Lucy Hutchinson was the earliest and most rebellious of Nottingham’s writers. Her Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson is part historical adventure/ part panegyric to her husband, Governor of Nottingham Castle, who was one of the regicides of Charles I.
Lucy was born in 1620 to the third wife of Sir Allen Apsley, Lieutenant of the Tower of London. Tutored in literature, languages, mathematics, music and dancing, as a teenager she wrote fashionable love-songs. One caught the ear of John Hutchinson, then a law student, who “loved mention of her” before they laid eyes on each other, having spotted Latin books in Lucy’s closet when her little sister took him to eat sweets there. When they finally met, his “majesty that struck awe into the hearts of men and a sweet greatness that commanded love” meant that Lucy, aged seventeen, married him. Four years later they moved from London to the Hutchinson family seat in Owthorpe, Nottinghamshire.
Lucy wrote Memoirs in Owthorpe in 1670, six years after her husband had died in Sandown Castle on the Kent coast – possibly from a poisoned bottle of wine which he shared with his gaoler, who died a few weeks later.
Dedicated to her three sons, Lucy’s dense, sometimes rambling, account of the run-up to, and aftermath of, the Civil War and Revolution remained a family heirloom until Julius Hutchinson published an edition in 1806, which quickly became a nineteenth-century best-seller. Anecdotes include a bitten-off nose, death from a broken heart, a secret burial, priests, tutors, lawyers and aristocrats behaving badly, disguises, concealments, dramatic escapes, female spies carrying coded information and a nurse throwing a baby (John Hutchinson) from a coach drawn by runaway horses and the baby’s landing in a ploughed field, unhurt.
Vividly describing the Meadows, night attacks along the Trent, burned homes and barns and the towers and twisting passages of a previous Nottingham Castle, demolished in 1651, Lucy’s focus is on John Hutchinson’s expensive tribulations as Governor of a Parliamentarian stronghold in a city weakened by Royalist incursions and inhabitants, infighting, ambition and greed. Writing of herself as Mrs Hutchinson, her husband’s “shadow” and nurse to the wounded, she follows his flagging fortunes under Oliver – then Richard – Cromwell and – on the Restoration of the monarchy – his hard won pardon for regicide. Perhaps, as she claims, she wrote his recantation and forged his signature, regretting it when he was angry with her about it and when she realised, as he did, that, in any case, knives were out for him. A law-suit about his purchase of Loseley Manor in Leicestershire imprisoned him in the Tower of London. Then he was moved to Sandown on the Kent coast, where his wife, in spirit and her black dress, was seen visiting after his death.
This haunting seems unlikely because, at least until 1675, Lucy was alive and writing in Owthorpe. Her other works include Order and Disorder, a version of Genesis in five Miltonic cantos, published anonymously in 1679 and the first translation into English of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, which was unpublished until 1996. She also wrote, addressed to her daughter Barbara, The Principles of Christian Religion, on the basis that wavering on religion by women (including her – a committed Puritan) came from no clarity of instruction and “not pondering and examining doctrines as we ought.” Lucy also believed, like Isaac Newton and Lucretius, in Atomism, a theory of membranes, fluidity and motion, which posited the materiality of the invisible – for example, wind – from the visible – for example, water and waves.