Maria travelled to Holland to raise funds and amass ammunition and, on the return journey, landed at the small fishing port of Bridlington on the Yorkshire coast on 22 February 1643. At around 5 o’clock the following morning, the entourage was awoken by the sounds of cannonballs smashing into the village. The parliamentarians were after blood. People ran for cover but Jeffrey, by now in his early twenties and fiercely loyal, stayed to fight. He rushed to the quayside with a sword and pistol in hand, but the parliamentarians didn’t leave their ships, so Jeffrey never fought. Yet he had shown extraordinary bravery.

Henrietta Maria and her entourage went to York, a royalist stronghold, before heading south to Stratford-upon-Avon and then Oxford. One night, the cavalry commander Prince Rupert led royalist forces in raids against the parliamentarians, and it was at this moment that Jeffrey perhaps fought. Walter Scott, in his 1823 historical novel Peveril of the Peak, claimed that Jeffrey battled and was even knighted ‘Sir Geoffrey Hudson’. The latter was definitely false, but Jeffrey was certainly given a new title – captain of the horse – and some 40 years later he was still recorded as Captain Jeffrey Hudson. The court dwarf had turned court warrior.

Jeffrey was lively, witty, intelligent and loving. He and the queen forged an intimate, familial bond

Yet people taunted Jeffrey because of his size. And in October 1644, the mocking became too much. In France, where he had by now fled with the queen, Jeffrey challenged Charles Crofts, brother of the queen’s master of horse, to a duel. Jeffrey mounted a horse and charged towards his tormentor, firing a pistol and lodging a bullet in the bully’s brain. Charles was killed and Jeffrey was victorious, but he’d ignored the numerous decrees against duelling and had killed an influential man. Henrietta Maria had little choice: with tears and regret she banished Jeffrey from her court.

Jeffrey made his return journey to Britain in the winter of 1644 but, remarkably, his ship was captured by north African Barbary pirates and Jeffrey was enslaved – for 25 years. According to James Wright, who wrote one of only two contemporary accounts of Jeffrey’s life: “It was a Turkish pirate that took and carried him to Barbary, where he was sold, and remained a slave for many years.” Although we know next to nothing of his time in captivity, Wright claimed it was one of “hardship, much labour and beating, which he endured when a slave to the Turks”.

Freedom did eventually follow, although the details are hazy, and in May 1669 Jeffrey was back in England, living in his home county of Rutland. He was 50 years old. Later that year, Henrietta Maria died. Charles I had been beheaded back in 1649 and Charles II was now king, having been restored in 1660. However, when Jeffrey returned to London a few years later, further tragedy awaited. The capital was awash with anti-Catholic sentiment, and Jeffrey was recognised as the long-lost dwarf of the deceased Catholic queen. He was thrown in jail, spending his 60th birthday in Westminster’s Gatehouse Prison. He was eventually released, but died an outcast around 1682, and was buried in an unmarked grave at an unknown location.

Although much of his life is shrouded in mystery, Jeffrey’s story illuminates many facets of history: the broader history of disability; life in the royal courts; and a new perspective on the Civil War, Henrietta Maria and Charles I. Through his tale, we can penetrate how dwarfs were perceived and treated at the time, how myths and facts intertwine in the archives, and how Jeffrey’s time at court functioned as a forerunner to the Victorian freak show. But ultimately his story is about a remarkable man, living through remarkable times, whose tale has been marginalised, whose voice is unrecorded, but who is nonetheless worthy of our recognition.

John Woolf works across TV, radio and film. His books include The Wonders: Lifting the Curtain on the Freak Show, Circus and Victorian Age (Michael O’Mara, 2019)

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This article was first published in the January 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine