The Parliamentary Fart Of 1607

In 1601 Henry Ludlow became the Member of Parliament for Andover and then, in 1604, for the constituency of Ludgershall, near Salisbury. He had a bit of a reputation for irascibility and in December 1602 was accused of the attempted murder of Joel King, a former servant of his father’s who had had the audacity to elope with one of Ludlow’s sisters. There were allegedly two assaults on the miscreant, one in October when a group of Ludlow’s men beat King severely in some woods in Berkshire and then in December when King was ambushed had pins thrust down his throat and hung until he was almost dead. His attempts to mete out some form of justice and to protect his sister’s honour did not seem to harm his parliamentary career, proof positive, if there ever was one, that there has always been one rule for them and another for the rest of us.   

Ludlow, though, is most famous for a contribution, voluntary or otherwise, he made in Parliament on March 4, 1607. The members of parliament had assembled to hear a statement from the House of Lords read by Sir John Croke on the vexed subject of the naturalisation of the Scots. As Croke spoke Ludlow let fly a fart of such volume that it was heard (and possibly smelt) throughout the chamber. The assembly of right honourable gentlemen immediately collapsed into fits of laughter and once order had been restored, they felt it necessary to debate the procedural issues arising from farting in the chamber.

Alas, there was no Hansard to provide us with a verbatim account of proceedings, but, fortunately, Robert Bowyer noted what happened in his diary. He reported that the fart emanated from “the nether end of the House…whereat the Company laughing the Messenger was almost out of Countenance”. Bowyer considered there to be no malice of intent behind the breaking of wind drawing his readers’ attention to the fact that Ludlow’s father too had farted during a Committee meeting. His charitable conclusion was “so this seemeth Infirmity Naturall, not Malice”.    

Ludlow’s fart captured the public’s imagination and gave rise to one of the 17th century’s most popular comic political poem, The Censure of the Parliament Fart”. It went: “Never was bestowed such an art/ Upon the tuning of a fart./ Downe came grave auntient Sir John Cooke/ And redd his message in his booke./ Fearie well, Quoth Sir William Morris, Soe:/ But Henry Ludlowes Tayle cry’d Noe./ Up starts one fuller of devotion/ The Eloquence; and said a very ill motion/ Not soe neither quoth Sir Henry Jenkin/ The Motion was good; but for the stincking/ Well quoth Sir Henry Poole it was a bold tricke/ To Fart in the nose of the bodie pollitique/ Indeed I confesse quoth Sir Edward Grevill/ The matter of it selfe was somewhat uncivill/ Thanke God quoth Sir Edward Hungerford/ That this Fart proved not a Turdd

Although little more than an extended joke on the topic of farting, the poem’s strength was that its loose, improvisational structure easily lent itself to additions. Couplets were introduced after the parliaments of 1610 and 1614 and variants were circulated in the 1620s, after many of the Members of Parliament named had either died or left the House. The poem started with the core couplets detailing Ludlow’s behaviour and the reaction to it but there seemed to be no fixed order in which subsequent couplets appeared. Manuscript versions range from a poem of some forty lines to others boasting a gargantuan 225 lines. Some 113 politicians were namechecked in the lengthier versions.

Who was behind the poem? There is no definitive answer. Some attribute it to John Hoskyns, while others put it down to a collection of celebrated wits of the time that included Richard Martin, Hoskyns, Christopher Brooke, and one of John Donne’s friends, Edward Jones. There is evidence to suggest that there was musical accompaniment to the verses and that it was performed in taverns.

Ludlow left parliament in 1611 but he had left his mark on the institution for centuries to come.

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